Arts & Culture

Filmmaker Harry Chew on The Taboo

He filmed a documentary on Singapore's tattoo scene.
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Naming Werner Herzog, Stanley Kubrick and Jim Jarmusch as he favourite filmmakers, independent Singaporean filmmaker Harry Chew produces non-mainstream films. If he can only use three words to describe his own films, he picked intimate, honest and supertramp. His style places authenticity and spontaneity at the forefront - travelling frequently and filming out of the equipment he carries on his own back. However, this style is not to be misunderstood as amateurish.

His very first feature film Tara - A Journey into Identity, Gender, Art and Noise won the coveted Jury Award for “Best Picture”, “Best Documentary Feature” and “Freedom on Screen” Award at the Experiential Film Forum in Los Angeles 2018- an international film and video art festival. Recently, Tara has also been accepted into the Austrian Film Festival 2019. His last documentary work, Ferry in the Midst, completed in 2015, won a Platinum Award in Houston Worldfest and had been officially selected in International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema, Berlin 2016.

With these awards and possibly more to come in the near future, Harry is back with a new work that looks into the tattoo scene in Singapore that is also a maiden production of Kissing Dragonflies Productions - an art space in Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand, which brings Singaporean and regional artists and musicians of various disciplines together for performances, residencies and workshops.

He would like to explore the theme of mental illness in the future, but for now, let's learn more about tattooing through his latest series titled Blood & Craft.

Why filmmaking and not any other medium of expression?

I love storytelling.  I find that it is the most enduring art form in human history. One of the earliest ways to creatively present stories was through the medium of light and shadows, and live sound.  I find that the combination of visuals and sound is such an awesome and effective way to tell a story.  I’m bombarded with these new visuals and sound when I travel.

Listening to these diverse stories from travellers and locals, I form these pictures and montages in my head; and I feel that I want to document these stories and capture the atmosphere as much as possible.  

The film medium, as a tool, allows me to do that.

Your films so far tend towards topics and themes that are less spoken about by the mainstream crowd. What draws you to them?

I believe the function of documentary is to tell an interesting story, and spark conversations and shed light on certain issues or topics.  

I relate to the stuff that people often overlook. Even though my topics or subjects may seem to be less spoken about by the mainstream crowd, the overarching themes are universal. I’m drawn to subjects that are usually on the periphery, which is where I feel I am at. But most of my subjects are serendipitously discovered, which I find more magical especially in the documentary medium rather than narrative fiction, per se.

Talk me through your process of Blood & Craft - how the concept came about, and why the episodic approach instead of a, say, feature film?

A few years ago, I got to know Joseph and Kelvin rather well. The idea for a tattoo documentary came up in the initial years of knowing them but somehow, I wasn’t able to find a fresh angle to approach the topic. It was just before the Singapore Ink Show last year that Michelle, my co-creator of Blood & Craft, and I began to visualise how this documentary can be presented – via themes and the artists’ stories.

There are so many interesting stories within the tattoo scene that not many are privy to, including us. We feel that the episodic approach would do the stories more justice.

Having said that, we also see it as a feature film presented in seven parts.

As an art form itself, what do you think is the general consensus of having tattoos in Singapore? Do you think events like the Singapore Tattoo Convention helps normalise this art form?

Tattoos are generally accepted. There seems to be more tattooed people in Singapore. But I think there’s still a conservative segment of society that has their formed stereotypes of tattoo and tattooed people. I hope that Blood & Craft can help change their perspective. And the Singapore Ink Show does help normalise this art form, especially when you see the quality of tattoos on display there.

Even though having tattoos do not impede one’s capability at work, companies are still reluctant to hire inked persons. Do you think this will change in the near future?

When I go for corporate shoots or meeting, I always make sure to cover up my tattoos. I guess just not to give the more conservative folks any negative preconceptions about me. I think the public’s perception will change. Even now, it is more common to see facial tattoos on the streets.

What is something you hope your audience will take away from this series of yours?

We hope the audience can see tattoos as an art form, to relate to the artists’ stories and be wowed by the craftsmanship possessed by these Singaporean artists.

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