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Winds of Asia-Middle East “Memories of a Burning Tree” Interview with Sherman Ong (Director) (10/26)

Winds of Asia-Middle East “Memories of a Burning Tree” Interview with Sherman Ong (Director) (10/26)

Sherman Ong, who is internationally spotlighted, started as a photographer and modern artist before making a career change to become a filmmaker. He made his feature debut work, “Hashi” with all Japanese cast and crew, but his latest, “Memories of a Burning Tree” was made in Tanzania with Tanzanian cast and crew. Equipped with the multi-ethnicity in Malaysia, he seems to jump over national borders with ease, carrying on with filmmaking.
©2010 TIFF

---You started as a photographer, but have you been interested in filmmaking from the beginning?

I started photography in my teens. I was given a camera as a present, so I started with taking photos of pets and gradually moved on to people. I got hold of a video camera when I was at university and started making movies. I have been interested in images, moving or not. I did not go to a film school, so I learned about films by watching them in theatres. I volunteered selling tickets at film festivals and watched various films from around the world, and that’s how I started my film studying. In the beginning I was engrossed in watching any film, but then I started to look for my own style. You might be able to have a glance at my “film pedigree” in my works. I made my first feature film, “Hashi,” when I was researching at Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. I was there to research photographs and films from an artist’s point of view. I developed my own way of making films in Japan. I had to think how to make films on a limited budget, and I started working with non-professional actors. It is interesting to make films within these constraints.

---Similarly to “Hashi,” you filmed “Memories of a Burning Tree” on locations far away from your country. Do you think the Malaysian multi-ethnicity in your background may have helped feeling reasonably at home when you film in foreign countries?

“Memories of a Burning Tree”is set in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es-Salam and the climate is just like in Southeast Asia. It was just like in Indonesia and I was comfortable. I filmed in Fukuoka, too, but the difference between Japan and Indonesia is bigger than the difference between Africa and Indonesia. For example, if you are meeting with someone, it is common for the person to be late by about 45 minutes to an hour. So you make an appointment for 14:15, so that you will meet at 15:00. It’s like that in Jakarta or Malaysia.
©2010 TIFF

---Do you mean the time flows differently?

Yes, the time stretches and contracts. They call it ‘elastic time’ in Malaysia. The African way of talking is similar to the Asians. Dar es-Salam was an African slave-trading port in the past. The Arabs started slave trade and the Westerners took it over.

---Most of your films are shot using just one shot for each scene, and the sense of time is also intriguing.

The shot length is shorter this time than the previous film, and it’s more like video clips on MTV. I am heavily influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. A long moving shot is his characteristic, but I had to shot with a Taiwanese new wave method. I set up a camera on a tripod and got the actors to perform, like Yasujiro Ozu’s style. I shot from an ordinary angle using a 50mm standard lens. I believe this can direct the audience’s attention to what is happening on the screen better. I realized this when I was taking photographs. News photos use wide lens to emphasise the distance, but with standard lens, the audience can look this way and that to look at the detail.

---So you use 50mm lens. Does the 50mm on film give different depth on screen to 50 mm on digital?

This camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II) is a full frame, so the sense of perspective is not much different at all from shooting on 35mm film. I can shoot just like on film with this lens. I tend to take pictures with great depth and most come out fine.

---The interaction between the person in the foreground and background on the screen is interesting.

That’s exactly what I want. I did some shooting myself, so I set the camera at the beginning to make sure all the scope I want is within the frame, and then focused on direction.

---Yes, I got the impression that the camera was placed at the right places.

It may be to do with the traditional tableau in painting.

---It reminded me of the tableau-like direction in silent movies in the 1910s.

I am really interested in the filming technique in those early days. You can see both the space and the characters.

---You have worked with non-professional actors for your three films so far.

I have one actor for this film. He is studying acting at college. He is the only one with basic acting training. Others expressed themselves based on their life training to live their lives. For example, there is a 15-year old girl in the film, and she has had 15 years’ training in her life. Her behaviour tells a story, and this cannot be learned at school.

---So you did not provide acting lessons to non-professional actors?

We just have one or two rehearsals, but I set aside time for an interview at the beginning. I found out about their family, etc., and wrote the script based on the information. For example, I arranged events they have experienced in their lives to make them more dramatic. For example, there is a character in the film who looks for his mother’s grave. He lost his mother because of malaria in real life. I asked him to write a letter to his dead mother. I did not use the letter in the film because it is a private letter. There is a scene where a cleaner is reading a letter, and that’s the letter he wrote. I wanted to keep private things as private.

---A good decision. If you had used the letter, it would have been vulgar.

His letter was actually very touching. However, if I used it, it would have been too much. We all have lost someone we cared about, so we can imagine how he was feeling when he wrote the letter, without showing what he wrote in it. Yasujiro Ozu’s films are like that, too. A good thing about Japanese films is that they do not show what is readily. It must be a common sensitivity among most Asians.

---How many crew members did you have?

Myself and four others. An assistant director and interpreter, a recording staff and his assistant, and a continuity staff.

---Do you always work with a small number of crew?

I try to keep it compact. When I shot in Fukuoka, it was only myself, an interpreter, and a curator from an art gallery. The curator checked if the lines were OK. It was a very small crew, in a Taiwanese New Wave style.

---In the last scene, the Malaysian song on the radio is touching.

During the opening, a woman talks about her dream of becoming a radio personality. She turns her dream into reality at the end. I wanted to end the film with a Malaysian song and I found that on the internet. It is a song for the Sikh God, and it is about new creation. I thought it suits the film. The lyrics are very interesting. It talks about some sort of idealism. There are many religions in Malaysia and they are intolerant to each other in some way. Accepting a religion is not the same as being tolerant to a religion. The Malaysian government focuses on the difference between religions rather than finding similarities, and I think there is a problem there. I am always very interested in mixing up various things.

---You are putting it into practice by going to various countries and making films.

I must be doing it subconsciously. I have travelled Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and Tanzania . I am planning to shoot my next film finally in Malaysia.

---What sort of a film are you planning next?

I have two projects. One is a dance movie, which has been asked by the Singapore Arts Festival. The other is my own project. I am planning to make a film about Chinese Malaysian with the fund I received from the Rotterdam International Film Festival. This one is not urgent, so I will take time to make it.

(Interviewed by Satoshi Kuzuu)

Memories of a Burning Tree
Film Information

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KEIRIN.JPThe 23rd Tokyo International Film Festival will be held with funds provided by Japan Keirin Association.TIFF History
22nd Tokyo International Film Festival(2009)