Friday September 21, 2012
By TERENCE TOH
Malaysian-born, Singapore-based filmmaker and artist Sherman Ong has made quite a name for himself.
FILMMAKER Sherman Ong has a gift for crafting the ordinary into extraordinary. Renowned for focusing on relationships and human nature, his critically-acclaimed films defy description and breach convention to deliver unforgettable stories which resonate across languages and cultures.
“As a filmmaker, I think my stories act as a catalyst for understanding the human condition. My stories don’t provide answers but more questions, and possibilities for greater awareness and hope. To me, filmmaking is like an endless pilgrimage,” Ong said.
The Malaysian filmmaker, photographer and visual artist is a founding member of the film collective 13 Little Pictures and serves as artistic manager for the Singapore International Photography Festival.
The winner of many prestigious awards, including the 2010 Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu Photography Award, Ong has displayed works in the collections of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, the Singapore Art Museum and the Seoul Art Centre in South Korea.
Many of his works have been featured in art and film festivals, as well as museums worldwide.
Ong’s films take the spotlight in Focus On Sherman Ong: Filmmaker, Photographer, Visual Artist, an exhibition of his films organised by Kelab Seni Filem Negara which will take place in HELP University in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.
One of the films that will be featured is Memories Of A Burning Tree, Ong’s ensemble drama about Smith, a man who arrives in South Africa and encounters a string of unusual characters along the way.
Featuring an improvised script and shot in a language he did not know (Swahili), Ong produced the film by making friends in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and weaved the stories they told him into a compelling plotline.
“I had a translator/assistant director help me to interview the selected ‘actors’ and discover their various backgrounds. Then, I created a storyline and script, gave them the scenario and let them flesh out my ideas in their own language,” he said.
“I think if we look beyond the language, as human beings, we react the same way to happiness, sadness, longing and despair. We don’t need to rely on words,” he added.
Also showing will be Hashi, a story of three Japanese women from different age groups, and how their lives crisscross in oblique and tangential ways.
The film, which was awarded best screenplay (Singapore Film Awards segment) at the Singapore International Film Festival 2009, features multiple actors playing a single role.
One of Ong’s more unusual works is Flooding In The Time Of Drought, a 184-minute experimental docudrama compiled from an eight-channel art installation shown at the Singapore Biennale in 2008.
Shown in two parts of four stories each, the film depicts the lives of foreign migrants in the face of an impending water crisis.
“The film is a fusion of the actors’ stories, as well as my own research and imagination. It is immaterial whether they are seen as documentaries or fiction films because to me, they are the same. I am more concerned about what I can share with my audience: whether I offer them something that makes them smile, cry or changes their point of view,” he shared.
A trademark of Ong’s work is his regular use of non-professional actors.
In Hashi, for example, his cast comprised volunteers and visitors he met while on an artist residency programme in Japan.
“This is partly due to my limited budget. But more importantly, I think non-professional actors bring something that transcends acting technique.
“Essentially, after an in-depth interview, my actors are actually playing themselves. No amount of drama training can beat the kind of life training that a person has gone through,” he explained.
Ong was also one of 16 filmmakers from all over the world invited to be part of the Little Sun Lights project, a film collaboration with world-renowned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, at the Tate Modern in London on Sept 15.
Tasked to create a film inspired by light, love and the “Little Sun” solar-powered lamp (created by Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen), Ong’s contribution was Mata Hari, a film inspired by the life of a notorious female spy by the same name.
Asked about his plans for the future, Ong said he is planning to shoot a film in Malaysia, but is still looking for funding.
“My focus has always been the human condition – the mundane and the quotidian, the simple pleasures and hardships that we face in our daily life.
“In an age where we look for one spectacle after another, I look for drama in the everyday and the routine, which holds more meaning for me.”
Focus On Sherman Ong: Filmmaker, Photographer, Visual Artist takes place from Sept 22-23 at the HELP University Theatrette in Pusat Bandar Damansara, Kuala Lumpur. Admission is free. Ong will be present to discuss his works with the audience. For more information, call 012-225 5136. Film schedules can be found at www.kakiseni.com.my.