Arts & Culture

Filmmaker Harry Chew on The Taboo

He filmed a documentary on Singapore’s tattoo scene.

Words by
b-side staff

Naming Werner Herzog, Stanley Kubrick and Jim Jarmusch as his favourite filmmakers, independent Singaporean filmmaker Harry Chew produces non-mainstream films.

Asked to describe his films in three words, he chooses intimate, honest and supertramp. His style is about placing authenticity and spontaneity at the forefront, as he frequently travels and films using the equipment he carries on his back. This, however, is not to be misunderstood as amateurish.

His 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 awards at the Experiential Film Forum in Los Angeles 2018. Tara has also been accepted into the Austrian Film Festival 2019.

Harry’s last documentary work, Ferry in the Midst, completed in 2015, won the Platinum Award at the Houston-Worldfest and was selected for the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema, Berlin 2016.

With these awards and possibly more to come, Harry is back with a new work that looks into the tattoo scene in Singapore. This 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.

The filmmaker would like to explore the theme of mental illness in the future, but for now, let’s learn more about tattooing through his latest work 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 new visuals and sounds when I travel.

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

Film 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, spark conversations and shed light on certain issues or topics.

I relate to the stuff that people often overlook. 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 who are usually on the periphery, which is where I feel I am. 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 did the concept come about and why the episodic approach instead of, say, a 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 I couldn’t 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 could 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 consensus on having tattoos in Singapore? Do you think events like the Singapore Tattoo Convention help normalise this art form?

Tattoos are, generally, accepted as there seems to be more tattooed people in Singapore these days. But I think there’s still a segment of society who are conservative and have stereotypes about people who have tattoos. I hope that Blood & Craft will help change their perspective. The Singapore Ink Show does help normalise this art form, especially when you see the quality of tattoos on display there.

Though having tattoos does 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 attend corporate shoots or meetings, I always cover my tattoos to prevent the more conservative folks from having any negative preconceptions about me. I think the public’s perception will change. Even now, it is more common to see people with 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, relate to the artists’ stories and be wowed by the craftsmanship of these Singaporean artists.

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