Frozen in time
A Raffles Junior College student tackles dementia in a short film.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Dementia is a complex subject matter for adults to tackle much less someone younger. Eighteen-year-old Wu Jiamin, a second-year student at Raffles Junior College (RJC), decided to tackle this subject head-on as part of her Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) at Raffles Film Society (a new CCA at her school). She directed a 12-minute film called “Frozen in Time”, which was recently screened at The Arts House with some other films.
The film centres on “Ah Boy” who struggles to come to terms with what seems as a collapsing relationship when his grandfather starts to lose his memory. Little by little, his grandfather slips away, until one day, he can’t recognise Ah Boy and he in turns, loses faith in the idea of everlasting love.
Ageless Online chats with Jiamin about her film and why the film is so significant to her personally and the challenges making the film:
How did you originally get into filmmaking?
I did a short film module in Secondary 4 and my teacher was really cool, she’s the kind of person who uses words like “mise-en-scène” without batting an eyelid. I made my first film – something about a girl who hears voices in her head – and from then on I was pretty much hooked. There’s something magical about seeing your own thoughts, memories and emotions on the screen; scary, definitely, but immensely cathartic.
What made you progress to a short-film on dementia? What was the goal?
My grandfather has dementia. Once in the middle of the night, he woke my aunt and cousins up, distraught, searching the house frantically for his money. He was absolutely convinced that someone broke in and stole it. He called the police and even set up an elaborate trap by balancing a hammer on top of the door so that anyone who came in the room would trigger the mechanism and get hit on the head by the hammer as it swung down.
That incident sparked the premise of the film, where the fictional grandfather also finds out that his money is gone. I imagined that the money went missing because the grandfather has spent it all buying a birthday present for his grandson again and again without remembering he has already bought one the previous day. With this idea for the film, I wrote the screenplay and showed it to my friends Cecilia Wang, Gong Haoran and Xie Pei Yi, who were very excited to make it into a short film and we jumped straight into planning the storyboard.
As for my grandfather, I’d definitely like to believe that the reason for his missing money was something along the lines of what I’d imagined for the fictional grandfather, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case. The goal at the start was just to make a film that was close to my heart, about something that moved me, something I was familiar with and felt strongly about. Then when my friends came on board with the project, that evolved into a larger and more ambitious goal – to raise awareness about dementia and frame the issue in a way that would move the audience.
How did you go about tackling such a sensitive and complex topic? Did you do research? Most youths would be far from understanding this topic.
Well first of all, I based the screenplay on personal experiences, although they’re definitely dramatised to sustain interest in a short film (for instance, the onset of dementia, although in actual fact a gradual process, is somewhat accelerated and exaggerated in the film because it is a short film and the action has to be compressed into 12 minutes).
My crew and I also watched a lot of short films, feature length films about dementia (especially those commissioned by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), e.g. the short film Ah Kong by Royston Tan) and these gave us inspiration for making our own film. We also read up on dementia online through various websites and came across many interesting resources and initiatives along the way, like forgetmenot.sg and agelessonline.net 🙂
I understand this is a two-year sweat and tears project. What were some challenges you faced doing this film?
As student filmmakers, budget is definitely an issue because we pretty much only have our pocket money to rely on. In the last scene of the film, the grandson opens the storeroom door only to find the helicopters that his grandfather has bought for him day after day. This is the very first scene I imagined while writing the screenplay and also the climactic ending scene that serves as the emotional punch line for the film.
Of course, in order to film that scene, we needed the helicopters – boxes and boxes of them – and that proved to be difficult because decent-looking helicopters cost a lot more than I’d ever imagined (S$250 each, which would mean S$2,000 for eight helicopters) and the S$2 helicopters in Daiso looked terrible. We contemplated turning the boy into a girl and buying a heap of scary-looking S$2 dolls from Daiso but in the end decided to try contacting toy stores to ask if we could borrow some helicopters in exchange for doing some product placement in the film. To our surprise and deep gratitude, Radio Control Sports actually agreed and we walked gleefully out of the store carrying four huge red plastic bags containing S$2,000 worth of helicopters.
Another challenge was finding an actor to play the grandfather; although our instructor Kelvin Sng helped us out immensely by giving us some contacts, it was very difficult to find suitable actors who were free and willing to act for us (on a student budget). We tried googling “veteran actors singapore” but most of the hit results that came out of that were articles mourning the death of yet another Singaporean veteran actor. As for the actors we managed to find, we couldn’t afford – that is, until we decided to try our luck and ask for a student grant at HPB, and they were kind enough to agree 🙂
Over the course of the film, I’ve learnt that there is extraordinary support for student initiatives and I’m extremely grateful for all the help I’ve received, without which the film would not have been possible. I’ve learnt that you don’t always get what you want, but sometimes, life surprises you; and you may get more than you ever asked for.
What message(s) did you hope to achieve from the film?
I wanted to bring across the message that although dementia may strip someone of their memories, it doesn’t necessarily strip them of their capacity for love. People suffering from dementia may not be able to remember the names and faces of those they love, but I would like to believe (naively, perhaps) that there exists a small part of their soul that continues to remember, to care, and to love – and even if they really don’t remember us, that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to love them because we know who they are.
What did you learn from doing the film?
Filming is actually an immensely tiring process – some days, we left home for the shooting location at 7.30am and reached home at 11.30pm, absolutely exhausted. On set itself, everyone is tired, prickly, and yet still resolutely determined to make the most perfect film possible – which leads to a lot of inevitable arguments and conflicts.
I learnt that since it would be highly impractical (and unpleasant) to come to blows over everything, it’s better to save my saliva fighting over things that actually matter, and compromise for everything that doesn’t matter.
What have some said after watching your film? Any memorable story(s) related to your film?
The couple of days after the film showcase at The Arts House and after uploading my film to YouTube and spreading it around have been one of the happiest days of my life – I keep having my ego boosted. I’ve had a lot of great things said to me about the film; one of my friends told me that she cried buckets watching the film, and I was sadistically pleased.
One memorable event happened after the film showcase was when someone told me that she’d cried during the film because her grandmother too was suffering from dementia and the way I’d portrayed the issue had deeply touched and affected her emotionally.
What is next for you with the film now that it was screened? More screenings?
We’ve uploaded the film onto YouTube and we hope to spread it around and get as many people to watch it as possible. We’ve also spoken to HPB and they’ve mentioned possibly screening the film at various symposiums and conferences about ageing and dementia.
Do hope to tackle this subject or anything related to seniors in the near future? Do you hope to be a filmmaker in the future?
Yes, I think seniors have many interesting stories to tell, insights to share, and I’d like to listen to them, learn from them and perhaps make a couple of short films telling their stories. I definitely do hope to continue making films because I love doing it, but of course in Singapore, it’s tough to make a living like that unless you’re Jack Neo, so maybe I’ll do it part-time. In the near future though, I plan to make a lot more short films after ‘A’ levels 🙂
** VIEW THE FILM:
http://youtu.be/AsZO9VhQtWM (the full short film)
http://dft.ba/-dementiatrailer (the trailer)