Shadow Festival 2005, Amsterdam – non-competitive
Visions du Réel 2006, Nyon
Winner of the Regards Neufs Prix du Canton Vaud
Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival 2006, Denmark
Montreal International Film Festival 2006, Canada
ZagrebDox 2007, Croatia
Britspotting 2007, Germany
DokuFest 2007, Kosovo
by ken kwek
IF YOU’RE any kind of artist based in Singapore, you will find there is only one thing worse than having your work banned: not knowing why it was banned in the first place.
I have had some experience of this. From 2003 to 2005, when I was in Britain, I co-produced and shot a documentary called The Ballad Of Vicki And Jake.
The film chronicles the life of Vicki Harris, a heroine addict struggling to bring up her 11-year-old son, Jake, in a home racked by social dysfunction and abuse. Shot over 18months, it was a labour of love – and horror – for American director Ian Ash and me.
So far, the film has been screened in six countries and was recently picked up by a Canadian distributor. Last June, The Arts House agreed to show it here in what would have been the movie’s Asian premiere. I gave a copy to event organisers, who duly submitted it to the Media Development Authority (MDA) for classification.
By August, programmes had been printed and screenings planned for late September. All that remained was for the MDA to give us the go-ahead. Which it didn’t. This was three weeks before the planned screening.
The Arts House appealed on my behalf, but to no avail. In an e-mail, the MDA ‘agree(d)…that the film portrays the negative repercussions of drugs’, but nonetheless wanted a four-minute scene with ‘instructive drug use’ cut out.
This was not a feasible option, and the screening was cancelled. I was disappointed because no detailed explanation was given as to why the scene, in which a character smokes a crack-pipe, was deemed ‘instructive’ – any more instructive than, say, the portrayal of a woman injecting heroine intravenously in the movie, Protege, which hit cineplexes here soon after.
I’ve recounted this experience in some detail to give a sense of the time and effort that often go into artistic work, and the shorter and seemingly opaque process in which such work is assessed by the MDA.
In 2004, film-maker Martyn See’s Singapore Rebel, about opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, was pulled from the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) after organisers were told it could be deemed a ‘party political film’.
The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) later said in a statement that under the Films Act, such films – defined as any film that contains ‘matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in an election’, or that contains ‘partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter’ – could result in a fine or jail term for the film-maker.
A group of 11 film-makers led by Ms Tan Pin Pin subsequently sent a letter to The Straits Times Forum page asking the Government for greater clarity on offences under the Act. Beyond arguments of free expression and artistic interpretation, her appeal was pragmatic: ‘It would be a waste to spend resources making a film, only to find out it is unlawful because it has inadvertently run afoul of the Films Act.’
Her query was prescient.
Last week, Mr See’s work was again banned and withdrawn from the SIFF. Zahari’s 17 Years – on former opposition politician Said Zahari, who was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act in 1963 – was censured for being an attempt to ‘exculpate’ Zahari from his past transgressions.
‘The Government will not allow people who had posed a security threat to the country in the past to exploit the use of films to purvey a false and distorted portrayal of their past actions and detention by the Government,’ Mica added.
This happened after the documentary had already been rated PG (Parental Guidance) for the Asian Film Symposium last year. The film had also been withdrawn from that festival, after MDA officials met The Substation’s artistic co-director, Ms Audrey Wong, and other festival organisers, and told them the material ‘may be defamatory’.
These and other episodes, such as the recent withdrawal of another local film, Solos, from the SIFF, have created some tension between the authorities and the film community here. Dismay has manifested itself on two levels.
First, while censorship as an issue remains contentious for some, it is generally accepted as necessary by most, though the degree to which it is applied remains hotly debated.
Second, what has generated greater frustration, as recent examples show, is a more practical consideration: that those who decide what can be screened publicly need to be more consistent and conclusive in their assessment of films, because it is an economical practice that saves resources for all involved parties.
While few will quibble with the notion that censorship exists in all societies, the withdrawal of films from various events in recent years suggests a need for more accountability on how films are appraised.
What has frustrated film-makers and organisers here is less the principle of censorship than the exercise of it. Beyond the actual banning of films, what riles film-makers here is the inefficiencies of official assessment and sanction: the U-turns in the issuing of licences and classifications; the lack of specific direction on what sort of content is objectionable, as opposed to what ‘may be defamatory’.
The authorities might well have reason to prohibit certain films if they are libellous or if they undermine public confidence in the Government. But when a film has been banned, the censors need to be specific – state exactly which scenes, characters, dialogue and so on were out of line – so film-makers, and the public, are left in no doubt as to the reasons behind the decision.
This article was originally published in The Strait Times on April 20, 2007
© 2007 ken kwek
by matt crowder
“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have been like that… because I wouldn’t have filmed it.”
the ballad of vicki and jake begins, as we are informed by the opening title, in July. Birds are singing and we hear the sound of children playing in the distance. The image fades in from black. A young man’s face is framed awkwardly on the edge of the screen, while in the near distance a thin woman dressed in black with bleached blonde hair walks through a park filled with lush green grass. The man – director Ian Thomas Ash – mutters under his breath to his cameraman Ken Kwek: “How am I going to do this?” He sighs.
‘This’ is to persuade the woman – Vicki – to sign the agreement that will allow the film to be made. As for the ‘how’, well, I shouldn’t spoil it.
At the heart of the ballad of vicki and jake lies a human story: the often difficult relationship between parent and child. Around this simple drama other closely-woven narrative strands emerge. Perhaps the most significant to devotees of documentary film is the strand that recounts the effort involved in the making of this film.
CINEMA AT THE EDGES
The film could be categorised in several ways: an ‘issue’ documentary, a home video, a fly-on-the-wall drama, or a student film. But if we are looking to label vicki and jake then I think we could call it, without embarrassment, a punk documentary. It is about life on the margins of society: raw and exposed. The awkward camera movement, bad white balance and jump cuts gel perfectly with the drugs, the shouting and swearing, and the material deprivation depicted. The punk movement was about non-conformity, uncensored emotion, shocking people and perhaps most significantly ‘doing it yourself’.
This is exactly what Ian and Ken did; made during film school using equipment ‘borrowed’ from the faculty, they set about making the film on their own. The formal qualities of the film are dictated by the necessity of a two man crew operating in one of the most underprivileged areas in Britain. Their philosophy became ‘film everything’ and the uncompromising images prove this many times over. But this isn’t sensationalism; it records drug-taking with a matter-of-fact gaze because this was normality. Ian and Ken were welcomed into Vicki’s group of friends and the film demonstrates this privileged access. Whether it’s watching Class-A drug use or joining in Jake’s twelfth birthday party, their dictum ‘film everything’ was followed to the letter.
Make no mistake though, this is no imitation of Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore. It probably has more in common with Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966). There are no sly asides to the audience, sarcastic commentary or faux-naif interview technique. This is no vanity exercise; vicki and jake is a 101 in how not to make a documentary. Ian and Ken threw themselves into this with the enthusiasm of people who had never made a feature documentary before. It shouldn’t have worked. Except it has.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW
the ballad of vicki and jake documents nine months in the life of Vicki, a homeless mother, and her son, Jake. The film was conceived as a record of Vicki’s road to recovery, documenting the security that would come with the council house she would live in with Jake. What emerges from the hours of footage is a raw film honestly depicting the omissions, manipulations and compromises demanded by filmmaking.
The rawness is the result of two factors. The first is the visuals themselves which, improvisatory and at times crude, communicate the stuff of life. The second factor is that it becomes difficult to see this film as images and sounds, because it documents someone’s life falling down around them. The film is especially hard to separate from the narrative because the making of the film itself becomes part of the story.
The key reason the film moves the audience so powerfully is because of the relationships between Vicki, Ian and Ken. Most important in this triangle is Ken; as cameraman he is an absent presence throughout. Although he is directly spoken to by Ian and Vicki from time to time, he remains largely silent. But it is through his active camerawork that we engage with the action. As Vicki walks through the streets talking to Ian she is kept in frame; they run to catch up with her and the camera is tossed from side to side; when Jake is given his present he hugs Ken and the camera tips upwards to accommodate the boy’s embrace.
The audience is consistently placed as an observer. Ian conducts the interviews skilfully, and Ken rarely interjects during the more casual day-to-day filming. But Ken is included, normally via direct-to-camera address. Ian talks to Ken ‘through’ the camera as he describes his search for Vicki, but we feel that he is telling us. When Vicki turns up to an interview late and flustered she turns to Ken, “Dear camera… look at me…” as if she is asking for our understanding. In an argument between Ian and Vicki, we sit opposite them, gazing impotently. Ken’s dynamic visuals suture us into the action, and Vicki and Ian’s direct relationship with the camera welcome us in. We are invited into the action, if only as passive and frustrated spectators.
It was a struggle to make this film in many ways; it needs commitment and energy to keep a tempestuous relationship alive, to love someone who consistently disappoints you and to fight for a life-affirming story as mistakes are made and then repeated. We are treated as confidantes to things Ian and Vicki might have wanted kept secret but which have been dramatically realised by editor Lizzie Minnion. Praise must be given for the editing, which distils months of video into a balanced progression of Vicki’s personal story and the drama of the film project itself. We are treated to an edit that refuses to sacrifice honesty and clarity for an easy ride.
A CINEMA OF VERITY
With all its clear-eyed honesty, this is not a film guided by empiricism and a philosophy of objectivity. Cinema verité saw the camera as a scientific tool, revealing truth in the gaze of the lens. We don’t suffer under those illusions any more. Watching vicki and jake is a two hour long demonstration of the Uncertainty Principal: as you look at something you change it. When Ian asks Vicki about her feelings after the distressing conclusion to Jake’s birthday, she protests that “…it wouldn’t have been like that… because I wouldn’t have filmed it.”
We could be terribly post-modern and say that filming the party changed nothing but that without a camera there would be no record, and thus it may as well not have happened. We could be more literal and say that the very presence of the camera provoked the abortive birthday celebration. Both these interpretations point to a responsibility for filmmakers that cannot be avoided; the camera either prevents the possibility of forgetting tragedy or contributes to the event itself by its presence.
Ian and Ken experienced this first hand. In one interview Vicki tells Ian that she is discussing a particularly painful memory for the very first time. She recalls them aloud for the first, and perhaps last, time, and it is captured on tape. Those memories cannot be forgotten. Furthermore it is that interview, conducted on the day of Jake’s birthday, that distracted Vicki from planning her son’s party. While she could have been blowing up balloons Ian was asking her questions.
It would be wrong to focus on negativity in a film that is also full of life and energy. Ian and Ken’s presence lifts Vicki, giving her the opportunity to be heard. Despite the poverty around him Jake shines through as a normal child who meets his friends before school and has a weekend job. Vicki is an articulate woman with a love of reading and a passion for art. The film captures the closeness between mother and son. By the conclusion it is obvious that Vicki is not the subject of a film, she is a loved and respected friend.
For Vicki is never demonised or mocked. The film may show Vicki’s flaws, and Ian and Ken’s too, but she is treated with dignity and respect. Her presence on the screen communicates so much life. the ballad of vicki and jake is ultimately a quietly political film, a voice for all the people that should to be treated with respect but aren’t. It is a humanising film, proclaiming the power of honesty, whilst also documenting its often painful consequences.
Matt has a BA in Film and Literature from the University of Warwick and an MA in Filmmaking from the University of Bristol. He joined the crew during post-production as a production assistant and sounding board. He is currently producing two short documentaries in Europe
© 2005 matt crowder
by Michelle Iwema
Essential to the Shadow Festival is the integration of the filmmaker and the audience. the ballad of vicki and jake, by director Ian Thomas Ash, was shown during the 2005 Shadow Festival. Michelle Iwema was at the festival for Film Focus and spoke about the documentary with its American director.
the ballad of vicki and jake started in 2003 when American Ian Thomas Ash went to Britain as a student in the University of Bristol’s MA in Filmmaking course. During a class exercise covering sound recording, Ian and some of his classmates met some homeless people, among whom was Vicki.
– “Vicki and I clicked right away. We told the university we wanted to make a film about her, but they didn’t think it was a good idea. They thought that it would be too dangerous and that it could get quite complicated. But I knew I had to make this film even without the official help of the university. We found her again, and this is how the film started.”
Vicki had been struggling with addiction for years, but it seemed she was taking control of her life and the government offered her a council house to live in. She tells Ian that her eleven-year-old son, Jake, is the most important thing in her life. Jake’s father, Sid, although separated from Vicki, is still around in their lives.
– “We wanted to show the relationship between a mother and son, but as the film goes on, Jake is seen less and less. This is because he is basically an ordinary kid, and it wouldn’t have been interesting to focus more on him. He went to school, had a part-time job and played. Vicki was a completely different story. She was so energetic and full of life and you never knew what to expect. That is what was so fascinating about her and what we tried to transfer to the screen.”
Vicki decides to begin a stable life, but soon her new house becomes a drug den when Vicki’s old friends and Sid decide to crash there. Vicki cannot say no to them even when she realizes that the situation has become no good for her, surrounded with the constant temptation to take drugs. In the film, each time Ian and the cameraman visit her, things have gotten progressively worse.
– “I want to blame someone. I guess I blame the house. But that isn’t really fair because Vicki herself made the decision to allow those people into her house and to influence her. There was a guy, Brad, who had a lot of money. He was easily manipulated and gave everyone money for drugs. I think if she hadn’t gotten that house, if Brad hadn’t been there, things might have ended differently.”
From the start it is clear that Ian cannot keep a neutral position in the documentary. “I knew from the start that it would be impossible to keep my distance from Vicki as a subject because I felt very close to her. Vicki was always captivating and humorous and I learnt something from her every time we met. Keeping a distance was really impossible, and anyway, it was a give and take situation: we were open with her and she was open with us; we accepted her and she accepted us.”
At the end of the film there is an unexpected shock for the viewer who has spent more than an hour and a half following Vicki’s life and hoping that she accomplishes the goal she sets for herself at the beginning: to take control of her life.
– “It may sound strange, but from the beginning I knew that it was going to end badly for someone in that house. Honestly, I thought it was going to be Sid, because he had been quite ill, but I was wrong. I still haven’t come to terms with what happened. When I got the first question from the audience after the premier here in Amsterdam, I nearly broke down in tears. Fortunately someone’s mobile rang and the distraction allowed me to recover and catch my breath.”
In the film, Ian doesn’t show Vicki using drugs, even when a friend of hers demonstrates how to smoke crack. To the viewer it is pretty clear that Vicki must have also been using drugs at that time, but Ian won’t give a clear answer as to whether he has ever seen her taking drugs or not. One gets the impression that he doesn’t want to tarnish Vicki’s image, and sometimes it feels like the film has been edited as a kind of tribute to her. His close connection with Vicki is also revealed in that when the film gets sold, the profits will go into a trust fund for Jake.
– “I want people to learn from this documentary. I don’t want people to watch it and think that it was all predictable because Vicki is addicted to drugs. Vicki is a person, a person with a problem. Yes, she’s made mistakes, but she is a good mother. Anybody who sees the film can see that she loves Jake.”
Michelle Iwema was writing for Film Focus November 29, 2005 English translation by Peter Vonderen used by permission
© 2005 Film Focus