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First Singapore filmmaker to win Sundance Film Festival award, Kirsten Tan: How I was inspired

A specialist in short films and documentaries, Kirsten Tan has finally hit her stride with Pop Aye, after a decade of film-making. No pressure, though, as she’s driven by good stories, not medals.

You’ve probably heard of Kirsten Tan by now, seeing how she grabbed headlines in January for being the first Singaporean film-maker to win a prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. The 32-year-old director and cinematographer, whose Singapore-Thailand production Pop Aye clinched World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting, also took home the VPRO Big Screen Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam a month later.

“It was written with absolutely no agenda—I wasn’t thinking about the box office or trying to write a ‘festival-bait’ film laden with taboo or issues. It came from a pure and almost naive place, and I think that translated to something fresh and unique on screen,” she says of the film, which tells the tale of a disillusioned architect who tries to find a way back to his hometown with an elephant he grew up with.

  • A still from the award-winning Pop Aye, featuring the protagonist and the iconic elephant.

Tan completed her advanced diploma in film production at Ngee Ann Polytechnic under Media Development Authority’s Media Education Scholarship in 2005. She later undertook a Master of Fine Arts at New York University’s Graduate Film Program, where she received the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship. She has won over 30 awards and nominations in her 10 years of film-making, more than 15 of them international.

  • Kirsten at the 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam - IFFR 2017 Award Ceremony.

“In my early adult years, I would often feel an aching emptiness and was constantly dissatisfied with my immediate surroundings. I suppose some people find God to assuage their souls in these conditions, but I found cinema,” she says. Driven by the excitement of finding a good story to tell, Tan’s work has often been described as sensitive with a touch of stony humour.

Her only advice to aspiring local writers and directors? Focus on the work. “As a creator, your only responsibility is to your creation. Contrary to common advice, I’ve found networking to be overrated. If your film stinks, no amount of connections can help you. If it’s worthy, it will get noticed, especially in an industry as small as Singapore’s,” she says. “So quit complaining and comparing, and get to work.”

 

Kirsten Tan on…

A show she will binge-watch

“Game of Thrones. I’m fascinated by how characters on the show do terrible things to one another but you can understand and even empathise with their motivations. It makes you question whether you’d do the same, given a similar situation. How much of yourself and your integrity will you compromise to play the game of thrones? I find its concerns very relevant to modern society.”

Who would play her in a movie

“In my fantasy world, Tilda Swinton would play me. Reasons would include androgynous mannerisms and style. Closer to earth, though, I suppose Sandra Oh would be a more realistic fit.”

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Most images courtesy of Kirsten Tan and partners.