Magazine article Filmmaker

Mind the Cobras

Magazine article Filmmaker

Mind the Cobras

Article excerpt

Turning up Coco Rosie loud enough to block out the mall din of Singapore, I walk up a thick jungle road suppressing the urge to swing from the giant vines. I am climbing the hill to teach my morning editing class at Tisch's new NYU Graduate Film School in Singapore. And I'm sweating. I am always sweating.

It's hot here. It's 85 miles north of the equator so it always seems like the same season: summer. Which would be great (though hot) for filming if it wasn't for that sneaky other season: monsoon. But monsoon season is kind of amazing, especially if your script calls for rain. It comes down sudden and hard over the palm trees and it seems to bruise the whole sky. They say more people die by lightning in Singapore than anywhere else in the world.

As I near the school ("the big blue whale," as the students coined it), my eyes automatically scan the ground around the bamboo patch. Since opening in the fall of 2007, a few black cobras have been caught slinking around there in their shiny hoods. I love and hate that they share our campus. They sparked the conversation, "What would you do if you only had six hours (how long it takes to die from a cobra bite) to live?" Of course, more than a few students said they would grab a camera and film it.

Besides lightning and black cobras, there are a few other ways to die in Singapore. A way too young policeman pointed them out during a Powerpoint demonstration at NYU during orientation. Students and professors alike stared at the screen with wide eyes as he pointed to all the various drug offenses punishable by death with his red laser pen. They still hang people here and they cane people here too. Yes, cane - with a big bamboo stick.

So what the hell are we doing here?

Pioneering? Adventuring?Teaching? Learning? Filming? Dying of boredom? Sweating?

Yes. And despite the heat, the rain, the laws, the lightning, the lack of a film scene, and abundance of cobras, I can honestly say that it's an amazing experience to be part of a film school in Singapore. It's good for creativity to get outside your comfort zone; to shake things up and tune your eyes to a totally different frequency. To climb around in a jungle with a camera and a bounce board and figure out how best to light the mangoes on that tree. One of the most refreshing things for me as a teacher is seeing locations, faces and situations that haven't been seen already in a thousand student films. This semester one student shot in a very small fishing village in Indonesia using all local non-actors. Another just got back from Delhi, shooting a narrative using real street kids. Another will be shooting in Manila in a few weeks. Singapore itself can be a lot of different things: Florida meets China meets L.A. meets Malaysia with a skyline that could be Toronto or Chicago. Not to mention the best location around: the jungle.

It takes a certain kind of student to ask, "Why not go to film school in Southeast Asia?" Someone who is at heart a pioneer with a bit of a wild side, someone who is not afraid to move to somewhere they have barely heard of to make films. They are free spirits. They are brave. And they manage to thrive on being alienated and out of their element. All qualities, I think, that can make for great films and great filmmakers.

Essentially, it's like being on location all year. Our eccentric cast and crew of students and professors are stuck together on the small southern tip of Malaysia forging films out of marble malls and palm trees and getting to know each other way too well. …

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