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Interview: Kirsten Tan

What’s it like being a local female filmmaker in a male-dominated industry? We quizzed up-and-coming director Kirsten Tan in the second of this three-part series

By Rebecca Liew |
Kirsten Tan

More local female film directors are gaining traction in our admittedly small film industry – and that’s a good thing, considering their male counterparts have dominated the scene for years now. We chat with Kirsten Tan, 35, whose first feature film, POP AYE, was selected for Cannes Film Festival 2015’s 11th Cinefondation L’Atelier and won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury award for screenwriting at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, about directing, her greatest achievements and working in the male-dominated film industry.

How different was it shooting a feature-length picture like POP AYE, as opposed to a short?
Making a short film is like a brief sprint, whereas making a feature film like POP AYE was very much a long-distance marathon – the process is so lengthy that sometimes you risk straying from your original vision. Shorts can be made on sparks of inspiration, but features require a kind of mental resilience and rigour to stay on track.  

'Shorts can be made on sparks of inspiration, but features require a kind of mental resilience and rigour to stay on track.'

How long did it take for you to propel this idea from storyboard to the end product?
It took about three years of development in terms of research, writing, financing and actually producing. That’s about the average time it takes to develop an indie feature film, which is a little shocking if you consider that an apartment building takes only about two years to construct.

Where do you draw inspiration from?
From my everyday life. Everyone’s lives are ripe with comedy and tragedy, and victories and defeats – the stories I focus on are a reflection of my attitude and world-view towards life. We’re all imperfect beings trying our best to cope with our unpredictable existences, and I do feel a ton for our earnestly flawed humanity.

Kirsten Tan

'I hope there comes a day when our ‘femaleness’ is no longer something to be invariably talked about by the media.'

Do you write yourself into various characters in the films you’ve worked on?
I’ve never actively sought to create characters that mirror myself, but if I had to choose, it’d probably be Fonzi [from Dahdi, 2014] – who, like Pinocchio, wishes and believes herself to be real, but really isn’t. The fun often lies in discovering who my characters are, and letting them grow into their own being. I do tend to lean towards creating protagonists who are misfits and outsiders. I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of what I think of myself!

What are your thoughts on pushing boundaries as a female director in a male-dominated industry? 
Gender balance has come a long way but statistically speaking, the odds are still not great for the female filmmaker, even in Hollywood. It’s almost inevitable that we [female directors] come under more scrutiny and judgment. Still, it’s enough for me to do my best work quietly in my own way and challenge unconscious bias that may come along.

Your shows have earned mention or been screened in an impressive number of festivals. What would you consider your greatest accomplishment? 
The accolades, festivals and awards are a welcome reminder that I’m doing okay, but my greatest achievement may simply be my foolish tenacity to persevere in this career. People don’t see the grit, the self-doubt, the hard work – and even the years of little to no pay – that goes into getting these fleeting moments of recognition.

Dahdi (2014)

Dahdi (2014)

Do you reckon female filmmakers are underrepresented?
While female directors aren’t underrepresented in media per se, we are generally underrepresented. I suppose rarity is a spectacle, and while I’m proud of my gender, I hope there comes a day when our ‘femaleness’ is no longer something to be invariably talked about by the media. On set, I never think of my gender – I’m just a filmmaker trying to tell a story. I think we should be expected to perform as people, without any labels or expectations.

How would you like to be remembered in terms of the work you’ve done?
It’s tough to have a one-statement-fits-all, but hopefully when people watch my films, they feel the inescapable forward motion of time and the bleak humour of existence. It isn’t about how the audience remembers me; it’s about how I’ve made them feel.

Check out other local female directors


Tan Ai Leng

Before Tan Ai Leng’s 'My Love Sinema' hits the theatres, we quiz the filmmaker on the flick, her inspirations and what’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated industry