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Lessons from A Sunny Past: Kampung spirit and appreciation of nostalgia

“Dementia made me realise that if we do not take any action to document their former lives, a piece of history will be lost to us forever.”
— Sunny Ng, artist from Chye Kay Village

When telling the story of a person twice my age, it may have seemed naïve to assume that I would be able to capture the totality and complexity of his emotions and motivations. Coupled with a limited production schedule of nine days and the fact that I had only met him two weeks prior – no one could be blamed for betting against my success. Therein lies the challenge that resulted in ‘A Sunny Past’.

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‘A Sunny Past’ is a 5 minute documentary of Mr Sunny Ng, a 58-year-old retired professional who decided to preserve the memories of his kampung, Chye Kay Village, after both his parents had been diagnosed with dementia. Such an unfortunate coincidence implied that Sunny had a high risk of suffering the same fate, which was why he turned to using his talent in drawing to respond to both the uncertainty of his waning memory and the certainty of his mother’s. This began a five-year project that cumulated in a graphic book; a capsule of history that is still being improved as of this post.

Sunny dug up personal photos from old photo albums as references for him to sketch and paint a map of his kampung. Memories would fill in the rest, though it would quickly prove to be insufficient. Although his memories of the surroundings of his house were vivid, that of the village had faded with time. Fortunately, the photos uncovered for this project turned out to be a healthy exercise for Sunny’s mother, who despite her dementia, was able to recount many stories and describe the surroundings of where the photos were taken with specific detail. While I cannot describe the euphoria that Sunny might have felt during such moments of sharing, Sunny’s telling of that moment to me during our first meeting together allowed me to better appreciate his position – the start of my understanding of his work.

I responded to his honest sharing with my personal reason of why I, despite all the challenges mentioned, wanted to tell his story. I have had my own fair share of challenges with memories, directions, names, faces, and sometimes tasks at hand, all resulting in trivial inconveniences and awkward pauses reflecting on my carelessness. I am reminded that forgetfulness is not akin to dementia – and though I am aware of this, my imagination does wonder often of a scenario in which I do not have a firm grasp of my memories. Paranoid as it might sound, I do think of the irony of facing dementia myself, having made a career of telling stories of others without considering the minute possibility of forgetting my own.

Sunny does not have dementia, though he does have a poor memory, which was where we found common ground. After sharing and laughing at our common experiences, I earned his trust in allowing me to tell his story beyond, or more accurately, beneath the work that he is doing.

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In the five years of development, the graphic book that was originally meant to be a personal project for him and his mother had attracted both the attention and contribution of former residents of the village itself. Few communities have had the opportunity to re-live the past, and now it seemed that there was a unique opportunity to celebrate Sunny’s artistic talents to achieve that. This resulted in an exhibition – a display of stories, photos and artworks depicting the life and time of Chye Kay village.

Still, time was of great constraint for this project. There were only four days to shoot and five days to edit the work. This tight schedule was dictated film competition deadlines. Doing so was in line with my personal goal of producing 10 short documentaries in 2019, and for each to be recognised critically or making an impact worthy of mention.

With no reshoots nor time to ponder, my discovery of Sunny’s story and how to translate it into a short documentary would have to be crystallised within those four shooting days – everything else was just work. Acknowledging this, I went down to Yishun for what seemed like the first time of my life and spent 36 hours over three days under the shade of the Chong Pang amphitheatre for Sunny’s exhibition.

Credit: Kyle Ong

Credit: Kyle Ong

Those three days were memorable ones for me. This is my eighth documentary work, and by now, I have learnt to prioritise observation and integration over simply shooting. Capturing footage is of little value if not done so with informed intent – a gut feeling of sorts to appreciate why something is recorded. Nevertheless, I always had my camera on hand. It is a contraption that would be distracting to anyone new to the documentary process, and so exposing that to Sunny as often as possible was my way of getting him comfortable to it.

Day one of my time with Sunny at Yishun was during the exhibition set up. Those first 12 hours were crucial opportunities to begin to understand the man that I would metaphorically ‘speak for’ through my work. As such, much like how the exhibition is being built in front of us, so too did I have to build my relationship with Sunny. That was only the second time we met after all.

He was keenly aware that understanding him in such a short duration would be a challenging task to undertake. He had told me so over the course of shooting. But with each mention, there seemed to be a little more trust earned. This was because I stuck to my word when I told him that I would literally shadow him so as to make full use of the time we have together. This was mentioned during our first meeting, though he had most certainly thought that I was not being too serious about it. Spending the first 12 hours with him made clear my resolve to my work, and it was replied to in kind by his openness.

Now, with the purposes of filming as an excuse, I was able to listen in to the conversations he was having with the exhibition volunteers, friends from the village, and his family. I wielded every opportunity to build the context I needed to make emotional sense of Sunny, the exhibition and his book.

Credit: Kyle Ong

Credit: Kyle Ong

By the third day, I had seen hundreds of Sunny’s family members and friends from the village to experience and celebrate their past. If I were merely just a curious onlooker, this would not have been very much different from other neighbourhood exhibitions. However, due to my role as a filmmaker, I now had the necessary context to empathise with this community that the exhibition celebrated.

In a time where things were simpler, the ‘kampung spirit’ of the village meant that people were closer as well. I was impressed there were so many former villagers that came to the exhibition. Not only that, it was a reunion that oozed of affection. The laughter and chatter of reminiscing of yesteryears was truly heart-warming, even for a boy like me who can never truly relate to why they were happy for what this exhibition had created – an opportunity to momentarily return back to a home they once knew and loved. For once, I truly appreciated the meaning behind the ‘kampung spirit’ that many older Singaporeans had missed for decades.

My editing process is always informed by the feelings I have during shooting – these intimate moments provided many subtleties that I picked up and I etched into my mind so as to do my best in translating it over to my documentary audience. This deep immersion also brought about another benefit of being a documentary storyteller – that of personal growth.

As the exhibition drew to a close, I sat on the edge of the stage, pondering if my generation would have experiences as colourful as the past. I have access to technologies and the world that they could not fathom when they were young, yet it seemed that in comparison, I had only lived half the life they had. My exhibition and sharing of grandfather stories would not be exciting once I took out things like Netflix, Maplestory and Kids Central. Sure, there are moments, but it seems to pale in comparison.

As for Sunny, we met again the following day for a relatively short shooting session at his home to conduct the interview for the documentary and to check out the behind the scenes of how the graphic book was realised.

This order of recording the visuals first before recording the interview is often a headache for me as my editing process would be the reverse, in which the interview content would dictate the visuals shown. But perhaps it was for the better, as it was only through the three-day experience that I was able to form my interview questions with more nuance so as to extract the most out of Sunny for his story. It was also an exchange in which I could prove that I understood him.

The rest is for you, the reader, to decide – as Sunny did when he was shown the video when it was released publicly.

P.S. Thank you for reading this article. I am pleased to announce that A SUNNY PAST had won the AIC Video Competition. 10% of the winnings will be donated to the Alzheimer's Disease Association in Singapore. The remainder allows me to clear my student debt and enables me to do more of such works.