ArtsCinema & TV

A Nation’s Hope: Singaporean filmmaker Zachary Yap on the Challenges of Storytelling Amidst a Pandemic

When independent Singaporean filmmaker, Zachary Yap, pitched two different stories to Singapore’s Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA), one could only imagine the excitement of receiving approvals for both.

However, just as pre-production began for both films, everything would take a paralysing turn as the COVID-19 pandemic battered Singapore. Production became delayed indefinitely, and the resulting uncertainty put an abrupt stop in the preparations by his team.

It was only until Phase 2 did the team manage to begin actual production, albeit with new filming and production regulations for a ‘new normal’ in place.

“Personally, I found it quite eye-opening to be making a film during a pandemic. Things operated quite differently from the usual. And being one of the earliest in the local industry to go into a film production, there were a lot of discussions and figuring things out,” Mr Yap recalls.

A Nation's Hope: Zachery Yap on Set
Singaporean filmmaker Zachary Yap on the set of ‘Sikit-Sikit’

Originally meant for SGUnited, and later honorarily included into Viddsee’s StoriesTogether Initiative, the films: ‘Stay Home Neighbour’ and ‘Sikit-Sikit’ were stories written to capture the plights and triumphs of ordinary Singaporeans during the still-trying times of the pandemic.

Mr Yap explains: “Both stories took place before the ‘Circuit Breaker’ happened in April 2020. Singapore was still in a transitional phase.”

“It was a strange period for me as well which I can’t describe to you in words. But there was a specific time period for both films that spoke to me. Film is communication occurring in time, and it’s very important to respect that.”

A Nation's Hope: Sikit-Siki Still
A still from ‘Sikit-Sikit’ from before the ‘panic buying’ phenomenon

Nonetheless, Mr Yap credits his entire team, especially his dedicated producers: Sam Chua Weishi and Angel YJ, who worked hard day and night, to ensure the safety of the cast and crew, and the general public.

“Making a film isn’t easy, and the collaboration has become even more crucial while adapting to this new normal. The timeline was also tight.” lamented Mr Yap.

“We had to run pre-productions concurrently for both films, and I have to really give credit to my producers; Sam and Angel for pulling through. These two really special people were simply admirable from start to end, and they somehow made everything work out. Their endless support and love is something I’ll always treasure close to my heart.”

A Nation's Hope: Production Crew Working
The production crew working tirelessly throughout the night onsite

Talking to the producers themselves, Ms Chua and Ms YJ described how they were both filled with excitement and apprehension at how two innocent film projects evolved into monumental tasks. 

“For many of us, ‘Stay Home Neighbour’ and ‘Sikit-Sikit’ were our first times returning on set after being on hiatus for several months,” recounted both producers.

“This excitement and anxiety of going back to work, coupled with the new safety and hygiene regulations during Phase 2, definitely created a different film production environment we had to get used to. There was also added pressure to uphold these standards, especially since we were one of the first few productions post-‘Circuit Breaker’, because one mistake may affect the entire film industry.”

A Nation's Hope: Sikit-Siki Bus-stopt
Behind-the-scenes of ‘Sikit-Sikit’ as filmed at a public bus stop

For both films, the crew had to shoot in HDB flats and in public spaces. Understandably, they ended up being scrutinised by the public who were naturally anxious when they saw more than five people on location.

Luckily for them, carefully approved productions by IMDA were allowed up to 30 personnel onsite, provided social distancing was still strictly adhered to. Ultimately, the new safety and hygiene regulations in this ‘new normal’ posed a significant challenge to them.

The producers assured: “We worked closely on set to remind one another of these regulations as much as possible. It was also important to dedicate more resources specifically towards reinforcing these regulations – for example, allowing for more time between shots to ensure social distancing measures, having someone remind the team to change their masks after a few hours and staggering meal times.”

A Nation's Hope: Production Crew Social distancing
The production crew demonstrating the social distancing required on set

“It was definitely helpful that our production team strictly enforced these safety practices, and took measures to reassure the residents – they were notified of the shoot in advance and could approach our designated safety officer should they have any concerns. Upon their requests, we also made available letters of permission from relevant officials for the shoot.”

Regardless, Mr Yap’s team pulled through, creating two reels that hit very close to Singaporean shores.

A Nation's Hope: Stay Home Neighbour Still
A still from ‘Stay Home Neighbour’ depicting the strangers’ video call

‘Stay Home Neighbour’ is a simple, yet classic heartwarming tale of two strangers who found a way to connect amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, while serving their respective Stay-Home Notices.

The film explores the paradox of how the coronavirus unexpectedly brings people together, even though it has made them more distant physically. Even more so in Singapore’s case, where many neighbours can live beside one another in high-rise flats, yet not be as socially close.

Ultimately, the story was an avid reflection of the perspective that people in quarantine face – and still continue to do – that the public does not often celebrate.

A Nation's Hope: Sikit-Siki Auntie Aida Still
Another still from ‘Sikit-Sikit’ showing Auntie Aida after her gesture

For ‘Sikit-Sikit’ (Malay for “a little bit”), the film pulls viewers into the shoes of a beleaguered, single-mother who experienced a small act of kindness that rekindles her faith in humanity.

The story delves into the social issues that sprung up due to the coronavirus, notably, the ‘panic buying’ that Singapore experienced in February 2020. As supermarkets experienced low stocks for essential items due to the phenomena, hardship among citizens ensued.

As a single mother who works as a nurse with long shift hours, her occupation of saving lives is usually portrayed to be mentally and emotionally strong. But to see her humanness evokes an entirely different feeling – when she is just as vulnerable and sensitive like anyone else.

A Nation's Hope: Stay Home Neighbour Still 2
Another still from ‘Stay Home Neighbour’ with our male protagonist

These films can be found on Mr Yap’s Viddsee profile, offering us little pieces of respite in the form of a small act of kindness or little leaps of good faith.

All in all, for a team that was dealt with bizarre cards under even stranger pandemic circumstances, their work isn’t only just praiseworthy. In fact, they are authentic timely reminders that sometimes all we need is to keep a lookout for one another, to stay sane and come out stronger in such trying times.

Photos and stills courtesy of Zachary Yap.

Danish Lukawski

Founder of DANAMIC.ORG - Just a guy with three cat-kids, always messing around with computer code, and addicted to capturing too many photos.

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