The role of a documentary is to ask questions: Tan Pin Pin

Critically acclaimed filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s latest work, In Time to Come, revolves around the excavation of two time capsules, depicting the rituals and passing of time. Filmwallas had the opportunity to interview her on her work and journey so far as a filmmaker so far.

Tan Pin Pin is a Singapore-based faward-winning filmmaker. She is best known for the documentary film, Singapore GaGa, which created history in the annals of Singaporean films. It was the first Singaporean documentary to have a theatrical run.


This year again, she is back with a new documentary that is silent, yet is creating waves.


Critically acclaimed filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s latest work, In Time to Come, revolves around the excavation of two time capsules, depicting the rituals and passing of time. The footage for her new documentary In Time to Come was shot over four years and is a silent film. We had the opportunity to interview her on her work and journey so far as a filmmaker so far.



Tan Pin Pin, director of In Time to Come (Credit: Karine Azoubib).


Hello, Pin Pin, you graduated with a law degree from Oxford University. What made you realise you wanted to pursue filmmaking?


I discovered photography at university from books in the library, and from then, I realised that all I wanted to do was to make images, film making developed from photography. A long journey to develop the craft, still developing!


During the creative process of making a documentary, have you ever had to reconcile the difference between what you envisioned with what you achieved? How did you move through it?


There is always a wide chasm between the starting point and the ending point, but I have come to accept that this is the norm for me, given my process of collecting material over time. I am always trying to make meaning out of seemingly disparate and unrelated material which I have foraged.


What drew you to the subject of time capsules for In Time to Come? Would it be fair to say that in many of your works, there is a certain fascination with old traditions, remembering the past and documenting narratives that are often too quickly erased or forgotten?


That is only one part of the picture. I am interested in how we remember, what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.



The silent film In Time to Come revolves around the subject of two time capsules. (Credit BFG Media).


For In Time to Come, you mentioned it took four years to collect the footage and another year to edit, how has the film been shaped by both the money and resources you have had or not had?


It took four years altogether. This film was made with help from Singapore Film Commission (SFC), HAF, and NTU-CCA. If not for their help, we would not be able to make this film in the way we did, painstakingly shooting and editing.


How do you view the current climate of documentary funding in Singapore?


In Time to Come is the first feature documentary to be funded by SFC. I hope it paves the way for more documentary works to be supported by them.


Often documentary films deal with difficult subjects in society, and your previous film To Singapore, with Love, was no stranger to that. Do you think documentaries have the responsibility to hold an answer to the issues they deal with?


The role of a documentary is to ask questions, suggest a framework for thinking, rather than give answers, which sounds too passive.


In Time to Come is a documentary with almost no dialogue, and this is not your first work dealing with no dialogue. Are there particular challenges when it comes to creating a documentary with minimal narration?


It assumes a lot of the viewer, to think through the different scenes and how they will connect without narrative to guide. Different audiences interpret it in different ways, which is fine. It is experiential, giving the viewer space to immerse and dream.



The film revolves around Tan Pi Pin’s recurring themes of memory, national identity and act of documentation. (Credit: BFG Media)


What advice would you give to filmmakers about to make their first documentary?

Jill Godmilow answers it best with her 12 rules, the last of which is "leave your parents out of it".