She’s covered everything from China’s ancient tombs to Harvard’s research labs, and now, filmmaker Su-Mae Khoo – who’s made documentaries for the likes of Science Channel, History Channel, Asian Food Channel and Channel News Asia – documents the rise of the Thanjai Cricket Club, a small group of migrant workers that’s rapidly rising through the ranks of the Singapore league in record time. Uplifting and inspiring, Cricket Masala will mark its premiere with the launch of Discovery Channel’s new short-form documentary series, JumpCut Asia, in July this year.
And as luck would have it, we recently had the opportunity to speak to Su-Mae about making documentaries across borders, the future of documentary, and of course, her latest project Cricket Masala.
Hi there Su-Mae! Can you tell us more about yourself?
Hello! I’m a Singapore-born documentary filmmaker and I run a production company with my partner. It’s called Two Chiefs Films but much too often, folks in Singapore get mixed up and call us Two Chefs like that tze char place. We did not consider food-obsessed Singaporeans when we picked our company name, haha.
When did you decide you wanted to get into filmmaking?
My mum tells me I’d be watching old black and white Tamil movies on late night TV at the age of 2, so I’ve always been obsessed with film and television. Later I thought I’d go to art school, but around my ‘A’ levels I had the opportunity to make films with 16mm film and that gave me an “in” into film school. This was in the late 80s when it was still quite rare, so I jumped at the chance. Later I did a Masters in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies because I wanted to focus on people-centred documentaries.
What is the essence of a great documentary, to you?
Like in any kind of film, it’s an extraordinary story. It’s all about the story.
What do you look out for in a subject? And how would you then make an approach?
I look for the common experience. People anywhere in the world are essentially the same. The approach is often about finding that common ground, so a viewer in Singapore can watch something about a Peruvian potato farmer and then go “Oh! He wants to earn enough to send his daughter to school… I get that.”
Tell us about the first major documentary you made.
I made a film for Discovery Channel about the history and culture of Thailand explored through its cuisine, and that was a pretty amazing experience. The budget was tight, so I recorded sound for the film and one time I fell into a pile of chopped up river fish that’s used to make a lesser known Thai condiment called pla ra, which is essentially rotten fish. Trial by fish guts!
But we also filmed with beauty queens, kick boxers and in the kitchens of the Royal Palace in Bangkok where men are not normally allowed to enter, as it used to be part of the royal harem. We had to get special dispensation for my Director of Photography, Brian McDairmant – who’s also my partner at Two Chiefs – to enter.
How about your recent work, Cricket Masala?
Cricket Masala is part of Discovery Channel’s short-form documentary series JumpCut Asia, which was released digitally on Discovery SEA’s Facebook page and will be released on linear in July. It was a very special experience. The Thanjai Cricket Club story is so incredible, so when we came across it, we wondered how the story had not been told before.
Here’s a group of migrant workers who work the toughest jobs. One called Arul is part of the construction team building the new Thomson MRT line, another called Guna is an excavator operator out in Pulau Tekong. They work six days a week, pull 12 to 13 hour days and on their one day off in the week, play cricket. Not only that, they play it so well, they’re now one of the top teams in the Singapore league playing against cricketers who play for Singapore’s National Team. How do they do it? It’s extraordinary. And a lot of these guys are farm boys, they grew up in the countryside. The contrast between where they came from and where they are now is just mind-boggling.
Was it difficult, as an outsider, to make a film about migrant workers?
Every film has its challenges and yes, as an outsider, it took a bit of time for the players to ‘get’ what we were trying to do. Just imagine what their lives have been like since they’ve been in Singapore. First of all, construction is very male-dominated. During their work hours, any ethnic Chinese Singaporeans they come across are bossing them around. During their off hours, Singaporeans they come across very likely treat them with indifference at best, almost like they’re invisible. So here I am, a Chinese-Singaporean woman looking directly at them, asking them intensely personal questions, so of course it’s a bit discombobulating for them.
But I’m proud to say that they’re all my friends now, although I wish Santhosh, one of Cricket Masala’s main contributors would stop calling me “madam”. I’m determined to make him say my name one day!
There are definitely struggles that come with documentary filmmaking. What were yours?
Making a decent living? At the best of times, documentary filmmaking is the best job in the world. You get privileged access to the most amazing places, meet the most interesting people and there’s something to learn every day. It’s the periods in between the jobs that are the hardest, and the opportunities can be few and far between. You have to be pretty determined to carry on doing it and there can be dark moments of economic uncertainty.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
Currently, I’m planning a shoot in Cambodia and Indonesia. This is a job-for-hire, which is how I normally make my living. But even doing these is an enormous privilege and I’m grateful for each opportunity. We’re lucky to live in a region with massive potential for stories, so I’m always on the lookout.
What do you see the future of documentary to be?
I think the future of documentary is very bright. There’s been an absolute explosion in feature-length documentaries that reach cinemas these days. With the Internet, there are new ways of delivering content. People are choosing to watch documentaries and it doesn’t have to be dictated by a schedule or even by length. It could be a 12-minute film like Cricket Masala or a two-hour-film about a chimp brought up by humans.
For a while documentaries got lumped with the phenomenon called ‘unscripted’ or reality TV where it’s all about bulk, manipulation and false jeopardy. I’m hopeful that we’re moving away from that. Real life is amazing, so let’s do it justice by telling it right.
Check out Cricket Masala on JumpCut Asia, which will make its screen premiere on Discovery Channel on Sunday, 9 July, at 9pm.