Documentary Maker Su-Mae Khoo on Cricket Masala and the Power of Documenting

Having worked in television for over 20 years, Su-Mae Khoo is no stranger to the scene. She has made documentaries for Discovery Channel, Science Channel, History Channel, Asian Food Channel and Channel News Asia. She has also earned accolades for Bukit Brown Voices. With more to be added to this growing list, JumpCut Asia presents her film Cricket Masala – about migrant workers playing their way to connect with their own culture and build a community in Singapore.

The film will be shown in one episode, alongside other stories told by other film makers, as part of the JumpCut Asia series. The episodes will be on air every Sunday from 9th July to 30th July 2017.

Interested only with questions pertaining to documentaries specifically instead of The Arts in general, Popspoken delves into specifics with this Speaking Arts interview with Su-Mae herself.

Thanjai Team members with Su-Mae Khoo Director Cricket Masala and Sriram Raghavan
Thanjai Team members with Su-Mae Khoo, Director Cricket Masala and Sriram Raghavan

Popspoken: Share with us how you got involved in film-making, specifically documentaries. 

Su-Mae: I grew up loving movies – I was an absolute Star Wars fan, collected comics, loved Jim Henson movies. I was total nerd, very Westward-looking, collected US and UK pop culture magazines that don’t exist anymore – your younger readers will have no idea what “Tiger Beat”, “Smash Hits” or “No.1” are.

I did my ‘A’ levels in the UK and during the time when I first arrived in London, there was a charity that gave kids with an interest in the pursuit, the chance to handle 16mm film cameras to make films. I was lucky enough to get accepted to one of their workshops. It was a great experience and around the time it came to selecting which universities I wanted to go to, I thought I’d apply to film school and miracle of miracles, I got in!

But being in the UK was also incredibly formative in shaping my viewing habits – TV channels like the BBC and another channel called Granada (which also doesn’t exist anymore) ran 2 specific series. The BBC’s was called “Under the Sun” and Granada’s was called “Disappearing World”. These showed anthropological documentaries – sometimes it might be something about an African tribe and other times something closer to home – one that I remember vividly was about Singapore’s Social Development Unit (SDU), the government’s Graduate match-making agency. It was fascinating viewing – compelling characters, fantastic story-telling.

These sorts of films were instrumental in steering my interest away from science fiction and special effects – a childhood fantasy was to work at Industrial Light and Magic – towards something entirely different.

As I said before, I was very Westward-looking as a kid in Singapore. It took leaving Singapore for me to look back and see where I came from. Apart from spending a lot of time during school holidays at my grandparents’ in Malaysia, I had very little interest in the rest of Southeast Asia to be honest. Then I came to realise that we live in one of the most vibrant and amazing parts of the world, but it took a step back for me to see this bigger picture.

This culminated in a decision a few years after graduating from my film degree to do a Masters in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Popspoken: When did you decide that you would make this your career? 

Su-Mae: Well, I knew I wanted to make films but it took me a long time to figure out HOW to go about doing it. I spent years wandering – a bit of a lost soul – trying to get at what I really wanted to do, which was to be a documentary filmmaker.

I worked in broadcasting – I had a stint in Hong Kong at Star TV’s MTV clone – Channel V, worked for production companies making corporate videos, worked for 2 major international documentary channels. I was trying to get to actually make the damned things, but ended up working for the companies that broadcast these films. I worked in programme acquisitions for one of the channels and for the love of god, some of the films I had to watch were so awful! Just so you understand, most people who work for documentary channels don’t actually MAKE films. They look after areas like sales and distribution, or marketing, or scheduling.

I know I haven’t really answered your question – there is no clear path. I didn’t stumble into it like some people do. I wanted to go into it from a very early stage but just needed that break to finally step through the threshold. In the meantime, I had other jobs that looked like I “worked in” documentaries, but not really. You don’t “work in” documentaries, you either make them or you don’t.

cricket-masala-2 su-mae khoo

Popspoken: How did your family and friends react to this career choice? Did their reaction impact you in any way? 

Su-Mae: I’m lucky in that I have very supportive parents – they let me go to film school in the 1980s for Pete’s sake! BUT it was after I left school, went into my string of TV jobs and was actually incredibly unhappy that my parents got worried because they thought I was doing what I wanted to do, but that it was making me depressed.

AND on top of that, my dad started having (belated) worries about how I would end up a “starving artist” (his words).

They’re a bit more calm about it now, but I think they still don’t really know what I do. I show them early cuts of some of my films – but often, shortly after the film starts, they start wondering about where to go for dinner. Haha.

Popspoken: What is the favourite part of your job? 

Su-Mae: Without a doubt, it is the research. I am huge on research – that’s when you get to know the personalities of the people you’re filming with, you’re trying to unpack the story and find the angles that you can approach from. Research is like the early days of a romance – you’re getting to know the story. You’re maybe even slightly falling in love with it. Then the filming begins and that’s like the full blown affair – it is the privilege of being with people or being in places you would never normally be able to meet or see. It can be really moving – so much of the documentary filmmaking process is about the experience.

Popspoken: Tell us, how do you go about deciding on a subject matter to pursue?

Su-Mae: Oh ho … so much about documentary filmmaking for television is NOT about deciding what the subject matter is.

Sure, if you’re an artist raising funds from different grant bodies, you may have the luxury of working on your idea and shaping it over a lengthy period. The truth of the matter is, if you’re a “jobbing director”, the topic has already been chosen or decided on by a channel that wants a film or a series of films to be made about a particular subject.

What’s quite common here in Asia is “funded programmes” or “branded content”, where a corporation or sometimes maybe a country’s government has worked out a deal with the broadcaster to make films about a particular topic (almost always positive stories about a country or product) in exchange for commercial air time on the channel, basically advertising sales.

Of course, for Two Chiefs Films’ (my production company) documentary, Cricket Masala – we pitched the idea to Discovery Networks Southeast Asia and it was selected to be part of a season of short documentaries called JumpCut Asia. In that situation, we did choose and pitch 2 stories.  The channel was interested in both, however in the end Cricket Masala was chosen as it was more feasible to achieve. The strength of both stories is about the characters but even the most ordinary person can be extraordinary, you just have to find the angle or the hook.

Pitching in itself requires an entirely different set of skills, which I can’t say I’m very good at. It’s about selling an idea and making the commissioner want it for their channel. Give me a story, tell us (me and my Two Chiefs partner, Director of Photography, Brian McDairmant) to make it and we will probably come out with something world class. BUT ask me to pitch an idea? I’m not a natural sales person and often find the process mortifying.

I always watch in wonder when a good sales person works a room – it’s endlessly fascinating.

Popspoken: What is it about the human experience that intrigues you, and is featured in your documentaries? 

Su-Mae: I think people anywhere in the world understand and empathize with adversity. The drama in a story – and in documentaries, drama is important too – is in the overcoming of this adversity.

Cricket Masala is the story of a team of cricket players made up mostly of Indian migrant workers from a region in Tamil Nadu state called Thanjavur. These young men work in construction – and as you may know, construction workers in Singapore often live and work under very poor conditions. They toil 6 days a week, sometimes even 7 because they get to earn overtime if they do that – but if they have a cricket game, they will sacrifice their 1 day off a week to play the game. That’s Passion with a capital P.

If you know anything about cricket is that they are LOOOONG. Games can go on for days but here in Singapore, the premier division games we filmed were 50-over matches that lasted 6 – 7 hours. These guys work physically-demanding jobs all week, and then they play cricket for 6 – 7 hours on their day off  – that’s dedication for you. / The team we featured is called Thanjai Cricket Club and in the 7 years since the club started, they have climbed from the lowest division in Singapore Cricket to its premier league.

The players have no time to train, they work 12 – 15 hr days, they earn about SGD700 a month. But in the premier league, they play against IT professionals, bankers, stock brokers. We followed them over the course of a month at the start of this year’s cricket season. There were wins and losses, but it’s not about the scores they got – the film is about individuals and a team that’s like a home away from home. And the boys done good!

cricket-masala-3 su-mae khoo

Popspoken: Out of your portfolio of work, which is your favourite and why?

Su-Mae: That’s like asking which is your favourite child – I can’t answer that. There are films I’m more proud of and some less, but the memories that come with the making of each is special.

I made a film about the Taj Mahal some years ago – I’m not entirely proud of the end result because a lot of the decisions in the cutting room ended up not being mine. But as an experience it was incredible! Who gets to go on multiple visits over the course of a year, to one of the most amazing monuments in the world? Even at the height of summer when temperatures soared to nearly 50 degrees celcius and I sweated so much my eyelids peeled (and have never been quite the same again!), it was still amazing to be in Agra filming with the Archaeological Survey of India.

We went to sections of the Taj Mahal that visitors never get to go – these are experiences that money can’t buy.

Popspoken: What do you look forward to in the future of documentary?

Su-Mae: Documentaries are going through a bit of a renaissance right now – there are so many feature-length docs that get theatrical releases now and with digital delivery, there are new ways to watch documentaries. Even traditional documentary channels like Discovery are exploring new ways to distribute their films – people want to choose the time they get to watch the films of their choice.

If there’s demand, then there has to be more choice and for the people like me who make these films, there are more opportunities to make the films that people want to see and I want to make. It’s an exciting time.

Popspoken: How else can we, as a nation, encourage documentaries to flourish locally? 

Su-Mae: Having the courage to show more, different types of documentaries. In doing so, people’s tastes become more sophisticated and they start to demand more interesting films to be made. Like Tan Pin Pin’s “To Singapore With Love” – lift the ban, allow Singaporeans to choose whether they want to watch the film or not. I think Singaporeans are mature enough to watch a film like Pin Pin’s and make their own minds up. There can’t be any true creativity if alternative views are stifled.

Documentary is no different from other forms of visual story-telling – it uses the same conventions as that seen in narrative fiction like feature films or even commercials. It can’t be dictated by a singular style or a singular point-of-view. How boring would that be?

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Photography Credits to Brian Mcdairmant.
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