How Eileen Chong Captures Heartfelt Stories In Documentaries

 

Eileen Chong, director of Letters to God

Filmmaker Eileen Chong was always inclined towards the arts.

However, she forced herself through studying accountancy to appease her parents – who wanted her to take a safe and conventional route.

It didn’t take long before she realised that she wasn’t a 9-5 job kind of person. One fateful day, she quit her accounting job and decided to study film at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

I realised I wasn’t going to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life, so I told my boss – “Sorry the balance sheet cannot be balanced again” – and quit my job – Eileen Chong

Her journey in documentaries started when she did ‘Project Unsung Heroes’. It was a simple project she embarked on, which featured ordinary people making extraordinary achievements in their own right.

Soon, she went on to make ‘Confessions’, a documentary featuring five Singaporeans baring their souls in front of the camera. This documentary established her reputation as a filmmaker skilled at capturing heartfelt stories in documentaries.

She recently launched a heartwarming documentary series called ‘Letters To God’ on Viddsee. The series features five stories about humanity, with religion in the background.

We catch up with Eileen to learn her ideas and inspiration behind this brand new series.

1) Hi Eileen, congratulations on the launch of ‘Letters to God’! How do you feel about it?

Hopefully, people enjoy the stories and the individuals featured see themselves as heroes. I hope the team feels good about completing this project! They all worked their asses off and delivered more than expected.

2) How did you choose the personalities to feature in ‘Letters to God’?

I met Steeve (from episode 1) because he was driving my Grab car. I saw how unique he looked and observed that he had Buddhist ornaments. We started talking and he shared about his life.

Steeve, a monk, praying in Letters to God
A shot of Steeve from Episode 111

I felt some kind of affinity towards him, so we exchanged numbers. I’ve also always wanted to do a documentary about pursuing monkhood.

We did not contact each other for a few years. When the opportunity came, I texted him hoping that his number did not change. Thankfully, he remembered me, and here we are.

3) Is there a process on how you get the personalities to feel comfortable yet vulnerable on camera? Some of the stories are quite painful.

The most important thing is to allow them to feel comfortable in expressing themselves. I also interact with them based on their personalities.

For example, I joke around a lot with Subana (from episode 3) because she’s fun-loving. She got comfortable quickly because both our child-likeness connected.

Never be afraid of asking uncomfortable questions. Allow them to understand there’s no right or wrong in this process.

This is about life, and not about saying the right things.

To be more specific, here are a few things I do on set:

– I don’t shout “action”. We don’t want them to feel like they are on a set. I say “when you are ready” or “go”

– Do an end-slate instead. I notice that the slate sound will alert them that we are starting and they might start becoming nervous.

– Have minimal disruptions during an interview. The crew shouldn’t be moving, the place should be quiet. All you should see, sense and hear during the interview is the voice and presence of the profile.

– If necessary, have most of your crew leave the room, with only your camera and sound guy present.

4) Which episode was the most challenging to direct and why?

Sukaaran Letters to God
Shooting Ep 222: Sukaraan in a temple

Our challenges were the locations. The places are sensitive and scared. We had to get filming permission from temples, churches and be careful in adhering to the rules. If we make a mistake, people can get very angry.

Our team also rushed to three locations in a day and it was exhausting.

When we were filming Tommy’s episode, my cinematographer’s drone flew straight into the sea!

5) Was there any episode that you could personally relate to – or learned a lot from?

Oddly, I relate to all of them. I was focused on connecting with their humanness rather than their religion.

With Steeve, I relate to the oneness with all things as I’ve always felt.

With Subana, I question if what I do in life is aligned with my human desires. Or do I feel some sort of invisible force compelling me?

With Sukaraan, his story reminds me of my aunt who passed away. There was a time in my life where I was ‘carrying her spirit’ in the things that I do.

With Tommy, I felt the connection towards social work. Lastly, with Miki – hey, we all had our juvenile days! 😉

6) What was your biggest takeaway from making Letters to God?

I believe that not many things are inevitable in life. Life and death are. Life is mostly made up of a series of choices and we all live with the result.

After my encounter with Subana, the one thing I’m still baffled about is – did she have to be a medium because god called? If so, then what are the other things in life we have no control over? I feel like I’m dealing with a thought that is like an endless black hole. There are real answers, it’s entirely up to individual experiences.

7) How has your documentary style evolved from Project Unsung Heroes, Confessions, to Letters to God?

This is a difficult question as I often get sick of my work within a week.

I like to learn from my ‘mistakes’, find ways to improve and move on to other things quickly. I don’t hold on to my work, I think once something is produced, it ought to do its own thing in the world. I’m always interested in human stories, this has never changed.

The only difference is that I’m always finding ways to craft the story.

From how it’s being shot, to the setting, and theme. I used to film in a more guerrilla way. I think it’s important to try and give the best treatment when we can – and that honours the story.

Subana Letters to God
An aerobics teacher turned spirit medium, Subana

8) Why is it called ‘Letters to God’?

Religion aside, let’s also believe in humanity. It’s called ‘Letters to God’ because each personality shares their inner desires, the things that they talk to God about and don’t share with others.

9) You inserted codes in front of the film titles and said it’s for the audience to figure out how it relates to the episode. For example, 111: Steeve and 999: Tommy.

What do these codes mean?

Hint: Google!

I’d love to hear people’s interpretation of the code and how it relates to the episode.

There’s no right or wrong in this as it’s philosophical. Not sure if people would get it. But hey, I’ll take my chances.

10) What’s next for you?

It’s time for me to move on from heartwarming docuseries. I want to expand my range.

Next up, I would like to try my hands on narrative film and comedy. I love dark, witty, comedy!

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