In Her Own Words: Eileen Chong

 

The word possibility is powerful; it's infinite hope

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we speak to five female film directors on Viddsee to hear about their thoughts, challenges, insights and film journey.

Eileen Chong is an award-winning filmmaker best known for socially-driven documentaries. Her next project is Confessions, an inspirational series about the resilience of the human spirit.

Eileen, we’d love to hear about your start in storytelling. Tell us about your inspirations, and aspirations.
Since young, I knew I was interested in the arts. I did okay in school, but I was never the studying type. Growing up in a typical Singaporean family, and being the only child, my parents wanted me to be a lawyer or accountant, and hold a 9–5 job. Not wanting to disappoint, I studied accountancy for a couple of years. I realised I wasn’t going to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life, telling my boss ‘Sorry the balance sheet cannot be balanced (again)’ so I decided to quit and started my film studies in Ngee Ann Polytechnic — Film Media Studies.

When I was younger, I was pretty wimpy and didn’t voice myself much. I always knew I wanted to make a documentary but couldn’t bring myself to. I had tons of excuses like ‘I’m not good enough, I need more resources, I wasn’t learned enough etc.’

One day, a family member passed away. I just decided that I need to make it happen, else my dreams will just remain as a beautiful mental image. I started Project Unsung Heroes. With just me, myself, a camera, I shot this story about lady who looked after 25 cats. Bam! Video went viral. That’s when I realised, the power of storytelling and the awareness it can create. From there, I kept going and didn’t look back.

What do you think is different about being a female filmmaker? Does it influence your perspective when telling stories?
Just generalising — It’s a romantic idea to think that being a female filmmaker means there is a sensitivity with the work you produce, or that the people you feature naturally find you less threatening and are able to ‘share their secrets with you’. I used to think it’s true, but recently I find male filmmakers can do that very well too. I think it’s all about personality, and less about gender.

What does strength look like to you and how has it been portrayed in your work?
In society, very often people see strength as something that’s forceful, tough and powerful. I think otherwise. Strength is the ability to be graceful and adaptive when the situation calls for it, being reliable when teammates depend on you, and having a ‘Gordon Ramsay’ attitude — to stand up for what you believe in, and be honest and fierce for the benefit of the project, yourself and others. Strength is being able to balance the gentle and nurturing side as well as being tough when we need to. Strength doesn’t just have just 1 form. It’s all about bettering yourself, your projects and others.

 

What would you consider when developing female characters?
When documenting female characters — it’s important that we allow them to feel safe to share their struggles and achievements. In current society, woman generally find the need to be ‘tough’ so they are not looked down upon, so I usually like to create an environment that allows them to showcase their vulnerable side — that to me is an important trait not just for woman, but for all mankind.

Your filmmaking journey has been a collaborative effort over the years — from the creation of the story up until the final product. Tell us about the relationships you have formed over the years, and how gender comes into play?
Gender rarely comes into play. I like to work with people whom I work well with, that have a talent for story and are passionate about films. I love understanding my teammate’s perspective on the story (whatever we are working on) and I think both female and male perspectives are important in understanding how well the documentaries will be received. If my documentary character is a man, I try to consult my male teammates and vice versa. Basically, I like to hear my teammates’ thoughts.

What are your comments on the more diverse box office results, such as with ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ (directed by women), as an audience, and as a filmmaker?
Great!

Before these films hit the big time, chick flicks and women-themes are often portrayed with the male gaze – how do you think female directors can bring new layers of complexity in the characters, making them more compelling and moving?
Be willing to dig deep and create compelling characters!

What important lesson has had a positive effect on your films? Feel free to elaborate.
The important lesson that’s a theme throughout my life is — just be you. All the good parts and bad parts, love them, embrace them. When you accept yourself, you accept others and you can make meaningful films. When you are all-embracing your perspective will not be blindsided — but it has to start from you, and it has to start somewhere. It’s a learning journey and I’m still learning 🙂

Who are your recommended filmmakers who create meaningful female stories or interesting female characters?
JUST SUPPORT LOCAL TALENT AS MUCH AS YOU CAN! 😛

What does the power of possibilities mean to you?
The word possibility is powerful; it’s infinite hope. It means the mind can dream, create and shape our reality. We can always find a way. Anything the mind can imagine, can become real. Basically, there’s no way there’s no way.

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