Films Act: Fate of political documentary films remains unclear



January 10th, 2009

The Government’s latest stand on the Films Act has fallen short of hopes that documentary films on domestic political themes could be screened as freely as other films in Singapore. The ban on political films under Section 33 of the Films Act will remain, the Government announced in its response to the recommendations of AIMS, the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society.

However, the Government said that it will amend the Films Act to allow “certain types of party political films”: “Films that are factual and objective, and do not dramatise and/or present a distorted picture will be allowed under the amended Films Act. These will include factual documentaries and footages, recordings of actual events, and biographies or autobiographies.”

The Government has also accepted AIMS’ recommendation to set up an “independent advisory panel” to “advise the Board of Film Censors whether films are party political films and if they can be allowed under the amended Films Act”. It announced that the panel will be chaired by Mr Richard Magnus, retired Senior District Judge.

The Government’s statement represents a concession that the Films Act is currently over-broad. Although intended to stop the use of video in election campaigns, the Act defines “party political films” so widely that it could also catch documentary films in its net. An early victim was a 2001 documentary about the late opposition veteran J B Jeyaretnam, A Vision of Persistence, which was produced by Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturers and students and targeted at film festivals rather than election campaigns.

The threat of action against A Vision of Persistence sent a clear message to Singapore’s growing community of talented filmmakers: take up controversial political themes and you risk losing your entire investment of time and money at the regulator’s whim.

The Government’s proposed fix to the Films Act’s over-breadth is likely to be viewed with skepticism. It says it will allow “factual and objective” films, and will only ban “dramatised, sensationalistic and emotive” films that would compromise “rational and objective political debate”. These benchmarks are open to interpretation, opening up the possibility that highly emotional pro-government videos will be allowed while more probing and critical documentaries – even if they conform to the highest standards of factual documentary filmmaking – will be banned.

Only when filmmakers test the system and see how the new “independent advisory panel” plays its role will a clearer picture emerge of the new regulatory terrain. In order to test the system fairly cheaply, perhaps Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film and Media Studies could do us all a favour and resubmit A Vision of Persistence for public screening as soon as the new system is in place.

In practice, of course, even the current Films Act has not deterred a handful of activists such as Martyn See, Seelan Palay and Ho Choon Hiong from producing small political videos for online circulation. However, the regulations have meant that Singapore’s growing number of excellent independent documentary filmmakers have had to shy away from overtly political themes. The cost of producing a film for cinematic release, while much lower than before, still runs into the tens of thousands of dollars at least – too much money to gamble in a regulatory regime that could ban your film outright.

Singaporeans have thus been denied the chance to see more serious local documentaries on political themes. Whether the proposed changes will improve the situation remains to be seen.


Government’s response to AIMS recommendations.

Background to the ban on political fims.

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