Emotional film on Singaporean sex workers earns nod from Malaysia’s Freedom Fest

Shahirah Abdul Hamid
·7-min read

When the COVID-19 outbreak struck and prompted a months-long lockdown in Singapore, filmmaker Jessica Lee knew that the plight of marginalized and underserved communities – including sex workers – would be ignored.

The heartbreaking thought compelled Lee to uncover the harsh realities of their lives as they confront the pandemic, and set out to tell their stories through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker with respect and dignity. After months of meeting with sex workers through the Project X nonprofit, including the three featured in her film The Shades of Love, Lee won a S$5,000 (about US$3,700) grant for her work from Malaysia’s Freedom Film Festival, or FFF, which awards stories touching on human rights.

“The first few times I went down, I didn’t even turn on the microphone. It’s just spending some time sitting in the same space, talking to these women, NGOs, and just observing what these women are doing,” Lee, 27, told Coconuts in a recent interview in the wake of the festival, which concluded on Dec. 13. “Over time as they get comfortable and they know they can trust this filmmaker (me), I asked their permission to record. That was important.”

The lockdown did not stop the producer and trained historian, who currently works for the Beach House production company, from immersing herself in the community that was forced out of jobs as Singapore’s red-light district went dark amid virus outbreaks. It is unclear whether sex workers can resume operations as Singapore entered its final phase of lifting COVID-19 restrictions this week.

“Because of the lockdown, I wasn’t able to go out and shoot. I had to wait till the lockdown is over in August or September which was late and I immediately headed out with my DOP (Director of Photography) and a camera to shoot the cutaways and B-rolls,” she said about the production, which originally started out as a passion project. Singapore has reported nearly 60,000 cases and 29 deaths since January. Its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines has also arrived.

Lee’s documentary depicts the lives of three different sex workers, known only as Bunny, Selina, and Sam, who recounted their emotional journey through voice narration, on difficulties managing gender identities, and balancing personal relationships and work. Various colors were also used to represent them and their personalities.

“For the film itself, the use of colours to describe each woman was based on their character and personality. ‘Bunny’ is green because she’s the youngest. ‘Selina’ is blue because she’s very regal and very articulate when you hear her talk. She’s like the top dog in the industry. ‘Sam’ is yellow because she is a straight shooter,” Lee said. “All the funniest bits in the film came from her. She tells things as it is. That’s how I decided how each color represented these women.”

Interestingly, Lee avoided blurring their faces or using their silhouettes to anonymize them – techniques often serving as markers of deviance and criminality. Instead, viewers can hear the women’s actual voices paired with visual shots of everyday Singapore like playgrounds and wet markets, forgoing the usual scenes of dingy dimly-lit alleys often used in the media.

Her film was screened at the four-day film festival, which also showcased other outstanding local and regionally produced documentaries and short films, including Ayahku, Dr G (My father, Dr G) and Meniti Senja (Twilight Years).

“I started researching and FFF came up and their values are very much aligned to what I wanted to achieve with this film. I felt it was a great partnership and that’s why I applied. I didn’t hear for a few months and thought I didn’t get it. But I was still persistent to make the film and fortunately in July, I was told that I got the grant,” Lee said, adding: “I think it’s very important as filmmakers to not live in a vacuum and just make this artsy film and that’s it. You have to think about how you’re going to get your message across.”

While shooting The Shades of Love, Lee learned that empathy and being a good listener were important traits of a documentary filmmaker. Through her film, she also wanted to show that women should not be defined or stigmatized based on their occupation.

“Just like how we are not just our job, we are more than that. We are women, we are partners, and these women are amazing in terms of how they have all these other skill sets. I wanted people to realize they are just not sex workers, they are more than that,” she said. “The thing about sex work, it’s universal. It didn’t matter which country you come from, but ultimately these experiences and emotions are all universal.”

Festival gives voice to the unheard

Themed Bangsa: Manusia (Race: Human), this year’s FFF featured 11 regional films from Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Indonesia. Among the two other incredible films that received this year’s FFF grant were Meniti Senja and Ayahku, Dr G.

Meniti Senja documents the efforts of retired nurse Muji Sulaiman in providing a safe haven for abandoned senior citizens while placing a spotlight on gut-wrenching stories of abuse, exploitation, and abandonment among nursing home residents. It begs the question of whether Malaysia was equipped to care for an aging nation.

In Ayahku, Dr G, the film focuses on a woman named Siti, who was at the center of unrelenting legal proceedings and prison visits after her 60-year-old father was arrested for using medical cannabis to treat his chronic illnesses. She shared her journey with three young Malaysian filmmakers as she balances personal challenges and the unsettling thought that she may never see her father again.

After nearly two decades, this year was the first time the festival went fully online, screening all films and holding live virtual Q&A sessions over four days. Both the festival directors, Anna Har and Brenda Danker were elated over the immensely positive response they received.

“I think what is present is having this space for expression and discussion where many of these stories are not covered in the Malaysian media, likewise Singapore. This allows people to come together, to make films, to start having a conversation about a certain community, certain issue, and we also provide solidarity in discussing these pertinent issues between countries,” revealed Danker.

Both Har and Danker encourage filmmakers to tell a slice of life heart-warming stories for audiences to feel and connect with the protagonist or characters featured in the films.

“We get people talking about sensational things all the time but we need to up our game and capacity as filmmakers to tell stories that will touch the heart. There’s a bombardment of films and content made by everyone, from every angle, and everywhere. We need to look at how to be more strategic, be more sharp and sophisticated in the way we tell our stories, to be able to create change and have the impact that we want,” suggested Har.

Currently, the festival is working with respective filmmakers and several organizations to screen the selected films to targeted communities within the next few months. Moving forward, they want to see more filmmakers producing daring and impactful films of untold and unheard stories that are never given airtime on mainstream media. Har also expressed hopes that this would create a stronger movement to challenge the highly restrictive and archaic censorship law in Malaysia, which has even banned kissing scenes.

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This article, Emotional film on Singaporean sex workers earns nod from Malaysia’s Freedom Fest, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.