International Women’s Day Edition: The ’90s—Ms. Suba Sivakumaran

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This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.

By Max Chwa (21A01B) 

For those with artistic ambitions, the choice between one’s passions and a stable income can hold an unspeakable gravity. The pressure to succeed that many of us face only compounds the inner turmoil involved in selecting a university, a degree, or even a bonded scholarship. While these decisions appear to be one of life’s many crossroads, Ms Suba Sivakumaran’s journey towards directing reveals that there’s more than one way to follow your dreams.

1. From what I gather, while directing is definitely a passion of yours, you’re also the head of Private Sector Development at the London office of Nathan. How do you balance your day job with your work as a director?

That’s right! My day job is in the world of development and aid work, and my work at Nathan is mainly for development projects in Africa and Asia, for the British government, the World Bank and other multilateral organisations. I have spent 15 years now working in international development, and in addition to keeping a roof over my head, it also allows me to work on the most pressing issues of the day, helping developing countries create jobs and improve welfare.

Being an independent film director, given the way the industry is moving towards more mass entertainment consumed on streaming platforms, means that most directors have day-jobs, as they work through late nights, weekends and holidays on their projects. This has been the case for me as I’ve directed one feature film and two short films in the last ten years. But I wouldn’t change it for the world!

2. What’s it like to be a film director, especially a self-taught one? 

Hmm! A self-taught film director means one who has learned film and filmmaking on their own (obvious, I know!). The benefits of it are that you can build your own voice, identify the way you want to direct narratives, and be innovative and creative in making a film because you are not burdened by dogmas or textbook wisdom in making films. Like all art-forms, there is no one way of making films, and staying true to your voice is the most important and most difficult journey. All independent film directors face the same challenges, and I am no different—how to write their scripts, find production finance, shoot on limited budgets, get the film sold and distributed and reach audiences. It can be a lonely and difficult journey, and one needs the force of one’s convictions to carry on.

Having said that, I love being a film director. Each day is new and surprising; sets are full of puzzles and solutions, working with actors and crew in making stories come alive is a genuine transcendent act and has an element of purity in it. But a film director means one is an eternal student, forever trying to see the world in a different way, understanding the sources of meaning in everyday life, seeing, seeing, seeing without the chains in front of our eyes.

3. Has your experience as a film director been influenced by your gender?

 I think being a woman does mean one experiences life differently. While the old forms of patriarchy are being challenged, they are not yet being replaced with new forms of social contracts that truly see all human beings as equal. Whether it is gender, race, class, caste, or sexual orientation, we all live lives that are formed by these structures, and the journey also means we need to understand where our influences, prejudices and dogmas come from. To genuinely throw off long-standing, traditional and dominant thought systems takes a lot of strength and questioning. That comes into my work, although it is a continual ongoing struggle, not to fall prey to despair at the state of things, while still remaining realistic about the battles to be fought. But yes, being a woman, with all the complexity it brings, has of course brought a certain view of the world forward into my film experience.

4. How did you take steps to involve yourself in the film industry?

While I did not go to school for film, there is still a tremendous amount of learning to do in order to do anything well. That learning—how to hold a camera, how to work with actors, how to write a script, how to work with an editor, how to understand the effect of sound on the experience of a film—has to be done. For me, I assisted a friend of mine on his short film in 2010, and that gave me the confidence to plunge into the unknown with my first short film I Too Have a Name in 2011. I also cold-emailed directors I wanted to work with, technical teams I wanted to work with and actors I wanted to work with. Many of them responded to my outreach, and were willing to give me the benefit of their time and attention. So I became involved, slowly, and through a lot of doubt, not knowing where to start, but starting anyway. 

5. Have your experiences in Raffles influenced any of your films?

I think that the adolescent and late teenage experience (I was at RGS and RJC from 12 to 18 years old) is formative. I do think that my time at school has influenced me. It made me question authority, and recognise that authority is not always right. If authority is not always right, from where does it receive its legitimacy? And how does one become free from such authority? Those questions preoccupied me during my teenage years.

6. Did being an immigrant affect your experiences at Raffles Junior College?

Coming to Singapore from Australia when I was 12 and starting at RGS immediately was a bit of a shock – I am Sri Lankan Tamil by origin and I was placed in a Higher Chinese class (I was taking French as my second language). No one at the time understood what I was saying, due to a heavy Australian accent. The first year was quite difficult. So I had to learn to adapt—I modified my accent, found like-minded individuals (of which there were quite a few) and made deep and lasting friendships, which I still have today.

There are many similarities between being Sri Lankan Tamil and being Singaporean Chinese – a kind of obsessive focus on education and exam results, as well as an extraordinary work ethic being two of them. While I felt like an outsider in some ways, in other ways I did not feel like an outsider either. But inhabiting that in-between place, has taught me to be able to look at something both from the outside and the inside; neither to be a stranger, nor always be the ‘other’.

 7. How has studying at Raffles Junior College shaped you as a person?

We were at the old RJC (in Ghim Moh). From being in a rather sheltered place at RGS, going to RJC felt like it was more open and reflective of all parts of Singapore (Relatively speaking—I recognise, of course, its privilege!) which I enjoyed. I met a group of people who were searching for answers, both personally as well as politically, and trying to understand what they would choose to believe in, as well as how to set the course of their lives. While we would all go on to different universities, countries, degrees and careers, I think that we were, for a brief moment, all at the same place of searching during those years, and that was special.

8. If you could give younger women interested in film one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would tell them not to worry so much about whether you’re going to ‘make’ it, but instead to remember why you are interested in film. Art is always a journey, and if you keep sight of the questions that motivate your search, you will always grow, and if at the same time, you keep working to improve your technical skills, you will get to the place you always wanted to go—to be a true artist. Everything else is ephemeral. 

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