A Film a Week - I Dream of Singapore

previously published on Asian Movie Pulse
It is no secret that Singapore is one of the most desirable places to live on the Earth. The spirit of the city-state is quite international, the country is rich and secure in the terms of law and order, which makes the life there pleasant and predictable. Also, it is slowly becoming the largest business hub in South East Asia (partly due to uncertainty in Hong Kong) and is in constant need of work force, which makes it quite attractive to immigrant workers from South and South East Asia. However, there is always a flip side to it and the director Lei Yuan Bin exposes it in his documentary "I Dream of Singapore". After the world premiere at home turf (Singapore International Film Festival in November last year), the film premiered internationally at this year's edition of Berlinale in Panorama section.

The topic of the film is the fate of Bangladeshi workers that usually risked everything (and paid good money on the top of it) just to be able to work in Singapore, in order to earn more money and support their families back home. Due to their "transient worker" status, which is the norm, there is no chance of pinpointing their exact number, the estimates vary from 65.000 to 150.000 people. Most of them live in poor conditions (in basically furnished rooms in collective centres) and work in even poorer, usually doing the menial labour or risky construction work with little to no rights reserved to resident workers. The fact is that they are earning more money there than they would be able to in their home country, but with almost no benefits, in the legal "grey zone" and that they are facing police harassment and some racism and classism from the local population.

The story of the film is told from the perspective of Md. Feroz Al Mamun, an immigrant worker who suffered a severe work-related injury only to be denied the medical treatment, to be fired and deported home. Fortunately for him, Ethan Gao, the general manager of the NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), took his side personally and pleaded his case while providing him with accommodation and fighting the legal battle so Feroz could get the proper treatment. The film pretty much covers his recovery and way back home and culminates with the two friends' emotional parting.

The director Lei Yuan Bin does well to balance different types of perspective in his film, going from more general to more specific and personal one. However, the general perspective he takes, usually in the beginning of the film, while observing the life and the hardships of the mass of migrant workers is also quite profiled: the workers' immigrant experiences are shaping the filmmaker's gaze. The tourist places like Cloud Forest on the top of Marina Bay Sands hotel, for instance, is also shot, but always in the context of workers visiting it on their day off work, in order to take pictures and send them home, which is kind of obligatory. In the contrast to that, their less than glamorous rooms and residential complexes also end up in frame, along with street life, depicting another type of experience, completely different from the "dream" part of the title.

There is also a piece of fine irony in the scene of Muslim prayer in an improvised "mosque", with a focus on the slogan on the white T-Shirt, stating "I Heart Singapore". That kind of love is, unfortunately, one-sided. The contrasts between Singapore and Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, seem very sharp at first, and Lei Yuan Bin arranges it that way on purpose, but for the worker, Feroz or someone like him, the only difference that remains is the different standard of life, while the essential hardship of hard labour and no legal protection remains basically the same.

Relying on the beautiful, evocative and moody cinematography and meditative editing by Wan Ping Looi, Lei succeeds to create a different type of documentary, highlighting its poetic qualities than its political urgency. However, "I Dream of Singapore" remains a socially charged piece of documentary filmmaking and paints an impressionist picture of the other side of the dream of a better life. It is an important film, as well as a good one.

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