As I've mentioned in my review, I've a personal affinity for documentaries because they offer that keen insight and perspective through the filmmaker's lens on their pet subject and in Singapore, we're witnessing a growing number of quality documentarians who are operating from within the country, or based overseas, tackling topical subjects about our country or subjects of a more global nature. Making its Asian Premiere overseas at the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival, and was in the running for 3 awards at last year's Asian Festival of First Films, Amit Virmani joins the ranks of filmmakers from overseas who are making Singapore their base.
Stefan S (SS): Hi Amit, I take it you're not from Singapore? Can you share how you came to Singapore, and what made you decide to make it your filmmaking base?
Amit Virmani (AV): I grew up in India, Indonesia, and Hong Kong, so home for me is a very loose concept revolving around East Asia. After university in the US, I decided to start my career in Singapore because it's extremely connected, both culturally and in terms of doing business, with the rest of Asia. Funny thing is, it was meant to be a two year 'check it out' stint. You're supposed to hop from place to place in your twenties. I've been here 14 years now, which is the longest I've ever stayed in any one country. Not sure what that says about Singapore or myself.
SS: What made you decide on filmmaking as a career, and also to decide on making a documentary as your first feature film?
AV: Two words: Austin, Texas. It's a great film town, and I was studying just 30 miles north of it. At that time, many breakthrough filmmakers were coming out of that scene. Robert Rodriguez, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, to name a few. Of course, I was the good Asian student studying Business, but the whole vibe got to me. My friends were excited about the dorm room in UT Austin where Michael Dell sold his first computers. Not me. I was ecstatic to drive by the facility where Rodriguez became a pharma lab rat to raise money forEl Mariachi. Or to walk the streets on which Slacker was shot. I've always loved films, but suddenly I had the delusional idea that I could make them.
As for the documentary thing, you can't choose the ideas that really grab you. And sometimes timing is everything. When I began researching "Cowboys", I was at a point in my life when I had to make a film - any film! I had gone too long telling myself I'd make a film one day. So I didn't care that my first film was going to be a documentary. I cared about not waiting anymore.
SS: We chatted briefly after the special screening of the film, and you had recounted an interesting anecdote on how a young boy enlightened you on the existence of the Cowboys and their activities. Can you elaborate?
AV: Actually, I'd known about the Cowboys and similar phenomena elsewhere long before that. But they were just fun facts to me. Women travelling for sex? Guys making money off it? Big deal. Happy for all, but not enough to make a film about it.
Then I met this kid in Bali, all of twelve and eager to grow up and be of sexual service to Japanese women. Now there was a story. You'd never meet a girl making a similar confession, so eager over that career and at that age. Not in Bali, not in Baltimore. So what was it about the Cowboys that allowed them to keep their pride, to retain their dignity? Why were they heroes for this kid? It's not just chauvinistic hypocrisy, although there's a lot of that. I think it has to do with the way they carry themselves. You have to admire their confidence, their effortless charm.
Also, they've blurred the lines that might invite shame or discourage women from being with them. They do without the cold transactional elements, for example. A lot of people scoff at the need to distinguish between Cowboys and gigolos, but I see the distinction. It's a very fine line, but it's there. Yes, the Cowboys are the most visible face of Bali's male sex trade, but they're not sex workers. How's that for a blurry line!
And of course, what the young boy did was to make me question the idea of paradise itself. Paradise for whom exactly? And for how long?
So, all these grey areas, all these questions without any clear answers. As a filmmaker, I couldn't have asked for more.
SS: How much research did you have to do then, and how long did that take? Did it entail making multiple trips to Bali's Kuta Beach?
AV: I made one official 'research' trip back in 2007. Spent a month in Bali asking questions, following the six degrees rule to meet all sorts of people. I took one of those touristy cameras and recorded enough interviews and footage to make a short film. I needed to see if there was enough of a story there, if I could piece something together that resembled a decent narrative arc.
I even cut a trailer out of that footage and showed it around to see if the subject was captivating enough. And it was. I got an offer from an Australian production company to make the film as a one-hour TV program. But I always saw this as a feature, so I walked away from their offer. Yes, before you ask, there are many nights when I wonder if I did the right thing. To get commissioned as a first-time filmmaker is a big deal. But you have to go with your instincts.
So I continued my research and about a year after the original trip, I was back in Bali to shoot the film. That was for a month too, and I followed the same process. Sourcing stories on the ground, meeting people, recording the interviews as and when they came. Given the subject, research and production had to happen concurrently. You can't track down Cowboys and schedule interviews weeks in advance.
I had my first cut of the film by late November 2008. But it didn't feel right. I felt there were certain dimensions that needed to be added to the film. So I made another month-long trip in January '09. Again, I didn't know whom to interview, but I knew where the blanks in my film were, the kinds of stories I was after. So in a sense, it was now research, production and post-production happening concurrently.
All in all, it took me a little over two years to get the film to the online stage.
SS: By online stage you mean?
AV: The final stage of refinement before the final cut. A little trim here, placing in animation files there, and so on. In my case, it was also the phase where other collaborators stepped in. The colour grader, the sound engineer - basically experts to fix my flaws. Up to that point it was all me, so believe me, there were a lot of flaws.
SS: How big a crew did you have during the filming of Cowboys in Paradise, since you had to shoot this in Bali for weeks?
AV: It was just me. And with only the equipment I could fit into a backpack. That helped the film because people are brutally honest when they're talking to one guy with a camera. Throw in a sound guy or some lights and cables, and their guards go up.
I did take a production assistant with me on one of the trips. But he wanted greater creative control and a financial stake in the film, so I sent him back after five days. Hey, I believe film is a collaborative effort and all, but you gotta keep your sense of entitlement in check.
SS: Have you spoken to since, after the film was released?
AV: No reason to. When I got back from that particular shoot trip, I chased him for his invoice, paid him, and that was that. It's a big world. We don't need to work with each other. But I wish him the best.
SS: Was it difficult to get the Cowboys to speak to you on camera with regards to their activities? And was getting their female friends to speak up a near impossible task, since we only see less than a handful of females being interviewed for the film.
AV: Yes, of course. I'd go for days without a single interview. It's part of the process, specially since I had chosen to research and find subjects on the ground. But I'd find ways to use the downtime. Transcribe the interviews I had, work on the narrative structure, or just go out and have fun. It was Bali after all!
Working with the Cowboys was surprisingly easy. Even the ones who refused to be filmed usually had no problem sharing their stories with me. Goes back to what makes them so charming. They have no reason to be ashamed and they know it. They're proud of their 'conquests', of being desired by so many. They're always game for a little kiss 'n' tell once they know you.
The women were a different matter. I'm actually happy with the number of women we have in the film. To me, the balance is perfect because it's supposed to be a film from the boys' point of view. But even those few were hard to come by. Thank God for European women. They're a lot more open to talking about sex than their North American counterparts. Of course, that's just been my experience.
SS: Cheeky question, were you at any time during the film production in Bali, mistaken for a Cowboy! After all you're probably almost always hanging around in their company!
AV: Never. But thanks for reminding me of my utter lack of sex appeal.
SS: No malice intended, Amit! ! I read that there was some controversy from certain quarters who were obviously unhappy that their now loved ones were featured, or even from making a short appearance in your film as a "Cowboy". Could you share with us more on that, and were you surprised by such a huge reaction?
AV: Oh man. How much time do we have? I'll try to be brief.
A couple of guys in the film weren't happy once the trailer came out. Or at least their friends and lovers weren't. There were all kinds of false accusations hurled at us, but let's talk about the main one: that the guys didn't know what the film was about. Well, there's more than enough in the film to prove they had to know. I mean, you've seen the film. Did it look like anyone was talking about ecotourism or the latest surfwear? One of the guys in question is even asked if he's a Cowboy, and that's in the trailer. So to now suggest that they or others in the group were misled is just plain ridiculous.
SS: Yes, I've seen the film, and it's clear they knew what subject matter they were discussing about on camera.
AV: Some of the stuff that ensued is easy to brush off. The colourful death threats, for example. Or the charge that the film was "media raping Bali." That actually deserves props for inventive word play. But it got pretty ugly for a while. Their friends took over our Facebook page and flamed anyone who praised or expressed interest in the film. This included mocking a writer for 'Sight & Sound', and calling a festival programmer a whore! Or going through fans' friends' lists and sending personal messages to those who weren't even on the page. Really vile stuff.
The great thing was that a lot of expats in Bali came to the film's defense. Some pointed out that the consent was obvious even from the trailer. Others raised questions I'd been dying to ask all along: why were people assuming that the men are naive? The Cowboys may be many things, but they're not stupid. No one can hoodwink them. Also, why was one woman bent on attacking the filmmaker, when she should be chiding her now-husband for agreeing to be in the film?
So yeah, I was surprised by it all. But also hurt and disappointed. I knew these guys for over two years. I regarded them as my friends but now they are causing others to call me a liar. I mean, let's be clear. I don't expect them to cheer for the film, specially since some of them are now in long-term relationships with western women, but they should have been honest with their pals and lovers. A lot of people who took up their cause are probably regretting it, in light of a clip we posted on YouTube that proves the guys knew what they were doing. So I reckon it's not just me who feels betrayed.
And making an indie documentary is hard enough without having to defend yourself against false allegations.
SS: I hope that the vile things said have simmered down by now, and that with a wider release planned, more views and reviews will come out to provide a more balanced reaction? What are your current release plans for the film, as I note that the North American and European premieres are still to be announced?
AV: Well we've been approached by distributors in North America, so that's encouraging. But that road would most certainly lead to TV and cutting the film down to a fifty-two-minute mini-me version. That's the fate of most documentaries.
I have reservations about that. I'm not a pain-in-the-ass who thinks his film can't be cut. And I totally understand where the distributors are coming from. They know how the market works better than I do. I just don't see how I can chop half-an-hour off without robbing the film of a lot of crucial dimensions.
The good news is that it's an exciting time in terms of technology, new distribution models and unprecedented access to audiences. And when the risk is all yours, you have room to be daring and take even bigger risks. So all I'll say is: look out for an important release announcement closer to the summer.
SS: Can you share a bit more about your next feature, titled "The Rapists Wore Blue Hats". Is it going to be a documentary, or you're looking at a narrative feature?
AV: It's a documentary. But I'm so behind in my research, there isn't much I can tell you right now. I might even work on something else first, something I can wrap up more quickly.
SS: Being based in Singapore, how do you feel the Singapore film industry is evolving, and whether you'll turn your camera inwards to make a film here?
AV: There's obviously a lot more activity with each passing year. More local films, more local filmmakers making inroads overseas, and more confidence among the younger generation. Would I make a film about a 'Singaporean' subject or issue? Sure, if I was convinced I was the right person for the job.
SS: Thanks Amit for your time!
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