Photo credit: Choo

A peek into the lives of foreign workers in Singapore

Aspiring filmmaker Idette Chen scrutinises the foreign-local relationship with migrant workers in her short film, 'Bangla'.

Andrea Choo

Published: 4 September 2018, 12:38 AM

A group of migrant workers gathered around, peering into the cameras with curious stares as Idette Chen and her crew started filming the opening scene for their short film, Bangla.

The smell of curry wafted through the air in the dormitory as migrant workers swarmed around the common area to have their dinner.

Whilst the 23-year-old and her team prepared for their shoot amidst the evening bustle in the dormitory, they found themselves with an unexpected challenge.

“The migrant workers were all very curious. Some of them would walk into the shot by accident and we had to do a couple of retakes because of that,” Idette laughed.

Idette (second row, third from left) and her 18-man crew filming at a hawker centre. Photo Credit: Bangla

While Idette imagined filming at the dorms to be met with awkward stares, the migrant workers only treated them with kindness, despite their overbearing curiosity.

Thankfully, Idette’s efforts for her short film paid off.

Bangla clinched the Best Picture award at the National Youth Film Awards last month. It also marks her first filmmaking award.

Idette once had her qualms about making a career out of filmmaking as she doubted her abilities to survive the competitive and saturated film industry.

“Throughout the four years, there was always self-doubt since I didn’t come from a film background. I knew nothing about making films, everything was new,” said Idette.

Although the win and nominations came as a surprise, it only served as a greater motivation and validation of her efforts.

Directed by Idette Chen, Bangla hopes to shed light on the local-foreigner relationship in Singapore, where interactions between the two groups are mostly transactional. Photo Credit: Bangla

The 17-minute film focuses on an injured migrant worker moonlighting at the stall of a struggling hawker lady, and the growing bond between the two.

Growing up with migrant workers as her neighbours, Idette has always been interested in exploring the local-foreigner relationship in Singapore.

“I always see them along the corridors or in the lift. Sometimes we would smile, other times we would just pass each other by,” said Idette, seemingly trapped in her thoughts.

The fresh graduate from Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media added: “It’s weird how we see them everywhere, but we don’t know much about them.

“We know them as migrant workers, but we don’t see them as individuals with their own stories and lives.”

“What caught my interest was this mysterious distance or barrier between the two groups, one that seems almost impossible to cross,” shared Idette. Photo Credit: Bangla

Frustrated by her inability to identify the reason for this strange distance, Idette challenged herself to establish a connection between both groups in Bangla.

The soft-spoken youth said: “I wanted to highlight the similarities we share with them. The concept of family was the key: it is a universal topic.

“We both work hard for a living, to feed our families. Likewise, they also have their own lives and their families. They are also somebody’s child or sibling.”

Making short films about local stories is something Idette has always felt strongly about.

“I like Singapore stories more. I always believe that since I am Singaporean, I have to tell the Singapore story,” added the aspiring filmmaker.

Idette (centre), who directed Bangla, shared that her true passion lies in scriptwriting. Photo Credit: Idette Chen

From late July to October last year, Idette and her team spent four months shooting in migrant worker dormitories and Little India.

One of her most memorable experiences from Bangla was collaborating with the migrant workers at Dibashram, a communal space in Little India, every Sunday.

Most of the music featured in the film were picked out and performed by workers, also known as the “Dibashram brothers”.

Her positive experience working with the migrant workers at Dibashram (above) further reaffirmed her decision to make a film like Bangla. Photo Credit: Idette Chen

Despite the language barriers and cultural differences, the workers understood what Idette and her team wanted with ease.

Idette recalled how she was touched by their helpfulness: “They are really passionate about their music, offering us help with so much enthusiasm. We were spoilt for song choices as the brothers would pick a whole list of songs for them.”

Despite the team’s “intrusion” into the workers’ communal space, the Dibashram brothers received the team warmly, offering food and drinks during every session without fail.

“I think that Bangla can help others see that these migrant workers are just individuals trying to make a living like the rest of us,” said Idette.

Idette (centre) was inspired to pursue filmmaking after watching videos by WongFu Productions and movies by local director Royston Tan. Photo Credit: Bangla

What does filmmaking mean to Idette?

Idette mused: “Film is really powerful…I like how a 3-minute video can make others cry and be filled with so many emotions in such a short time.

“My ultimate goal is to make films others can relate to and feel a tug at their hearts,” said Idette.


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