Q&A: OBSERVATIONS ON OBSERVING THE OBSERVATORY
1. Why is the documentary called The Obs: A Singapore Story? The working title was The Obs: A Documentation.
When we first approached The Observatory to do this documentary, we wanted to document the band and their process of creation. Over the three years that we were following them, we found ourselves digging deeper into their past and broadening out to the larger context from which the band was creating within. They have always admitted that their music is a direct reaction to the socio-political climate of the Singaporean and global landscape and over the course of six distinctive albums they have descended ever more towards the dark and the heavy, since their debut. Naturally, the documentary seeks to understand what has inspired them down this path and broaden our inquiry onto Singapore. The new title reflects this refocusing from the band to the land through the eyes of its members.
2. Why a documentary about The Observatory?
Apart from being one of the longest-surviving local music groups, The Observatory is one of the very few Singaporean bands that has taken the commitment of going full time which also accounts for the quality and quantity of their musical output since their inception in 2001. As a supergroup consisting of some of the music scene’s most talented virtuosos, the documentary is able to get insights into the little known world of local indie music, and of course, there is great music guaranteed!
3. What was the working relationship with The Observatory like?
The documentary is not commissioned by the band and is an independent initiative of the filmmakers who did not know the members of the band personally before the making of it. This also means that we were outsiders encroaching into the band’s inner sanctum. We had to tread lightly; at times it was like filming a wildlife nature documentary. The band members themselves are intensely private individuals and their music-making space is as magical as it is fragile. For the most part, we had to make ourselves invisible, unseen and unfelt so that we could capture them on screen in their ‘natural habitat’. Over time the band got used to our presence and we got to know them not just as subjects of our documentary but actual living, breathing human beings whom we can call friends.
4. Were there any challenges you faced?
Apart from trying to capture the creative process of the band, we had to also plough through hundreds of hours of footage taken from archives and people who had attempted to video them in the past. It was a physical and technical challenge that took a toll on us as the end of the project. On the level of representation, we had to be careful, for after all, this is not a documentary about people long dead—the documentary’s portrayal of the band will undoubtedly affect the lives of its members. Another difficult question we had to ask ourselves was whether the film was made for fans or people who did not know about them—we decided that it had to serve both functions. Balancing all of these considerations was critical in the making of the documentary. It was daunting and emotional, to say the least, but through this process, we not only learned a lot about the band but also about ourselves.
5. Why did you decide to crowdfund the documentary? How did you find the crowdfunding experience?
Since this film was an independent initiative, we had no funding support from the outset and we were also denied grant money from the government. We then turned to crowdfunding to raise money. This was the intuitive solution as the band already had an established fan base. However, at that point of time, crowdfunding was still a relatively new idea and we were not sure how much we could expect from it. The amount we got out of it (S$33k) was way above our expectations, which also stands as a testament to the importance of the band and this documentary to many people, and helped us achieve the quality we aimed for.
On top of that, it gave us a good gauge of how much local audience cared about what we were trying to do here. More than just financial support, the process of crowdfunding allowed us to tap into a community of support, and helped us realise that we were not going into this alone. It was very encouraging that we were approached by so many people who volunteered their time and services after our call through crowdfunding.
6. Were you influenced or inspired by any films or documentaries?
We did not set ourselves out to take reference from any particular films and it is probably not clear even to us if we were directly influenced by any films we might have been watching over that long period of time making the documentary. What we can credit as our main influence is more likely the band’s own musical output and their spirit of experimentation. Since we were telling the story of the band chronologically over the structure of six albums, we always went back to the music in making editorial choices. There was a conscious direction to take the film through different styles between chapters in accordance with the kind of musical direction the band was taking in the respective album. Even the tone of the documentary shifts towards darker themes and more experimentation in its aesthetic as the band’s music itself became increasingly darker and more experimental.