Rare outing in a conservative city
In a sexually oppressed society where homosexuality is still a taboo, finding three lesbians willing to come forward and commit their life experiences to film was no easy feat.
Documentary film director Lim May Ling recalls the initial stages of putting together her documentary, Women Who Love Women: Conversations in Singapore, as being difficult. 'We approached a lot of women because we wanted different age groups, but for the most part, although they had already come out to their friends and families, women were still reluctant to do the project, I think because they weren't comfortable to have something like that etched forever on screen. Once it's out there, it's not something you can take back.'
Lesbians in Singapore may not face the legal repression of gay men (consensual sex between two men remains outlawed under Section 377A of the penal code, an ordinance that does not apply to same-sex relationships between two women) but they still feel misunderstood and that their lifestyle is frowned on by society.
'We're practically invisible. In Singapore, it's really a don't-ask-don't-tell situation for lesbians,' says Lim. 'The culture here is that maybe your family and colleagues know but they would prefer you not saying it. It's a hush-hush kind of situation. Legally, we don't face any restrictions, but it's not the practice to bring your partner to dances and functions and it's almost always uncomfortable for your bosses or colleagues to know that you're gay.'
Women Who Love Women, to be screened at this year's Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, focuses on three women recounting their coming out and talking about their relationships and public perceptions.
Producer Ngiam Su Lin, who conceived the idea, says she wanted to produce a documentary 'that could address issues about being lesbian in Singapore, that could portray them honestly, and that could provide a wider audience with a glimpse into what being lesbian means and what it is about'.
'I wanted a documentary that could also hopefully empower the lesbian and gay community by giving us a voice and creating dialogue, hopefully also debunking myths, prejudices, stereotypes and biases along the way,' Ngiam says.
Lim says misconceptions that people in Singapore have about lesbians include them 'being promiscuous or confused'.
'Many people don't understand the intensity of our relationships in the first place because they don't see them as real relationships. So the struggles we have, nobody will really understand unless they have a close friend who's a lesbian and even then, some of the things that are in the documentary I'm pretty sure even their own parents never knew until they watched the film.'
Lim says her three subjects agreed to speak to the camera 'because they felt we all had the same objective: a positive portrayal of the lesbian community here'. Each woman was shot independently and spent most of her time talking directly to the camera. The oldest, Sabrina Renee Chong, 39, is an events specialist carving out a new career in photography; Amanda Lee, 23, is a liberal arts student; and Gea Swee Jean, 24, is a business manager and volunteer.
'This documentary goes against all the rules of normal documentary filmmaking, meaning it's more like talking heads. It's like an interview process, except that you don't see the interviewer. You see the different phases of their lives, their coming-out process, their beliefs, their family members,' Lim says.
The director says she preferred to let the stories speak for themselves, rather that offering a judgment or commentary. 'I let the girls talk about their lives and viewers can make up their own minds whether it's positive or negative. It's up to them to decide, not up to me to say.'
Ngiam says few documentaries have been made about lesbianism in Singapore, let alone any that portray lesbians in a positive light. 'Previous documentaries that I know of usually have them 'masked' or their voices are distorted. It is important that this documentary portrayed lesbians who are proud of who they are, who are not afraid to be themselves, and who identify themselves publicly,' she says.
The documentary has had several private screenings in Singapore and is now being submitted to film festivals abroad. 'We will take it as far as it will go because we think it's important to make a stance that Singaporean lesbians do exist,' Lim says.
She hopes her documentary will help move the debate in Singapore forward. 'Society knows that we exist, but acceptance is another thing. Accepting and realising that we're really not different from the next person.'
Women Who Love Women: Conversations in Singapore is screened on Nov 25 at 2.20pm and on Nov 27 at 7.30pm at Broadway Cinematheque