Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hollywood: A Fistful of Memories - part 1

Behind tinted glass, the landscape rolls on towards the horizon. Its just as I had always imagined, Giant Saguaro Cacti, standing like lone prospectors; staking their claim to a slice of thorny, desiccated desert. This was the empire of desert, the distant plain, the back-of-beyond, that had landscaped my imagination from early childhood to the present day.

From a Fistful of Dollars, to No Country for Old Men, my visions of the West have been coloured by the technicolour tones of Hollywood and the wild, wild country that has inspired its industry so greatly.

And at last, some twenty years since the first days that my dreams were first invaded by sandstone skylines and vast vistas of tumbleweed and thunderheads, here I was, in the back of a big gas-guzzler, driving down a big lazy highway, headed towards the city where dreams come true.

There's a lyric from a song by Richard Ashcroft, "And I wanted to go; half my life, and I'm feeling kinda strange 'cos I never lived that life..." He was singing about New York, but as far as I was concerned, it fit perfectly with my expectations for Los Angeles, and in particular, Hollywood.

But then again, in a strange, second-hand kind of way, I had lived that life, through the silver screen. I understood that it was a version, of a version of someone else's life, but I have watched enough movies, enough Oscar Ceremonies and wasted enough late nights on Entertainment Tonight reruns to recognize Hollywood at least at face value.

But what I got was more than I anticipated. Hollywood is difficult to digest. It is wierd and wonderful at the same time. So alien and yet so familiar.

And now here I was at the threshold of the Empire of Make-Believe. Hollywood Hills would be home for the next few days. Above me perched the iconic "Hollywood" sign, and down below sprawled Los Angeles and all its promises of instamatic fame and dreams come true in the blink of a movie mogul's eye...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Culture X makes (local) history!

We've only reached Episode 5 in the series, but Culture X is already making waves in Singapore's homegrown television industry.

The show has now officially garnered the highest ratings EVER for a local production in the history of Singaporean television. And that beats the multitude of mindless comedies and overly dramatic soap operas that often become the bigger hits over here.

It is something of an accomplishment and I am thrilled to be a part of the team that achieved it.

May the ratings gods continue to shine down upon us...

(for those of you who are outside of Singapore, fear not, apparently there are plans for the series to get a cable slot some time in the near future. But in the meantime, here are the opening titles - to give you a taste of what the show is about...)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Elephants... Big elephants... Really Big

And now for something completely different...

While filming in Kerala, Southern India last month, I visited Punnathur Kotta - literally the "Elephant Fort". Once the palace of a local ruler, its now famous for being home to some 64 elephants, who work for and are owned by the local temple.

The oldest elephant here is around 75 years of age, and something of a megastar. There is an annual festival held here where hundreds of elephants from far and near come to take part in. As part of the festivities, a prize and title is handed out to the tallest elephant of them all. And this seasoned old guy took the title for many years until his retirement - not because of his superior height; he's not that tall. Instead, he learned somehow that if he raised his head and held it high, he would beat his taller rivals, and be declared the winner. And he became a legend because of it... Now that is style!

Anyway I was awestruck by the sheer size and girth of Kerala's elephants, especially the tusks that many of them were carrying. Having spent most of my elephant-watching time in Sri Lanka, it was quite an experience to be close to these giants - they just don't get that big in Sri Lanka (any more).

I recall an old tale about the ancient Kings of Sri Lanka donating the island's best tuskers to the Maharajahs of India as a goodwill token many centuries ago - and as a result, much of the modern-day progeny of South India's elephant population still carry genes from those exported Sri Lankan tuskers - well, that would explain a lot wouldn't it?

No wonder they're such beautiful beasts...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Spirits... in a material world

Our society as we know it is divided into two clearly defined boundaries - Life and Death - and we hope to remain in the realms of the living as long as we possibly can. That's a given...

But a few weeks ago, I was given a new perspective of this seemingly obvious statement. We were filming in Manila, Philippines for Culture X, and I was anticipating shooting a curious little story about a group of, well - we'll call them urban refugees - who had sought out shelter in the city's sprawling cemetery. But this turned out to be on a far more extensive scale than even the reports and photo-essays I had read online, had hinted at.

We were met by an entire township; a bustling community of ten thousand souls, living and breathing - and surviving - in the company of the dead...

So many archaic mausoleums and ornate graveyards, originally designed to keep out the living and provide solace for the departed, were now standing open to the world; gates and doorways ajar, and children running in and around them like hordes of industrious ants.

Initially I found it tragic, but having let the scene absorb further; strangely poetic... Life in all its dynamic energies and colours, abounding in a sanctuary of silence.
They've all come from far off provinces to the so-called "promised land" - in search of fortune and luck. But reality hits hard and fast here, and most of them soon become destitute; struggling just to find enough food to feed their families. Some turn their backs on the city and return home. But many choose to stay, unwilling to let go of the dream so easily.

It is these resolute, determined few who find shelter in North Manila Cemetery. They've been coming here for over thirty years, and now those initial few have become thousands-strong.
Many of them do seem to exist in a dream-like state, isolated as they are from the comings and goings of the world beyond the cemetery gates. Some still hope that their dreams will come true - while others seem to have come to terms with their predicament, and are making the best of a bad situation...

All of them however have made peace with the souls that rest beneath their feet. Its an uneasy truce. And when night-time comes to this strange halfway house of the living and the dead, I can only imagine how the atmosphere changes...

They are a brave people; standing in their shoes for just a couple of days, I was immediately aware of how suddenly so much that we take for granted was out of their reach. No running water, hardly any electricity, and no sanitation...

It turned out to be a stronger story than I could ever have hoped for. We left the cemetery-dwellers with our thanks and fees for their services, and token gifts for the kids.
We toasted a successful shoot by sipping Iced Lattes beneath the shady bows of Manila's colourful Greenhills shopping complex. Its that easy to forget...

Back in the comforts of home however, I recall those restless spirits, trapped in a world that was never meant for them...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On a literary adventure...

Let's face it, writing for television can get a little tedious now and then - follow the same format, deliver the same punchline - it all gets a bit monotonous.

Its not that you don't want to be original - of course you do! Its just that most of the work on offer these days dictates that you follow a tried and tested formula - television stations are not risk-takers, they are safe-betters, and what works well once is bound to work well a second or even a third time... Of course thats good news for the production companies and it certainly brings home the bacon, but it leaves very little room for us creative creatures to stretch our legs and experiment.

Well fortunately for me, that's about to change. I was recently invited on board a project called Culture X, commissioned by Mediacorp TV12 here in Singapore. Its an ambitious series in more ways than one. Shot in remote locations across the region and tackling some very difficult subjects, Culture X explores areas of society both rural and urban, that many of us would rather never knew existed...

Its been a challenge to craft these stories out; as a writer, my job is to remain as unbiased and un-judgmental as possible, even though I've often had to force myself to watch scenes that would normally scare the pants off me.

But such conditions have forced me to flex my literary skills once more, and its been refreshing to feel the old creative engine spring back into life again. It helps that I am working with a production team with a shared vision, and I am genuinely existed about the end result, and the subsequent reaction from the audience...

Those of you in Singapore will not have to wait long for the show. It'll be on air in a couple of weeks and the trailers are already running on Arts Central.

Watch out for Culture X - if anything at all, it'll certainly leave an impression on you!

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Tasmanian Tiger comeback?

I've always been interested in the fate of mammals that have become extinct within the timespan of human occupation on the planet, and one of the most intriguing of these cases is the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine, a unique marsupial carnivore from Australasia that some die-hards reckon still lingers on in the vast reaches of the outback...

But recent news reveals that we may not even have to keep our fingers crossed about their existence any more. Because one group of scientists have succeeded in "resurrecting" the Thylacine's gene:

Scientists said Tuesday they had "resurrected" a gene from the extinct Tasmanian tiger by implanting it in a mouse, raising the future possibility of bringing animals such as dinosaurs back to life.

In what they describe as a world first, researchers from Australian and U.S. universities extracted a gene from a preserved specimen of the dog-like marsupial - formally known as a thylacine - and revived it in a mouse embryo.

"This is the first time that DNA from an extinct species has been used to induce a functional response in another living organism," said research leader Andrew Pask of the University of Melbourne.

The announcement was hailed as raising the possibility of recreating extinct animals.
Mike Archer, dean of science at the University of New South Wales, who led an attempt to clone the thylacine when he was director of the Australian Museum, called it "one very significant step in that direction." "I'm personally convinced this is going to happen," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I've got another group working on another extinct Australian animal and we think this is highly probable."

"We hope that with advances in techniques that maybe one day that might be possible, but certainly as science stands at the moment, we are not able to do that, unfortunately," he said.

Well I'm not so sure that is so unfortunate. Although I do agree with the notion of say bringing back species that were lost because of our own human intervention - i.e. the Thylacine, or the Passenger Pigeon, or the Dodo - its an entirely different ballgame to dabble in the DNA of groups of creatures for which the Earth is just not suited for any more.

Where on Earth would you house a pack of marauding T-rexs? And what kind of food provisions would you have to make for a herd of ravenous Diplodicus?

Are we really ready to deal with such collosal heachaches when we are already making a mess of trying to mamage our present day environment???

Thursday, May 15, 2008

There are some places you'd just rather be...

Thekka Wewa, Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka 2008

This is a view just a few minutes jeep ride away from where my uncle has just built himself a jungle hideaway (check the link above to find out more)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Its been painful but all of my work recently has taken me away from wildlife and only recently have I been able to emerge from the bottomless pit that is engineering documentaries.

After months of researching concrete thickness and the hazards of working in marine clay, I am happy to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, quite literally.

And apart from going all technical, I also wrote and produced two episodes for a documentary series about Asia's dynamic cinema industry - specifically Iran and India (or rather Bollywood, which is a world totally unto itself). Which was fun, and completely different to anything I've worked on for a while.

After taking a couple of months break, I now find my plate full again, and what a mixed offering I have lined up for the next year. Not quite wildlife though - but I'm working on that.

Have signed on to a very intriguing project about cultural taboos though, and there are animals involved in some of these stories, although not quite in the way you'd imagine. There are some controversial customs we'll be featuring and although I am personally horrified by some of these 'traditions', it is important to bring them to the attention of the audience-at-large, especially since some of them have been practiced unnoticed for hundreds of years - just wait 'til you see the story from Sulawesi....

Anyway that project is in production right now and will be coming to TV screens in the last quarter of the year. I am also working on another travelogue series which will see me directing in Kerala for a few days in July, and maybe Bali a bit later on.

Big news for me though is a stint in Darwin with an aboriginal community in a couple of months' time - more news on that as the time draws nearer...

Anyway just a bit of news to let everyone who is interested know, that I am alive and well and coping with the rat race as best as I can.

Been out of touch, but am back with a new reserve of energy and a new phone number, so beware...

All the best to you all,

PS - as the more observant of you will have noticed, the blog has migrated to my company website address. Firewalker Productions is launched and has a virtual life at least for now. The original website was about as interesting as watching paint dry, so hopefully this is a better solution, especially when my fieldwork starts to progress...