Interview: Boo Junfeng on the Controversial Humanity of ‘Apprentice’

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Tackling a controversial social issue like the death penalty is always a risky proposition for any filmmaker. But when such a topical subject is handled by a thoughtful director like Singapore’s Boo Junfeng, then you know you’re in good hands. I recently spoke with this up-and-coming director, whose latest film “Apprentice” examines the personal and societal implications of the death penalty, through the eyes of young man training to become an executioner. Below is an edited version of our chat.

Shane Slater: The film is told from the rare perspective of the executioner and his assistant. What attracted you to this side of the typical prison story?

Boo Junfeng: Capital punishment is something that I’ve always been concerned about. And when I wanted to tell a story that dealt with this issue, I felt that the point of view of a prisoner is something we’ve seen before. So this idea of having an executioner’s story I felt was a lot more refreshing and perhaps would offer new insights to the issues. With Aiman embodying both sides of the coin as someone who needs to become the new executioner, and at the same time being a casualty of the death penalty with his father being executed. I thought that dilemma that he goes through would go deeper and I was just generally curious about what that point of view might be.

SS: The film points out the harshness of the death penalty laws in Singapore, but also explores the idea of “humane” executions. How did you approach these seemingly conflicting ideas?

BJ: My stance is clear, I’m against the death penalty. But I didn’t want the film to be about that. I wanted to look at these characters and their realities from a very humane point of view. I wanted to humanize them. One can say they are for or against the death penalty, but there are a lot of compelling points of view from either side that deserve to be listened to. For the work that I do – whether in my films or my activism work – it’s the in-between and grey areas that I’m always more curious about. I feel that the in-between is what should be looked at a lot more deeper.

SS: Aiman is learning about the execution process as the film goes along. Did you also have to do a lot of research to write the script?

BJ: Yeah, I managed to interview a couple of former executioners in Singapore. Not through official channels. Through various degrees of connection. And I also spoke with religious counsels who had walked with inmates on their final walks about the kind of dilemmas that some of them go through. For example, there was a Catholic nun who I spoke with. And in Catholicism they are against the death penalty. But for her, the idea of being able to seek salvation for some of these inmates was very important. It was so important that she didn’t mind being part of this system. So that was another way for me to understand some of these deeper issues.

Also, the families of those who have been executed quite often belong to a very impoverished stratum of society. And when their breadwinners are executed, it makes things far worse for them. But yet, the state or society doesn’t give any kind of support to these families. So the social issues it further causes is something we don’t often address when we talk about the death penalty. So these were some of the facets of capital punishment that I was studying over the 3 years of research and writing for the film.

SS: The setting is so important in building the film’s atmosphere. What was the process of selecting the locations for the film and generating that atmosphere?

BJ: For me, the film’s location is not just a physical space. It’s a psychological space as well. As Aiman travels through those spaces where his father spent his last days, he’s kind of journeying into himself. So I needed the prison location to be old and very cinematic, to give us the textures of something that would evoke Aiman’s psychological space. It also needed to be British colonial, because we inherited the laws from the British.

The prisons in Singapore, even if they had been available to us, would have been too sterile and too new for this purpose. So in the end, I happened to be in Australia a lot and I visited two abandoned prison facilities in and around Sydney. And they turned out to be perfect locations for the film. So we raised more funds so we could shoot there. So the final prison in the film is made of corridors in different locations in Singapore, but the cells and the yard are all locations in Australia. And we had to meticulously stitch everything together.

SS: I’ve read that the film is a bit controversial in Singapore due to its topic. What has been the response of local audiences to the film?

BJ: First of all, I think it provides a new point of entry to the issue. So from social media and the kinds of reviews we have gotten, people have been generally been quite receptive. It is steering the conversation in a very different direction, but at least the conversation is going somewhere. About a month ago on the World Day Against the Death Penalty we held a special screening to raise funds for families of those who have been executed. It was a very successful screening.

The film also ran for 8 weeks in commercial cinemas in limited release and it did very well. 8 weeks in a cinema is quite remarkable for an indie film. However, the film was rated M18, which is the second highest restrictive rating in Singapore. When we negotiated for a more reasonable rating for the film, this was the best we could get given the sensitivities of the issue. So we decided to make the most out of it.

SS: The film premiered at Cannes and has been selected to represent Singapore at the Oscars. What has this experience been like?

BJ: The experience at Cannes was very special. This was my second time there. My first film was in Critics’ Week. It was a huge honor, I was in the same selection as a lot of filmmakers whom I look up to. So that was a very nice week for me. But it was also a very surreal week, because it just so happened that there was going to be an execution in Singapore that week. And I felt like being in a tuxedo and doing the red carpet was such a different reality that I was experiencing, from what was going on in Singapore. So that was very surreal to be so far away, dealing with this film and presenting a reality that was so similar to what was going on that same week. That was quite challenging.

Honestly, for me it was quite a miracle that a film of this subject matter would be selected as Singapore’s entry. As we were looking at the options from Singapore this year, there were only two films that were in Cannes. And the other film hadn’t been released yet in Singapore, so it seemed like “Apprentice” was the obvious choice where merit was concerned. But we weren’t sure if the subject matter would be a big enough obstacle for them to not submit it. And they did, so we are quite happy with that.

“Apprentice” will be released in select theaters in 2017 by Film Movement.