Lights, Camera, Internship! : The Adventures Of A Nine-Day Intern

By Abigail Cheng

If you’re looking for a story of a teenage film enthusiast who got to fulfil her greatest dreams by applying for a two-week internship with a film archive, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But don’t leave just yet! Hear me out. My story is about a 17-year-old who decided on Asian Film Archive as part of her English Language Elective Scholarship (ELES) internship, despite knowing next to nothing about film. I have to admit, I made this decision on an impulse. I am so grateful that I did.

There’s one embarrassing thing that you need to know about me. I’m a sucker for trashy rom-coms. And Boss Baby (especially all the Netflix spin-offs.) I’m not really someone you would think of when you think “film buff”. So why did I choose the Asian Film Archive (AFA)? Well, I had 15 minutes left to fill in the 2023 ELES work attachment form because I procrastinated, as usual. I was tempted to stay in my comfort zone. However, as I read aloud the respective job descriptions to my best friend, she was bored to death by all but one – AFA. Getting to watch movies for an internship? That’s virtually unheard of. In that moment, one of my New Year’s resolutions came to mind. To be intrepid and step out of my comfort zone, which was something I hadn’t quite fulfilled yet. With shaky fingers, I clicked on AFA as my first choice.

And so it began. It was the 28th of November, the first day of my internship. Heart pounding and breath shaky, I paced up and down the corridor of the fourth floor of the National Library. I had no idea what to expect. I had made the decision to step foot in a foreign realm and I wasn’t sure whether I would regret it or not. Only time could tell, I thought. (Spoiler alert: I definitely did not regret it.) As I stood awkwardly outside the level 4 office of AFA, I was invited in for a short chat during which my mentor, Tee Pao, introduced me to his world of archiving. The more he spoke about his work, the more fascinated I was. To be honest, prior to this day, the only archive I knew of was my Whatsapp archive (which housed the chats of devious scammers and my ex). I always knew what the word ‘archive’ meant but I never knew that it was a field of work, let alone the immense importance of it. Having learnt the gist of what an archivist does, I was thrilled to embark on my two-week journey in AFA. The butterflies in my stomach were replaced by adrenaline coursing through my veins as my mentor brought me to the level 6 office.

 

After I had settled in, I was briefed on how to catalogue films. With the help of a slideshow, Tee Pao taught me the dos and don’ts of cataloguing and writing synopses. For example, evaluative language is an absolute no-no. The purpose of including a synopsis within a catalogue entry is to give an objective account of the film so that researchers can easily access and approximately assess the content of the film without having to watch it in its entirety. Giving away too much in your synopsis is to be avoided too. An ideal synopsis should allow the audience to experience for themselves any surprises the director may have in store for them. The key to writing a good synopsis is to be concise and accurate, providing an optimal level of detail – not too much, not too little.

On top of that, I learnt about the stark difference between a marketing synopsis and cataloguing synopses. Emotive lexis is incorporated into marketing synopses and rely heavily on pathos in hopes of enticing the reader to watch the film. Synopses meant for cataloguing provide a brief insight into the film, so that someone looking for a certain type of film can sieve through many without missing any relevant ones.

Apart from penning down synopses for the catalogue, I had to come up with various keywords to categorise the films, such as “Themes/Loss” and “Political Events/2015 Rohingya Refugee Crisis”. With my eyes glued on the screen, I critically analysed each and every film, searching for overarching themes and possible keywords, taking in the plot and awaiting every plot twist thrown my way with bated breath. I couldn’t believe that I was actually watching movies as part of my job! I’m sure that not many of my fellow ELES friends could say the same.

Watching countless local films broadened my horizons to a great extent. It made me realise that the local film scene was so much more than Ah Boys To Men or 小孩不笨 (I Not Stupid). There are tens of thousands of short films and feature films out there, waiting to be discovered. The film I remember most fondly was 新民 (New Resident, 2020).

Image still from New Resident 新民 (2020, Jun Chong)

Inspired by the 2017 culling of chickens in the Sin Ming neighbourhood, the film follows an elderly lady as she desperately attempts to save the chickens underneath her HDB block by bringing them home. It showed me that films can be used as a voice of advocacy, as well as, a record of culture and society. 新民 was filmed predominantly in Teochew, which to me, was a fitting stylistic choice given the age of the main character. Furthermore, it reinforced the nostalgic portrayal of the relationship between the elderly lady and the chickens, a sight that was commonplace in the era of kampungs, but not anymore.

Image of a Wang Sha and Ye Feng album cover《行酒吧》

Other than cataloguing films, I had the opportunity to translate interview transcripts. With the  Retrospective: Wang Sha & Ye Feng programme AFA had in store from January 2024, I was tasked with translating Wang Sha’s interview transcripts from Mandarin (and the occasional Teochew and Cantonese) into English. I wouldn’t say I’m the best at Chinese. Having barely passed my O’ Level Higher Chinese with a grade of C6, I was not confident in my ability to translate 33 pages of Mandarin transcripts. However, I was encouraged to give it a whirl and once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I was enamoured by what the upstanding comedian had to say – comical anecdotes, major career moments and everything in between. Listening to his interview gave me a glimpse into a world that I wasn’t born into. A pre-streaming world, a Singaporean society where dialects were spoken by everyone. With my rudimentary knowledge of Teochew that I had picked up in my early childhood, I listened to his jokes and parts of his skits, laughing occasionally when I could understand them. I was, to say the least, in awe of his career. He, together with Ye Feng, are legends of the Asian comedy scene that I would sadly not have known about, if not for this task.

Even though their performances were popular in the 60s and 70s, I believe that they are timeless and can draw a large audience, even today, if not for the declining use of dialects in Singapore.

Through translating the interview with Wang Sha, I was inspired to brush up on my knowledge of Teochew and be more in touch with my roots. Translating it was a tedious and frustrating process, as I almost always found myself racking my brain, frantically searching for the right words in English, which proved especially difficult when it came to Chinese idioms and figures of speech. It took a great deal of grit and willpower. It took something in me that I never knew I had to sit through pages after pages of intimidating Chinese characters that looked as if they had it out for me. Nevertheless, it was an extremely fulfilling experience that made the gruelling hours I put in, worth it.

Image of Wang Sha’s interview transcript

 

In addition to the hours spent in front of the computer screen (sorry, eyes), I got to try my hand at something that was completely new to me: film reel cleaning! Taking a seat at the  mechanised film cleaning table was enough to amuse me. As I took in the beauty, that is, a film reel that laid before my eyes, my breath was taken away. How could these rolls of brown plastic possibly contain moving images and sounds? Words cannot capture the spectacular intricacies of the film I got to clean and the machine I got to use, so here are some pictures.

Magnificent, right?

Through this task, I learnt that films are susceptible to a phenomenon called ‘vinegar syndrome’, the decay of acetate film resulting in the release of acetic acid, which has a vinegar-like odour, hence the name. To preserve them for a long time, acetate films need to be stored in low temperature and relative humidity. Should they be stored in volatile temperatures, they will be prone to vinegar syndrome, which can damage the film extensively. It’s an irreversible process that can never be completely stopped. Keeping the film in an optimal environment will help to slow the process down. The severity of a film’s deterioration can be determined using an A-D (acid-detecting) strip.

Image showing A-D strips and an A-D strip reference pencil

How does it work? The principle behind this is similar to that of the banal litmus tests that we all performed in Chemistry laboratory lessons. The colour of the strip will change based on the level of acid in the film. The severity of the decay is measured on a scale of 0 to 3 – the higher the number, the worse the decay.

 

As I immersed myself into the world of film and archiving, the 8th of December crept up on me stealthily. Before I knew it, my two weeks with AFA was up. With a heavy heart, I bade goodbye to my beloved colleagues and the glorious films-filled office I was in seven hours a day. I left behind the little work I had done for AFA but brought home with me the heartwarming memories and enriching insights that I had during the short nine days. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.

While my taste for trashy rom-coms and animated cartoons remains, I would like to think that my nine days at AFA have elevated my film palette. Having watched quite a few local shorts , I have developed a newfound appreciation for local films featuring thematic concerns that are unique to our little red dot.

A huge thank you to AFA, especially Tee Pao, Jia Ling and Dawn for making my work attachment programme such a fulfilling one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Bibliography
Chong, J. (2020, January 9). 《新民》NEW RESIDENT. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir7UbAv2iWw
National Archives and Records Administration. (2020, June 4). AD-strips-small. The Unwritten Record. https://tinyurl.com/adstrips
National Archives of Singapore. (1992, August 28). National Archives of S. https://tinyurl.com/wangshainterviewtranscript
Zink Media. (n.d.). Image showing Wang Sha and Ye Feng’s record《行酒吧》. Retrieved December 19, 2023, from https://tinyurl.com/imagexingjiuba

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