Feature People

Phua Chu Kang Producer’s Short Film Selected For International Film Festival

Seven Centimetres From Myself, a short film by the producer of beloved local sitcom Phua Chu Kang, will be one of just 25 films to be screened at the Go Mental! International Short Film Festival 2021, a Berlin-based film festival primarily focused on mental health.

“I feel like I’m here but also not here. I’m like there and still I’m here…”

By Carman Chew

Dr. Rose Sivam leads the team at Pantheon Media and is best known as the creator of local sitcom sensation, Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd. This year, Pantheon’s short film, Seven Centimetres From Myself, will be one of just 25 films to be screened at the Go Mental! International Short Film Festival 2021, a Berlin-based film festival primarily focused on mental health.

The film was first developed as an educational tool to open conversations about mental health, and to raise awareness about possible symptoms and available avenues for help. With the funding from Temasek Trust’s oscar@sg fund, the team was able to expand its outreach to youths, screening the film at several local institutes of higher learning.

The film depicts two friends reconnecting after several years; Michael had a mental health condition in high school and Sunita was his caregiver. Years have passed and Michael is now in recovery, life is good. But out of the blue, he receives a call from Sunita, who shares that she has recently been diagnosed with a mental health condition and appears to be in distress.

I talk to Dr. Sivam to find out more about the film’s inspiration, challenges and key takeaways.

Sunita (actress Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai), a caregiver who has recently been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Sunita (actress Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai), a caregiver who has recently been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

Hello Dr. Sivam, to start us off, I’m quite curious to know: How did you go from producing racing programs (with Singapore Turf Club) and Phua Chu Kang to creating a film combating mental health stigma?

We create content depending on the purpose and our target audience. You are right to compare the three different types of programmes: comedy for the mass Singaporean audience like Phua Chu Kang, horse-racing programs and this mental health short. We look at the various angles of a project and see how best to develop the content that is going to sit well with an audience and fulfil its aims. 

With Seven Centimetres from Myself, it began with a skit that toured our local institutions of higher learning, including Republic Polytechnic and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). My team and I were asked to develop a skit that would encourage conversations about mental wellness as part of the national campaign, Beyond the Label.

It was the first of its kind and we knew that the subject matter was not to be trifled with. During our research, we met people who had lived experiences with mental health conditions and were in recovery. They shared their stories, and we were able to better understand the complexities and the different ways mental health and mental health conditions can present itself in the behaviours, thoughts and actions of people suffering from it. 

That’s also where we got inspiration for the title. Our writer, Wisely Chow, has bipolar disorder and when he said this line, we all (the team) got it, the measurement of seven centimetres. You don’t have to be so precise but you get it — you’re there but you’re not there, your body is there but your mental state, your mind isn’t there. And it’s also a title that gets people talking.

Michael (actor Lian Sutton) staring out the window as he delivers the line encapsulating the essence of the film: “It’s like you’re seven centimetres away from yourself.”
Michael (actor Lian Sutton) staring out the window as he delivers the line encapsulating the essence of the film: “It’s like you’re seven centimetres away from yourself.”

I understand that, unlike most other mental health short films, your team also decided to include a pre- and post-film segment into your program. Could you tell us more about that?

Yes, beyond the film, we felt it was more important to curate experiences and discussion around the film; we wanted to be able to have direct conversations with our audiences. 

That’s where oscar@sg came in to help. Aside from providing funding towards making the film, their focus was on the outreach element, for which we are hugely thankful. With oscar@sg’s funding, we were able to return to some of the polytechnics we had previously worked with. The same counsellors and student welfare leaders were happy to find new ways of helping their students and the film is a perfect avenue for this, especially with the conditions brought about by the pandemic.

We did breathing exercises; breathing is important especially when we breathe together. In the film, he says, “Count with me.” It’s not, “You count now ah. I wait for you. Count finish already or not?” It’s not like that. You do it with a person. So we did that with the students and many were comforted.

Pantheon team and ITE students doing stretching and breathing exercises together. This picture was taken before 4 May 2021.

We included polls and allowed for questions and answer sessions, games and personal sharing from peer support specialists, so that after the conversation begins, there is carry through with the respective schools’ counsellors and student care support on-site to lead students to where they can get help if they wanted, be it there and then or at a later time.

Blackout poetry by students as part of a post-screening discussion.

What were some challenges you faced while producing this short?

First, the script. How do we adapt it from a script meant for the stage with live elements and bring the depth, truth and integrity of that story and performance to the screen? Every step, nuance of movement in the skit (and film) was checked and double-checked in being as close to the truth as possible.

Second, we worked the concept through during the circuit breaker. Filming was tight and new, our first shoot [was] when conditions had just eased and we were allowed to shoot with 5 in a room, we had to follow closely the stipulated protocol. Now months later, these safety measures have become the norm, [back] then it was brand new; we could not be close to each other physically, we could not share meals, we could not touch an actor and move a person or discuss in close proximity with a crew member. But we are adaptable and got over these quickly because we were also working against the clock to get the scenes we wanted.

Third, we wanted to make sure we could translate the moments to the screen and thus held rehearsals on Zoom. These movements were coordinated, planned and workshopped. The movement director, Sharda Harrison, who also directed the skit’s performance, brought some of the movements from the skit into the film. These punctuated the critical moments and gave the viewer insight into the minds of the respective characters.

From left to right: Producer Dr. Rose Sivam, School Counsellor Benjamin Chua, and Movement Director, Sharda Harrison.

Film director K. Rajagopal worked with the actors and Sharda to see how we could bring the depths of the actors’ techniques, training and performances into film — something that might have worked for the stage would not be as palpable or believable for film.

It was not easy, not being in the same room, using live props, or a physical space, so we worked with personal spaces — Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai (Sunita) in her home space, Lian Sutton (Michael) in his. Sharda made them do muay thai, breathing exercises. Raja made them reveal intimate secrets and moments in their lives, we all shared openly in the safe space. This would be part of how the actors, supported in this safe space, would then be able to put reality into their acting when we were finally allowed to shoot the film.

Sutton lifting boxes repeatedly in one scene.

To summarise, what would you say is the most urgent or important message that you hope viewers will take away?

Anyone can get a mental health condition, you, me, our loved ones, the people we meet on a day to day basis. And if it can happen to anyone, why would we want to think differently of anyone with a mental health condition? 

Like a physical illness, it comes with its pain and unbearable moments, [so] compassion and having a human connection is important.

If everyone allows their hearts to be more open, to have compassion towards each other, whether it is towards others with a mental health condition, or a disability or special needs, where we hold back judgement and be willing to step out of our comfort zone, to say “how are you doing today?”, that’s a big help already — big for many of us. So, do whatever you can. You don’t need to be an advocate, just be gentle and human.

Covid-19 has had a major impact on millions across the globe, heightening feelings of stress, anger and anxiety. Seven Centimetres From Myself serves as a timely reminder for all of us to check in on our loved ones, colleagues and long-time friends, for mental health conditions can affect anyone.

The short will be available on MeWatch or Vimeo and can be streamed along with other selected short films from May 26 to 29, 2021.

Should you feel distressed, please know that there are hotlines and resources available to help you:

Samaritans of Singapore
1800-221 444 (24 hours)

Institute of Mental Health
6389-2222 (24 hours)

Singapore Association for Mental Health
1800 283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

1800 377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

Brahm Centre Assistline
6655-0000 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

After hours
8823-0000 (WhatsApp available)