Junfeng Boo’s Apprentice is the third feature from Singaporean director Junfeng Boo, about a man (newcomer Fir Rahman) assisting with executions in a Malay prison. Selected for Un Certain Regard, the film presents a unique look at the impact of capital punishment, partly as a result of shooting in Australian gaols. We spoke to Boo about the carceral systems in both nations and how he decided to portray one in this way.
How do you think modern prison systems might relate time and capital, in terms of incarceration penalising people by taking their time from them as restitution?
I suppose if you look at the history of crime and punishment, especially in the UK for example, incarceration came about a lot later. They used to execute people for the smallest of crimes and it wasn’t until a lot later when people saw how ugly it was—especially when executions were public—that things evolved into time being taken away and incarceration being a form of punishment. In a sense you are protecting society by putting away criminals or people who are dangerous, and of course it wasn’t until a lot later that the idea of rehabilitation, and believing that a person can change and have a second chance at life, that most prisons systems in the developed world now tend to believe in. So I think in relation to the film that I made, Apprentice, I was trying to address the issue from a character like Aiman, who is both a uniformed officer and who needs to carry out his duties, but at the same time he is a casualty of capital punishment with his father being hanged. And for him, entering the prison system and working for the prisons, he believed in rehabilitation and in helping people who want to change, and in a sense that came from the legacy of his father and also his delinquent past, so he himself was someone who changed and therefore believed that he could help others who wanted to. But then by putting on that uniform, he in a sense had that responsibility to be whatever the system wanted him to be, and it was channelling him towards becoming the executioners assistant. That dilemma both morally and ethically is something that he faces but is also something that I wanted the viewer to consider while they’re watching the film, and after they’re watching the film.
I was curious about how you the think the film treats the temporal experience of people working within the prison system—I noticed that the camera regularly returns to Aiman’s alarm clock as he prepares for work. Do you think that for people sentenced to death and people whose job it is to perform their executions, they might share in a very specific and also probably isolating happening of time?
I think that might be a rather intellectual way of looking at it, but I think the reality is that when you’re incarcerated, or if you share an experience or if you have a family member who is incarcerated, it is an emotional experience. It’s not something you can necessarily calculate in units or in capital—you just want to get out and you miss your family and you miss the world outside, and in that sense that is your punishment for having done what you’ve done. And it’s something that is sanctioned by society, in believing that this is penance for having done what you’ve done, so that is, in a sense, what crime and punishment is about—it’s what society imposes on individuals for keeping a sense of safety and security and maintaining a certain social order which is necessary for society to function. I suppose in relation to my film… what the film questions is to what degree do we as human beings with a shared human experience in life; to what degree can we carry out those punishments, especially in a society like mine where capital punishment is still practiced. As individuals, as human beings, to what degree can we side with it? Because quite often when someone says “yes, I’m for capital punishment”, when they can say that they don’t consider the fact there is someone in that society who is empowered to kill, and for me, making this film, I was curious about what that point of view might be like.
Considering the way most states erase the labours that are required to operate their prison systems, as well as the people who perform these labours, how were you able to develop your characters psychologically?
I did speak with a couple of former executioners, and I remember before I met the first one that I spoke with, I had already written a draft of the script. I remember going to his place and meeting his wife and his family and chatting with him. I was very nervous meeting with him, and in five minutes I forgot he used to be the hangman, because he was such a likeable grandfather character. I realised after that experience what I had written was very much a caricature of what I had imagined him to be. In actual fact, there is a banality to what he did. It was a job. It’s still very much a part of his being because he talks about it. To some degree he was proud of the fact that he was one of very few people who could do it and do it well. And so I couldn’t write for the next two months, because the complexity of a person like that was something that took me a while to process and understand. As I was writing and continuing to research and speak with more people, it gave me more perspectives, more things to chew on. Slowly, as I was writing the characters, I felt like I had a more developed understanding of what that human psyche is like behind the job, and I thought that was important because, as I said earlier, people very often put these things ‘out of sight, out of mind’—we choose not to think about them. In many societies where capital punishment is still practised, and in a society where the majority of people still believe capital punishment is warranted, they don’t consider some of these other perspectives; other experiences of people. For me, in making this film, I just wanted to contribute to that discourse, and hopefully more discussions can be inspired by the film.
In dealing with the actors I’ve always felt that, and I shared this with the actors, that I as a filmmaker who made my first film very young, when I was mid-twenties, I’ve always felt a bit inadequate because I felt like I haven’t had enough life experience to make the kind of films that I want to make. All the filmmakers I look up to are filmmakers of a certain age and I’ve always felt I had to learn more and understand more and live more before I felt qualified enough to be telling the stories that I wanted to tell and I think many of us who grew up in developed economies, middle class societies, we live vicariously through the fiction of others – we read, we watch films, we imagine, we understand what war is like because we see films about it but none of us have actually been in war and we imagine what a prison or prison life might be like because we’ve read about it or seen it in films but I did not want to make a movie based on my experiences of other people’s fiction. I wanted to understand things on my own and that’s why the three years of writing and researching for the film was very important, because I tried very hard to reach out to people, to meet people who have actually lived through some of these experiences, to actually be connected with it as personally and as intimately as possible and that’s what I tried to allow my actors to do as well. We went around, called out to all these contacts, met them, talked to them to understand things from their perspective before the actors made some of the decisions that they made shaping the characters.
A lot of the prison architecture that you filmed for this came from places in and around Sydney. Australia and Singapore obviously share a British colonial history based around incarceration and execution. I was wondering if you made anything of this, and also how you hoped Apprentice would be received here.
Well, none of the prisons in Singapore or South-East Asia were suitable or available for the film. I guess something British-colonial was something I was looking for, because I needed it to look old and cinematic, and because the prison space was more than just a prison space—it was also psychological space for my characters. A lot of the film was written in Surry Hills Library, because my partner was based here and I came to visit quite often, and I basically had my own little writing residency here. When we were having trouble looking for locations, I realised actually there were facilities within a three-hour drive from Sydney that have been used for filming. When I went there and saw some of the architecture there, I realised actually this is very similar to what would have existed in Singapore.
I saw it purely from an architectural point of view, and ultimately there’s something about prison spaces. Why these cells or corridors have so much character is because people who have been through these places have had lived experiences that are beyond most of our imaginations, and so I think I needed a space that was a character in its own right. In the end it was a combination of Parramatta Gaol and Maitland Gaol that this fictitious prison Larangan prison was born [from]. I think Australia probably has an interesting relationship with capital punishment, because a lot of what we often hear in the news is of Australian citizens being executed, especially in South-East Asia, quite often for drug trafficking or drugs possession, which is very unfortunate. At the same time, because of this… actually, a lot of the literature that I came across while researching capital punishment in South-East Asia and Singapore came from Australian sources, because a lot of the investigative journalism and sometimes the tabloids look very closely at capital punishment in the region, and so that was also quite an important resource for me in understanding the state of things.
Within the film, if we had done it well, no one should know or realise it was not in Singapore, so I don’t think that the film makes a statement on its own, unless you read into production notes and realise that part of it was shot here. Beyond that, the film on its own doesn’t allude to the Australian prison system. It’s a bit hard to draw that connection. For me, there needed to be something quite universal about what I was addressing, and I can only hope that what’s human about this story is what will connect with audiences anywhere, including Australia.