WHEN FILM MAKERS Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy visited Tiong Bahru, they were immediately drawn to the hawker centre. The London-based Irish duo wrote in an e-mail: "When we arrived there and saw the architecture, heard the noise of the place, witnessed the range of human interaction, to say nothing of the great food there, we immediately fell in love with it."
The duo, who are married, met in Dublin in the early 1980s and began working together in 1986, calling themselves the "Desperate Optimists". All their ventures back then were with community groups. They worked in a range of media, including video, theatre and radio.
They explained that their initial efforts were made against a "pretty miserable economic background". "We don't believe creativity thrives in difficult economic times, but when people have no work or prospects they often turn to the activities that interest them, which can lead them to creating art or at least engaging with creativity."
It was in 2003 that they started to focus on films and were recognized for their "Civic Life" series shot in 35mm cinemascope. In these ventures, which tend to take months of planning, a few days to capture, and which range from six minutes to 28 minutes in length, they get communities to explore issues important to the community being filmed.
The first two efforts were set in the Irish capital, the rest in England. To date, they have done nine, one of which, "Who killed Brown Owl", won the Best British Short Film award at the 2004 Edinburgh International Film Festival. The Tiong Bahru film is the first to be shot outside Britain.
On their films to date, the directors said: "It's not like our first "Civic Life" film came fully formed but rather it came, not unlike Dolly the cloned sheep, on the back of many years of searching, exploring, experimenting."
"Civic Life: Tiong Bahru" is about "transition and change". It revolves around the relationship between a rebellious teen and her foster mother; the young boss of a drink stall who wants to set up a Mexican tapas bar; and a grandmother who insists on staying in Tiong Bahru despite her son's pleas to move in with him.
As with the other films in the series, the 150 "actors" appearing in it are ordinary people from the community. Invitations are extended and "actors" volunteer their time, depending on how involved they think they can be.
One of them is Madam Lim Ah Way, 86, who was spotted while she was attending her weekly handicraft gathering at the Tiong Bahru Community Club. The grandma. who plays the grandmother and has been living in Tiong Bahru since 1966, said jokingly in Teochew: "They chose me because of my white hair." Her kakis at the club also got pulled into making cameo appearances.
In real life, Madam Lim's five children respect her decision to continue living in Tiong Bahru rather than move in with one of them. "This is the place I'm most familiar and comfortable with, and where all my friends are," she explained. There are many old people here who feel the same, she added.
Mr Leo Mak, 24, plays the drink stall boss, and his reel character is somewhat similar to his real persona. His father has been running a stall at Tiong Bahru market for the last 10 years and he has been helping his dad.
While he may be looking for other business opportunities outside of the market, a tapas bar is not on his to-do list. Meanwhile, he has made firm friends with the other hawkers and residents, and said: "Many of my good friends are much older than me, and we can talk about almost everything under the sun."
"Civic Life: Tiong Bahru" is a collaboration between the National Museum of Singapore and the British Council. It will be screened at the National Museum throughout October with a series of 90-second videos.