5 years after Cannes, Boo Junfeng’s new film looks at the death penalty

Five years ago, his debut film Sandcastle premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Today, this young director has an intriguing second project. Apprentice tells the story of a young executioner and is due for completion in a couple months. Here, he talks about his upcoming film and why things are really exciting for local filmmaking right now.

I wanted to be in filmmaking since I was 15. It was never really just about directing. I was in love with the idea of make believe and filmmaking in general.

My mind tends to wander. When I was a kid, I was never good in maths or science. In fact, I had a really hard time dealing with them.

Then I found out that there was a film school at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and I decided to prove that I could be good at something. And I went from being second last in class to the top student in film school.

A lot of Sandcastle was written in my bedroom and I was inspired by my grandma going through dementia. From that to being given such a platform, I felt like I was in a dream and it didn’t feel real. I can’t believe that was five years ago.

When I showed it at Cannes, this old French lady was in tears and slowly came down the steps to talk to me. It’s incredibly moving to know something so personal can resonate with a complete stranger.

I’ve always been interested in the discourses surrounding the death penalty and I always thought an interesting point of view would be from someone who is training to become the next executioner.

This project is quite unprecedented in how it is made—it’s a co-production between Singapore, Germany and France and is shot in Australia and Singapore, so it’s quite a multi-national production.

I spoke with a couple of executioners and also with families of those who have been executed and it’s been very heavy. But at the same time, it’s very humbling knowing these stories.

No one wants to take ownership of the death penalty. The executioners say, “It’s just my job,” and the judges don’t have discretion because it’s mandatory. And it just makes me think, “Who is responsible?” Ultimately, it is society, so I think we should know what happens when a person is executed.

Things [in the local film industry] are getting really exciting. There is a whole new generation of young filmmakers who really care about the craft, who have similar ideologies about what filmmaking is and should be.

It doesn’t always have to be art house or commercial comedies; there can be quality in just storytelling but it takes a lot of patience and a lot of tenacity to create. We have been trying to break that perception of what “local” filmmaking is.

People are slowly getting it. The success of the film festival is really a testament to a growing discerning audience for different kinds of films.

The power of cinema is that it draws people to the theater to watch a story. And if that story not only speaks to them, but speaks of them, that resonance can be extremely powerful because film is both an art form and also a form of media.

Despite our small size and supposed lack of history, the films of Singapore should be made. This idea of identity or the lack of it is wonderful material, especially for cinema.

I have been involved in Pink Dot right from the start, and also issues with the death penalty, migrant workers’ rights and historical narratives. I empathize with those who are on the margins and I like to tell their stories, because with stories, you see the human side and break down barriers.

I wish people cared a little bit more about people whom they may not necessarily identify with. With everything that’s going on in the world, there needs to be a lot more connection between people.