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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Asian Opinions

Ordeal by video for true friends only

The Straits Times | Tuesday, May 20, 2014

When a friend sent me the clip that was the PAP youth wing video, I opened it thinking it was going to be good for a five-minute distraction. But after the first 15 seconds played, it became clear that this clip was in a class of its own.

This one stood out because its ABPM reading - awkward behaviours per minute - went off the charts. The synchronised chant-talking, the stiff body language, the cultish catchphrases, the attempts to display "personality" that had the opposite result - this one was the complete package.

Don't forget that we are a nation blessed with a large number of awful film clips, to the extent that as a people we've become immune to them.

In the past, we've seen a comedian do a rap video about Sars that seemed to have been penned by, and made for, the senile ("When you get home, take a bath quickly. Kiasu a bit, be safe not Sar-ry"). We have beheld civil servants rapping to connect with the young (only to connect with our sense of alarm and pity). But the Young PAP video took it to a new level.

Then recently, there surfaced a Singapore Tourism Board commercial, made and aired in the Philippines, that looked like someone had joined up bits of videotape found in a jumble sale.

And these are just the ones I remember. There have been many more terrible commercials and public service messages which have been blocked from recall by the mercy of ageing.

I was still trying to work out what made the PAP youth wing's video so discomfiting to watch when I read that it was not intended for the public. It was made for party insiders. Then it all clicked.

If you have ever been to a wedding dinner, you know what I mean. There is now the obligatory couple's video that starts playing between the fish and the duck courses.

You know the one: The shots of the ridiculous yet predictable pantomime of the door pranks played on the groom's party; the scenic- spot couple photos, each one more gloriously sick-inducing than the last. Even worse is the slideshow of moody wedding photos from "conceptual" photographers.

In some videos, the couple's friends will appear. They will offer best wishes, looking as comfortable and relaxed on camera as captured political dissidents reading out confessions on television.

An alien coming to Earth would think that human couples start their lives together by testing the loyalty of friends and relatives with an ordeal by video. He who vomits is ejected from the circle of trust.

But because you are friends with the couple, the video is not meant to be judged on its merits as information or entertainment. It is neither. It is a piece of social theatre. The couple's role is to be adorable, and your role is to find them adorable. You clap. You say nice things. No matter what. That is how it is with in-group films. No one outside the group will find them good for anything except mockery.

I, like everyone else, found the Young PAP reel an extremely uncomfortable watch, but think back to your last corporate team-building exercise, when each department was asked to submit a video.

Not cringing yet? Remember the one sent in by Finance where they wore silly hats and sang Don't Stop Believing to demonstrate their passion for innovation in customer service? If you are still not cringing, you are part of the problem. Or you work in Finance. But imagine what would happen if someone uploaded it on YouTube.

Already, there has been one consequence from this eagerness to attack works of expression. This year, there will not be a new National Day song, in part because in past years, the songs have generated online screams of fury. Once the Internet hate train leaves the station, it gathers speed and never stops.

Where will this fear of online criticism take us? No National Day Song this year, and maybe next year too. At this rate, by 2030, the National Day Parade should be performed by mimes. Then someone will complain about how quiet it all is, and a million others will chime in about how weird it is that we have no songs.

Terrible videos will never go away, no matter how much online hate is unleashed. It's because people with the power to commission work underestimate how hard it is to make a good product. They think that because everyone now carries a good cameraphone, anyone can make a good video. Just point and press a button, then stick the file in a computer and click a few icons; how hard can it be?

It's this sort of thinking that makes clients badger photographers, videographers, producers, graphic designers, screenwriters, musicians and actors to work for free or at a discount. What they do, the clients think, can't be as hard as what accountants or plumbers do. These artsy types are just having fun at work, aren't they?

If your accountant screwed up, would it live on the Internet forever?

johnlui@sph.com.sg

This article was published on May 18 in The Straits Times.

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