• Title – Growing Up With Less
  • Country – Singapore
  • Format – Interactive Documentary
  • Student Project
  • Creators – Benny Lim, Tring Hoang Ly, Candice Neo and Xu Yuanduan

I have been searching for an interactive documentary project originating from Asia for a while. I am curious to find out who the people in Asia experimenting with this field are. We have gamers and software programmers and documentary filmmakers, but who are the people bringing all these three fields together?

My search brought me to a final year project, an interactive documentary project made by a group of multimedia students from Singapore.  Benny Lim, Tring Hoang Ly, Candice Neo and Xu Yuanduan, are students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information They are not documentary filmmakers. They are all young. They were not looking for awards in festivals. They wanted to spread their message to as many people as possible. They thought their subject matter was unique. The internet was a natural choice.

Growing Up With Less is an interactive documentary about poverty in Singapore. That statement by itself might surprise you as it did me. One doesn’t associate poverty and Singapore to go together. One hears about the city-state’s efficiency, its millionaires, and more recently about its problems with foreign immigrants, but never about its poor.

The interactive documentary is about children who grow up in rental estates (poor tenements made by the government). These flats can be rented out for as little as 30 dollars a month. Most of the kids come from broken homes and play outside unsupervised late in night. Drug users, suicides and petty thefts are common among the residents, and the kids here are exposed to the underbelly of Singapore that is so well hidden from everyone else on a daily basis. You can watch the trailer here or go to their website for the complete experience.

The birth of the idea-

I had a conversation with one of the creators, Tring Hoang Ly on how the team went about making their project. “We actually wanted to make a short film on destitute people, but we couldn’t really find any in Singapore! We knew that there were rental flats where poor people lived behind China Town, and one evening, Candice and me, walked to this area at 9 pm in the night. We were these two girls with our cameras and tripods walking is not exactly the best area of Singapore and we knocked on doors at random. They were opened by old people, many of who were really lonely. And they were so happy to speak to us. We didn’t even have to prompt them, they just opened up and shared the story of their lives with us “. That meeting led to a three-minute short film for their first-year project.

And when they had to make their graduate year project, they went back to the same subject but this time focusing on children. “Once again we knocked on doors, and we met many young families, and it was very interesting to get an insight into their lives. Very few people in Singapore really even know about the existence of these rental flats. Even taxi drivers were not exactly sure of the location.”

The story

The result is an amalgamation of various short clips put together on the web in a simple easy to navigate website. There is the story of Shazelyn, who at the age of  10 ensure that all her five siblings are well looked after.  She bathes and tutors them, sometimes even cooks for the whole family.

10-year-old Shazelyn on the extreme left ensures that all her siblings get an equal amount to drink from a bottle after a sweaty session in the playground

 And there is the story of probably the youngest business women in Singapore. At only 12 and 10, Sabrina and Syakirah set up their own blog shops hoping to help their mom with the family’s finances. The short clips tell stories of individuals and they also highlight the living conditions of the hundreds of people who have missed the boat on the journey of life in the world’s richest country. From syringes lying around the staircases, to garbage bags being thrown outside windows, you will see images that you would never imagine come from Singapore.


The young creators employed two fellow university students who were coders who did the coding to create the website and the art direction. “We were inspired by Highrise, and we told our coders that we wanted a similar kind of design and interface. The site is not top of the line, we agree, sometimes it doesn’t even work properly. But you see we were not using professionals, they were fellow students just like us.  But we chose to go for HTML 5 instead of FLASH as we wanted it to be accessible across multiple devices.”

It’s a student project, and made just as student films are invariably made –with passion and low budgets!

Creator Trinh Hoang Ly on location

 The team took eight months to complete the entire project, lugged their camera and equipment on their own by using public transport and worked with borrowed cameras from friends. The effect has been more than positive. Many of the characters featured in the film have been featured by mainstream news channels. Donations have been poured in and funds for the children have been set up. The team never expected their thesis project to get this kind of traction.

The four filmmakers have now graduated and all have gone their separate ways. Lyn has managed to get a job as part of the transmedia team of Singapore’s Channel News Asia. She hopes that sometime in the future the four of them could reunite to make another project.

Watching this project and speaking to Lyn filled me with excitement. I hope that this is the beginning of many more interactive documentary projects from this part of the world- Projects that have a heart and a soul for a ready audience that is hungrily waiting for many more such stories.

If you are reading this, and know of any interesting multimedia, cross-platform documentary project being made in an Asian country, please do write in.

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