A Banned Classic by A Lesbian Filmmaker Returns Home. What Has Changed?
You leave home because you have no choice, and sometimes, you have no say on when and how you can return. 

This was the story of Madeleine Lim who, facing the threat of political persecution, left Singapore for the United States when she was 23. For some years, the young and out undergraduate ran an underground lesbian feminist newsletter and was involved in other activist efforts. 

This was in 1987. When one of her friends was arrested for plotting a so-called Marxist Conspiracy, she fled in fear. Abroad, she completed her documentary short Sambal Belacan in San Francisco —telling a story of the Singaporean queer women’s diaspora—and had hoped for the film to be shown in the country of her birth. A homecoming of sorts, one would imagine. 

Just when it seemed like this story would come home when it was accepted at the 1998 Singapore International Film Festival, the film was banned here. To this day, Lim remains baffled: that very year, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together  was chosen as the festival’s closing film; the previous year, without incident, Tsai Ming-liang’s The River was screened. Both films have gone on to become classics of queer cinema, and how momentous it could have been for Sambal Belacan to share that platform, as a way of saying Singapore has her queer stories too, and of asserting that they belonged here. 

Of course, Wong’s film is about a pair of male lovers leaving Hong Kong for love in Buenos Aires, and Tsai himself had left his hometown Kuching for Taipei to pursue filmmaking, feeling like he belonged nowhere. Spurned by her own home, Lim’s film was hotly received at its premiere at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and was even shown on the Public Broadcasting Service to millions of Americans.

Twenty-two years is a long time for a belated homecoming, but the film has finally shown in Singapore as part of this year’s New Waves programme. Funnily enough, the festival has dubbed it a “rare Singaporean classic”. Sure enough, it circulated favourably on the international film circuit. But, as Lim recalls in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, in Singapore, Sambal Belacan could only play in clandestine screenings organised by her friends.

What is classic about this film, then, is not just its brilliant ability to capture a feeling of suffocation so familiar to sexual minorities who call Singapore home—it is also the fact that the best of Singapore’s films never quite get the attention and audience they deserve at home that makes Lim’s film a Singaporean classic. Think Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love. Think Loo Zihan’s Solos. Think the film that would never be made or even dreamt of.  

Still, it is bittersweet to finally be able—in Singapore—to watch this film about the lack of social acceptance for queer women, even as queer people remain widely unprotected and stigmatised two decades later. Even as the IMDA has classified this R21 for its ‘Homosexual Theme”, reassuring its conservative viewership—the very kind of viewer it nurtures by virtue of its constant paternalism—that “there are no depictions which promote or glamorise the homosexual lifestyle”

Yet there is nothing glamorous about the “homosexual lifestyle”. What the subjects of the documentary have in common is that they had left Singapore for San Francisco because they felt they would have missed out on being alive if they had chosen to stay. They would not have been able to love someone out loud, or bring their partners home—simple gestures that heterosexual people take for granted. More importantly, they did not feel like they had a stake in their own country.

“There’s not a lot of political or social change that people have the opportunity to create,” one of them laments in the film, alluding also to how her identity as a Eurasian lesbian casts her further into the margins of belonging. 

And so they leave in order to learn how to live. As one of them says so poignantly—and this feeling is true to the queer experience even now, but especially of the 1990s—“you have to reinvent the wheel for yourself”. 

While many might think of such migration as a way of rejecting or forgetting one’s home, these women were far from that. One of the most ravishing sequences in the film features many hands darting into the frame to pick up food from a crowded dining table: fried bee hoon in a large plastic container, a bowl of curry sitting in a corner, tiny porcelain bowls of fried rice, braised meat, and kang kong. The centrepiece is a bowl of prawns, drenched presumably in fragrant sambal belacan. The women are chattering in the background with a lilt that sounds to me like Singapore, but I know this is San Francisco. 

Sambal was not just a sauce they prepared and reminisced over their monthly potluck—Lim had also founded the support group Singapore and Malaysian Bisexual Women and Lesbians (SAMBAL) that connected people from Southeast Asia to North America to Australia through the internet. Their slogan was “Let’s spice each other’s lives”. They marched as a collective in the San Francisco Dyke March of 1993, holding up a huge white banner proudly proclaiming their name and their diaspora. This was sixteen years before Pink Dot. 

When it comes to the film, however, most of them—the same women who would assemble on the streets of San Francisco—preferred anonymity. They appear in the form of disembodied voice overs, otherwise a pair of hands preparing sambal belacan; an ear with two piercings; two women sitting, cross-legged, opposite one another. You can hardly discern their faces in the deliberately low key lighting. The shift between visibility and invisibility—the prospect of a film transporting one’s story about elsewhere home—is constantly being negotiated by queer people. 

In this film’s homecoming at New Waves, it is curiously paired with Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Letters from Panduranga in a programme subtitled “On Going Places”. Nguyen’s documentary wants to tell the story of the indigeneous Cham minority living in Ninh Thuan (formerly Panduranga), Vietnam, whose very culture and lives are under threat from marginalisation and the state’s plan to build the country’s first nuclear power plants on their land. The documentary’s two narrators correspond with each other in a poetic exchange of letters as they embark on their respective road trips, and while concerned with the state’s erasure of Cham voices and agency, they are also wary of speaking on behalf of another group of people. 

While this pairing can seem obvious—they both feature the stories of minorities, display dissatisfaction with the way a nation often excludes its minorities, they tell of how travel informs our understanding of home—Nguyen’s film isn’t a straightforward ethnography of the Cham people. Rather, it is an essay-film that interrogates the genre of documentary and ethnography. 

In other words, it asks what the documentary genre can or cannot do. What are the responsibilities of the documentarian? 

And so one of the narrators says of her attempts to document the Cham people without objectifying the other: “I’ve been trying different ways of making portraits: long shots, medium shots, close-ups, individually, in groups, without being noticed, collaboratively, looking into the lens, looking off the lens, looking out of the frame.” 

In Lim’s film, I finally see that she has also been trying different ways of making portraits. Like Nguyen, she understands the risk of overexposure when it comes to the vulnerable and thus averts her camera. When it comes to a history that is constantly being erased, what is not expressed or captured is just as important as what the camera chooses to face. And so this film, full of hands, bowls, shoes, lace, and shadows is a document of trepidation. In another way, it is a document of trust that their story can stand the test of time.

“I am on my own journey home,” the plaintive acapella voice starts and ends the film. Lim has lived in San Francisco now for more than three decades, and there, she teaches film production to queer people of colour. She is a beloved part of the San Francisco queer and film community. Perhaps she can find her way back here too, from a distance. 

Now that Sambal Belacan has come home after twenty-two years, how much has changed in the filmmaking and political scene here? Is the film waiting to be joined by those other films which are also on their own journey home? At the very least, it might give those who are dispirited with the idea of home a reason to believe that a long way home, is still a way home. 

Sembal Belacan in San Francisco is screening at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival’s (SGIFF) New Waves programme on 25th October 2020.  Tickets to the screening can be purchased directly from SGIFF’s homepage 
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