Dementia is a growing problem in Singapore – and when you factor in the city-state’s growing population of seniors, the number of patients with the condition is set to double. From 20,000 sufferers in 2010, the figure is predicted to reach 45,000 by 2020, according to former health minister Khaw Boon Wan. It’s this stigmatised and often misunderstood condition that is the subject of ‘Before We Forget’, the debut documentary from young Singaporeans Jeremy Boo, 23, and Lee Xian Jie, 22, which is showing this month as part of 8Q SAM’s South-East Asian Film Festival. ‘We wanted to reduce the stigma [surrounding] dementia,’ says Boo. ‘We realised that the only effective way to do it is not just to tell people that there is nothing shameful about dementia, but to get people to share their own experiences – actions speak louder than words.’
The duo’s film follows the lives of two real-life subjects. Joyce is from a Catholic family, and has to give up both her job and financial security to look after her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The wealthier Irene has two daughters (both doctors) who care for her as she lives with vascular dementia – another form of the condition that involves depression, anxiety and stroke-like symptoms. ‘What’s interesting is how the two families deal with the condition differently,’ says Boo. ‘Irene and her daughters talk about death quite bluntly, which is rare in Singapore. For Joyce’s family, they rely more on their Catholic faith to get them through each day.’
Boo and Lee, who have known each other since their teenage days and studied together at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, initially wanted to make a film about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a degenerative disease suffered by Boo’s mother. ‘It was hard to find people with ALS, because it’s very rare, and we started to think about which neurological disorders affect the most number of people,’ explains Boo. ‘Dementia was the obvious choice, because it’s so prevalent yet also strangely invisible.'
‘The problem is that there are a lot of stigmas involved: the misconception that dementia is a mental illness rather than a degenerative disease; the fear of ageing and death; and the reality of living with it. A lot of people place their parents in nursing homes, which some see as unfilial. All these add up, making people stay silent about the disease, and reinforcing the belief that it’s somehow shameful.’ As first-time filmmakers, Lee and Boo faced plenty of challenges getting their documentary made. Though they’d worked together at university on a number of journalistic projects – including an investigation into arsenic-contaminated waters in Cambodia and a photography project focusing on Manila’s slums – making a full documentary was a taller order. They had to search hard for suitable subjects, equipment and money. Just as the film was getting moving, their two initial subjects passed away, and they were called away for National Service.
Eventually, things came together. The duo met Joyce when they contacted the Alzheimer’s Disease Association (ADA), for which Joyce was then working; and Boo met Irene’s daughter on unrelated business, when she happened to mention her mother’s dementia. These personal connections feed into the intimacy of the film. Boo says he was ‘not prepared for the anger, guilt and denial – or the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion – that was involved. We feel greatly privileged that our subjects and their families have allowed us to be with them during such private moments.’
The film’s themes have also translated beyond the cinema screen. An online portal, www.beforeweforget.org, takes the form of a growing series of testaments from people affected by dementia. Meanwhile, three multimedia exhibitions under the ‘Before We Forget’ umbrella have already drawn more than 15,000 viewers – don’t miss the opportunity to learn more at this month’s film screening.
‘Before We Forget’ shows at 8Q SAM on 24 Mar as part of the South-East Asian Film Festival, followed by a discussion with the directors.