'I hope people will watch it and ask questions', says director of documentary on The Online Citizen

Calum Stuart's 25-minute documentary, "An Online Citizen", will be premiering at the Freedom Film Fest 2019 in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (28 September). (Photo courtesy of Calum Stuart)

SINGAPORE — “In Singapore, I would say you have to be mad to go against the government.”

That’s the opening line delivered by Terry Xu, chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC), in the trailer for a new documentary on the alternative news portal.

“Terry’s kind of a unicorn in some ways. I don’t know many others in Singapore like him,” said the film’s director Calum Stuart during an interview with Yahoo News Singapore on Tuesday (24 September).

Titled An Online Citizen, the 25-minute film will make its premiere this Saturday at the Freedom Film Fest 2019 in Kuala Lumpur.

Describing the documentary as “very observational”, the 34-year-old British national said he hopes it will shed light on Singapore’s media scene and what it’s like to operate an independent media site here.

“I hope people (who watch it) will ask why Singapore needs a guy like Terry,” said Stuart, who also works as a freelance journalist.

Acknowledging that the film could evoke strong views, he added, “Some will watch it and think he’s a hero, and some will watch it and think he’s nuts and completely off the reservation.”

The documentary focuses on the operations of The Online Citizen and the work done by its chief editor Terry Xu (above). (PHOTO: Calum Stuart / 'An Online Citizen')

Looking at who fake news law will affect

The project began when Stuart was approached by the Freedom Film Network (FFN) to produce a documentary on Singapore’s recently passed Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma) – otherwise known as the “fake news law” – for its upcoming festival.

Backed with a S$5,000 budget from the non-profit group, Stuart approached Xu with his pitch for the documentary in late May and was able to wrap up the project within three months.

“I think very early on I decided that rather than doing a documentary focusing entirely on Pofma, I wanted to focus on the main people the law would affect, which is essentially the independent media scene (in Singapore),” said Stuart.

With this in mind, TOC was the “obvious choice” for the documentary’s subject given its status as one of the older and “more outspoken” news sites here, he added.

Stuart said he had heard of Xu when he first arrived in Singapore about five years ago. He described him as hard-working, idealistic and “committed to what he’s doing”.

Noting that Xu can be a “very difficult guy to work with”, Stuart added that he is also possessed of the “bloody-mindedness” needed to do his work.

In working on the documentary, Stuart said he found it interesting to learn about Xu’s approach to “provoking the government” and how he considered it “an honour to be causing such a ripple in the establishment”.

Besides Xu, the film also features interviews with TOC co-founder Remy Choo, former Internal Security Act detainee Teo Soh Lung as well as former TODAY and The New Paper editor PN Balji.

While An Online Citizen also gives a “nod” to another local documentary, Jason Soo’s 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy (2015), Stuart said his film has a “very different style” and is “more theatrical” as well as faster paced.

The film's poster. (Courtesy of Calum Stuart)

Sudden legal development

Given the budget constraints and tight timeline he faced, Stuart admitted that the film is “not perfect” and that he would jump at the opportunity to revisit the subject if given more resources.

“I would love to have done more of a character study on Terry if we had more time,” he said.

Another factor that he feels could affect the film’s reception is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s defamation lawsuit against Xu, which was announced earlier this month and came just after Stuart had wrapped up the film.

While he admitted to being slightly concerned over whether it would receive more scrutiny from the authorities due to the suit, he said he does not believe the work is “particularly controversial”.

“The dynamics did shift. To be honest, would I have cut the same film had the (suit) happened before (I wrapped)? It’s impossible to say, really.

“Yes, there is the possibility it will receive more attention from the authorities or politicians but I honestly don’t know how people are going to respond to it,” he said.

“I think the film might, due to current developments, seem a bit too flattering of Terry and TOC, which was never my intention,” he added, noting that the film encourages viewers to ask questions instead.

Stuart is married to Kirsten Han, editor-in-chief of online journalism platform New Naratif, whom he met while they both were pursuing their masters in journalism at Cardiff University in Wales.

Having been in Singapore for some time, he said he learnt “fairly early” that it is not his place to comment politically on how things are done here.

“That said I’m not going to shy away from telling stories, like those about Terry and TOC. I am a journalist,” he said, adding that he has always been drawn to “underdog stories”.

Alluding to the dominance of England in the UK, Stuart quipped, “Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish.”

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