by Lesley Chow
With over 600,000 expats, Singapore has numerous cultural events tied to nationality, and festivals dedicated to German, Korean, Chinese, Italian, French and Japanese film, catering to cinephiles but also acquiring prestige for the city’s positioning as a global arts centre. Aside from the use of one cineplex, the majority of films at the Singapore International Film Festival are screened in hubs of high culture, locations which would otherwise showcase theatre, languages, literature and visual art: the Singapore Art Museum, Goethe Institut, National Museum, Arts House. Most venues are in Singapore’s colonial Arts and Heritage district. The National Museum has a somewhat grand ambience, with its formal gardens and white façade; visiting its cinémathèque, one has the sense of entering a rarefied atmosphere after dark (a magnificent exhibition of Christian Lacroix’s costumes for dance and opera was showing down the hallway.)
The exceptions are the free outdoor screenings held for the Singaporean comedies Kallang Roar and Money No Enough 2 (the latter a rare popular local success, not coincidentally featuring a mix of Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Singlish), clearly marked off from the rest, and a few broad aspirational comedies scattered within the program, such as the Australian film The Dish. Thus most films at SIFF are experienced in the context of a fine art institution, and in the case of certain screenings, take on the feeling and status of a diplomatic event.
That was the case with the appearance of this year’s international guest, Israeli director Amos Gitai. Gitai was the subject of a mini-retrospective presented, with some fanfare, in terms of understanding and contextualising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via his “persistent gaze.” Publicity for the program tended to focus on the political issues surrounding his films, with Gitai being asked to weigh in on the events of November 2008. The retrospective was conducted in the tradition of festivals shining a regional and topical “spotlight” on areas affected by controversy. (SIFF’s poster image this year is a hand-held camera in the centre of a thunder cloud, illuminating a backdrop of mountains – presumably indicating a vision of far-sightedness, glimpsed within a lightning-rod moment.)
The catalogue text did not acknowledge Gitai’s own strangeness as a director, although a publicly staged conversation referred to the architectural concepts which inform his depictions of death and violence. Specific examples were not discussed, but I thought they might include the scene where two men drive to a cemetery in Devarim (1995, not shown at the festival); the camera glides back and forth over a series of white tablet-like buildings, whose reflections then smear in the car window on the way home. The effect is echoed in the opening of One Day, You Will Understand (2008), when we scan walls inscribed with names of the dead. In Kippur (2000), a man walks through a deserted city before driving almost casually into a war zone (Gitai has said that he prefers to “construct a poetic representation” of violence so that it retains the “nightmarish quality it has in real life.”)
Several of the films screened, selected by Gitai, become cathartic by virtue of the star power of their lead actresses. Disengagement (2007) takes on the emotional sensibility of Juliette Binoche* – who resembles a classical tragedienne, with hair knotted – adding a further layer of ambiguity to style. I find Gitai a puzzling director, unsettling in some of his choices (the scenes of lovers writhing in paint in Kippur), and fascinating in the mixed meanings generated by his editing patterns, which alternate between impassive long takes and unconventionally “obvious” juxtapositions. Bertolucci has remarked that, while being filmed by Gitai, he sensed both danger and excitement around him, picking up on the director’s ability to draw the possibilities for violence into a scene.
* By the way, Binoche is quite amazing these days – no longer content with merely giving her face to camera (The Horseman on the Roof, The English Patient), she’s embarking on some wild experiments with her body. She’s silly and floppy when a film needs it (Dan in Real Life), adopts a slack-bellied pose to suggest coarseness (Summer Hours), and does an ingenious play on actorly mannerism in Disengagement. She combines the “mad” acting approach of Vanessa Redgrave with something much more elusive: she seems always changeable, driven by idiosyncrasy.