Posts Tagged ‘Lesley Chow’

Interviews with Festival Programmers: Venice, Rotterdam

April 28, 2009

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

While the Singapore International Film Festival appears to target its local audience very effectively, a clue to SIFF’s status as an international market for regional films might be the producer and distributor contacts listed in the back of the catalogue, and especially, the long list of foreign guests, including festival programmers from Venice, Pusan, Rotterdam, Jakarta, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. I asked two major international programmers, Gertjan Zuilhof, from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Paolo Bertolin, a member of the selecting committee for the Venice Film Festival, about their experiences at SIFF, and how they would feel about screening small, localised films for an international audience.

Q: What was your major purpose in coming to the Singapore International Film Festival?

Gertjan Zuilhof: I come to SIFF every year to pick up some titles and new contacts from Singapore and the region. They always have a nice mix of new films from the region and some good international films for the local audience.

Paolo Bertolin: I have been wanting to visit SIFF for a few years now. I always heard it was a key event in the panorama of international film festivals in Asia, and certainly the oldest and most well-established film event in Southeast Asia. I would say then that the major purpose of coming to SIFF this year was for me to experience and discover the festival itself. Added to this, obviously, attending a film festival is always very important for me, in my work as film festival programmer, as a way to discover new films and to establish contacts with local directors and producers, also in order to get to know about upcoming productions.

Q: How do you generally come across films for your festival? Do you use other festivals for research?

GZ: I visit other festivals, especially Pusan International Film Festival, and I just go around the world to meet filmmakers and see films.

PB: In the case of a major film festival like Venice a great deal of the films are directly submitted to our attention by film producers, sales companies and directors themselves (especially in the case of smaller, indie productions). However, it is sometimes possible (albeit rare) that films that premiered at other festivals could be included in our line up. But that only applies to films that screened at national festivals (i.e. a Singaporean film that premieres at SIFF). Other festivals still could prove a useful tool to discover films though; sometimes you get to know about upcoming local projects or local films that might be in the final stages of post-production and so did not make it to the festival itself because they were not ready.

Q: How would you compare the programming of your film festival to the Singapore festival?

PB: Venice and Singapore are very different. For one thing, Venice Film Festival, along with Cannes and Berlin, is one festival where all films invited have to be world and international premieres. This is a key discriminating factor. While a festival like Singapore Film Festival (as well as many others around the world) includes in its mission the aim of bringing important and acclaimed international films to local audiences (who might not get to see them otherwise), festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin cater to the whole international film community and have to secure themselves absolute premieres and discoveries, in order to fulfil their mission and maintain their pre-eminence in the international film festival circuit. For the rest, specifically in terms of programming, festivals like Venice, Cannes and Berlin work through a system of very selective programming (the number of films submitted is huge, around 2000) and don’t include thematic programs and focuses (although there might be retrospective sessions).

Q: Would you program a foreign film which required the audience to have a considerable amount of background knowledge?

GZ: If the film is difficult I show it anyway, but there are ways you can help the audience. Inviting the filmmaker to explain his film a bit is one way. I program a film when I think it is good, like Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, which is difficult for its length and the way it refers to local history. [Melancholia, screening at SIFF, was programmed by Zuilhof for Rotterdam in January; the film also won the Orizzonti Grand Prize at last year’s Venice Festival. It’s an 8-hour meditation on the sadness of three characters in the Philippines, who change their identities several times, becoming pimps, prostitutes and nuns in the process.]

PB: This is a thorny issue. But let me state something first off. In the case of festivals like Venice or Cannes, no one can really claim to “program” something because of his or her own choice, if they are not the Artistic Director himself. Technically speaking, I am not a “programmer”, but a “member of the selecting committee”. This means that I am one of the people who choose the films for Venice, but I alone cannot choose anything. The films I might see and find recommend for the festival have to be watched by my colleagues as well, and our Artistic Director has to validate each and every choice (he basically has the final say over any film).

Having said all of this, there have always been films in Venice, Cannes or Berlin where cultural, political, social or other elements of background knowledge could certainly play a key part in enhancing the understanding and appreciation of the films themselves. However, their inclusion in the festival line-up generally might have been dictated by aesthetic choices in the first place. Let me make myself more clear with some actual examples. If a film from some corner of the world proves to be an “important” film in its local context because of the political or social issues it tackles, perhaps even in a very brave manner – political and social issues with which audiences from the rest of the world might not be so familiar with – but its narrative and its visual style respond to very conventional and predictable concerns, it would be highly unlikely for this film to make it to a festival like Venice. On the other hand, films which make statements about a very local political or social situation, and which include cultural references that might be obscure to foreigners, still have a strong chance to make it to the major festivals (and perhaps might even have a higher chance to get into them) if they convey that political, social or cultural meaning through an engaging, inventive or even provocative cinematic presentation. Eventually, issues engendered by “background knowledge” are always overcome by the sheer artistic/narrative/visual quality of the film. If the “issues” or “content” count more than the cinematic presentation, well then, the film’s chances are reduced. But then again, one should draw a more distinct line between different kinds of “background knowledge” required by a film. This is obviously a general answer that cannot enter into too much detail, and as such cannot be taken as a statement written in stone.

Q: Any particular elements of programming you liked at SIFF, or standout films?

PB: I would mention as the real standouts of this year’s competition, Yang Ik-June’s Breathless and Yeo Joon Han’s Sell Out! They are indeed very different films, but in their own terms they both are great achievements, and really one-of-a-kind: Breathless is a very hard-hitting and deeply touching drama about the inescapable heritage of violence featuring unforgettable performances, Sell-Out! is an irresistibly clever and hilarious musical comedy plus anti-capitalist satire. I also very much liked the festival’s closing film, Semih Kaplanoglu’s enchantingly poetic Milk (which premiered last year in competition at Venice), and the marvellous and politically subtle Agrarian Utopia by Uruphong Raksasad from Thailand – indeed a good example of a film that might require some “background knowledge” to be fully appreciated, but that still, thanks to its artistic quality, would deserve to be programmed anywhere.


Centrality and Sidebars

April 25, 2009

by Lesley Chow

Even though its world premieres are generally limited to Singaporean films, the Singapore International Film Festival presents itself as a platform for discovering Southeast Asian cinema and launching the careers of regional directors: showing, for instance, the first retrospective of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Film festival theorists have often been critical of the way that festivals seek to individualise themselves through claims of specialist programming, while marketing all films in terms of a global humanist focus, as SIFF does in its publicity, asking us to “understand and appreciate life in its many facets” through films. However, in his work on European festivals, the critic Thomas Elsaesser (in the book European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood) refuses to glory in cynicism over the patterns and progressions that make up a festival’s identity. Unusually, Elsaesser is an undisturbed witness of paradoxes – tolerant of the way that an organisation might be led to articulate its own “uniqueness” in conventional terms, without an awareness of going through the motions. Elsaesser underplays, or evenly plays, the revelation of structural contradictions within the system: the tendency for festivals to “set different accents to maintain their profile and identity” whilst taking their cues from Cannes. Why wouldn’t a festival vigorously promote itself in contrast to existing alternatives – and also make a bid for international status?

In any case, SIFF has had frequent retrospectives on Filipino, Thai and Singaporean filmmakers rarely seen elsewhere, such as the ‘60s Singaporean director Hussein Haniff. In lieu of an Asian director retrospective this year, SIFF has elected to screen films that would be very unlikely to get a showing overseas: a selection from Thailand’s national cinema archive, including the oldest surviving Thai film, The King of the White Elephant (1940), notable mainly for its depiction of a leisurely, English-speaking kingdom of Siam and an elephant can-can. When I asked Rotterdam International Film Festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof about his perception of SIFF’s demographics, he felt that international films were being programmed for the Singaporean audience, while local and regional films were targeted towards visiting cinephiles like himself. However, I assume that he didn’t mean slight, albeit charming Thai films like this!

In addition, SIFF has several enthusiastically attended programs of homegrown shorts, and one venue, the Sinema (which usually functions as a resource for independent filmmakers), exclusively screening Singapore films. However, one of this year’s much-anticipated local features, Sherman Ong’s Hashi, was a little disappointing; it was a series of women’s conversations about relationships and infidelity filmed in long takes. Judging from its bleached-out look and the recurring subject of dreams, I’m guessing Ong was going for an Altmanesque rumination on female consciousness, with identities drifting and merging into each other. It doesn‘t quite work, as a result of the self-conscious performances and the dialogue repetitions which come across as unfocused and hesitant rather than hypnotic. The film needed some kind of dislocation: a blotting, or darkening, of its themes and immaculately tasteful locations.

That brooding feeling was present in another local film, Kan Lume’s amazing Female Games, unfortunately censored and withdrawn from SIFF – let‘s hope it turns up elsewhere. After hearing a positive report from my colleague Farah Azalea – and imagining a glorious film from her descriptions – I watched a DVD copy in the festival lounge. With its synthesised sound and a camera which implies curious attitudes towards bodies – hovering just under the eyeline, or cutting off a speaker’s head to show the line of his leg – there is an odd tone to this story of two actresses trying to make it in Kuala Lumpur. One is Eurasian, the other Chinese, and in the contrast of their appearances, the film seems to be working off the frisson of two physical types, similar to the dynamic between blonde and brunette in Mulholland Drive (2001) or Femme Fatale (2002). However, while the Eurasian girl is immediately perceived as privileged and personable by casting agents, the Chinese one is neglected, resulting in the latter’s breakdown of identity. Meanwhile, the two women appear to be the subjects of a placid but voyeuristic gaze, which turns their smallest actions into a narrative of mystery, desire and loss of boundaries. I can’t think of another film which creates such a mood of eroticised amnesia, although possible reference points might be Mulholland Drive, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) and the softcore of Tom Lazarus. The final, luxuriously slow scene casts the rest of the film as a sensual “game”.

For me, SIFF’s other major highlight was the delicious Malaysian farce Sell Out!. Yeo Joon Han’s feature begins by explicitly referencing the world of film festivals, with ever-more obscure events handing out awards in tiny areas of specialisation, and journalists trying to get quotes out of intractable auteurs. I can think of a dozen directors who might be satirised in the scene where a filmmaker insists that cinema “should reflect the boredom of real life” and hence tries to create authentically dull films. Even before its characters break into song, Sell Out! is a kind of “musical”, with its choreographed moments between a cast of entertainment reporters, arts workers and ruthless media moguls.† Characters move in and out of TV screens and theatrical scenarios; I haven’t seen such space-expanding possibilities in a musical, or any film, since Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007).

I loved this joyous film, especially its old-school pairing of a boyish hero with a fast-talking newswoman, and its utterly personal and unusual humour (Yeo says he “didn’t make the film for people outside Malaysia, except maybe Singapore” and wanted it to come across as “a slightly confused work.”) The film’s budget and publicity were so low-key that extras often failed to turn up, and ended up being replaced by, say, the cameraman’s wife. But Yeo made improvisation a virtue on set; apparently he raised the pitch of the songs every week, and constantly changed dialogue to weave a coherent world out of singular encounters. Everything harmonises.

The most lively venue of the festival was the Substation, its lounge a buzz of viewing stations and filmmakers discussing projects in a kind of mess-hall environment. The sense that this was an existing community being expanded to include international participants was appropriate given that one of SIFF’s two festival directors, Zhang Wenjie, is a former programmer for the Substation’s Moving Images, an invaluable program which provides exposure and mentoring for local directors of documentaries, shorts and experimental films. Screenings at the Substation came across as less of a cultural spectacle than at the National Museum or Arts House. The place seemed an extension of the local filmmaking environment, but with the feeling that via SIFF, an experimental scene was being pulled from the periphery onto centre stage.

The Substation was rowdy during a panel session for the Malaysian director Amir Muhammad, who has had several films banned in his home country, but enjoys critical support at SIFF. The informal, chatty atmosphere lent itself to a discussion of Muhammad’s work, especially since his films question the consensus on political events – this year’s Malaysian Gods investigated the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim – and make use of diverse voices to explore surrounding issues, such as the dissemination of information and the way in which people’s memories converge on certain details. Muhammad commented that he finds Singapore’s censors to be less restrictive than those in Malaysia, which is why he chose SIFF for his premiere.

That said, programmers in Singapore continue to face problems with censorship, particularly in relation to sexuality. Before the festival opened, several films I was looking forward to had already been withdrawn after cuts from censors, for reasons of “homosexual content” – for instance, the scenes of lesbian intimacy in Female Games. One film with “homosexual content” which did get a screening was Filipino director Francis Xavier Pasion’s debut Jay, about a gay male teacher who is murdered. Initially I was disturbed that one of the few remaining gay-themed films in the program featured its eponymous character only as a blood-spattered corpse, but this is a wild film with unpredictable shifts in tone. It has a stunning central performance from Baron Geisler as a suave reality TV producer covering the case, who is also gay. His machinations and wit leave everyone – including himself – unable to reflect on their social relation to the crime.

As with Sell Out!, Jay shows us emotion and extroversion ironised by the context of reality TV, while subjecting us to extreme bouts of humor and charisma. The film is too broad to make us question our reactions to the psychological conflicts generated by television, but it’s possible the director has another agenda in mind. Pasion may be mimicking the media presentation of homosexuality, in that a narrative which begins with a gay hate crime turns into an all too effective camp comedy. That the perverse transition is seamless is due to Geisler, who is as memorably glittering and smarmy as Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). SIFF deserves credit for picking up this debut work, which starts off as a sledgehammer satire in its first third, before morphing into a rather more mysterious film on the nature of performance and beguilement. Overall this has been an adventurously programmed festival, with four outstanding mixed-genre, multi-language films – Sell Out!, Female Games, Jay and Malaysian Gods – defining its hybrid character for me.

† As the film shows us, there are many creative ways to sell out, such as hiring a medium to exorcise your idealism, or through a director’s selection of actors. By featuring the half-English Peter Davis as the male lead, the film addresses the issue of “pan-Asian” casting; as in Female Games, Eurasianness is seen as a commercial signifier, satisfying the public’s desire for “fusion” products in the form of multiracial actors and models.

Reconstructed Homelands

April 20, 2009

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.

Interview with Amos Gitai

April 20, 2009

by Lesley Chow and Farah Azalea

With his long and varied body of work, Israeli director Amos Gitai has had shorts, documentaries and fiction films programmed at numerous international festivals, including this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, where he was invited to present six of his films, including his latest, One Day, You Will Understand. We asked him to reflect on having his films shown in a range of countries and cultural contexts. In keeping with this theme and his concept of “hybridity”, we also asked him about his use of international stars and cross-cultural encounters.

Q: One of your subjects is how people of different origins change in reaction to new surroundings, how their identities and self-images adapt. What particularly interests you about that sort of encounter?

A: I think the world today is a kind of a composite environment. Every one of us has ancestors who come from one place and live somewhere else. Cultural identity is kind of like a “souvenir” because the reality we live in is shattered and it doesn’t exist anymore. I think this is the material that we filmmakers can use, this fragment.

Q: You’ve been the subject of many international retrospectives, so you’ve had the chance to see your work curated in different contexts. At SIFF and other festivals, your work has been framed in terms of understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you feel that’s an appropriate presentation of your work?

A: It’s a limited view. We are all born somewhere but it doesn’t mean that our mind and our work is limited just to where we were born. I definitely do have an interest in subjects relating to my country, but I also touch subjects that go beyond that. However, it is not for me to decide how my films are presented. If I have time I would gladly come and talk about the specifics of my work, but more often than not it is out of my hands. They (programmers) are the exclusive interpreter of my work.

Q: What kind of influence have film festivals had on your career?

A: It’s the main form of distribution, since commercial distribution is becoming even more strictly commercial. Festivals give people a platform to expose themselves, and works that they wouldn’t be able to show otherwise.

Q: How do you decide which festivals to show at?

A: At this stage I’m fortunate enough to have festivals come to me and propose to show my work, and I am able to be a little selective with where I present films.

Q: Do you worry about the sociopolitical context of your works being lost at international festivals?

A: No. I think people are intelligent enough that they can “read through” things. Even if I am, say, reading a Chinese poem of the 12th century, there are some parameters within which writers can achieve their effects. People from different cultures will have different readings and see things differently but I think that’s inevitable.

Q: When you use a foreign star like Natalie Portman or Juliette Binoche, do you have to take the audience’s special interest in them into account? Do you have make sure that they don’t unbalance the film’s tone?

A: Absolutely. You have to make sure you contextualise their effect.

Q: You’ve said before that film is not such an “intimate” art, that you have to translate “your idea through a lot of filters until you finally get the results. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: You have to work with other people. Filmmakers come to a stage where they have to consider many other factors. Usually people just think of the significance of producers, but the DOP, actors and sound recordist are just as important. My works wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for them. Film can’t be a work of a single person. The director is important as he or she gives a sense of what people need to do together, but still without a team they wouldn’t be able to achieve their goal.

Q: What kind of challenges does your style of long shots impose?

A: You definitely need to structure the shot and create a choreography with the actors.

Q: The siblings in in your recent film Disengagement had a very close, almost decadent relationship, like the one you see between characters in, say, Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. Can you tell me about the construction and significance of that relationship?

A: I wanted the great intimacy between the characters, but at the same time they had to be separated. In order to get that effect of separation I had to create the intimacy as contrast.


April 19, 2009

by Lesley Chow

Albert Serra’s Birdsong sits oddly within the Singapore International Film Festival’s programming mix. Even in a festival with several austere dramas, this Spanish director’s work is on another level of aesthetic minimalism. Although the stated aim of the festival founder, Geoffrey Malone, is seeing “another side of the human condition” and “transporting us into” other worlds where we may see “we are not so badly off after all” – some of Amos Gitai’s films certainly fit the bill on that count – Serra’s films don’t oblige.

While the program tells us that Sincerely Yours, a drama about poor immigrants in Taiwan, is “in essence about…the celebration of the human spirit”, Birdsong is by comparison unrevealing – less of a “window” on the world than a large tonalist canvas, a work of minimalist landscape art. I find Serra’s films to be textured like Constable’s paintings of clouds, with their shots of near-stillness and ghostly, evaporating atmospheres. Occasionally, his images seem to “lock” onscreen: to go from being part of a formal procession to an inability to budge, as if the impetus for action had suddenly been removed. Serra’s work has a kind of slow-pulling momentum which becomes hypnotic; however, some find the inertia frustrating – his previous film, Honor de Cavalleria (2006), a reworking of Don Quixote, sparked walkouts at the Melbourne International Film Festival when an image failed to shift for more than a minute.

Birdsong is a dried-out version of the tale of the three wise men, similar to Honor de Cavalleria’s extreme reduction of Don Quixote to a bare stage and faltering signs of heroism. The three men trudge around a landscape of mountains and rocky formations, the severity of which suggests that this is “all there is.” That they are kings we can tell from their broken crowns and the cloaks that balloon awkwardly around their bodies, but their bearing is far from regal. These are tentative old men, who occasionally work themselves up to hoarse whispers or exhalations; when they do confer, it’s generally to muse on their own stagnation and inability to come to a decision. Like Beckett, Serra shows ineffectual bodies set against stony landscapes; the men are seemingly directionless and grumbling in their search for the baby Jesus. Their attempts to read the blank, motionless sky and earth come to nothing; their figures are often reduced to dark buds bobbing above a white plain. When “transcendence” does arrive, it takes on a startlingly didactic form: a strange, intense woman pops up from nowhere, and bluntly tells us that Christian doctrine is unquestionable.

The three men lie around hoping for a plot to materialise, as attempts at sticking to the Biblical narrative fall off track. Even Mary and Joseph, who ostensibly have more defined roles to play, are not free from apathy; Joseph lazily asks the time of day, and wonders what Mary feels like doing. Clearly, character motivation is not something which communicates itself to these people, except in odd fits and starts. Nevertheless, even in this opaque world, a coup does occur (spoilers ahead.) During an idle moment, the men suddenly come across Jesus and plop down their offerings for him; in a rare instance of synchronicity, all three hail the infant and prostrate themselves, having apparently worked out a gestural code beforehand. However – in another nod to Beckett – once they lie down, they seem to have little inclination to get up, and may well have fallen asleep.

An interesting choice for SIFF: after seeing a number of determinedly small family and relationship dramas, it’s refreshing to encounter something on this scale of stylistic ambition. The SIFF promo screened before films urges us to make the most basic of character identifications: to empathise with “the fiancé that cannot say no…the girl who sits alone at lunch.” However, it may be that, as in so many film festivals, the use of generic marketing language is a red herring, leading us to expect a more conventional program than SIFF delivers. The sold-out session of Birdsong is evidence that local audiences know to read between the lines.

Interview with Amir Muhammad

April 19, 2009

by Farah Azalea and Lesley Chow

A very vocal guest at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival was political documentary-maker Amir Muhammad, who has had two films banned in Malaysia, including Malaysian Gods, his current feature on the furore surrounding the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. As a result, Muhammad often takes his films to SIFF; his films have also screened at Berlin and Sundance, as well as a career retrospective in Pesaro. We were curious to find out how Muhammad’s career has been shaped by the international festival circuit, especially since his work is so culturally specific, drawing heavily on local vernacular, humour, culture and politics.

Q: How important have film festivals been in establishing your career?

A: They’re good because we get money and publicity from them. But at the big festivals you become a flavour of the month and it’s difficult. If you have a small film your work can get lost in the huge selection of movies. In Berlin it’s a bit different because they have a whole section of small films. People tell you all the time, “Go and meet this white curator,” but that’s not my priority. Sometimes, though, you have to be pragmatic rather than just chasing the festivals you happen to like.

Q: So other than financially, European and US festivals are not a big part of your agenda?

A: It was important to me that Malaysian Gods have an Asian premiere, which is why I’m having it in Singapore rather than Rotterdam. You have to make a film that communicates with the people around you, even though some might think it’s an old-fashioned way of working. If you make films only for international audiences the work becomes more and more diluted.

Q: But given that most of your public screenings are for audiences outside Malaysia, does it worry you that some of your films’ political context may be lost? Do you adapt your films for a foreign audience, eg, by adding more explanation and background information?

A: I think it’s inevitable that the context may be slightly altered as I don’t think there is any such thing as a universal film. There will always be nuances that a foreign audience doesn’t pick up on; even in Japanese melodramas there are details that I’m sure only a Japanese viewer would understand. It’s a matter of striking a balance between a foreign audience and an audience who knows the subject and doesn’t want to see it explained from scratch.

Q: What has your experience at the Singapore International Film Festival been like?

A: There is a community here and I’ve met so many other filmmakers with whom I can discuss and compare issues. From what I gather Singaporean censors are a lot more “market-savvy” than the ones at home. In Malaysia if you direct a schlock comedy that makes a lot of money, you almost have more independence than a so-called independent filmmaker.

Q: What sort of criteria do you look for in a film festival you’re considering submitting to?

A: For a small production like ours, we do rely on the screening fees from these festivals and of course we would be looking for those with the right kind of exposure. But to be totally honest with you, there are times where I submit them for “vanity reasons.” The bigger the recognition the higher your chances are of getting screened at prestigious festivals.

What Tongue?

April 17, 2009

by Lesley Chow

While a trip to the Singapore International Film Festival doesn’t necessarily involve exposure to a new language, it does require a re-orientation of English and its use in Southeast Asia. Singlish is the lingua franca of Singapore, a form of English which incorporates terms, syntax and grammar from Malay, Chinese dialects and Indian languages. Visitors to Singapore and Malaysia might note the easy switch between languages and tones, and the various ways in which English is styled: American-accented fluency, a near-total integration into dialect, or an upbeat and emphatic use, as if in quotes.

Does the language spoken in films reflect this casual diversity? Singaporean films generally suffer less language restrictions than those in Malaysia, where filmmakers requiring government support are pressured to use a denaturalised and perfect Malay, which renders dialogue formal and unreal. Nevertheless, there has been a struggle to incorporate everyday language into films, rather than state-approved English and Mandarin (in the ‘80s, Chinese dialects were banned from the media, with education and state campaigns enforcing a standardisation of language.) As the Singaporean academic Edna Lim has written, speaking Singlish and dialects marks a film character as both ordinary and “other”, since he or she is “doomed to being average…not part of Singapore’s rhetoric of success.” The first local film to use Singlish was produced as late as 1996 – however, the relative success of these pictures has meant that many films today use Singlish, Hokkien Chinese, or a combination of tongues.

An overlap of languages has been the key to the naturalistic tone of independent Singaporean and Malaysian films – for instance, the dramas of the Malaysian childhood film Flower in the Pocket, screened at last year’s SIFF, are based in linguistic confusion. The protagonists are two young Mandarin-speaking boys, whose uncertain orientation is linked to language. We watch them relate to their inward, Cantonese-speaking father, a Malay teacher who muddles and refuses to accept their names, and finally, a little Muslim tomboy who gives them glamorous new avatars. There is a constant, informal process of translation within the film – even during the appearance of a doctor whose comically inexpressive English remains broad and skit-like within the general calm. Flower in the Pocket is simultaneously a quiet and tonally delicate film, reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang, and an accessibly heterogeneous piece. The use of language lets us know who a film is oriented “for” – rather than settling for an artificially purified dialogue, it makes connections with a local audience accustomed to a range of tongues.

It’s in this context of cultural ambiguity that I watched this year’s Kallang Roar, a fairly routine Singaporean football comedy, but one in which it’s possible to observe a combination of multi-lingual familiarity and a self-consciousness about inclusion. Cheng Ding An’s film, which looks at the attempts of the underdog Lions to win the Malaysian Cup in 1977, lets us know that football binds “all races” in the fight for “country before all”, and the team is conspicuously multi-racial, with the names of the various ethnic Japanese, Indian, and other characters printed onscreen (an online casting site called for actors to be “traditionally Chinese in character”, “Brazilian in nature”, etc.)

The protagonist, a tough football coach (Lim Kay Siu), speaks mostly in English, but switches to dialects when feeling nostalgic, such as recalling the names of various comfort foods. “English”, as in the nationality as well as the language, is represented by a blond, foppish and powdered-looking character named Trevor Hartley, an initial potential villain who comes good. This figure, who seems to embody almost a Regency idea of Englishness, speaks in a declarative tone of voice and resembles the starched Caucasian characters often seen in African-American films.

However, given that most of the action takes place backstage in organisational machinations, rather than on the field, I started to wonder whether this film was really about football, or even “all races.” Success culminates in a celebration of “centralised training” and self-sacrifice, where acquiescence to a universal system is seen as a gutsy manoeuvre rather than conformity.

Festival Reporter Profile 1

April 9, 2009

My names Lesley Chow and Im an Australian writer on film as well as dance, music and art. The majority of my recent writings on film can be found at Bright Lights, but so far I have yet to explore the politics of distribution and programming, or the inner workings of a festival, as we (myself and Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin) plan to do at this years Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF).

I have a particular interest in language in cinema the tones of actors voices, stylistic tics, and the general mix of tongues heard in films so I will be on the lookout for a variety of language uses in Singaporean cinema.  Language and dialects may also provide clues as to the audience that SIFF is targeting: for instance, a Southeast Asian film containing large amounts of English could either be seen as “pandering” to a foreign audience, or making realistic use of a lingua franca.

My previous experience of film festivals has tended to involve zoning in on directors and works straight away, without giving much attention to the machinery and the ideological interests which govern programming.  Its the addition of social context which will make this subject interesting.  It will be a challenge to try and uncover the hidden basis of the institution: namely, who the festival is really for.