Posts Tagged ‘Singapore International Film Festival’

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.

Where is the Sex?

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Up until my last day in Singapore, I was still preoccupied with the idea of the films which had been banned. I wanted to see for myself how offensive a sex scene could be for a film to be taken out of a festival filled with sexual themes. I was trying to see if I could spot any double standards in regard to homosexuality, race and religion. From viewing Melancholia, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and Boy, I felt the reasons for banning could be justified given their over-the-top sex scenes.

But Female Games was an exception. I was so grateful that I decided to persist in viewing this film, since it was totally booked out at the festival lounge the day before. It’s easily the best film I saw at this festival and it totally changed my perception of Singaporean films, which I found mediocre up to now. Not only did I fail to understand the reasons for the ban, I felt sorry for SIFF audiences who were denied such a pleasure.

As was the case with the other withdrawn films, this film is said to have prolonged and explicit homosexual scenes. However, the only lesbian scene in this film didn’t happen until the last ten minutes or so, and it showed two women in a candle-lit room dancing romantically and making out semi-naked with Mozart in the background. It barely lasted two minutes, and was supposed to depict a romantic loving relationship. The very few other “sex” scenes were merely suggestive (as was the case with the short films I saw at SIFF) and hardly had a lasting impact, unlike the ones in the other banned films.

What left an impact was how incredibly brilliant the entire film was, from start to finish. The plot wasn’t uncommon but incredibly realistic. What stood out for me was the style. The locations were outdoors, with dialogue drowned out by the ambient noise, as though we were witnessing a real life conversation. The shot compositions were carefully choreographed and each one carried a specific message. When a character revealed a secret to the protagonist, his figure was in half frame and his face could not be seen although his words were loud and clear. The protagonist then looked sideways towards the camera, as if responding to us watching from the other side.

Director Kan Lume breaks many Hollywood codes. Often the camera was placed on a tripod and the subject would move in and out of frame. The pace was slow but not painful, every step filmed without seeming redundant. The dialogue sounded free-flowing and natural – it was hard to imagine it being scripted.

Often the scenes were interspersed with a video interview of the protagonist, but this wasn’t cheesy or predictable. If anything, this technique threw the film off-balance a little, making it more intriguing. At the very end of the film, I was so taken aback by the progression of the plot that some minor details escaped me; I had to re-watch it to satisfy my doubts. Many plot points listed in the blurb never occurred – the director later told me to disregard the blurb, as he had no say in its wording. The film leaves you intrigued, hungry for more but at the same time completely satisfied. It was the best way to conclude the festival.

Digging Up The Trash

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Unlike some blurbs which appear to have been written by an advertising agency, the descriptions of films in the Singapore International Film Festival catalogue were reasonably good. They were mostly brief but succinct, highlighting potential events of interest in the film, and how the film came to be selected for its particular section. I would say that the catalogue blurbs played a large part in my selection of films: that, and the director, country of origin, and the programming strand (as in, Singapore Panorama, Asian Feature Film Competition, etc.)

My colleague and I made our selections before heading to Singapore, but a few days before the festival started, the website announced that six of the films in the list had been withdrawn. To my disappointment, three of my film choices had been taken out. For the most part, these films were disallowed or passed with edits as they contained “prolonged” and illicit sexual scenes. I was lucky to be able to watch four of these films at the festival lounge, and as I ended up loving most of them. It frustrated me that the festival audience didn’t get to see such great films, particularly Female Games, which I will discuss in a later entry.

If anything, the bans just made people more curious, and I had to queue to see the withdrawn films. Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly, a young Indonesian director’s attempt at combining identity politics with pop culture, and marital issues with homosexual fetishes, would have intrigued anyone who read the blurb. My guess was that the film was withdrawn partly for religious and race issues, since Indonesia and Singapore have a similar mix of ethnicities and religions, but apply different concerns and approaches to them. But ultimately, it was a terribly uncomfortable and disturbing 11 minute ménage a trois (witnessed by a daughter of one of the participants) between grown men with fetishes for army gear that I believe was the reason behind the ban. It’s unfortunate, since a scene that could have easily been cut out prevented SIFF audiences from viewing an honest portrayal of citizens who feel foreign in their own land. The director explained the significance of a Chinese-Indonesian girl eating firecrackers as a citizen who is constantly waiting for something to blow up. He represented the fear, paranoia and confusion of minority Chinese-Indonesians who do not know how to be themselves and are constantly searching for answers. He used non-linear storytelling and built up his stories in segments, offering audiences a total panoramic experience, rather than just a beginning, a conflict and an end.

Next I moved to Boy, a Filipino story of lip-synching drag queens and dancing rent boys. The reasons for the ban of this film were not stated, but if I were to judge it by its ten minute sex scene between a young boy and a rented dancer, I would say that the reasons were similar to the other banned films. Aside from that, full frontal nudity, foul language and the continuous discussion of penis sizes and hard-ons might have seemed inappropriate for a festival like SIFF. Yet if all those scenes were taken out, it would severely affect the plot of the film. Although there isn’t anything extraordinary in a story of a boy who falls in love with a stripper, the performances were convincing and the film’s witty poetry was something to remember.

When the notes on Melancholia stated that it was 450 minutes long, I was almost certain that it was an error in the program (as was the case with a few other films), but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Shot in digital black and white, the film sounded promising from its blurb: the story of a prostitute, a pimp and a nun in the provincial town of Sagada in the Philippines. And judging from some unexpectedly amazing Filipino films I’ve seen at SIFF, I decided to give it a go. But I found the film incredibly painful, with endlessly drawn-out shots à la Andy Warhol’s Sleep. The eight hours turned out only to contain a few scenes. A character would light three cigarettes in turn, with the scene still not ending when the third one had been put out. The two sex scenes were also interminable – fifteen minutes each. Prolonged and illicit indeed.

Singapore Panorama

April 21, 2009

by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin

Almost all of the filmmakers I’ve met at the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) agree that film festivals are a great starting point for new filmmakers and serve as a platform for films that wouldn’t have an opportunity to be screened commercially. Even the famous Amos Gitai feels that commercial cinema today is getting to be too commercialized and cookie cutter, which prevents the public from seeing some great art films. In SIFF, there seems to be a specific focus on local films as there are many Singaporean categories and awards. A section called Singapore Panorama, a highly anticipated section that was first introduced last year, is dedicated to discovering new and exciting Singaporean features and short films.

For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with the direction that some of the seven short films took. Sexual themes seem to be prevalent in SIFF 2009, albeit with a few being censored or banned from screening altogether. The Singapore Panorama Shorts dealt with issues which are specifically Singaporean, such as the compulsory National Service in Blank Rounds, an experimental film by several directors, and common human attributes such as love, lust and longing.

Dirty Bitch, a semi-musical short film was an unexpected surprise, and not necessarily in a good way. Inspired by a badly censored VHS of Claire Denis’ Nenette et Boni found in the Singapore library, the entire 13 minute short revolved around a police constable’s sexual fantasy who was lusting over his “chubby” colleague, who unfortunately was in another relationship. He narrates distastefully his desires for her while the image cuts back and forth between him masturbating and her being in a sexualized state while doing everyday things. Strange sex, white bunnies, violence and polka music should make for a memorable film, but not in this case.

Five emerging local directors collaborated in a project called Infinity showing the never-ending cycle of certain elements of life. Still Life, a personal favorite of mine, was a compilation of ambient sounds taped by the sound recordist on various locations such as a bathroom, football field, closed room and bedroom. All the shots were still and we were able to see and hear what the man holding the boom was experiencing. What made this film striking was the use of static actors against a live background, as if the performers’ moves had been frozen and recorded in a similar way to the sound. A segment called “Untitled, 17th January 2009” showed a camera moving 360 degrees from the starting point of a Chinese calendar. As it panned across, the things in the room revealed that it belonged to an old Chinese woman. A shirt, box fan, talcum powder, back scratcher, satay fan and an old dresser appeared as the camera moved while a conversation between an old lady and what is presumed to be her granddaughter was heard in the background. As the camera returned to the starting point, the voices slowly faded and then disappeared. The camera’s 360 degree pan portrayed her life in full circle, and the cycle a woman goes through in a single day. Although it might seem long and mundane, I found the film absorbing and just when you think it’s ending, it starts all over again. Nothing is Forever had clever shots of a glass being filled to the brink but not spilling, toilet paper rolling down endlessly but never finishing, a chunk taken out of a piece of meat being immediately refilled, and a teller (presumably) quickly counting notes. The film finishes with the water level in the glass getting fuller; the person pouring eventually stops. The film suggests that the material things in life can constantly be refilled or replaced, but we should know when to stop when things have reached their limit.

Blank Rounds evoked a lot of emotions from the very start. Depicting the strict regime of the compulsory National Service that young male Singaporeans are required to participate in; the film tells the story of a participant who was belittled by his commanders and bullied by his platoon mates. Depressed and unhappy, Recruit Tien resorts to extreme measures to escape from the program. Desperately needing to “hang on to his sanity before losing it”, what happens next would churn anyone’s stomach as he consumes his own faeces. The unexpected twist in the final scene left me feeling uneasy and slightly disturbed. Tien’s facial expression when we find out that his insanity and depression is an act reminded me of the ending of Shock Corridor when the main character starts laughing hysterically.

In Garden Girls, a divorced and distressed photographer finds distraction in his female neighbour’s intimacy with her girlfriend. He is fascinated by them and follows them as he captures their pictures. Instead of being outraged when he is caught, one of the girls requests him to photograph her on a very sad day in her life. Somehow, this causes him to let go of his past and find closure. Garden Girls started with great potential, but a mix of unrealistic circumstances and poor acting made it mediocre.

Mosquitoes-Xiao Fu was described as a 10-minute gem, presumably because it was shot expressively using a Super-8 camera. This was the most technically accomplished film: striking in its use of colours, music, and hand-drawn images of flying creatures, but pretty and pleasant rather than ambitious.

Probably the hardest – and longest – film to watch was Love Lost. A man finding difficulty letting go of a relationship visits Taiwan where his former girlfriend resides. Painfully long shots and extremely stiff performances made the 45 minutes seem an eternity. If it wasn’t for the filmmaker who was sitting next to me, I would have walked out! His artistic attempts failed terribly and some were too cheesy. The director clearly wanted to depict the character’s loneliness, by showing that he would rather be amongst strangers than be alone. A scenario which would be simple enough to execute, without needing to have the man ‘stalk’ a Buddhist priest for hours, asking “is there still hope?” The climax of the film was when the former lovers momentarily reunited. Again, the director’s attempt at portraying emotions using still shots with complete silence was nothing but boring and lengthy. The stills lasted for 4 minutes. The film went on for 45.

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.

Malaysian Gods

April 19, 2009

by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin

Controversial Malaysian independent director Amir Muhammad is no stranger to the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). He has screened most of his films here and this year he personally chose to premiere Malaysian Gods in Singapore over Rotterdam. Unlike his two previous films which were completely banned by the Malaysian censorship board, Malaysian Gods passed without cuts but was not allowed to screen. Muhammad is the first and only Malaysian to have screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2006 he had the luxury of premiering two films in Berlinale. However, in his own words, Muhammad would choose an Asian premiere over a European one any time, and Singapore was the most obvious choice for him. When Malaysia banned his infamous Last Communist Standing in 2007, Singapore gladly screened it uncut, and from then on, Muhammad has often been featured at SIFF.

Muhammad challenges the norm in a conservative country like Malaysia. While most people in the arts would be very wary of addressing government controversies and political issues such as racial segregation and distribution of rights, Muhammad chooses these as his main themes. Malaysian Gods is a first for Malaysian cinema, in that Tamil is the main language featured in this film. The majority of the cast were from the ethnic Indian Tamil minority group (with the exception of a Tamil-speaking Chinese woman), who are barely represented in Malay films. The introduction of the film is a list of facts about ethnic Indian groups, which might confuse audiences expecting a film in Malay.

Prior to the screening, a panel member from the discussion led by Muhammad stated that Muhammad’s films are never to be judged based on their titles or descriptions. This film was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the biggest street demonstration in Malaysia as a result of the sacking of the then Deputy Prime Minister on corruption and sodomy charges. While the event was a serious one that left a huge impact on Malaysian history, the film explored peripheral and at times unrelated issues rather than just focusing on the event itself. Although Indians are a minority group who are often sidelined, their small and powerful voice in the Hindu Rights Action Movement (HINDRAF) gathering last year resulted in the worst election results the ruling government has seen in 50 years – therefore Muhammad refers to them as the Malaysian Gods.

The irony in this film extended to its soundtrack, which featured a popular Malay love song being played on an erhu (traditional Chinese stringed instrument) by an Indian man in Kuala Lumpur. The next thing we hear is upbeat Bhangra music in the background as we read details of historical events followed by live footage of the demonstration. The film ended with the statement: “we must not mistake perfection for progression”.


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.