Film society marks 60 years

Shirkers by Singapore-born film-maker Sandi Tan (above right, with Sophie Siddique) will be screened at Capitol Theatre to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Film Society. Singapore Film Society chairman Kenneth Tan working on a film ree
Shirkers by Singapore-born film-maker Sandi Tan (above right, with Sophie Siddique) will be screened at Capitol Theatre to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Film Society.PHOTO: NETFLIX
Shirkers by Singapore-born film-maker Sandi Tan (above right, with Sophie Siddique) will be screened at Capitol Theatre to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Film Society. Singapore Film Society chairman Kenneth Tan working on a film ree
Singapore Film Society chairman Kenneth Tan working on a film reel in the 1990s (above).PHOTO: SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY
Shirkers by Singapore-born film-maker Sandi Tan (above right, with Sophie Siddique) will be screened at Capitol Theatre to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Film Society. Singapore Film Society chairman Kenneth Tan working on a film ree
Singapore Film Society chairman Kenneth Tan with Hong Kong actors Wong Hei (far left) and Daniel Wu (fourth from left) and Taiwanese singer-actress Yi Neng-jing (centre) at the SFS HK/Taiwan Film Festival in 2000.PHOTO: SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY

Anniversary events include the Singapore premiere of Sandi Tan's documentary Shirkers, which won a directing award at Sundance this year

In the early 1980s, if you loved films but wanted more than what local cinemas provided, there was a place for oddballs like you: the Singapore Film Society (SFS).

The SFS is where two secondary school friends, Jasmine Ng and Sandi Tan, found their tribe.

Through the society's regular screenings and from meeting other members, the teenagers' eyes were opened to a world of independent cinema from around the globe. Arthouse cinemas, cable television and the Singapore International Film Festival had yet to exist here.

Ng, now a film-maker, says: "We would watch double bills that paired a film from the 1950s with one from the 1970s, so you could see how the new film paid homage to the older one. It was the best film education."

Fired up by what they saw, they yearned to make their own movie.

In 1992, with friend Sophie Siddique, they set out to make Shirkers, a fantasy-tinged road movie written by and starring Tan. Filming wrapped when, to the shock of the young women, American director Georges Cardona disappeared, taking the footage with him.

  • BOOK IT/SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY 60TH ANNIVERSARY X SHIRKERS SINGAPORE PREMIERE

  • WHERE: Capitol Theatre

    WHEN: Oct 20, 6.30pm

    ADMISSION: $60 (stall seats), $40 (dress circle), $20 (upper circle), Singapore Film Society Film Addicts members enjoy 20 per cent off ticket prices

    INFO: To book, go to gv.com.sg

Shirkers, the documentary about what it was like to shoot, lose, then find the 1992 footage again was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

At the festival, Tan, now a novelist living in California, won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. Shirkers will be available on Netflix from Oct 26.

Her film will premiere in Singapore on Oct 20 at Capitol Theatre at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Film Society. Tan, a former film critic with The Straits Times, will speak at the screening. She will be joined by members of the cast and crew from the 1992 film.

Fittingly, proceeds from the screening will support the work of the society that gave Tan and Ng access to films from around the world.

Mr Kenneth Tan, chairman of the SFS, calls it a "beautiful convergence" that its 60th birthday movie, already a love letter to cinema made by former members, contains so much of 1990s Singapore in it.

"That's really lovely, isn't it?," says Mr Tan, 53, of the film's associations with the SFS.

The former managing director of Golden Village Multiplex and former assistant chief executive with the then Media Development Authtority (now Infocomm Media Development Authority) was elected to his current post in the SFS in 1984 and has held it ever since.

Research by current members of the SFS shows that the society was founded in 1958 by what appear to be British cinephiles linked to the University of Singapore's Guild House. In past decades, the group held its screenings using facilities provided by the Alliance Francaise and the Goethe Institut.

These days, screenings have expanded to cineplexes run by Golden Village, Filmgarde and Shaw, and in spaces owned by the National Gallery Singapore, the National Museum of Singapore and the Arts House.

Mr Edmund Wee, 66, publisher and chief executive of Epigram Books, who held the post of honorary secretary in the SFS from 1976 to 1984, says: "In those days, what was available was commercial cinema and nothing else.

"We would hire films from a distributor in London. The reels would be flown in and they would be sent to censors, and that would take some time."

Committee members stayed up to date by scouring magazines such as Sight And Sound, published by the British Film Institute, he adds.

Film-maker Eva Tang used to attend SFS screenings in the 1990s and notes how the organisation has evolved to stay relevant in a time when film fans are spoilt for choice, given the dozens of film festivals held yearly and streaming services.

Tang, maker of the 2015 documentary about the xinyao music movement, The Songs We Sang, says that the society fills niches ignored by other platforms.

The society, for example, has over time become strongly involved in festivals, such as the Minds Film Festival, held with the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, and the Singapore Chinese Film Festival, co-organised with the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Tang is fond of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival, an annual event started in 2013, which pulls in a broad array of films from Asia and beyond. It satisfies a hunger for Mandarin and dialect films in a landscape where non-mainstream, non-English works struggle to find an audience, she says.

While the society's strategy might have changed over the decades, the emotions that drive its members have not, she says.

"The members and volunteers never ask for anything in return for what they do. They just want to watch movies. That is the thing that binds them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2018, with the headline 'Film society marks 60 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe