Pop Culture

I choose to err on the side of generosity when it comes to reporting local film-makers' awards

A movie deserves due merit unless there is evidence to prove that an award is a pay-to-play token

Late last week, there was online outrage over how it was much ado about nothing for media outlets, including The Straits Times, to report that local actress and film-maker Michelle Chong's comedy movie Lulu The Movie (2016) had won an award at an obscure film festival.

Chong, 39, had picked up the Best Director prize at the Canada International Festival. 

The mood online was mostly celebratory - one of our own made a mark overseas, hooray!

But there were sceptics. They point out how, at best, this festival was no Cannes or Sundance and, at worst, the award was bogus, the film equivalent of a degree mill.

That latter charge is a serious one to make because it supposes that Chong and her producers are naive, or worse, deliberately misleading.

As a journalist, I choose to err on the side of generosity. Unless there is a certain amount of evidence that an award is a pay-to-play token, I choose to think that the artist is acting in good faith because it makes sense that Chong and her producer will not abuse the trust the press have placed in her.

And if evidence comes along later that she has abused that trust, we will publish it.

In reply to a request for a statement, Chong said: "Even if it's a less-established film festival, I feel honoured to have been picked from all the entries sent in. We are a commercial film that did well at the box office and our run ended way before we were informed of this award.

"We also recently sold our cable and online streaming rights to 10 countries in Asia for a six-figure sum. The award was icing on the cake."

There is a silver lining in this affair: Public awareness of the world of dubious awards is growing.

We live in a time when doctorates, awards and even aristocratic titles - do you want to be a duke or a count? - can be bought with a mouse click. There are hawker awards, businessman- of-the-year awards and architectural awards. 

On movie posters, have you noticed the laurel wreath symbols, indicating festival prizes? Next time, take a closer look - you might not have heard of some of them. 

If you were a movie producer or distributor and your film was given an award from a small city in South-east Asia or from a corner of Eastern Europe, would you ignore it or would you add it to your website and stick it on your poster, knowing it might sell a few more tickets?

There is demand and supply - movies need marketing levers and festivals provide them.

Even famous awards-granting bodies are not exempt from controversy. People always wonder if Oscar voters watch every one of the dozens of films they receive on disc before casting votes. 

There were 89 submissions to the Best Foreign Language Film category in this year's Academy Awards - if you were a voter, would you watch all 89 movies or would you watch the ones from film-makers you know or seen advertisements for and toss the rest?

It is expensive to pepper Los Angeles with what is known as For Your Consideration advertising, but there is a link between how much a country or studio spends on billboards and commercials and the chances of winning. 

Is this shady? Does it diminish the lustre of an Oscar win? 

There are awards and there are awards. A decade from now, we will remember Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013) as the Golden Horse Awards winner; we will forget about Lulu The Movie and its Canada International Festival win. 

Journalists should care about fake versus real news, of course. But in a few weeks, when Kirsten Tan's drama Pop Aye opens here, writers will mention its win at the Sundance Film Festival for screenwriting and its nomination for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize; but if the topic of Lulu The Movie comes up, few will care enough to mention its festival laurels.

Time sorts out these things.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2017, with the headline 'Giving film awards the benefit of the doubt'. Print Edition | Subscribe