Provocative film offerings at Sifa’s The O.P.E.N.

A Magical Substance Flows Into Me deals with Israeli-Arab tension and Fire At Sea (above) addresses the refugee crisis.
A Magical Substance Flows Into Me deals with Israeli-Arab tension and Fire At Sea (above) addresses the refugee crisis.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS
A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (above) deals with Israeli-Arab tension and Fire At Sea addresses the refugee crisis.
A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (above) deals with Israeli-Arab tension and Fire At Sea addresses the refugee crisis.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS

The films at this year's The O.P.E.N. section of the Singapore International Festival of Arts reflect current problems such as the refugee crisis

The problems of the world - the refugee crisis, the varieties of extremism that include terrorism and economic hardship - are at the heart of this year's The O.P.E.N. section of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Festival director Ong Keng Sen says the programme "turns the lens around to look at the crises in the 21st century in a different way".

"Post 9/11, the world changed completely. The fear of an economic crisis is always at the back of our minds, for instance. The films look at the problems and see a potential for a different world," he tells The Straits Times.

Both he and film curator Tan Bee Thiam mention the closing film, the drama Fire At Sea (2016, 107 minutes), winner of the Golden Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival, as an example of a film that addresses current issues.

The French-Italian production, directed by Gianfranco Rosi, dramatises the refugee crisis. It looks at Europe "as a fortress, and people dying at the gates of the fortress," says Ong.

  • BOOK IT /SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS THE O.P.E.N.

  • WHERE: Various venues

    WHEN: Today to July 9

    ADMISSION: O.P.E.N. Pass,$45 for all programmes; single entry, $10; registration required before entry

    INFO: For details and schedule, go to www.sifa.sg

The O.P.E.N. (Open, Participate, Engage, Negotiate) is the traditional curtain-raising event that runs from today to July 9, before the arts festival proper, from Aug 11 to Sept 17.

The film section opens on Saturday with a marathon screening of the three films in The Arabian Nights Trilogy (2015) from Portuguese film-maker Miguel Gomes, before closing on July 9 with Fire At Sea.

Ong offers the documentary A Magical Substance Flows Into Me (2015, 68 minutes) as another instance of a film that puts a new perspective on a topic often viewed as intractable, that of Israeli- Arab tension in the Palestinian territories.

Director Jumana Manna, a Palestinian now living in Berlin, sees how closely intertwined musical traditions in the region were in the past, "before walls were built", Ong says.

The film features several performances by folk musicians of the region, some of them the last few practitioners of traditions going back centuries.

Manna, 29, speaking to The Straits Times on the telephone from Beirut, Lebanon, says that she was trying to examine that idea that communities of the area - Kurds, Palestinian Bedouins, Coptic Christians, the Samaritans and other Jewish groups - have always separated themselves from one another.

By studying the radio programmes of music scholar Robert Lachmann, made before World War II, she found that chasms between groups are a relatively recent development.

Lachmann travelled all over the region doing field recordings.

"What Lachmann did was fascinating. He was doing a portrait of music in Palestine in 1936 and 1937. He was trying to undermine the divide - that was already overbearing at the time - between Arabs and Jews," she says.

Her thesis in the documentary is that inter-communal relations suffered greatly because of the policies of the British overseers and the postwar influx of European Jews.

The music, haunting and ancient, is performed in living rooms and stables. In one kitchen, a man plays a stringed instrument while a woman sings as she washes the dishes. Like Lachmann, Manna travelled to any place where musicians still play ancient songs.

"I thought about where people listen to the radio. Music is intimate and is transferred through the family, she says.

Among the highlights this year is Embrace Of The Serpent (2015, 123 minutes), a drama nominated in the Best Foreign Film award category of this year's Oscars. In the film, an Amazonian shaman is sought by a white scientist, hoping to find a plant with powerful curative powers.

Sixty Six (90 minutes, 2002-2015) is American film- maker Lewis Klahr's short film anthology that marks three decades in making works that break down the conventions of cinematic storytelling.

He uses magazine and comic book cutouts to tell stories that obliquely reference everything from America in the 1960s, to soap opera television, to the myths of ancient Greece.

He understands that viewers are often all at sea when watching his dense, allusive collage films.

"Part of what they are grappling with as viewers is that they are looking at what I've done, and looking at the way I collaborate with the source and context of the materials, with the sound," he tells The Straits Times on the telephone from Los Angeles.

At a more basic level, he says Sixty Six is in one sense autobiographical.

"The film is not about things I've experienced, but I've experienced things like the ones shown. So there is a sense of looking back at life, at the shape of the life I've lived."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Mirroring a world in crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe