Change of leadership at Singapore International Film Festival 'not sign of trouble'

Despite the resignation of the Singapore International Film Festival's festival director Zhang Wenjie, things are looking up for the organisation

Above: Actress Zhang Ziyi walking the red carpet at the 2014 edition of the festival.
Above: Actress Zhang Ziyi walking the red carpet at the 2014 edition of the festival. PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

The departure of the Singapore International Film Festival's (SGIFF) festival director should not be read as a sign of trouble in the ranks, the organisation's executive director, Ms Yuni Hadi, assures.

Ms Yuni, 41, says that Mr Zhang Wenjie, 42, who has been associated with the festival since before its relaunch in 2014, was a "key member of the team".

"He worked very well with the programming team. Because he was with the National Museum (of Singapore) and The Substation, he had a passion for the classics and for Singapore film," she tells The Straits Times from Bangkok, where she lives with husband, Thai film- maker Aditya Assarat.

She says Mr Zhang left on amicable terms. He will be replaced by Thai film-maker Pimpaka Towira, who will be SGIFF's programme director.

The festival, launched in 1987, is Singapore's largest and longestrunning film festival.

The annual event went dark for three years before relaunching in 2014, led by Ms Yuni, Mr Zhang and a new board of directors. It also became part of the Singapore Media Festival, hosted by the Media Development Authority of Singapore (now the Info-communications Media Development Authority).

Above: Ms Yuni Hadi, the Singapore International Film Festival's executive director, and Mr Zhang Wenjie, who has quit as its festival director, at its 2015 edition.
Ms Yuni Hadi, the Singapore International Film Festival's executive director, and Mr Zhang Wenjie, who has quit as its festival director, at its 2015 edition.PHOTO: FIORENZO NIZI

Before its rebirth, it had been plagued by organisational turmoil that included the resignations of key persons.

These included Ms Yuni and Mr Zhang, who in 2009 resigned from their festival director posts just one year after joining, citing creative differences with senior management.

This time around, Mr Zhang tells The Straits Times that he quit because he "wanted a change".

He declines to be drawn into a discussion about whether a difference in vision might again have been a factor.

Differing points of view are inevitable in any group endeavour, especially for those in the arts, because of the subjective nature of the material they have to deal with, he says.

"I feel that it's important for me to try something else... I want to leave the festival when it's doing well," he says.

After a hectic three years with the festival, he plans to spend time with his wife and son and will put off a job search till next year, he says.

Ms Yuni says that his replacement, Ms Pimpaka, was selected from a list of just under a hundred applicants. They had replied to an advertisement on the festival's website.

Ms Pimpaka's appointment was vetted by key members of the board of directors, including chairman Mike Wiluan, chief executive of Infinite Studios.

Ms Pimpaka, who is also a film critic and festival organiser, is a member of Mosquito Films Distribution, whose other partners are Ms Yuni's husband, Aditya, and film-makers Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Soros Sukhum, Anocha Suwichakornpong and Lee Chatametikool.

The group was formed in 2014 to distribute the work of the partners, as well as that of other South-east Asian film-makers.

Ms Yuni says she did not personally inform Ms Pimpaka about the opening; others did. She adds that given the close-knit nature of the South-east Asian film-making community, it is "inevitable" for two members to have crossed paths professionally in the past.

"Out of all the applicants, Ms Pimpaka had contributed the most to the South-east Asian film scene. She's been doing it for the last 15 years."

Figures released by the festival back up Mr Zhang's assertion that things are looking up for the once-troubled event, hit by falling attendance and organisational snafus before it went into hiatus.

From its relaunch in 2014, the event has seen a yearly growth in audience size - from 10,000 in 2014 to 12,000 in 2015 and 13,000 last year. This year's edition, the 28th, will take place in its usual year-end period.

While showing growth, last year's figures are a far cry from the festival's attendance peak in 2003, when it drew an audience of 61,600. However, as industry observers note, those days will probably never appear again.

Cable television and online access have changed the landscape and mainstream cinemas have also become more adventurous in programming because of finer-grained classifications such as the PG13, NC16 and M18 ratings.

Venues such as The Arts House, National Museum of Singapore and Singapore Art Museum also hold film events that premiere hard-to- find works.

Under Ms Yuni, Mr Zhang and general manager Ang Hwee Sim, the new festival has emphasised the development of more than just the audience. It now seeks to be the regional magnet for nurturing talent, whereas in the past, the emphasis was on screening films.

To that end, it has, since 2014, run the Southeast Asian Film Lab, a story development workshop that places regional film-makers, yet to make their first feature, in the hands of mentors.

Recently, the two projects incubated in last year's edition of the lab were selected for further development by the Cannes Film Festival. They are Cu Li Never Cries by Pham Ngoc Lan and Taste by Le Bao, both from Vietnam.

One Southeast Asian Film Lab project, the drama-comedy Singing In Graveyards (2016) by Malaysian film-maker Bradley Liew, has been turned into a film.

Workshopped in 2014 and shown at last year's edition of the SGIFF, it was selected for the Venice Film Festival and has participated in festivals in Kolkata, Hawaii and Sao Paolo.

The Youth Jury & Critics Programme is SGIFF's other means of reaching past its base of cinephiles. Each year, 15 post-secondary students join workshops that guide them towards a sharper appreciation of film as an art form.

Three years into its mission, the revamped SGIFF looks to be a more well-run and transparent organisation than the troubled one it succeeded.

The departure of Mr Zhang may be a blow, but the transfer of responsibilities to Ms Pimpaka appears to be happening without drama.

But as Ms Pimpaka herself says, while the core team might look different, the challenge remains the same: How can the SGIFF grow in audience size without compromising its aim of developing and showcasing fresh regional talent?

Striking a balance will not be easy, but she is optimistic.

"We always have to think about audience numbers. But it is possible for the festival, and the audience, to grow up together."

•The 28th edition of the Singapore International Film Festival will take place from Nov 23 to Dec 3.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline Change of leadership at Singapore International Film Festival 'not sign of trouble'. Subscribe