Telling Singapore stories through film


This year, 2016, has been a strong year for Singapore on the film festival circuit. We had two films, A Yellow Bird directed by K. Rajagopal, and The Apprentice directed by Boo Junfeng, selected for the Cannes Film Festival; Yong Mun Chee's new project Badass was invited to the Golden Horse Film Project Promotion, an industry preview of films currently in the financing stage; and Boo Junfeng was honoured with the Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival.

To many casual observers, our silver screen success only registered in 2013 when the film Ilo Ilo, directed by Anthony Chen, became the first local film to win the Camera D'Or Award at Cannes and Best Film honours at the annual Golden Horse Awards, the most prestigious stage for Chinese language films. As a co-producer of that film, I appreciated first-hand the significant impact those awards had, both locally and around the world. Nevertheless, this is certainly not the full story.

In reality, Singaporeans have been making waves long before that. With Eric Khoo leading the way - his 12 Storeys screened at Cannes way back in 1997 - film-makers such as Kelvin Tong, Royston Tan and Tan Pin Pin began walking the red carpet of the most important film festivals. By recognising artistic value, the festival circuit works as a tastemaker, identifying international talent and cutting edge trends. Our film-makers are making a name for themselves while also serving as cultural ambassadors, introducing a piece of Singapore to the world with each and every film.

Growing up, I remember going to the cinema to watch Money No Enough with my friends. It was refreshing to see a film that was so unabashedly "Singaporean", with its colloquial language and local references. Directed by Jack Neo, it was the film that showed me we could tell our own stories and people would pay to watch them. Released later that same year in 1998, the musical comedy Forever Fever, directed by Glen Goei, was a fusion of Western pop references and Singapore flavours. Picked up by Miramax Films, it proved that there could even be an international audience for our home-brewed fare.

These were the defining experiences that led me to a career promoting Singaporean films, first as a programmer, then as a producer, and now as executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival. Through the years, alongside many successes, I've also witnessed our full potential held back by a lack of confidence or the many restrictions, real or imagined, around developing our own talent. We celebrate our multiracial melting-pot society, yet often try to scrub clean the messiness of different dialects, multiracial relationships and other qualities that make us who we are.

Like all industries, the film industry is a vast ecosystem. It requires national investment in film production, distribution and exhibition, as well as film literacy and education, film archiving and talent management, both in front of and behind the camera. And it requires time. We cannot be quick to celebrate a few success stories without acknowledging the struggle it took to get there. At the same time, we cannot be too alarmed by a few misses. What matters over the long term is a strong support structure.

Traditionally, our films have been seen as fitting into two categories: those meant for commercial release and those meant for festival audiences. But today, the Internet has begun to break down this dichotomy. The instant availability of films online is changing the way we make and consume movies. Images of our HDB blocks and hawker centres can now be streamed directly to audiences in Tokyo, London or New York. Gone are the layers of middlemen that used to be necessary for films to reach your eyes. While this technology offers more possibilities to expand our audience, it also brings more competition to our doorstep.

With fewer barriers to entry, it is now more imperative than ever that we focus on building our own industry. As we move forward, faced with sometimes bewildering change brought upon us by the Internet, we should never forget the ground we're standing on. That means nurturing and investing in our own talent, because that is the one thing that will always remain constant - we are the only ones capable of telling the Singaporean story. Without that, then who are we?

•The writer is executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival and director of Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking. The 27th Singapore International Film Festival takes place from Nov 23 to Dec 4.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2016, with the headline 'Telling S'pore stories through film'. Subscribe