Keep the film festival weird

SINGAPORE - Go to the website of the Singapore International Film Festival ( and you will see its round black logo.

It is a familiar sight, and a comforting one, as it hasn't been seen since 2011, when it disappeared amid a flurry of financial and personnel woes. Some people have wondered if it would ever be seen again.

But here it is again, and below the shield are, aptly enough for a film festival, the tantalising words, "Coming soon, 2014".

Like a movie franchise that has been rebooted - think Spiderman or Star Trek - fans will wonder in what new direction it is headed and, more importantly, if it will be any good.

To be perfectly accurate, the independently organised film festival had been rebooted once before.

Since its founding in 1987, it has been supported by a conclave of cineastes, volunteers and young film-makers. They would be surrounded by a larger group of fans. It was a proud fortress of aesthetics and principles, a body that would dare test the limits of film censorship again and again.

Then the Internet happened, as did national film festivals put out by the different embassies in Singapore, the widening of cable channels and a ratings system that allowed DVDs rated up to M18 (suitable for those aged 18 and above).

The Singapore International Film Festival (then called SIFF) was no longer as edgy, because the mainstream had expanded to co-opt the fringes. Audiences dwindled.

The festival tried to stave off irrelevancy by adopting a something-for-everyone approach to its programming. More films meant more screening locations. It also invited celebrities in an attempt to be Cannes-on-the-Malacca Straits.

The festival had gone for broke, and that is perhaps exactly what happened in 2011, the last time it was held.

This time, the SGIFF version 2.0 will be an add-on event to the Asia Television Forum and ScreenSingapore, a trade and conference event.

It looks like a sweet deal, coming under the umbrella of a larger showcase. Some costs can be shared and the prestige of film premieres can likewise be distributed, as can its stars. The glamour of one event can rub off on the other.

And this is already what is happening now. Two other film festivals with different organisers, the ASEAN Film Festival and the Rendezvous With French Cinema, are run alongside ScreenSingapore. It is, as they say, a symbiosis. A marriage made in heaven.

But as in all marriages, there has to be compromise. Assuming it can find enough funding, the island's once-mighty flagship film festival will find itself a junior member among the events attached to ScreenSingapore.

The other snag is that the SGIFF's mission to showcase Asian works overlaps that of the ASEAN Film Festival. But if rationality prevails, the ASEAN Film Festival will be streamlined into the SGIFF.

As the ASEAN Film Festival is run by the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film and the SGIFF's just-announced festival director is Ms Yuni Hadi, a partner at Objectifs, that outcome seems perfectly doable. Like a stem grafted on a sturdier trunk, the SGIFF should find enough resources to run a small programme based on a budget of around half a million dollars.

A "boutique" programme, in the words of Ms Yuni. That niche approach sounds like the right strategy. It is better to survive humbled as foster child than to let a brand name that took 25 years to build go to waste. The question is, what niche should the festival claim?

Only one comes to mind. It needs to stay on the dangerous edge of culture. It needs to take risks and yes, to fail and, maybe, fail again and again.

Ms Yuni, co-festival director of the SIFF from 2008-2009 and a producer on the Golden Horse-winning film Ilo Ilo, needs to be given not just financial support but also moral and political backing to make the SGIFF grab attention. This is especially now that it is part of ScreenSingapore, a business convention mainly attended by what creative people call "suits".

"Keep Austin Weird" was the slogan adopted by the Texas city's businesses - businesses, mind you, not its artists - to promote the area as a centre of arts and creativity. It worked so well the slogan was adopted by another city in the United States, Portland in Oregon. Weirdness inspires, creates zeal, sells tickets.

Eric Khoo, now one of Singapore's most acclaimed film-makers, in the 1990s made a short, Pain, that was banned by the Board of Film Censors for its violence. The SIFF in 1994 gave him its Best Director and Special Achievement Award for the film.

If SGIFF can reclaim its old weirdness, it should also find something else along the way - a purpose.

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