Timeless champion of local film

Yuni Hadi, producer of award-winning film, Ilo Ilo. Hadi is also director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF).

When she was in secondary school, Yuni Hadi arranged a screening of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being for her schoolmates.

The R21-rated film, based on the Czech writer Milan Kundera's novel of the same name about a womanising surgeon, featured sexual trysts and memorably showed actress Lena Olin wearing a bowler hat and black underwear. Ms Yuni recalls: "My schoolmates didn't understand why I was trying to share this movie with them because they were quite shocked at the content."

To her though, the reason was simple: "I had read the book and thought it was a great movie and everyone should watch it."

She held the screening at home for her St Margaret's Secondary School extra-curricular activities club, the English Literature Debate and Drama Society. And, no, she did not get into trouble for doing it.

The desire to share good films with a wider audience could be seen in the career decisions she has made. For the past 14 years, the 37-year-old has been working quietly behind the scenes in the film industry as curator, programmer and producer.

The audience may not recognise her name, but in her various roles at the Singapore Film Commission, The Substation, MediaCorp and Objectifs photography and film centre, she has been a tireless promoter of local film-makers.

More recently, she was one of three producers of the award-winning family drama Ilo Ilo and was named director of the revived Singapore International Film Festival.

Ilo Ilo's writer and director Anthony Chen, 29, met her in 2005 when his first short film G-23, which looks at the lives of three moviegoers through the eyes of an usher, was making its way through the festival circuit.

Over the years, Objectifs distributed many of his shorts and he says: "I really liked how genuine she was and how she champions local film-makers. I knew she was someone who would fight for a cause."

And so he approached her to help produce his first feature-length movie, focusing on sales, marketing and distribution.

Ms Yuni's film education started early.

Her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was nine and she remembers frequent hospital visits and long periods of waiting to see the doctor.

She started reading and watching films on video to pass the time.

Once, she made the entire family, including her businessman father and elder brother, go with her to watch the French comedy Cyrano De Bergerac (1990) starring Gerard Depardieu.

She cannot quite put her finger on why she was so set on watching the movie. "It just seemed really interesting to me.

"For some reason, I started watching the foreign films that were showing at film festivals or at The Picturehouse," she says, cutting a stylish figure in a Marimekko floral print dress in an interview at Objectifs, where she is a partner.

She was also drawn to the films of maverick American director David Lynch and her brother had to take her to screenings, such as for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), which took place at night. She says: "Sometimes, I would pretend to be older and try to dress up."

Her movie diet was supplemented by TV dramas such as Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure and China Beach. Hardly teenage fare, but she took them all in.

She knew that she wanted to do something in the arts, but she did not know what exactly. But she was certain about one thing: She did not want to go to junior college. She says: "I didn't enjoy the restrictions of school, wearing the uniform and studying subjects that I didn't feel were very relevant to me."

She signed up to do a diploma in fine arts at Lasalle College of the Arts, later switching to arts management. She went on to do her degree as well as master's in arts management there.

In hindsight, she marvels at the fact that her parents did not control her viewing habits or insist on her continuing her studies at a junior college.

She surmises that they were "quite Westernised". Her Singapore mother went to an English-speaking school and enjoyed playing the piano. Her Indonesian father, who grew up in Yogyakarta, instilled in her values such as hard work. There was a nurturing environment at home and "they knew how to open my mind to new things".

Ms Yuni, shortened from Wahyuni, was also taught to be independent. When she was about 12, she learnt how to cook. Her mother died when she was 15 and her father died from a heart attack when she was 25.

After earning her diploma from Lasalle, she found a job as a marketing and communications executive at a now defunct local animation studio and then worked at the Singapore Film Commission as a project executive, which gave her insights into the workings of the agency that came in useful when she moved to The Substation.

At the independent arts centre, she programmed a wide range of arts events, from the visual arts to music, eventually shifting her focus to film.

She worked to bring local short films overseas, such as to film festivals, something that no one else was really doing then. As a result, she built close ties with film-makers such as Royston Tan, Victric Thng and Tan Pin Pin.

This was also how she met her husband. Film-makers Wee Li Lin and Royston Tan had gone to Busan, South Korea, in 2001 to screen their works and were impressed with Thai film-maker Aditya Assarat's short film Motorcycle (2000), about a father grieving the loss of his son in a motorcycle accident. They suggested to Ms Yuni that she programmed the film at The Substation.

Wee, 40, gleefully claims "all the credit" for bringing the two together. She says: "We had a casual dinner at my house. Royston left at 1am, I went to sleep at 1.30am and the two of them stayed on to talk till 3 or 4am."

After an eight-year long-distance relationship, the two got married in 2009 and Ms Yuni became a mother last July. Her daughter is named Jenni, after her mother.

She now splits her time between Bangkok - where the three of them live in a house with three rabbits, a Maltese and a number of stray cats - and Singapore. When she is in town, she stays with her brother, who works in advertising. The decision to remain committed to Singapore was easy. She says: "My career has always been in promoting Singapore films. In terms of work, my heart is here and it's hard for me to do that in another country."

Even when she moved from The Substation to be a commissioning editor at MediaCorp's TV12 in 2003, she continued to champion local film-makers by getting them to direct programmes. Wee, who was asked to direct a programme on dancers, says: "Yuni doesn't think like a regular TV producer because of her background in short films and The Substation. She was able to introduce more niche and interesting programming."

Ms Yuni came on board Objectifs in 2005 to develop film workshops and programmes. In 2006, Objectifs Films was started together with post-production facility Infinite Frameworks and production outfit Shooting Gallery Asia to distribute Asian short films.

The close ties she built with the local film community were evident when she was co-director of the Singapore International Film Festival in 2009 along with film programmer Zhang Wenjie.

She recalls: "The most amazing thing about that year was the fact that I called all the friends I knew from the film community and they were there helping us do the work. The festival must have impacted them in some way that they would volunteer to do so." Among other things, festival attendees had their tickets torn by film-makers Boo Junfeng and Thng.

She stepped down after that year, a move that made the news, and now all she would say about that episode is: "We were not comfortable with the financial management of the company at the time."

While she is excited to be the director of this year's rebranded film festival, now known as SGIFF, it is still early days for her to say much about it. She does say though: "To be part of the 25th year of the festival and paying tribute to the heritage of how far the festival has come is, for me, quite an honour."

Ms Yuni has also gone from writing, curating and promoting local works to producing a film herself, namely Ilo Ilo. She had turned down other producing offers and said yes this time because she felt a connection to the story of a Singapore family's relationship with a new Filipino maid set in the HDB heartland. "I felt that if I had to produce just one film, then I should pick one I can't stop thinking about. And I really love Chen's short films.

"It's the same thing when you're curating films. You feel there's something in the story that will stay with the audience, and you just have to trust your instinct."

She did not make it to Cannes Film Festival in May last year, when the film won the prestigious Camera d'Or award for best debut feature, as she was eight months pregnant at the time. But she made it to Taipei, where the film won four Golden Horse Awards, including for Best Film.

All that attention drove home the point to her that "you can make quite a Singaporean film that also appeals to an international audience". She adds: "The struggle has always been trying to have that appeal and we have tended to sacrifice the Singaporean-ness because we think that people will reject that. This film has proven that that's not true."

And with the spotlight on Singapore because of Ilo Ilo, she thinks that this is a good time to start making some changes. For example, when it comes to funding, she hopes that committees will be more open to a wider range of films.

Asked what her one wish for the local film industry would be, she says: "I want watching a Singapore film to be a norm, not something you have to think twice about. In America, you don't think 'I'm going to watch a Hollywood film', you just watch a movie."

She recalls being asked at Sundance Film Festival, one of the largest independent film festivals in the United States, what Singapore films she grew up watching. She says: "Apart from a few black and white P. Ramlee and Shaw Brothers films, I realised that my references were all British, American and Hong Kong films from my childhood. I thought, wouldn't it be great to have a whole generation of people growing up with Singapore films just like in the 1950s and 1960s?"

For her, watching a movie is both fun and work.

"My husband and I joke that we watch films for work, but also for leisure, so thank goodness we're in this industry and we married each other."

Movie time is also family time.

She remembers watching movies, such as the musical Annie (1982) with her family and she carries on that tradition with screenings at home with her husband and baby daughter.

The proud mother says: "Even though she doesn't understand, it doesn't matter. We want to expose our child to as much as possible because I was fortunate to have parents who were quite adventurous."

Looking back on her life, she says reflectively:"Very few people have the chance to meet and make good friends from all over the world, that's quite amazing.

"I get to watch films for a living, travel and meet new people, that's a pretty damn good deal. Guess it pays to be a dreamer."

My life so far

"When I was nine, our family moved to San Jose for almost two years. The school encouraged you to think for yourself. Even a brief time at that school opened my mind to other ways of teaching as you were encouraged to express yourself."

On attending private school in the United States

"I switched because I realised I didn't have the natural talent to be an artist, but I really enjoyed writing and talking about the arts, so when the arts management programme came about, I felt that it suited me better."

On switching from fine arts to arts management at Lasalle College of the Arts

"Working at a place like The Substation, set up by theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun... has strengthened my belief that we should always lead with kindness. It might not say anything about your business strategy, but it says something about how you want to build your organisation. When I saw Kuo Pao Kun at The Substation, he would help clean up and help the staff pick up the rubbish. Those early years there shaped me as an arts manager and the way that I work."

On her work ethic

"Our sales agent wanted us to reconsider the title of the film to make it more accessible to an international audience. One of the titles proposed was Naughty Boy, something which gave an idea of what the film is about. Ilo Ilo doesn't say specifically what the film is about, but it fits the film. And the good thing is that it cannot be translated so the title is the same in different countries, except for the Mandarin title (Dad And Mom Are Not At Home), which Anthony picked."

On Ilo Ilo's title

"I was surprised by the reaction, I guess because I grew up in such a multi-cultural environment. But I was heartened that so many people online wrote in defence that my name indicated that I am not Chinese."

On being criticised by some people for not speaking in Mandarin when she went on stage in Taipei for Ilo Ilo's Golden Horse Award win for Best Film


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES