Open Road

Published on 26 May 2017

The O.P.E.N. — the Singapore International Festival of Arts’ pre-festival of ideas — goes all out this final year to engage and enchant. 


Credit: Jeannie Ho

Being enchanted — or having a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life (quoting political scientist Jane Bennett) — is possible with the arts. Some may say it’s a momentary escape from reality, but the beauty of such moments is that they can permanently change the way we choose to see the world and to engage with it.

Perhaps this is why — as the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) enters its fourth and final year under current festival director, Ong Keng Sen — the theme of ‘Enchantment’ has been chosen to anchor the curated programmes.

“Enchantment is the opposite of cynicism. Cynicism dulls us. We think this is life, nothing is going to change, and we let injustices continue,” shares Ong. “We see the festival as a time for recharge; to stay connected, to still believe, to still engage — in this age of disenchantment — because if we are enchanted with life, we are willing to fight to enrich life.”


It helps that after four years, the one thing that characterises Ong’s SIFA is that it is always different and unpredictable. There is no template. Even the broad brushstrokes, like having a month’s break between The O.P.E.N. — SIFA’s pre-festival of ideas — and the main festival, have been blurred this year. Events will run seamlessly from June to September, with O.P.E.N. Kitchens and O.P.E.N. Films (curated by Tan Bee Thiam) bridging both.

Singapore literature and Singapore films are spotlighted this year, but expect the unexpected, of course, when it comes to form and collaborations. Like Becoming Graphic (17-19 August), which brings together theatre-maker Edith Podesta and Sonny Liew, whose graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye bagged the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. Imagine a graphic novel, theatricalised.

“What we hope to capture on stage is not just the story, but the making of the story; and to combine the language of comics and the language of theatre into something that reflects both,” reveals Liew, who will be drawing live on stage, as well as producing a new comic book from this SIFA journey. “The book will combine adventure, comic tropes, and a character dealing with complex real-world issues; but it will also be playing on the superhero genre.”

SCREEN TIME O.P.E.N. Films kicks off with The Other Side of Hope (left) by Aki Kaurismaki, about a friendship between two men from different worlds. Credit: Aki Kaurismaki


While The O.P.E.N. has always been participatory, this final edition looks to up the ante. In K Rajagopal’s Lizard on the Wall (30 June-2 July) — a film inspired by Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Inheritance — the audience will not only witness how a film is being made, but also be part of the film. The red carpet gala screening of Lizard on the Wall will close SIFA 2017 on 9 September.

Besides exciting artist collaborations, The O.P.E.N. will push the limits of collaboration with the audience to new levels this year. In the bold and innovative Art as Res Publicae (28-29 June) — The O.P.E.N.’s opening public creation — the public will be drawn into a forum-like discussion which revolves around the central question: what is the ‘intangible value’ in an artwork?

On its mechanism, Ong reveals, “Actors will perform something, like an excerpt from a play. Commentators will then give a 10-minute talk before we launch into a moderated dialogue with the discussants, selected from an open call. While the audience will watch all this unfold, there will be a special moment where they will be invited to participate.”

Nothing like this has been done in Singapore before. “People are saying nobody will come, nobody will know what to do, they will stand around and do nothing. I think that’s too cynical. I think people can,” declares Ong, adding that what continues to enchant him after four years is the SIFA audience. “They still surprise me.”

IN THE ACT Audiences at Lizard on the Wall will get to be part of a huge Punjabi wedding scene in K Rajagopal’s film! Credit: Akanga Film Asia
Credit: Mindy Tan Photography for Epigram Books


Art introduces us to other realities, and challenges us to grow from a space of empathy. A brief but deep encounter, like cooking with a stranger and sharing a meal and life stories together, can leave an indelible impression. O.P.E.N. Kitchens (8-30 July) — inspired by the philosophy of Lebanese chef Kamal Mouzawak’s Make Food Not War — harnesses this power of food to bring people together.

“It’s one of the most heartwarming journeys I’ve had because every single one of these 21 home cooks has got such fetching stories to tell about their relationship with food, and most importantly, the people who inspired them to begin cooking,” shares Noorlinah Mohamed, who helms O.P.E.N. Kitchens as well as The O.P.E.N. since its conception in 2014.

Ong adds, “This season is designed on that fleeting encounter of enchantment. It’s not necessarily a lengthy experience, but that five minutes together, that can change your life. The works in this ‘Enchantment’ edition take us away from cynicism to laughter, wit, compassion and generosity.”

It may be curtains down for The O.P.E.N. after this year. When asked if she feels a responsibility to leave a legacy, Noorlinah admits she does. “After four years, I feel I’ve built a community of O.P.E.N. lovers. I don’t believe we need to always do something for the masses. The problem is, when we do so many things for the masses, we lose the depth that so many people yearn for,” she reflects. “I think The O.P.E.N. responded to that, so that they feel there’s something for them in Singapore.”

SIFA 2017 (incorporating The O.P.E.N.) is on from 28 June-9 September. The O.P.E.N. Pass ($45) lets you enjoy access to all O.P.E.N. events (conditions apply) and 25 per cent off tickets to SIFA 2017 productions. For ticketing details and the full programme, visit

SOUNDS GOOD Spectres by Zai Tang (above) is an immersive audio-visual installation that digitally brings back to life the artist’s archive of field recordings in local natural habitats. Credit: Zai Tang
Credit: Souk el Tayeb
FOOD CULTURE Get a taste of Lebanon at O.P.E.N. Picnic, a pop-up culinary and cultural showcase by Lebanese chef/activist, Kamal Mouzawak. Credit: Souk el Tayeb
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