Reel Ambitions

Published on 22 November 2015

Singapore International Film Festival director Zhang Wenjie explains why audiences and opportunities matter as much as the screenings.


Some people think curating a film festival is the best job in the world — just sitting down to watch films,” says Zhang Wenjie, who returns for the third time as festival director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). There’s more to it than meets the eye, of course.

“Besides the fact that we had over 1,400 film submissions to choose from this year, a good festival is not just about film screenings. Like the Busan Film Festival, good festivals play a deeper, broader role as platforms for independent cinema. It also serves as training schools for young film-makers where seniors mentor juniors. Some festivals even finance and commission films and even if that doesn’t happen, there are many other integrated programmes.

“It can be hard work to get everything running. SGIFF is non-profit and the lean team is pretty stretched communicating with people from different countries and different time-zones; daily planning and coordinating of schedules; carrying out lots of cultural and political research to appreciate and curate the works of international artists; even fixing things that break down in the office. But we have to do it to play an important role in film-makers’ journeys, and to provide a great opportunity to get people together who have been doing important work, sometimes for decades.”


This attitude and ambition probably explains why the SGIFF is getting ever bigger and better. Last year’s edition introduced new initiatives, including the screenwriter-grooming Southeast Asian Film Lab, the Youth Jury & Critics Programme to nurture new film writers, and the Southeast Asian Short Film category in the SGIFF’s long-running Silver Screen Awards (SSA) to recognise more regional film-makers. At this year’s 26th edition of the festival, all these initiatives remain, plus new ones like the Cinema Legend Award which recognises an actor who has made tremendous contributions to the field.

Alongside the strong film-maker focus, SGIFF also offers plenty for audiences. This instalment introduces a new Audience Choice Award as part of the SSA, as well as various talks and activities for the public. Says SGIFF executive director Wahyuni Hadi, “We now also take on the role of a facilitator in encouraging our film-loving audience to play a more active role in their festival experience, be it to vote for their favourite feature film or join in the discussions with our directors and film-makers.”

And, of course, there are the film screenings. This year’s SGIFF boasts 146 feature and short films from 51 countries including Chinese independent documentaries, Mexican oeuvres and cutting-edge short films, alongside Singapore classics — all are works audiences might be little exposed to outside the SGIFF.

“I still remember how in secondary school, I was at a film festival watching many films,” says Zhang. “None of them talked down to or dumbed themselves down for the audience, so they were always interesting and challenging. That developed my own taste and my way of perceiving the possibilities of film. Yes, SGIFF wants to serve as a platform to develop the film-makers’ voices. But developing the audience — that part should never be neglected.”


Zhang feels the time is long past to cultivate audience appreciation for regional and especially homegrown works. “It’s quicker and easier than ever before to make films but for a lot of these independent works, the space to show them in commercial cinemas is still very, very small because the perception is that people just want to watch Hollywood blockbusters. In Singapore, our films have grown and developed. There’s also a diversity, from Liao Jiekai’s experimental, introspective works to Ilo Ilo which has really travelled, and Jack Neo’s local box-office hits.

“But cinemas sometimes only let these movies play for one week, if at all. It wasn’t always like that. In the heyday of Shaw and Cathay, the homegrown Malay films actually did very well, really resonating with audiences here and abroad. Why are things so different today?

“I think it’s a cultural issue. In our quest for efficiency, we have changed from a local-centric culture to a Western one that’s not primarily ours. Through continuing to make films and art, we can rediscover and love our own identity again. Look at South Korea: 15 years ago, before their boom in movies and music, there wasn’t so much awareness and popularity of their culture. But once you are able to make films, produce art, write novels that speak about our Singapore condition, then we can define our culture.

“In the meantime, we celebrate the people who continue trying to do that. Very often, Southeast Asian films go to the West first to seek recognition and awards there. That’s okay, but I think there’s something very meaningful with the SGIFF and the SSA in reinforcing the idea that our recognition in Southeast Asia is valid too — we are allowed to recognise ourselves. Caring about this is one reason why us festival people keep coming back year after year.”

FAMILIAR SCENES Singapore works to be screened include documentary Singapore Minstrel  as well as classics Mee Pok Man and Bugis Street Redux.

ALTERNATIVE VISION Chinese independent documentaries like A Young Patriot offer insights into life in China.

The 26th Singapore International Film Festival is on till 6 December.

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