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Singapore Festival Director Yuni Hadi: ‘Films Tell Us Who We Are’

Variety logo Variety 11/23/2016 Patrick Frater
© Provided by Variety

Yuni Hadi, the SGIFF’s executive director, shares her annual perspective on South East Asian regional cinema and where the revived festival fits in.

How has the festival changed or evolved since last year?

Anyone running a film festival will agree it’s a challenging job to not only be at the forefront of film selection, but also in terms of organizational structuring and staying relevant. Since our return in 2014, we’ve been committed to building a strong foundation as an organization and playing that role in bringing together that film community Southeast Asia.

We have a stronger slate of talks and masterclasses this year with the introduction of SG Originals that is focused on the development of Singapore films where we hosting Actors Unscripted with Jack Neo, a VR360 for Singapore short films, a discussion on developing screenplays in Singapore and a talk on with our local sound designers. It’s ultimately a fine balance between serving our local community and audience, and participating in the international festival circuit.

What attracted you to select “Interchange” as the opening film?

For our opening film, we present the Asian premiere Malaysian film ‘Interchange’ by Dain Iskandar Said, a film that’s been on our radar for a while as a much-anticipated project. We appreciate the ambition of the film and think it’s something our audience will enjoy.

What describes the Asian competition selection this year?

Our Asian feature film competition films reflect the dynamic and bold new voices in Asian cinema, leaning towards edgier works. We only select about 10 features every year so it’s a challenging process for us to shortlist. When considering our jury members, we also want them to walk away feeling connected to this part of the world because of the films they have seen and hopefully a part of their experience at SGIFF stays with them.

This year has seen Singapore-made films in Cannes. Have commercial results for Singapore films been up to scratch? What has the Singapore Panorama got to show? 

The problem in Southeast Asia is that our independent films often do well at international film festivals and then return home where it’s a challenge to find an audience. But a lot of the times, the filmmaker is making the film for his/her people. Film festivals and alternative film spaces are important for showing these films and putting a context to them through dialogue sessions with the audience. We are living in a time where things and people are valued by the number of “likes” or “followers.” It’s so easy to forget that there are other ways to look at things. We try to offer these different perspectives at SGIFF.

Our Singapore Panorama section is always an eclectic mix of films because we are still a young industry and a small one. It’s actually been very beneficial to the local industry in terms of getting to know each other’s work. Some of the films such as ‘Siew Lup’ and ‘4Love’ find their way to the commercial cinemas after SGIFF. Others tour the festival circuit, not that much different from films from other countries.

Last year we discussed the trajectory of SE Asian film-making — you defended Malaysia — what has the past 12 months revealed? How is that reflected in your program?

When we talk about Southeast Asia, we often hear about the potential business markets, news on the political situations and the wonderful resorts that make it a great tourist destination. The moving image is still such a powerful medium today. What filmmakers try to do is explore who we are as people, what we are doing as society and where we are heading. Ultimately at the core of many independent films, commentary and questions are being explored and we see this in all genres of film like sci-fi, drama, comedy, animation, documentary… There’s that need to pause and reflect on what’s going on. And there’s a lot going on in the world today, even just this year alone.

Over time, all these films collectively will tell us something about who we are and what was going on at that time. The visuals that are captured act as archives and leave clues.  It’s so easy to stereotype or exoticize a certain culture, and film makers are always trying to go against that, to offer a different point of view on what’s really happening. Our job is to provide a certain framework to the films we are presenting.

We’ve seen our Southeast Asian filmmakers such as Lav Diaz (Philippines), Apichatpong Weeraseethakul (Thailand), and most recently Anthony Chen and Boo Junfeng (Singapore) winning top awards at some of the best festivals in the world which helps put the spotlight on us. But it’s also very important to have our own film festivals to lead and not just follow. Our Southeast Asian Film Lab offers a real sense of connection to the Southeast Asian community with our mentors and a lab head from Asia. We also put emphasis on our Southeast Asian and Singapore short film competition because it is where we are discovering emerging talent and the highlighting these names to the world.

I was recently in Malaysia as jury for a short film competition and I walked away learning a lot after seeing films in different dialects and the kind of subjects young filmmakers are exploring. Singapore and Malaysia are right next to each other but there’s still so much we don’t know. The intricacies and little details of the different cultures show in shorts and independent films that are sometimes glossed over in big budget commercial films, that’s why it’s so important for us to continue to make and watch these films.

We have an interesting range of Malaysian filmmakers in SGIFF this year with Ho Yuhang (‘Mrs K’,) Amir Muhammad (‘Voyage to Terengganu’,) Bradley Liew (‘Singing in the Graveyards’,) Lau Kek-Huat (‘Absent Without Leave’) and opening film ‘Interchange.’ Some of these films are involve cast and crew from other countries, and we see that kind of collaboration more and more which is exciting.

It’s an interesting time for films right now for both the creators and audience – the way we make and consume films. The thing that doesn’t change is our need to tell our stories and express who we are.

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