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Celebrating the film community: An interview with Boo Junfeng and Emily J. Hoe on SGIFF 2020

Screenshot 2020-11-03 at 12.57.51 PM

With the sheer amount of uncertainty and restrictions brought about by the coronavirus, the journey towards organising one of the region’s foremost film festivals hasn’t been an easy one. But as the team behind the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) will tell you, it’s all been worth it, for the sake of cinema.

Taking place from 26th November to 6th December, the 31st edition of the festival will feature a line-up of about 80 feature length and short films, many of of which will be making their regional and even world premieres. Over thirty of these films will also feature post-show Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, while the festival will also be hosting their usual award ceremonies, networking sessions, and other talks and programmes.

SGIFF Executive Director Emily J. Hoe

“The biggest challenge we’ve had was really the constantly changing environment and adjusting to it. We had contingencies all the way up to a Plan Z at one point, but right now, we’re mostly concerned about execution, with just a few final loose ends to tighten,” says Emily J. Hoe, SGIFF’s Executive Director.  “In watching how other festivals have been executing their programmes, whether it’s the big award ceremonies or the smaller film festivals, we decided that our festival, despite not being on the same scale as an Emmy or the BAFTAs, would ultimately prioritise the acknowledgement and celebration of the filmmakers and the community.”

Chairperson of the SGIFF Board, Boo Junfeng

“The festival exists as a platform for the films and the filmmakers, and what they are looking for is an audience. Underpinning the whole process was the commitment to make sure we would open in physical cinemas as well if the opportunity arose. And even if it didn’t, we were determined that we would go on with the festival anyway, and present our programme digitally if necessary,” adds Boo Junfeng, filmmaker and Chairman of the SGIFF Board. “The festival is also admittedly different this year in terms of engagement. We want to continue to engage audiences and create conversations about the films, such as with the filmmakers’ Q&A sessions. Hopefully, with an online presence, it could attract more people, as well as encourage them to share their experiences on social media.”

As with other film festivals this year, rather than physical, the 31st SGIFF will instead be ‘phygital’ in nature, with screenings taking place both in actual cinema halls, and online, via The Projector Plus (The Projector’s online streaming platform). No doubt, the online platform will be seeing competition from other streaming services, in terms of how potential audience members spend their time, but the team is confident that the carefully curated selection of films will be the festival biggest draw.

The vast majority of the films are 2020 releases, many of which have never been available before, and the draw is that they’re only available for a fixed period of time,” says Emily. “Even though it’s been a difficult year for the industry, it was incredible how we still had so many titles to choose from. While there’s certainly going to be competition with other platforms, I think that it’s actually helped with how people have gotten used to streaming films online with, and it’ll be interesting to see how the numbers and reception changes with this new platform and way of presenting film. Plus, we’ve maintained perks like selling film bundles to incentivise viewers, even on the virtual platform.”

“While people can no longer mingle or gather, I think the limited 48 hour viewing window and the Q&A sessions after films can still help replicate the full festival experience, even at home,” says Junfeng. “There’s a lot of value to watching a film together, whether you’re with family and friends in the same space, or just knowing that someone somewhere else is watching the same thing you are at the same time.”

With how uncertain things have been this year, the SGIFF has been consciously cutting back on costs and more prudent with their budget, knowing that this isn’t the year to put up a lavish festival, and instead, going for a more toned down, conservative edition. Nonetheless, they are grateful for longtime sponsors continuing to lend their support, from the firm partnership from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to corporate sponsors like BMW. “In recent years, we’ve also been diversifying our fundraising efforts, such as building a pool of supporters through the tier-based SGIFFriend Programme, with perks like  and contribute anything within $100 to $10,000 at varying tiers, with perks like priority booking and tax exemption. It helps build patronage for film arts, and helps it keep growing in Singapore,” says Junfeng.

On the organisational front, it’s certainly been a new experience for the team too, especially with it being Emily’s first year as a member of the team. “Because we were hit with the circuit breaker when planning began, Emily didn’t see her staff for about 3 months into the job, and still hasn’t met some of them,” says Junfeng. “Meanwhile, our artistic director (Kuo Ming-Jung), was stuck in Taiwan for a while, and was working on putting everything together remotely before coming back. At the heart of it all, we’re all united by the common cause of cinema holding us together, and the way we understand it, and the hope that the rest of Singapore can experience and get behind with us.”

“The team has been amazingly supportive and working so hard,” adds Emily. “I really have to give it to my team to have gone on this rocky up and down journey together, and work through all our options. It’s been a year of learning in areas we never expected to, with so many plans subject to change, and preparing for all these other options should they become reality.”

This year’s edition, like last year’s, is a matter of pride – it will be opening with a Singaporean film, Tan Bee Thiam’s Tiong Bahru Social Club, which will receive a wider release following the festival. “Over the years, I think the reason why this festival means so much to filmmakers in Singapore is precisely because of how much it’s done for the community here,” says Junfeng. “It’s been here in a time when we were primarily making short films, and remains a platform for so many of us to develop and grow, with the Singapore Shorts Programme. Whether it’s Eric Khoo, Royston Tan, Wee Li Lin, myself and countless others, the festival has grown with the filmmakers. It’s reached a point where filmmakers have started to create films that are appropriate to open the festival with, and deserve a space to be shown. It’s not a case of showing them because they’re Singaporean films, but because they are deserving of that spot, and a sign of the festival and industry in singapore growing.”

Of course, a film is nothing without its audience, and Junfeng is confident that local audiences are slowly but surely developing an appetite for film in general, and a stronger appreciation for local film. “I’d say that the film community in Singapore is growing at a healthy rate, whether it’s filmmakers or viewers – in fact, the Singapore Panorama is usually one of the first programmes to sell out, and lots of local filmmakers have strong supporters,” says Junfeng. “The SGIFF has always had this pipeline of programmes, from the start of a filmmaker’s career, to the selection of films presented, to the youth jury and the short film panorama. Some of the short film makers do go on to develop their craft and make films that are deserving to be part of the Asian Competition segment, like Tiong Bahru Social Club, so it’s almost like a graduation ceremony for them, and many really do grow alongside the festival over the years.”

Having celebrated a milestone 30 editions last year, what then does the future hold for the SGIFF in the years to come? “Over the last decade, we’ve been advocating for films to be properly developed using proper processes before going into production, and the Singapore Film Commission have taken a lot of these feedback into consideration,” Junfeng elaborates. “We’re seeing a lot more films these days, both the ‘art house’ type and the more commercial ones.”

“Of course, the industry is still growing, and the next frontier for me has always been audience development. After all, you can make as many award-winning films as you want, but without an audience, they’re nothing,” he adds. “And it’s not just a case of watching Singaporean films alone, but to have our community broaden their minds and develop their taste and definition of cinema, whether it’s a blockbuster film from Korea or an art house film from Iran. It’s a long term goal to deepen the understanding of what cinema can be, and the festival plays a critical role in bringing these elements and development together over the span of two weeks, and cultivate and grow the community further.” 

Still on the idea of audience development, the SGIFF in fact, offers plenty of opportunities for film appreciation, not just with the popular Youth Jury and Critics Programme, but even with its Film Immersion Programme, which goes around to various secondary and tertiary institutions nurturing media literacy and greater appreciation for film. “The Film Immersion Programme went completely online this year, and we’ve managed to reach out to more people than we did last year,” says Emily. “Within the festival space itself, there’s something for everyone, as long as you’re willing to open yourself to new experiences. While there is an element of risk, you might end up with a brand new, eye-opening cinematic experience, and learn to forge ahead and explore even more cinematic experiences from there. The SGIFF definitely isn’t just for the culture vultures, with a broader appeal, as long as people have the willingness to open their minds and find brand new ways of seeing.”

“Developing taste does take an effort, and a change in perception. Going to the cinema can of course still be as simple as going to see a superhero movie with popcorn and a drink, but there’s the potential to go broader, deeper, and find so many more ways to look at it from a cultural, artistic perspective, as opposed to pure entertainment,” Junfeng elaborates. “Commercial doesn’t have to be on the other end of the spectrum from art house of course, and SGIFF comes to act as a platform for these films to find that audience, regardless of genre. It’s an opportunity for everyone in the community to grow together, and to broaden the idea of good cinema we would commit to watching. For a lot of people, the formulaic type of film can get very tiring, and the role of the festival then is to find new points of entry for audiences, at various stages of their film appreciation journey, and really, having something for everyone out there.”  

“When I was looking at the programme, what I saw was how the spirit of the films were very much focused on feelings of resilience, perseverance and hope, which felt like the guiding principles and emotions we wanted to convey this year,” says Emily. “The SGIFF remains a celebration of the community, and we’re so grateful that cinemas are finally open, and that there can now be that shared experience once again, even with the restrictions. You know how there’s always those extremely passionate fans out there who’re the biggest voices if they love or hate something? I think without the festival, they’d feel like they lost out on something, and often, they’re the fiercest, most loyal fans who will be out there buying tickets left right and centre. A successful festival is represented by all our supporters, whether donors, sponsors or audience, staying by our side and not letting us go.”

“I’ve been to so many festivals around the world, from the biggest red carpet events filled with mega stars, to incredibly small ones in Mongolia, where people just gather to sit in the cinema together to experience a film together, and just talk about it. And over the course of these festivals, you see how people form new connections and make new friends, engage in discussion, and that’s what makes a good festival,” concludes Junfeng. “When I come home to SGIFF after all of that, it may be on a smaller scale, but it’s here. The community exists, and I believe there is so much potential we still have to keep growing with every edition of the festival. For me, if we can start looking at cinema the way we look at the food we eat, in terms of the diversity, the consumption and willingness to go to a hawker centre as much as an upscale restaurant, and apply that to cinema, with that same willingness, then I’d say we’ve have succeeded.” 

SGIFF 2020 runs from 26th November to 6th December 2020 both online and across multiple venues. For more information, tickets and the full lineup, visit their website here

SGIFF is dedicated to the safety and well-being of audiences, filmmakers and the entire community and continues to work closely with venues to follow the latest directives from authorities.

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