Arts Film News Singapore

SGIFF 2021: An Interview with new SGIFF Programme Director Thong Kay Wee

New blood is almost always a good thing in any organisation, bringing with them new ideas, new perspectives, and a drive to bring positive change. With The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), they’ve appointed Thong Kay Wee as their new Programme Director, leading the artistic elements of the Festival alongside Executive Director, Emily J. Hoe. We sat down to speak with Kay Wee, and find out just what he has planned for the festival ahead, and how he’ll be bringing his expertise to the table.

Formerly the Programmes and Outreach Officer at the Asian Film Archive (AFA), Kay Wee has a wealth of knowledge and experience under his belt. In the almost 7 years he’s spent at the organisation since 2014, he’s handled programming, promotion and outreach, in particular, regular programming for when AFA opened Oldham Theatre. Most recently, he ended off his stint on a high note, with a Wong Kar Wai retrospective, and has also programmed the Singular Screens film programme for the Singapore International Festival of the Arts since 2018.

“My time at AFA has honed my knowledge of Asian cinema, and I guess that’s where my specialty comes in, for SGIFF which focuses so much on SEA cinema,” says Kay Wee. “AFA honed my skills in terms of research and curatorial insights, and in understanding what works or doesn’t work for the Singaporean audience member, having been immersed in Asian cinema, and being able to draw upon my experience to guide my programming.”

But even with all his experience and knowledge, the task ahead can be quite daunting, having only about 4 months to get the programming together for SGIFF 2021, when it premieres in November. “Time is against me right now, and I need to catch up on things and understand the new responsibilities, compared to when I was at AFA,” says Kay Wee. “It’s quite different from Oldham, because now it’s about doing a programme for a dedicated festival period, and the work scope is very different too. It definitely takes some effort to acclimatise, get the team together, and get the festival going, all during the pandemic.”

For Kay Wee, programming goes a lot further than just picking out films he likes from a catalogue, with a need to pay attention to the festival’s needs and the public’s wants. “I think that we have to be very aware of the film festival circuit out there, and knowing what titles would attract our local audiences,” says Kay Wee. “Mostly, that comes from screening exclusive premieres, and essentially, bringing the best cinema to our local audience. As a programmer, we also have to arrange accompanying talks and events as well, and keep audiences engaged beyond just the actual films, and facilitate continuing the conversation.”

“There have been less new films released over the pandemic, and every international film festival has been facing this issue so far. When there aren’t enough audience members in the cinema, budgeting and cost comes into play. You won’t have international guests and red carpet either, and we hope it gets better.”

Kay Wee fully believes in the ability of Singaporeans to appreciate film, beyond standard blockbuster fare. “Even with the pandemic, Singapore still has the one of the rates of cinema attendance, and films are one of our favourite social activities. We’re also one of the most media literate populations in the world, with access to streaming platforms online, we’re inundated with media,” he says. “People can be very game to watch new things, but there’s a tendency to stick to the same sites, same cineplexes. To expand their appetite, we need to let them know that there are many more offerings out there than what you already know. So that’s why SGIFF is about showcasing films that may not be shown elsewhere.”

“The challenge then, is in bridging the general public to attending a film festival that sounds like it’s of a certain status. How do we signal to them what they’re attending, so when people flip pages of the programme booklet, we can foster more curiosity and interest? We don’t want to alienate and we don’t want to put things on a pedestal, we also don’t want to pander to a general taste, and that’s the programmers’ job to find the balance.”

The film industry, however, is certainly not premised on SGIFF alone, with Kay Wee recognising the need for other local players to support their efforts. “We need people like IMDA, or for other cineplexes to screen our shows after the SGIFF run has ended and make it more available to the public,” he says. “This ecosystem also includes people like journalists, cultural writers and social media to help keep the discussions going, and ensure the film’s life goes beyond the festival alone, generate more buzz, and weave it into the fabric of our lives.”

“SGIFF has always been doing films and appreciation talks with different schools too, because we want to grow the level of film literacy, and of course at the professional level, film academy talk sessions, industry sessions should still interest people. We also plan on bringing back Moonlight Cinema at Gardens by the Bay, and to ensure we have all these ongoing activities to keep on generating interest with our audiences, not to mention engage with youths via our Youth Jury and Critics programme.” 

“There was this one year I went to attend a five and a half hour film, called Happy Hour by Ryusuke Hamaguchi,” says Kay Wee, on his own fond memories of SGIFFs past. “It was a completely immersive experience, and also much of a surprise. You look around you at the people who are experiencing it with you, enjoying it with you, and still engaged during the Q&A session.”

“And then you go to a nearby coffeeshop to spend another hour just talking about the film. It turns into a full day experience! My point is, being able to be with likeminded friends, and after that to gather and talk about the things that matter to us, that reflect in the film and life, these are things I gain from going to a communal film screening, and memories I will cherish.”

“Film goes beyond entertainment sometimes, and demands a deeper engagement, like with Q&A sessions. If you come to film festival and watch something that’s provocative or mind boggling, you’ll want to head to a coffeeshop and have tea and talk about it with others,” he adds.

“The ideal scenario then, that there is a gathering space, a lounge, or an unofficial one, right outside the cinema, where they can talk about film. I’m not sure if we can still do that because of the pandemic. Maybe we can work virtually when gathering? Either way, it’s an important aspect of a festival, to celebrate and gather together, and that it’s not just a case of people coming in and out of the cinema.”

May be an image of text that says "A SING N G SO IFF FILM FESTIVAL"

What then, does Kay Wee hope to bring to the table in his new position? “In my time as Programme Director, I just want the festival to maybe bring the focus back to the cinema, the experiences and the films,” he muses. “I want people to know that hey, there were great films during this year’s programme, that it was an inclusive one, and that the general public didn’t feel alienated, and that the festival was still around, stronger than ever, even during the pandemic. I fully acknowledge that we are not able to operate at full capacity, and I do want to be a part of this organisation as we get through this difficult period, and hopefully, get back to the scale we were at before.”

“My philosophy has always been to make space, for potential outreach, and for filmmakers who have something to say to have the platform to express themselves. It’s about bringing them together with empathy and understanding,” he concludes. “A national festival like this is to come together and enjoy each other’s company, and more than ever, to find connection and reconnection through film in these times.”

SGIFF 2021 is slated to run from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here

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