Welcoming nearly 200 international guests from film delegations and juries, the 33rd Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) marked an exuberant return to the hustle and bustle of its pre-pandemic editions. From November 24 to December 4, the festival offered 101 films and a first lineup of VR shorts, with Singaporean films comprising more than a quarter of the lineup.
The tides of change have been churning since the festival brought in new program director Thong Kay Wee for the 2021 edition, which saw a significant revamp of its program sections. However, this year’s all-physical format turned out to be the first real testing ground for the festival’s new changes.
Here are four takeaways from the 2022 edition of the festival.
Expanded geographic ambitions
There is a significant geographic expansion underway in the festival programming and industry labs. For example, the festival’s Producer Network has expanded to include producers from all over Asia, compared to Southeast Asia in previous editions. “The networking opportunities within Southeast Asia are great, but it’s important to broaden the network for growers,” shares SGIFF CEO Emily J. Hoe. Fran Borgia, producer of Apprentice (winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2016) and an imagined land (Winner of the Golden Leopard at Locarno 2018) — served as program specialist for the new Asian Producer Network.
Hoe points to the festival’s opening film, Assault by Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov, as another example of how SGIFF is expanding the net. “We were excited to have a Central Asian film for the first time as the opening film,” says Hoe. “This goes back to diversity and broadening people’s awareness of how great movies from regions that aren’t as well known can be.”
Since last year, the festival has shifted from curating purely by region to curating by theme, with sections such as Foreground (genre films, including Iranian suspense drama Third World war), Altitude (films by established filmmakers, such as Hong Sang-soo’s the novelist film and Lav Diaz A history of Filipino violence) and Undercurrent (experimental films such as the Australian the plains). Hoe notes that this approach will prompt audiences to open their minds to a greater variety of films, as region-focused programming often says little about the work beyond its national origin.
Looking ahead, Hoe says the festival aims to forge collaborations with other film festivals around the world, as well as connect its Southeast Asia Film Lab with film development incubators abroad.
Triumphant return to two alumni titles
Two stalwart films, which have had outstanding showings on the global festival circuit this year: Autobiography Y Eleanor will never die — celebrated their homecoming at SGIFF as alumni of the festival’s Southeast Asia Film Lab. These two films are also directorial debuts for Makbul Mubarak and Martika Ramirez Escobar, respectively.
“Projects don’t happen overnight. They don’t really have very fast timelines,” shares Hoe, about how he assesses whether the festival’s Film Academy programs are meeting their goals. “For us, the measure of success happens over time. It’s not something we can force, especially with the drive towards more collaborations and co-productions. These can become more complex and take longer to develop.”
Alumnus of the Southeast Asia Film Lab, Mubarak Autobiography celebrated a jubilant homecoming by winning first prize at the SGIFF Silver Screen Awards. The festival jury, which includes Lav Diaz, Ritu Sarin and Kim Soyoung and New York Film Festival Artistic Director Dennis Lim, awarded the Best Asian Film award to the Indonesian film.
Feature film by Philippine filmmaker Escobar, Eleanor will never dieit won the Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spirit at the Sundance Film Festival this year and was screened as part of the Asian Feature Film Competition at SGIFF.
“It’s really about that network of connections, and then whether that inspires collaboration, co-production or even an offer to help,” adds Hoe. “It comes in many ways, shapes and forms. There are all these conversations that we don’t know happened that could come to light later.”
Technology-driven cinema in independent cinema
The festival also placed technology in a critical spotlight, responding to the biggest issues in technology-driven filmmaking. SGIFF launched its first VR cinema program with two short films from Singapore. Additionally, SGIFF held a forum titled “The Future of Film: We All Paint Green” which addressed issues such as the place of visual effects and CGI, given the tight budgets of independent film. The forum also covered the growing use of virtual production, extended reality (XR) and game engines in Asian cinema.
The festival’s enthusiasm to engage with these themes was timely, as Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority announced on December 7 that it will launch a $5 million Virtual Production Innovation Fund. This fund will be used to build the capacities of the local media industry in virtual production technology, partnering with the UK’s National Film and Television School for training.
Audience development remains a priority for next year
Hoe shares that audience development is a critical area in which the festival is looking to intensify its efforts in the coming year. While the festival organizes community screenings and runs film education programs in schools, Hoe acknowledges that increasing the appetite for independent films among the general public in Singapore remains a key challenge.
“The strategy was to show local films to the general public who haven’t had a chance to see them and realize that there is incredible talent out there,” says Hoe. “We still have to keep growing audiences and hopefully people will see a little more independent film.”
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