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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. Running from Nov. 24 to Dec. 4, the festival offered 101 films and a first-ever VR short film program, with Singaporean films comprising over a quarter of the lineup.
The tides of change have been stirring 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 fully-physical format proved 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 geographical ambitions
There is a significant geographical expansion underway in the festival’s programming and industry labs. For example, the festival’s Producers Network has expanded to include producers across Asia, compared to just Southeast Asia in previous editions. “The networking opportunities within Southeast Asia are great, but it’s important to enlarge the network for the producers,” SGIFF’s executive director Emily J. Hoe shares. Fran Borgia — producer of Apprentice (Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes 2016) and A Land Imagined (Golden Leopard winner at Locarno 2018) — served as the program specialist for the new Asian Producers Network.
Hoe points out the festival’s opening film, Assault by Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov, as another example of how SGIFF is casting the net wider. “We were excited that we had a Central Asian film for the first time as an opening film,” Hoe says. “This goes back to diversity and broadening people’s knowledge of how fabulous films can be from regions that aren’t as well known.”
Since last year, the festival has shifted away from curating purely by region and towards curating by theme, with sections like Foreground (genre films, including Iranian thriller drama World War III), Altitude (films by established filmmakers, such as Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film and Lav Diaz’s A Tale of Filipino Violence) and Undercurrent (experimental films like Australia’s The Plains). Hoe points out that this approach will push 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 to the future, Hoe says the festival aspires to forge collaborations with other film festivals around the world, as well as connecting its Southeast Asian Film Lab with overseas film development incubators.
Triumphant homecoming for two alumni titles
Two stalwart films, which have seen outstanding runs on the global festival circuit this year — Autobiography and Leonor Will Never Die — celebrated their homecoming at SGIFF as alumni of the festival’s Southeast Asian Film Lab. These two films are also all directorial debuts from Makbul Mubarak and Martika Ramirez Escobar, respectively.
“Projects don’t happen overnight. They genuinely don’t have very fast timelines,” shares Hoe, on how she evaluates whether the festival’s Film Academy programs meet their goals. “For us, the measurement of success happens over time. It’s not something that we can force, especially with the drive towards more collaborations and co-productions. These can get more complex and need more time to develop.”
An alumnus of the Southeast Asian Film Lab, Mubarak’s Autobiography celebrated a jubilant homecoming as it clinched the top prize at SGIFF’s Silver Screen Awards. The festival’s jury — which includes Lav Diaz, Ritu Sarin and Kim Soyoung and New York Film Festival artistic director Dennis Lim — bestowed the Best Asian Film award to the Indonesian feature.
Filipina filmmaker Escobar’s feature, Leonor Will Never Die, won the Special Jury Prize for Innovative Spirit at the Sundance Film Festival this year and 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 of help,” Hoe adds. “It comes in many ways, shapes and forms. There are all these conversations that we don’t know have happened and might only come out later.”
Tech-driven filmmaking in independent cinema
The festival also placed technology under a critical spotlight, responding to top-of-the-mind issues in tech-driven filmmaking. SGIFF launched its first-ever VR film program with two Singaporean short films. Additionally, SGIFF held a forum titled “Future of Cinema: We All Paint Ourselves Green” tackling questions like the place of visual effects and CGI, given the tight budgets in independent filmmaking. The forum also covered the growing use of virtual production, extended reality (XR) and game engines in Asian filmmaking.
The festival’s enthusiasm in engaging with these topics proved timely, with Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority announcing on Dec. 7 that it will launch a $5 million Virtual Production Innovation Fund. This fund will be used to develop the local media industry’s capabilities 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 one critical area where the festival is looking to intensify its efforts next year. While the festival organizes community screenings and runs film education programs in schools, Hoe acknowledges that growing an appetite for independent films among the general public in Singapore remains a key challenge.
“The strategy was to get local films out in front of the general audience who have not had the chance to watch and realize that there is amazing talent,” Hoe says. “We still need to continue to build the audience and hopefully people see a little bit more independent cinema.”
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