'Sankara,' 'Opera' bookend Singapore fest


SINGAPORE -- Sri Lankan film "Sankara," a tale of passion and repressed feelings from young director Prasanna Jayakody, will open the 20th annual Singapore International Film Festival, festival organizers announced Tuesday.

The festival, which runs April 18-30, closes with Indonesia's "Opera Jawa," director Garin Nugroho's story of religious extremism and political oppression inspired by the abduction scene in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana.

Describing "Sankara" as a "risky" choice of opener, festival director Philip Cheah said films by more seasoned directors were usually selected to open the festival, but that the film's quality prompted program directors to break with tradition.

"Sankara," which won the Cairo International Film Festival's Silver Pyramid Award last year, a special jury prize for best director, is Jayakody's first feature film.

Organizers hope ticket sales for the two-week event will hit the 60,000 mark, festival founder and organizing committee chairman Geoffrey Malone said.

Eleven features will compete for the Silver Screen Award for best Asian film. The list includes "Solos," a film about homosexual desire in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal. "Solos" is directed by Singapore directors Loo Zihan and Kan Lume.

Awards entries also include director Shawkat Amin Korki's Iraqi film "Crossing the Dust," set amid the short-lived euphoria after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab's "The Last Man." Salhab's film follows a serial killer in Beirut, a city still recovering from the Israeli-Lebanon conflict last year.

This year's program includes a retrospective of 37 winners of the festival's Silver Screen Awards short film prize spanning the years 1991 to 2006. Titles unspooling include 1998's "Replacement Killer" from top Singapore helmer Jack Neo.

"The made-by-Singapore content featured at the retrospective is especially significant as the Singapore Film Commission aims to create greater awareness and appreciation of the art form of film and make local films more accessible to the general public," film commission director Man Shu Sum said.

Asian cinema will be showcased with more than 20 films from India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Syria, Thailand, Uzbekistan and South Korea.

Filmmaking in Southwest Asia and the Middle East also is highlighted in the festival's "The Secret Life of Arabia" section as well as in a special tribute to Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. Mahfouz died last year.

The Arabia program includes the festival's first-ever film from Kuwait, "Losing Ahmad," a documentary about a boy who is given false hope of treatment for his blindness by a foreign aid agency.