Singapore Q&A: Festival Director Yuni Hadi on Southeast Asia's Resurgence

Yuni Hadi H 2014

The SGIFF head tells THR about her plans to transform the event into the region's premiere international film event

After a two-year hiatus, the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) returns this year with renewed ambition and a broader platform, thanks to its inclusion in the inaugural Singapore Media Festival, a multi-faceted event pulling together awards shows, red carpets, a market, industry forums, the festival — and plenty of parties.

Running Dec. 4-14, SGIFF features 147 films from 50 countries, screened across 11 sections. The festival's executive director Yuni Hadi spoke with THR about Southeast Asia's growing clout, highlights from this year's program and the level of influence she hopes the Singapore fest will soon assume. 

SGIFF is returning from a two-year break and taking place as part of the Singapore Media Festival for the first time. How has the event changed?

Well, we have an entirely new team that is set on making this year’s festival a truly stimulating one. The soul of the festival remains the same, and that is one that lives and breathes Southeast Asian and Singapore cinema. This year, we’ve introduced new platforms such as the Southeast Asian Film Lab, a Youth Jury Program, and the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, all of which have allowed us to keep true to this. With these new platforms, we are also playing our part in nurturing and developing the next generation of filmmaking talent, and this is a crucial foundation for a film festival.

What excites you about Southeast Asian cinema today?

Southeast Asian cinema in general had its growth spurt in the late 1990s, around the same time as the "new waves" in Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian, Filipino cinema. What film festivals have done recently is create an opportunity for regional networking and collaboration. There's a lot to be said about Southeast Asian filmmakers supporting each other. If you look at the independent films coming out from the region now, there's certainly more crossover of crew and actors. For example, in The Second Lives of Thieves, which will be screened at SGIFF, the director is a Malaysian and the director of photography is from Thailand. I love that these collaborations are happening. We need more of it to truly find that Southeast Asian voice.

Do you feel that a distinctly Southeast Asian cinematic identity is starting to emerge?

Well, there's also been quite a bit of attention on Southeast Asian film talents, with high profile awards given to Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz and Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen, which I think creates a curiosity to what kind of projects are going on in this region. It's important to note that this didn't happen overnight. There were filmmakers like Apichatpong Weeraseethakul and Eric Khoo who paved the way for the current generation of filmmakers with their own success overseas. 

From a programming perspective, what are some trends in this year's lineup that you find interesting?

I'm extremely fascinated by what's happening in certain parts of the world, such as Egypt. These societies are facing urgent questions and there's an overflow of energy among the youth—we know there is important art being created in response. So we are proud to spotlight our Filmmaker in Focus Ahmad Abdalla from Egypt this year. Our Honorary Award recipient Korean master Im Kwan-taek has made 102 films and he is one of the most humble filmmakers I have met. Films show us that we as people are the same no matter where we are.

What role would you like SGIFF to play in the international festival circuit?

SGIFF has always worked together with regional festivals to share resources and knowledge where possible. Right now, there is a slight gap within Southeast Asia so we hope we will be able to bring the Southeast Asian community together. For us, it is more about getting back into the circuit of international film festivals around the region, e.g. Tokyo, Busan and also Dubai. Connecting with new audiences, reconnecting with old ones, and bringing the film industry across Southeast Asia together in a meaningful way, are what we hope to achieve. 

Reputation is important and it is not something that is built overnight. Filmmakers want to work with people they trust, which is why running the festival with integrity is important.