Singapore tackling taboo topics

Shifting attitudes bring more 'personal' subjects to fest

The Singapore International Film Festival opens its 20th anniversary edition Wednesday with local filmmakers determined to make themselves heard on a number of taboo issues.

The festival, which runs through April 30, features more than 300 films from 40 countries as well as a 10-hour retrospective of short films from the early careers of the country's best-known directors. Eleven features will compete for the Silver Screen Awards for best Asian feature.

Sri Lankan director Prasanna Jayakody's "Sankara," about a Buddhist monk's battle with passion and repressed feelings, opens the festival. The closing film is Indonesian director Garin Nugroho's "Opera Jawa," inspired by the abduction scene of Sita in the Sanskrit epic, Ramayana.

Among the other highlights this year are a pair of seminars that will bring together established Singapore directors Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, Kelvin Tong and Royston Tan — all of whom participated in early SIFF editions — with such up-and-coming local directors as Kan Lume and Loo Zihan.

Kan and Loo's "Solos," which makes its world premiere at the festival, deals with homosexual desire, rage and depression, and is one of the most daring titles in the lineup this year.

According to SIFF director Philip Cheah, the biggest change in Singapore's filmmaking environment in the past two decades has been in attitude. "Filmmakers are more willing to tackle subjects that they feel personally and strongly about," he said.

At the same time, festival organizers continue to struggle with censorship issues. Anders Morgenthaler's priest-turned-vigilante film "Princess" — the opening film of the Directors Fortnight at Cannes last year — was taken off the schedule after a run-in with local censors.

Though Singapore censors agreed to pass the animated film with one cut, Cheah said the SIFF "has maintained its principle that festival films should not be cut."

Cheah added that any im-provements in Singapore's censorship process for the past 16 years have been superficial. "The real improvement was in 1991 when they introduced the rating system. Since then, all the changes have been cosmetic," he said.

Southwest Asian cinema will be the subject of a special focus at this year's festival. The "Secret Life of Arabia" showcase includes a tribute to Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab writer to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature, for his impact on Egypt's realist cinema.

The showcase opens with the Asian premiere of "Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Videos," by Palestinian documentary filmmaker Mai Masri. The 80-minute film was shot in Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

According to Cheah, the biggest challenge facing the SIFF is funding. The festival received about SG$100,000 ($66,000) from the Singapore Film Commission this year. That figure is double last year's subsidy, but still only a fraction of the multimillion-dollar budgets of festivals in Pusan, Tokyo and Bangkok.

"Right now the cultural calendar of Singapore is very crowded," he said. "You need to shout louder to get heard. Nowadays, the only thing that shouts very loud is money."

The festival hopes to sell between 60,000 and 70,000 tickets this year. Last year's attendance was 35,000.