Hock Hiap Leong (Royston Tan, 2001), a short film from SIFF 2001

(11-28 April 2001)

Philip Cheah, Festival director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), pens an interesting afterthought in his editorial for BigO (No.186, June 2001). In it, he comments on Singapore short films and their appearance at this year’s Festival. He states that “…the hype for Singapore short films began last year. This is because there is really nothing left feature-length-wise to hype about so the shorts are the new hype.” Of interest, however, is that with the exception of one Special Achievement Award, no other prizes (there are 4 in all) were awarded to the six contending finalists in the short film competition of this year’s Silver Screen Awards.

Although Cheah reveals that the jury members had concluded unanimously that the films were “sub-standard”, he irons out the weight by personally extolling their efforts. In a letter of response to Cheah’s editorial (BigO, No.187, July 2001), filmmaker Sandi Tan, a member of the NETPAC-FIPRESCI critics jury, corrects him by pointing out that the decision not to hand out prizes was not unanimous; like him, she was “much more impressed with this year’s selection than the previous years” and had differed in opinion with the main jury’s final decision.

Far from mounting a defence for Singapore short films or parrying unenthusiastic judgement with indignation, my afterthoughts here concern the scrutiny of some contemporary currents in the local filmmaking scene. To begin with, I am unsure if there has been any vocal dissent to the jury’s dismissal, although this is immaterial. 78 short film entries were yielded but only 6 were creamed off for greater good – to naught, as it turns out; these numbers are groaners, and made to look all the more disappointing given that the number of finalists short-listed over previous years has crumbled almost proportionately, from 11 in 1996 to 5 in 2000.

But, according to Cheah’s editorial, the results have provoked anger. Which quarters is this anger representative of – is it the (filmmaking) public’s peeve or institutional pique? Was such bitterness symptomatic of national consciousness, where ‘losing’ is considered valueless? If this was the case, then self-evaluation will be sorely desired. Certainly, on an institutional level, the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) will be evaluating the situation on the ground in order to help sustain what it deems a “significant driving force” – “film appreciation and the nurturing of the growing film culture in Singapore”. (1) But although their claim that, “[f]or years, the festival has been the only platform showcasing the work of local talent” (2) is verifiable, such a manner of expression overlooks the merit of similar endeavours that espouse less mainstream orientations.

Spaces like the Substation, Singapore’s ‘alternative’ arts centre, which has been proactive in supporting moviemaking activity through a year-round programme that showcases both local emphasis and international highlight. Yet, unlike the short film competition ordained by the Silver Screen Award’s decade-old platform – an annual fling that climaxes in an orgy of glamour and profligacy – the Substation’s Moving Images programme, at less than half that age, bears an unassuming design and a mellowness the former has yet to lay bare. Through frequent screenings of amateur work, workshops and exchanges, the Moving Images programme attempts to level the playing field by opening up avenues for community building, networking and exposure. It’s a process that appreciates the necessity to coax momentum within a milieu that has arguably been made effete by the lack of infrastructural support, particularly in Singapore, where filmmaking is, as a rule, a process whose synergy is predicated on logistic and capital(ist) imperatives.

Scheduled for December 2001, the Substation’s newly established Singapore Shorts Film Festival will be an event to watch for. Being the inaugural Festival committed to the ‘short’, it is unsurprising that it already aims to do much of this watching. As its Call For Entries publicity notes: “…it is to observe the rapid development of filmmaking on a global level and to exercise how we can participate in it.” Of equal, if not greater consideration nevertheless, is how this enterprise can integrate its “global” dispositions in tandem with the foundation it has so vigilantly built. What is decisive is the logic of continuity, as opposed to a blind embrace of the ‘global’ referent, which resonates firmly with the spectacle of ‘globalisation’. All too often, the notion of going ‘global’ or ‘globalising’ remains a powerful conforming mechanism, entailing an equivocal agenda that predisposes the variables of particular politics. Admittedly persuasive, but such inclinations are inherently problematic, to say the least.

The bigger picture, it seems, is not far removed either. Even as SIFF’s programming strategy boldly underlines Asian cinema as a specialist draw, the dearth of local features is a frustrating recurrence. How does Singapore feel about this inconsistency – this upturned sore thumb – given her self-appointed status as the high priestess of Asian Values? While propaganda’s mythologizing of an energised ‘local film industry’ continue to circulate without requisite conviction, what is brazenly absent too is the inadequate sobriety at examining the condition of the contemporary film scene. Regrettably, local films have not been able to uphold a bastion of regard at home, nor have they figured prominently in contemporary world cinema; substance may be cited as the perennially elusive ingredient, but in the face of this, a principally affirmative hint is the resurgence of filmmaking activity, which is reporting a cumulative resolve.

The brevity of context to further examine an area that warrants urgent critical inquiry dissuades me; but in replacement, I offer a concomitant anecdote.

At a recent but rare film forum (3) on local films organised by United International Pictures (Singapore), one of the anxieties expressed from the floor was, as reported by a local tabloid (4), the deficiency of subject matter – allegedly attributable to Singapore’s plague of “restrictions” levelled against filmmakers. SFC’s executive director, Dr. Ismail Sudderuddin “retort(ed)” to this particular comment by citing the case of Iran, where theirs was a filmmaking community that had infinitely more restrictions to wrestle with and yet had a thriving industry to boast of. Although Dr. Sudderuddin’s comparison of Iran with Singapore is not without rousing intentions, his remarks, quoted and interpreted off the cuff, perhaps understate the intricacy of a case like Iran’s and hence miss the point in addressing the apathy of Singapore’s filmmaking psyche.

What Singapore desires to become – based on a snap fetish of a utopian, “thriving film industry” – hardly translates into the turbulent narrative that Iranian cinema has struggled to negotiate for seventy years. More than anything, the historical and political incongruence between the two countries may serve to explain the problematic of their comparison. One of the ideological thrusts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution was the belief that the cinema was an institution of depravity. It was, as the late Ayatollah Khomeini condemned, but later retracted, albeit ironically, “a modern invention… used… to corrupt our youth”, and his words set the course for a wilful annihilation of anything that concerned the moving image – by invoking the decimation of hundreds of cinemas at the flames of fanatic arsonists, the mass indictment of filmmakers, and the subsequent halt of film production. Above all, it beckoned the implementation of an unyielding system of censorship that made cinematic representations, such as that of women and sexuality, tricky and contentious snares. Yet, the consequence of all this had conferred a remarkably buoyant and empowering characteristic: the inability to deal unswervingly with social realities only served to engender a consciousness that would translate representations of the literal to levels of the symbolic and minimalist – incidentally some of the characteristics that Iranian cinema is critically acclaimed for.

Such is but a glimpse of a disparate chasm that stretches between these two divides: that while Singapore filmmakers continue to carp on trivial “restrictions”, which they maintain are impeding creative drive, Iran’s artists are often compelled to negotiate their dues on impenitently antagonistic terrain, where the cinema ranks alongside other government-controlled institutions as a theatre of war upon which the ideologies of culture, politics and religion clash centre stage between those who hold fast to the fundamental Islamic codes of conduct and others who aspire to reform a system they see as essentially tyrannical and repressive.

In these brief closing remarks, I wish to reference three original aims of the SIFF. These were: “to broaden film appreciation in Singapore”, “to build a platform for the Singapore film industry”, and “to expose Singaporeans to the process of film through seminars and workshops”. (5) To no small measure of effort, the first and third have been worthily tasked. There is now, more than ever, an interest in film and filmmaking. At least the government indulges this opinion, which would imply that there is reason for the public to share the interest. To a degree, they have. But I’m not too sure about the second aim.

In his report of the 14th SIFF (6), Nazir Keshvani quotes Cheah, who has once said that “the SIFF has always existed as a field of dreams”. He then ventures: “Fourteen years since the Festival’s founding, the field of dreams, it would appear, still needs nurturing.” Indeed, for too long now, this field has yielded a wretched, if not pitiable harvest. Is the ground not fertile enough? Or are those in the field not dreaming ‘right’? At 15-years-old, the SIFF has arrived at the prototypical pubertal phase – a period marked by intense hormonal and emotional transition. Aspirations should ideally transcend beyond mere dreams. At this age, wouldn’t fantasising be a more compelling prospect?


  1. SFC Media Release for the 14th SIFF: The Singapore Film Commission Presents The 11th Silver Screen Awards 2001, 23 February 2001
  2. Ibid.
  3. Film Forum 2001: In Search Of The Archival Local Films And Local Filmmakers / Will We Ever Be Hollywood? Organised by United International Pictures (Singapore) and held at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Cultural Theatre on 30 August 2001.
  4. Stephanie GOH, Too Many Restrictions? I Think Not; Streats, 31 August 2001
  5. Jan UHDE and Yvonne NG-UHDE, Latent Images Film In Singapore; Oxford, Singapore, 2000
  6. Nazir Keshvani, “The 14th Singapore International Film Festival, Apr 11-28 2001 – A Report“, Senses Of Cinema No. 14, June 2001