Keeping the Singapore International Film Festival fresh

Keeping the Singapore International Film Festival fresh

Back for its 24th year, the festival's diverse lineup includes everything from vampires to The Muppets
'Senna': The documentary on Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna will bring SIFF 2011 to a close.

When the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) first appeared in 1987, it was about the only event in the island where you could watch independent, non-blockbuster films.

Two decades on, Singapore is awash with festivals big and small, regular screenings of festival-type films at Golden Village’s Cinema Europa and Cathay’s The Picturehouse, and at hip indie cinema Sinema at Old School.

But the SIFF ( is not letting this competition beat it back. If anything it’s coming out even stronger this year with 144 feature films (compared to 87 last year) and about 50 short films to be screened at Sinema, The Arts House, LaSalle College of the Arts and the newly renovated Shaw Lido Cineplex, home to the SIFF for many years.

This year, the organisers have also made more fringe activities available; from workshops and talks on prop-making to visual effects, make-up, camera work and screenwriting, to name just some.

A new board of directors is largely responsible for this big leap forwards.

Following longtime festival stalwart Phillip Cheah’s departure after what must have felt like an eternity of 23 years, local personalities Hamish Brown and Quek Kon Hui have come onboard to join founder Geoffrey Malone.

“We’ve had to rethink a few things,” says Malone. “After 20 years of doing the festival, the original team was getting a bit jaded so they basically resigned.”

“Cheah, our main programmer, stuck it out for another couple of years and I’m the last man standing. Now we’ve got new, young team, who are bringing a whole new viewpoint to the festival.”

'Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon': A chronicle the life of the Kings of Leon.Indeed they are, with 16 wide-ranging segments of film that cover genres such as experimental and surreal films (“Down the Rabbit Hole”), horror (“Midnight Madness”), 3D films (“Indie Goes 3D”), vampire flicks (“Beyond Twilight: From Nosferatu to Pontianak”) and rare and exclusive Jim Henson footage in “Muppets, Music and Magic.”

All this, on top of SIFF staples “Singapore Panorama” that showcases cutting-edge local films, “Seeing Music Hearing Film” (2011) that bridges music and film – with “Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon” a documentary about the rise of the band as the film to look out for this year.

The opening and closing films are Sam Voutas’ lighthearted take on sex and society in China, “Red Light Revolution” (2010), and the incredibly moving “Senna” (2010) by Asif Kapadia.

Pi Before 'Black Swan' and 'The Fighter' there was 'Pi' about a socially awkward mathematician who unlocks all universal patterns in nature. Standing out amongst this already strong lineup is the section “Everyone’s Gotta to Start Somewhere,” which looks at the directorial debuts of accomplished directors, both international and Singaporean. Film gems are unearthed here: Director Darren Aronofsky’s first film, a raw, black and white, low budget flick called “PI” (1998), Matrix’s Wachowski brothers graphic thriller “Bound” (1996) and the late Malaysian great Yasmin Ahmad’s “Sepet” (2004).

With new ideas, Malone wants to take audiences, and filmmakers, out of their comfort zone.

“I still think there’s still a problem with Singapore films being a bit parochial, some of them get a bit stuck in the mud,” says Malone. “We’re trying to encourage people to take risks. For instance, I’m making a science fiction black comedy [film], and the reason I’m doing it is no one has ever done science fiction here before.”

“Everyone says, oh it’s too expensive, it requires a huge amount of CGI; I don’t believe that’s true. No one has done it here, so why not? Same thing when I started the film festival here -- I thought, why not?”

Malone is certainly not fazed by the festival’s competition.

“We’ve always tried to predict what’s happening and keep up with the times, and I quite like change really.”

“With the last era of the film festival, we maybe weren’t as creative as we should have been towards the end. Now our motto is the three Rs: reinvention, reincarnation and revitalization.”

“No one can really compete, we’re still the biggest and as far as I’m concerned we’re the best. We really started film festivals in Singapore and a lot have attempted to copy what we’ve done before. Imitation is a serious form of flattery.”

Will audiences keep making the effort to attend film festivals? Malone thinks so.

“People still love going to the cinema. There’s nothing like the experience of going to the big screen.”

Geoffrey Malone’s science fiction black comedy stars Hossan Leong as a mad scientist and Hamish Brown as the evildoer who tries to get rid of the excess population of an overcrowded planet only to be opposed by an ill-fated, ill-funded government department. 

Singapore International Film Festival

Various locations
September 15-25, various times
Tickets at S$10-S$30 via SISTIC

Elaine Ee writes about Singapore, the city she lives in, covering the arts, events, personalities and social issues. Her stories have appeared in Time Out SingaporeTatler HomesFood & Travel and Jetstar Asia. She’s also an editor at, a Singapore community-driven website run by socially conscious denizens. When she’s not at her laptop, she practises Bikram yoga, spends time with her three kids and makes it a point to keep trying something new. 

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