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Big love for small festivals

Niche festivals provide a platform for films with less mainstream themes, such as One Mile Above (2011), which is being screened at the Thus Have I Seen Buddhist Film Festival.

Publication Date : 26-09-2012

 

Many film screenings were sold out this past weekend at the Lido cineplex - and they were not the usual Hollywood blockbusters such as Resident Evil: Retribution.

Chinese drama One Mile Above (2011), a road movie about a young man's cycling journey to the highest point in Tibet to fulfil his late brother's final wish, was one of the popular offerings at the ongoing Thus Have I Seen Buddhist Film Festival.

The second edition of the festival, whose programming explores Buddhist values and themes, has sold close to 80 per cent of its 6,300 available tickets.

An eight-day event this year, it concludes on Saturday, meaning that ticket sales are still moving and could yet do better than its debut edition in 2009. That first year saw an impressive 93.5 per cent attendance for its 5,012 available seats.

Clearly, there is a high demand for the event, despite its far-from-mainstream films such as Wandering Mind (2012), a documentary about American film-maker Theodore Martland's journey to seek life's answers at a Buddhist monastery in India.

It is one of many film festivals held here. In the last year alone, there have been at least 13 film festivals, most of which have become regular or annual affairs.

That is on top of the ongoing film events already available at locations such as the Singapore Art Museum and the National Museum Of Singapore, which hold themed movie screenings at least every month and occasional retrospectives celebrating prominent film-makers.

There appears to be great demand for the festivals, whether they are the more established ones such as the European Union Film Festival, which held its 22nd edition in May, or new ones such as the Bengali Film Festival, which held its first edition earlier this month.

The European Union Film Festival saw an attendance rate of 78 per cent this year, even as its number of films have risen to 23 from 18 the previous year, while the inaugural Bengali Film Festival saw an average of 70 per cent-filled cinema halls for its seven films.

Film producer Teh Su Ching, 27, feels that the ever-growing film festival scene can only be a good thing for movie fans such as herself. "I don't think there can ever be too many film festivals here. That's like asking a chocolate lover if it's possible that there are too many chocolatiers in her city," she says.

The healthy attendance figures are helped by the fact that many, if not all, of the films being screened at these events are Singaporean premieres.

For film buffs, these festivals provide the chance to catch works on the big screen that might not have a commercial release here.

The German Film Festival, organised by the Goethe-Institut Singapore, features "highlights from the past" in addition to a yearly selection of new, never-before-seen works.

In its last edition held in November last year, the festival screened 18 new works such as Colours In The Dark (2010), but also screened 14 films that had been shown at previous editions of the festival before, such as comedy Soul Kitchen (2009).

The existence of so many film festivals here and their myriad offerings of unusual content have led some local film lovers to say that it does not really matter whether or not the ailing Singapore International Film Festival is revitalised.

This event, which had been facing problems such as a reduction in sponsorship and poor turnouts in recent years, had to cancel its 2012 edition, originally scheduled to be held next month. Festival founder and chairman Geoffrey Malone has said the event will return some time early next year.

In a previous Life! report, film-makers and filmgoers alike had attributed the 25-year-old festival's woes to an inexperienced programming team and stiff competition from alternate film sources, including DVDs, the Internet and the mini film festivals.

But many industry players still feel that the many niche film festivals cannot take the place of the Singapore International Film Festival.

Director Boo Junfeng, 28, is of the opinion that the niche festivals satisfy only "the demands of specific communities".

This is unlike a larger event such as the Singapore International Film Festival, which, like other international film festivals such as Busan, can "attract film scouts and programmers from around the world", making it more than just an event that screens films. It is a place for film industry players of all genres and themes to network, an objective which is much harder for the smaller festivals to achieve.

Filmmaker Jeremy Sing, 35, says: "The smaller festivals can definitely match the Singapore International Film Festival in the number of films and genres and catering for different tastes throughout the year, but they cannot match it in terms of having an event of enough stature to bring together the best practitioners, academics or simply the most serious of film buffs."

Boo concedes that the small festivals nonetheless help to put the spotlight on certain works that can get notice only at more niche events.

"A small film with a unique theme could be lost among the rest of the selection at a big festival, so it isn't such a bad thing if it is shown at a smaller, thematically relevant film festival. It helps the film find its audience," he says.

That is also why Michal Sarig-Kaduri, deputy chief of mission and cultural attache of the Embassy Of Israel which organises the annual Israel Film Festival, now in its 20th year, says that both the Singapore International Film Festival and the smaller one such as theirs, can and should co-exist.

She says: "The festivals serve different purposes and have different goals. The Israel Film Festival is a modest festival, and being limited in resources, we are not equipped like the Singapore International Film Festival to fly in directors and industry professionals from all over the world to allow dialogue and interaction on an international level.

"Ours is a lot more niche, but we do it to celebrate Israeli culture and to allow Singapore to have a glimpse of Israeli society. Singapore's film scene would only benefit from having both types of festivals around."

Even if many of the smaller film festivals do not have the resources to hold as many fringe events such as workshops and panel discussions, they have brought in a handful of relevant film-makers or industry players.

The South East Asian Film Festival, which held its second edition in March, and the Asian Buddhist Film Festival, last held in May last year, have brought in film-makers and other personnel to participate in post-screening discussions.

Examples of film-makers who attended the South East Asian Film Festival this year include Malaysian director James Lee, who was here for his martial arts drama The Collector (2011), and Vietnamese film-maker Pham Nhue Giang, who came to talk about her drama Mother's Soul (2011).

Sam I-shan, manager of programmes at the Singapore Art Museum, says: "The Singapore Art Museum will continue to bring in film-makers and directors, as this is an integral part of the South East Asian Film Festival."

The French Film Festival, meanwhile, has been flying in big names to up the glitz factor. Launched in 1984 to promote French film and culture, the annual event, organised by the Alliance Francaise and the French embassy, has broadened its purpose from being a mere showcase of film screenings to have an official red carpet event in its latest edition in November last year, bringing in French actresses Carole Bouquet and Catherine Deneuve.

Re-branding itself as the 1st Rendezvous With French Cinema, it also included a trade element, screening films specifically for French and regional film distributors. The festival's new direction was done on an undisclosed budget.

Olivier Caron, the French ambassador to Singapore, had previously told Life!: "Having built a strong following for French cinema over the years, we feel that the time is right to introduce a larger regional event that will feature the latest film releases, with an industry element included."

In any case, no matter what the goals of these film festivals are - whether as a networking platform or simply to promote the films of a certain theme or country - film buffs are pleased by the increasing wealth of choice.

Filmmaker Kelvin Tong, 39, says: "Film festivals provide programming that are different from what the mainstream distributors are showing and that is always welcome. From the point of audience choice, the more festivals, the merrier."

 

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