Singaporeans to paint Berlin red and white and pink! - Asian Hot Shots Berlin 2010

The Asian Hot Shots Berlin Festival for Film and Video (whoa, that's a mouthful!) is here again. A strong supporter of Singapore films, they turn the spotlight on Singapore this year. The previous was Indonesia. Mathias Ortmann who is a guest writer for SINdie and also for curated this year's crop of Singapore films at this festival. From the number of Singaporeans going there, looks like an Olympic contingent - Royston Tan, Eva Tang, Victric Thng, Ho Tzu Nyen, Lei Yuan Bin, Wesley Leon Aroozoo and many more! I caught up with Mathias to dig some honest opinions about Singapore films.

Jeremy (J): Why the focus on Singapore? There are plenty of robust film movements going around in Asia.

Mathias (M): True, Asia certainly is a world in itself and definitely when it comes to cinema, the wealth of productions and movements is virtually boundless. That is why there is a need for an Asian-themed festival like AHSB to have a focus in the first place, to cast a spotlight on one country, for instance, and work from there. The point is to put quality ahead of quantity and to limit yourself in one area to allow for a more scrupulous and in-depth assessment. Singapore has been a natural choice for us for a number of reasons. Firstly, we have had a strong connection to her filmmaking scene from the start. This isn't a blitz kind of approach but one continuous effort. We've had good entries from Singapore in previous years and I think it is fair to say that given our mission to foster young, independent cinema, we try to do pioneer work in the field. It is a first in Germany - and that's Europe's biggest market! So, it is an adventure; it is a challenge and I'm always one to take on a new challenge when there is something to discover.

Another aspect is that Singapore is struggling as far as communicating a distinct image goes. They call it "uniquely" but no-one really seems to know what that is supposed to mean. Look at South Korea for one, they are very smart in this respect. They have original cultural assets and they understand how to capitalize on it through advancing its film industry. I am not talking about box office success and revenues primarily. But it is important we recognize that filmic expression is more than just the creation of commercial value. How do foreigners relate to another country? Through their people, right? It all comes down to the human element, whether it speaks to you or not. Only the most 'robust' of tourists would enjoy being processed like goods. The rest of us, we want to feel a reality that may or may not be quite different from our everyday. Film is the medium to transport this experience most powerfully.

Now look at Singapore - and try to adopt an outward point of view! The social and cultural dynamics at play are intriguing. A lot is bubbling under the seemingly smooth surface. And I am fascinated by it, I am fascinated by those little fissures and first cracks in the gloss where we get to see something more, something deeper and much stronger than what is seen on billboards or in television ads. As far as the human element is concerned, I think we all can relate to it; it really is universal. But the particulars, the telling detail, need an authentic voice to reveal it and bring it to light. When I see that in a film, the mismatch or any instance of awkwardness, that draws my attention and captivates my imagination because I can see there is some issue that matters to people. At the end of the day film is about reality, the lives we live and the world around us, and that's the funny thing. What fiction do Singaporeans indulge in? Well, I think it worth having a look at her films to give us some clues!

J: How would you characterise/describe the film movement/scene that is brewing in Singapore now?

M: Brewing is the word here. There are many ingredients and no clear, straightforward recipe. So the outcome is uncertain and while sometimes we already get to taste something that is rich and colourful with a strong individual flavour, well, the occasional tasteless bowl can't always be avoided. I think there is a lot of characteristic talent in Singapore, in every department, that just need to become more self-confident and assertive. From what I observe, the obstacles are real but not huge. The problems a Singaporean filmmaker faces today are not unique. Other professionals in other places face similar and oftentimes worse conditions or repression.

I don't see one particular movement as such that one could point to and say 'Look at this, this is completely new and unheard of'. Everybody is confronted with the same challenges and these are to do with questions like: 'Who is my target audience?', 'What is the level of sophistication?', 'Do I have to please everyone?', 'What risks am I ready to take?' - and 'Will I get to make another movie after this one?' The answers folks in Singapore come up with, frankly, are not always convincing. But you can begin to see two major directions that emerge, two lines of approach to solution finding in the matter. One is to stay as close to home as possible, the other is to be outward-bound and 'export-oriented'. Interestingly, I find the more original and daring works to belong to the first kind of films and filmmakers. Perhaps they are closer to their creative centre.

J: I notice that the selection is a mix of the major productions last year and a some really new names in the scene. Could you take us through the curation?

M: You are right, yes. The situation was that AHSB has moved its date back by more than half a year from before. Therefore, we had all of 2009 and 2010, first half, to draw upon. On top of that, since this is the Singapore Focus this year, but a concentrated one, I decided against a retrospective showcasing but wanted to give as wide a range as possible that reflects a very diverse silver screen landscape like I've said. This is what I see, that you cannot pigeonhole Singapore cinema as a whole, label it nicely and say 'This is it!'. That wouldn't be true to the situation. Plus, German audiences are very unfamiliar with productions from Singapore, may never have seen a film from your country and would have a hard time to identify one even while watching.

My approach was to avoid the well-known names. That was a conscious decision, a choice I made. Not to feature the usual festival headliners but to be more inclusive and put the spectacle and the silent cry side by side. If it turns out to be heterogeneous, I am happy!

The end result is eclectic, but in as far as it doesn't narrow down the perspective, I think it is also fairly representative. Clearly there is a preference for art-house over mainstream, for risk-takers over those films that like to play it safe. I am never looking for perfect films, or the ones with the highest production value. There has to be a precise way of expression, something where the images get back to you with force and tell you that there is a will to express behind it all. Some real concern. If it is handled on filmic terms, you know, in a manner that is one with the medium, then it has a soul and interests me. I believe that these are the films, from whatever country, that can move people and impact an audience in a way that is more meaningful than consumption. Also, social themes are very important. A social agenda and societal, let's call it 'uneasiness', be it subtle or outspoken, will definitely add to any film. We are bringing back these films to Berlin, after all, and Berliners are very political in their outlook.

J: What were some of the natural choices and some of the more difficult choices?

M: Ho Tzu Nyen's debut feature, HERE, was a natural choice, and so were "Dreaming Kester" by Martin Hong and "White Days" by Lei Yuan Bin. These were the first set entries on any preliminary list, but for different reasons. What they have in common, for me, is that they are simply 'true' in a very creative way. You can trace influences, of course, and assign them to certain schools if you will. The bottom-line is that they are very individualistic works, each of them, and they are Singaporean to the core. Also, they share a kind of lightness that I love very much and that I think can work to lessen the distance between an audience and the projection, so to speak.

I was looking for films, short or feature-length, that can serve as ambassadors for the Singaporean situation and way of looking at things. Amit Virmani's "Cowboys in Paradise" does two things: it shows that documentary filmmaking is strong in Singapore, and that for some strange reason, they tend to find their subject matter away from home. I find that interesting. As far as the short films are concerned, I noted a rise in quality from last year. My formula for a good short film is simple: it needs to be short and it needs to be film. That's all. And again there are some real gems and some of them we have assembled in our trademark Singapore Hot Shots which I am proud of!

The three competition shorts from Singapore for example, they are very different but all of them are noteworthy. "Baju" by Azhar Shukor was a real discovery and when I see a film like that it makes me hopeful for the future. It is real, it is uncompromising and short. It really has a punch and knows what it wants; a very male piece of film. "Madam Chan" by Wilson Yip is accomplished and mature filmmaking by a seasoned practitioner, you can see it right away. It holds a firm grip on its story line and even the little digressions are purposeful and cogent. "Promises in December" is both emotionally and socially relevant without any ambiguities. It is quite astounding how the film manages to create depth and avoids being fatalistic or sentimental at the same time. You see, these choices, each and every one of them, have to be made based on each film's own merits and achievements. It is an evaluation on a case by case basis - but the selection for a Singapore Focus calls for some form of coherence. If you look at the entire line-up you will see an attempt at striking the right balance between different and equally valid modes of visual expression.

Some choices never presented themselves as some films you may have been hoping for were never submitted; others you couldn't get because of availability or due to screening fees. So you work with what you got and, actually, I am quite happy with how it turned out. I think it is a strong representation of contemporary film from Singapore.

J: How do you think the audience in Berlin will take to 'The Blue Mansion'?

M: I think they will be surprised at a film like that. I don't think that this is what they would expect to come out of Singapore. But, honestly, I don't know. The theatricality of its direction, I think, is something you have to either accept or not. If you reject it you will miss the whole fun of the film. We'll see how it turns out. It certainly isn't standard fare to the cinema aficionado with a penchant for Asian films over here.

J: White Days?

M: 'White Days' is a fine piece of film with meticulous photography and some pristine cinematic moments. I am confident that it will speak to people - and this, the Singapore vernacular exactly, is a challenge that I gladly pose to the Berlin audience. The film is also in competition so we will get a reaction.

J: The Days?

M: Genre cinema has its place and a strong tradition in Asian cinema. "The Days" is a point in case for working within a chosen frame. It is also representative in that it shows how Singapore cinema is not explicit. So I think it will be a discovery as well and that people will enjoy it.

J: I hear from some curators and filmmakers that Singapore has one of the highest number of short films per capita. This is gathered from the number of entries from Singapore at several overseas film festivals. But some say our quantity has become our Achilles heel, with many works being not well-thought through and shoddy in its production. Be honest, do you see that in Singapore films relative to films from our neighbouring countries?

M: It may look like it on first glance. But quantity in itself is just that, a lot of young filmmakers turning out stuff. It is not the reason for low quality in many of them. What it means is simply more work and some painful preview sessions for programmers who are on the hunt for that one really gifted director, the big time discovery. I think it is the advantage you have as Singaporeans that you have such ready access to good professional equipment right from the start these days. If other countries could provide in like measure we would see an avalanche of randomly shot short films from Laos or more of that coming out of Vietnam in a fortnight. It's the entire infrastructure you have at your disposal, including the opportunity to travel to festivals and make contacts overseas, that can help you half of the way. Ultimately, though, only real talent will make it and persist beyond the lucky strike.

Flip through this nifty online AHSB Festival Program here.

J: Do you think we should continue making so many short films or stop the 'trigger-happy' mode and do more quality and less quantity?

M: Of course it has become too easy to make short films nowadays, especially for Singaporeans like I said. But this is the situation and a reality one has to accept. We don't want artificial restrictions, do we? So what is called for is development: the development of a filmmaker hopeful, their personality and their character - so much more essential than mere skill.

I've said it many times before that quality is a matter of appreciating time. It is more of a societal and a cultural fact that Singapore simply is too rush when it comes to projecting an image or to define it. And this reflects in the films we see. If people paid more attention to natural growth and the time it takes to evolve and to mature, I think this would be the key to seeing more developed works emerge. Inevitably there will be lesser and better short films made and this self-defeating sprinter's mentality could be overcome. You simply cannot produce something meaningful by just pressing a button. It doesn't work this way.

But I stick by it, if you comb through the Singapore harvest each year, there always is something that stands out, good quality works that are original and have an impact. The Singapore Hot Shots, I feel, are a point in case.

J: What's all time favourite Singapore film?

M: 4:30 by Royston Tan (see picture below).

Random page from the program..... Porn is available at the festival???

The festival runs from 20 to 24 October in Berlin of course. Check out the festival website here!

Based in Berlin, Mathias Ortmann writes profoundly and intensively about Singapore films. Many of his writings can be found on the Sinema website. This thought piece by Mathias is written exclusively for SINdie.
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