The SFS Revisited: Catering Different Dishes to a “Movie-Crazed Population”

David Lee is running late for his interview with SINdie. But as I look down at my watch and then up to a figure ahead fielding questions on a phone, a part of me wants to cut him some slack, knowing the busy man is in the midst of organising a panel for the Hong Kong Filmart in late March.

As Vice-Chairman of the oldest local film organisation, the Singapore Film Society (SFS, set up in 1958), David has put his programming expertise to good use, and is often approached as a middleman for various regional film initiatives as much as he is needed to spearhead new projects for the society.

Non-profit and run by volunteers, the SFS’s programmers work tirelessly behind-the-scenes and in their free time to bring in lesser-known international art house and independent films that are ignored by mainstream distributors for profit reasons.

Their recent screening of Shame (2011) drew over 50 new members, and with more extensive tie-ups with The Arts House, Sinema, Golden Village and the National Museum, the SFS looks set on more extensive outreach in the coming years.

Dressed casually in a shirt and jeans, David, who looks like an Asian Tarantino and sports the cheeky demeanour of the famous director, is now in his early 30s. His enthusiasm for movies is infectious as he keenly shares with SINdie, through many well-cited industry statistics, how he combines the Singaporean flair for practicality and business with a love for films.

The affable David Lee (left) with Taiwanese writer/director Hung Hung (a frequent collaborator of director Edward Yang)

What got you interested in joining the film society in the first place?
D: For most of the previous decade, I was away from Singapore. I was studying in Australia when I went to New York for exchange studies in film, before coming back to Singapore to work in a production house in 2003. I then went to Taiwan for about 4 years, and only came back by late ’07.
One of the first things I did when I came back was to see the interesting film programmes available, and it so happens then, that the Japanese Film Festival (JFF) caught my eye. So I called the SFS hotline and the then-Vice-Chairman of SFS, Leong Chung Meng, answered my call and told me to just come down and volunteer and enjoy the films. Because the JFF had a retrospective programme, made free and available to the public, it was my first interaction with the film festival as a volunteer and audience. I was in my late 20s at that time.
The SFS event which followed was Animation Nation (an animation festival started in ’03-’04), and that was when I met Dave Chua, the multi-hyphenate freelance media producer/writer, who was also SFS’s Vice-Chairman in ’09. Dave hired me to work full-time on the festival at that time when the society had some funding from MDA to manage an animation initiative. He mentored me for my role in the SFS.
What is SFS's most memorable milestone (during your time)?
Ok, I’ll name two. One of them was the year-long SFS Outdoor Screenings at China Square Central, with the mall sponsoring the venue and also the funds to bring in the films. For the line-up, we had classics and contemporary local films, as well as a two-month-long Malaysian indie programme, in which we screened films by the late Yasmin Ahmad. Working with my friend Thomas Chia from Lighthouse Pictures, the distributor of Yasmin’s films like Sepet (2004), Gubra (2006) and Muallaf (2008), I also invited Sharifah Amani who was the lead actress and muse in many of Yasmin’s films. The turnout was incredible. The film fans and local community met up with Sharifah and they spent a very memorable evening. We also screened Sell Out! (2008) by Malaysian director Yeo Joon Han, who is quite well-known in the indie film circles. The whole experience of the outdoor screenings was very memorable for me.

 L to R: Thomas Chia, David Lee and SFS marketing manager Chew Keng Kiat overseeing the screening
Next is SG Films@Library, which was a 3 months-long programme. The then manager at library@esplanade, Chan Wai Ling, and the library officer in charge of films, Goh Peck Keong, approached us to come up with a film programme, and we decided on a local line-up for that. My previous work as programmer for Sinema helped in my work with this. The very last screening was especially memorable. We ended with a bang, literally, with films by Sun Koh (Dirty Bitch, 2009), Anthony Chen (Haze, 2008, previously screened at Sinema) and Boo Junfeng (Tanjong Rhu, 2009), for which I positioned the line-up as “shorts that pushed the boundaries.” At the Q&A towards the end, we talked about censorship and there were people in the audience who were for and against the motion, so it was quite a vigorous debate. The turnout was close to 200 people. We had to do it after-library hours at 9 p.m., too, as the films were R21, but NLB team was very supportive. It’s something that’s never been done before and I’m not sure if we are able to pull it off again!

What are some titles which were particularly hard to bring into Singapore and which you treasure for that very reason?

In retrospect, there were challenges and instances when it was “麻烦” (troublesome) along the way, but so far, I wouldn’t say there’s been any real difficulty. In a way, I’ve been quite blessed that things have been quite smooth-sailing for me and there are always friends who are there to help.
Even with Shame?
Even Shame; ok I would mention two examples here, one is Shame, the other is Waltz with Bashir (2008). I got Waltz in for Animation Nation 2009 when I was helping Dave, and I remembered Wenjie (now programmer of the National Museum Cinémathèque) was trying to bring in this film the previous year, and for some reason it didn’t happen. Initially, the MDA (Media Development Authority) wanted to rate it R21 with a short removal of a scene. So I just wrote a letter, justifying why I think the film should be screened uncut for my festival, and I got it, M18 with no cuts! So it was triumphant in that sense.
SFS’s screening of Shame at The Arts House
As for the story behind Shame
One fine day, out of the blue, Anthony (Chen) mentioned on Facebook that he heard that Steve McQueen might be coming to Singapore, so he asked me if I knew the film distributors and if there is a way we could arrange to meet Steve. You know, filmmakers are often fans and admirers of other filmmakers too. So I called up the distribution manager of Cathay-Keris at that time, but her reply was, “Steve McQueen is coming? We didn’t know. If we have any information, we’ll keep you posted.” That’s interesting, because much later, I found out that Steve actually stood for his film in front of the appeals committee, and that MDA wanted to cut a scene but the distributor argued against it. But Steve was unsuccessful in his appeal and they still wanted to cut the film, so it ended up being withdrawn from commercial release, meaning Cathay didn’t even want to release Shame in the cinemas in the end. This was for me, quite a huge shame(!). At that time too, there were even taglines in the media like “There is no Shame in Singapore,” so that got me thinking about the possibility of having the film screened under SFS.
Much later, when I finally set my heart to do it, I checked with the people from Cathay and asked to borrow the screener from them. I then spoke to some of the MDA classifiers whom I’ve worked with before, and asked them, “Should I try to re-submit Shame or? Tell me what to do.” And they really told me to just send them a letter explaining why the film should be screened. So it’s basically the similar process with Waltz with Bashir; just a letter. The MDA considered it as a new submission, under SFS, and we paid the standard price for what we usually pay for other films as well, but we had an exclusive R21, no-cuts screening for the society. I also managed to secure a small sponsorship from Samuel Seow who runs his own law firm and talent agency, and that helped to off-set some of the costs in bringing in the film, while John Lui did an article for The Straits Times Life! to generate publicity for the screenings. Overall, I think the whole episode of Shame went quite well for the SFS.
So the networks helped a lot?
I think in whatever I do, I try to build relationships and engage others in dialogue, rather than antagonise anyone. That’s how I usually do things. After a while, people come to realise that the film society also does things the proper way, and that’s how we build trust along the way.

Does piracy and the increasing availability of downloaded movies affect membership retention?
It’s usually the more popular movies that gets pirated, or the big Chinese blockbusters, and it happens within weeks of their original release dates. Yes, there are plenty of bootleg DVDs circulating in China. Despite that, many good independent films do not get pirated and you will only hear about them or get to watch them in film festivals. So SFS specialises in more art house films from the festival circuit, and newer art house films are harder to find online.

Often, I find that it is the older art house classics, (as far back as) the French New Wave and the works of Eric Rohmer that you can find online and even on YouTube. When we were trying to bring in Shame, a committee member pointed out that the film could be found online. But I saw it differently, and doing my own kind of market research, went to ask many friends and acquaintances who were young working adults—mainly film buffs who were into the arts and cultural stuff—and none of them saw it, and definitely not on the big screen. So I thought, “Why not?” If there’s a demand for independent art house films in Singapore, even if it is a niche and small demand, it is good news for us!
What are your observations of the film-viewing public over the years? What type of film-goers are Singaporeans?
Having worked for a commercial film distributor before (David was from InnoForm Media), I speak from experience when I say that market research statistics show that Singapore has one of the highest average movie-going numbers according to our population size. In 2012, local box offices raked in $13 million for The Avengers and more than $8 million for titles like The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing-Spiderman, even exceeding figures from Hong Kong which has a larger population. So from that alone, you can see we’re quite a movie-crazed population.
This idea of getting people to try out a different dish is also what keeps me interested in pushing for new films for local viewers. Consider this analogy: you have someone who eats fast food for a long time. Would it be possible to get him/her to try something differenta whole new dish altogetherto see if it is palatable?
General cinema-goers are of a younger demographic, say, of secondary school age to before 30 when they get married or before they get too preoccupied with their jobs and careers.
Right now, the more discerning crowd tends to consist of young people who attended film schools or studied arts and culture at school, or those who have studied overseas and returned to Singapore.
Another group with more discerning tastes is foreigners and expats, and since we’re growing as a population, these figures could continue to shift. This goes back to a larger macro question that we have to ask ourselves: how come foreigners are more into culture and art house films? As Singapore progresses economically over the years, is our appreciation for the arts catching up? This is an ongoing debate. But I’m positive that it will get better. It’s not just about money; it takes a lot of effort from various stakeholders and especially the creators and arts practitioners. As we become more cosmopolitan, people will be exposed to different things and will start to want different things. Take the food analogy again: If you’ve tried Turkish food for example, you obviously won’t just stick to fast food. So, I’m positive that the climate for the arts will continue to get better in the long run and by that time, people will just be spoilt for choices on what to consume, or to create/curate.
Has the SFS ever entertained wild ideas like organising mystery screenings, akin to those by Secret Cinema?
If you ask me personally, I’m open to anything. I don’t mind experimenting and trying it for a few times. If it works, great! If it doesn't, then we’ll try something else. It’s that simple. But I can’t do this alone. That’s why we’re always on the lookout for young people to join us and help us move forward and get things done. For me and Anand (my fellow programmer), our strengths are in sourcing for films, and we are still working on marketing to the young. It’s easy to throw ideas, but we also need people to see them through and follow-up.
We did hold a mystery screening once, as part of our SFS Talkies. It was a Taiwanese film and we didn’t announce the title. The turnout wasn’t as great as we hoped it would be. At that time, members still want to know what they’re watching. After all, cinema-going takes an amount of investment, effort and time. Plus, the screening took place on an early Saturday afternoon, and people have to drag their feet up and go to a cinema.
And how about when you network with film programmers and the media abroadwhat is their impression of local cinema?
I’ll cite two impressions, especially from the Chinese circles. The first group consists of people from the older generation whom I met, like Taiwanese film producer/curator Peggy Chiao and veteran Chinese film director/professor Xie Fei. People of that generation don’t know much about contemporary Singapore cinema, and the most common question they would ask me is, “What’s going on with SIFF (Singapore International Film Festival)? I have a film student who would like to submit his film...”
David with Peggy Chiao at the Chinese Cinema public lecture Q&A in 2012
As for the younger generation festival directors and programmers, say those from the Taipei Film Festival, they too are not very familiar with local cinema. Most overseas Chinese audiences know of Jack Neo, and maybe Glenn Goei, Royston Tan, Eric Khoo...this much they know. I mean, we are unable to talk about big commercial local movies yet because we don’t have them (even Jack Neo is considered independent in overseas territories), so Singapore, in terms of cinema is, to these film programmers, a very strange hybrid—familiar and yet foreign at the same time. We’re like this ABC kid who just came back from overseas; we speak English but we have Chinese and Asian heritage. What I hope to do in my interaction with them is to be that link for their exposure to more Singaporean films here.
In light of the recent Academy Awards, David and I then discuss if the general public here relies too heavily on the stamp of approval from overseas markets.
Going into a film fest, we have done plenty of that already. Even being nominated at a big international festival like Cannes, we have done that too, when Eric Khoo was nominated for the Palme D’Or for My Magic (2008).  But winning big is something that still eludes us. When Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the Golden Lion award in Venice for City of Sadness (1989), it became a moment of national pride (for the Taiwanese). Even 20 years down the road, the people there still talk about it fondly. Winning a big award is another milestone that we have yet to step on. Whether or not that is possible, I have to say to both the older and younger generation of filmmakers that they have to keep on working hard to make the next film. Never stop trying; anything is possible.
Fresh out of attending David Puttnam’s lecture on film at LASALLE the night before, David ponders on the idea of filmmaking as both business and art, and how he faces a similar dichotomy in his role as a programmer acquiring sponsorship for festivals.
It’s the ideas that drive a film, but money is a means to an end, which I agree with Puttnam in theory and in practice. His message to filmmakers is that they would have to address this dichotomy first. It’s a balancing act. Good ideas do not have to be made with a lot of money. But bad films can be made with a waste of a lot of money and resources.
On that note, I have to say that the money is out there. Our economy is doing well and we have so much wealth in Singapore. It’s just a matter of whether you can matchmake your project with the money.
That said, too much government support can be a double-edged sword. Again, I’ll cite Taiwan as an example: while the Taiwanese government have been supporting their filmmakers for many years with grants, the filmmakers made good films, but with more art-house angles that won accolades abroad but hit a low tangent at home as audiences found them too esoteric. The direct result of government handouts is a tendency for directors to abandon considerations of commercial viability when they conceptualise their films, and as a result, neglect a large part of the film-going audience. I think we have to first look inwards—find the stories we want to say as it’s important that we have our own voice and identity. And then look outwards—learn from others, especially those in Asia; how does Korean films, for instance, do so well both domestically and in overseas markets?
At the end of the long interview, I wonder if David, who widely acknowledges that he has, in a way, sold his soul to the movies, still has any enthusiasm left. A litmus test seems timely. “Do you ever get sick of films?”

*laughs* I have asked myself that question before, and my wife and loved ones have also asked that question of me too. I think I attempted staying away from cinema before, during a period in Taiwan when I was there for matters totally unrelated to film.

How long did you manage to stay away from films for?

For a total of a few days I guess! *sheepishly grins* I find that it’s really too deeply entrenched in my system to get it out. Sometimes, even when I’m doing something completely different from film, just drawing my salary, I would still sign up for film courses. During the time I was living in Taichung, I recall signing up for film courses in Taipei, travelling up north to Taipei every weekend and I’d be sleeping on the floor of my friend’s place in Taipei. In a way, that kind of told me how obsessed I am with cinema. It’s an obsession, so why not just embrace it and make the best out of it?

What is one thing that people don't usually know about the SFS?
One fundamental thingand I do hear this a lotis when people go, “Huh, what’s SFS?!” And another fallacy is when people go, “Oh, so you are the guys who organise the SIFF,” which is *DEHHH* wrong answer! But I never stop trying to correct people and telling them more about what we do. I think that’s the spirit that younger people should adopt in life as well: don’t ever give up on what you believe in!

What is your vision for the SFS, say in the next 10-20 years? How do you wish for the society to grow and in what directions?
I hope to grow our regular membership pool, for sure, and we do it by beefing up our programming. I always feel that we’re not doing enough and always want to do more and better. Another question is also marketing and targeting young people to sign up for the SFS, if not as part of the committee, then as a regular member or just to participate in and come for our screenings because now we do have ticketed one-off events that are open to the public.
David’s phone on the table buzzes; the caller I.D. reads “Mom,” and I ask if he wants to pick it up. With a wide grin, he says, “I think I should…” and fields the call, this time in fluent, spirited Cantonese.

The SFS now has regular screenings at Golden Village VivoCity, Golden Village Marina, Cathay Cineleisure, National Museum and The Arts House at Old Parliament Lane. SFS also organises the annual Japanese Film Festival, the upcoming Singapore Chinese Film Festival, Animation Nation, and supports other festivals such as the European Union Film Festival and Israel Film Festival. For more information and to sign up as a member or volunteer, please visit their website or Like them on Facebook at

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