Festive Seasons: An Interview with Zhang Wenjie

For those who have been keeping a close eye on the Singapore International Film Festival (currently SGIFF, formerly SIFF), it has had a long and colorful history to say the least. From the inaugural edition that ran a year late, to its two-year hiatus after some very public and very embarrassing public complaints targeted at its 24th edition in 2011, it is not unfair to say that SGIFF has faced adversities that would have sent younger and less resilient organizations running for the door. Now into its 27th edition, SGIFF is bigger, brighter, and tougher than ever—with 161 films in 13 sections over 2 weeks, new projects, and new initiatives to nurture the growth of filmmakers in the region. The festival remains a powerhouse in Asia, and a crucial stopover for anyone with a genuine interest in good films that have never been seen before.

Alfonse Chiu catches up with SGIFF’s Programme Director, Zhang Wenjie, for a quick chat about where the Festival is and where it would be in times to come.

How do you feel that the joining the mantle of the Singapore Media Festival has affected the original visions and duties of the festival, given that it has transitioned from something indie and a little more underground into something affiliated with an actual governmental agency?

I feel that the heart of the festival for independent cinema and freedom of expression still stands: We hold strong to our policy of not showing any film that is censored, because we believe that a film should be shown in its entirety or not at all. That is the essence of the festival, and it will never change. 

Coming back to the question, the festival is still an independent organization with its own board of directors, so we are not actually under a department of the government or anything. Like what you have said, this Singapore Media Festival is a name to pull together several film events and media events; to cluster them around the same dates so that there is some synergy, such that things can feed off from each other. That was the idea behind it.

When we first returned in 2014, we had the idea to be part of this, and to shift the date of our festival from April to the year-end period. We agreed after much contemplation, for the sole reason that we feel that we should work together. We can be independent from each other, but things that drive the industry forward and give opportunities and prominence to the craft are crucial to everyone. It is important to find ways to work together.

I feel that for international film festivals, there needs to be a certain sort of infrastructure at a basic level, and collaborations with the government. We may not agree on the same things, but if a government and its country's international film festival cannot see eye to eye, it would be a huge problem—everything would be gridlocked, and nothing would be able to move. 

As such, by coming back, it is kind of our way to help find ways for both sides to see that they can work towards a common good.

In what ways do you feel a film festival’s scale can affect its role in the grander scheme of things?

To me, the role of a film festival depends heavily on whether it has a clear intention, a clear mission, and a clear purpose. 

While it is true that the size of a film festival often determines what role it will generally play, it is not everything. For the big ones like Cannes or Venice, the whole size and scale of them are more often than not the only thing that people see and think about, but an interesting fact remains—that for some of the filmmakers, especially some of those more senior ones, they actually enjoy smaller festivals, because then they have the time to meet everyone. For example, let's say that you are at a small festival that only shows films from the Eighties: compared to attending the big ones, this time you actually get a chance to meet everyone and really connect to them during the festival over a mutual love of Eighties’ cheesy cinema. If you attend a festival like that, the friendships you form during it often last forever. 

One of my favorite festivals that I have been to was actually one of the smallest film festivals in record history. The international guests consisted three people; it only happened once, and it couldn’t happen again because to run and organize a film festival in that location is very, very difficult. The closing party was actually a dinner party where the festival director's mother cooked for everyone, and it was so wonderful—friends were made that I still keep in touch with.

I would say it is not the size, but what the festival is trying to do and how well it is doing it that makes it more important. A small festival that focuses on groundbreaking documentaries could make a big impact if the festival is consistent in its efforts over a period of time. I mean, you can have yourself a so-called big festival, but if it is only interested in getting the big names and the red carpet and the Hollywood stars, it is ultimately hollow, because you lack the substance to sustain it meaningfully.

While a festival might be small and cozy and have that strong emotional value, do you feel that it sometimes ends up as an ivory tower? Since they feature the public nominally, they often end up echo chambers of self-congratulatory artists, and not have any development for the scene and the culture.

While I do agree, that problem ultimately comes back to the basics: mission and intention and the way the festival was organized. You can have a small festival that deals with very experimental works, but if you are professional and do it for the art, and are really genuine about sharing these works without snobbery beyond your own circles and niche with those who have not encountered this before, then it could and should be an absolutely terrific experience.

In Thailand, there is this film archive that runs a regular programme showing experimental films to children: they are really young, age ranging from eight to ten, and you know they have no preconceptions, and to them these films were just something to see. The organizer told me that it was such an eye-opener and a really good learning experience to have done this with children because they see and catch on to so many things in the films that adults miss out, and their ideas and ways of seeing taught her a lot about what experimental films could be and achieve. 

So, I guess, it really depends on having that sincere spirit of sharing. While one can always—like what you said—have oneself an ivory tower to rub shoulders with one’s fellow intellectuals, and it could work, but it will always be that kind of festival. 

Intentions, not size, dictate the tone and results of a festival more than anything else.

How do you feel that the intentions of SGIFF have evolved throughout the ages, given the periods of tumultuous changes that it went through?

The Festival must always be relevant to the society and the time it exists within. 

It is not something that we do in a vacuum where we think of what to do and then do it; it is only through a lot of conversations with people much like yourself that we get a sense of what needs to be done, and what the Festival can do to push certain things forward. That's how we react. We may shape the Festival to bring it forward, but the ultimate view that the festival is a platform to celebrate independent filmmaking and have an independent mind and opinion about your art and your film remains with us. 

The most pertinent changes we went through were probably regarding sponsorship. If you look back at history, finding sponsors was—and still is—crucial, because the Festival does not generate much income, and it cost money to run the festival and support the staff that will work the year round to organize it.

Does that relate to the Festival's status as a nonprofit?

Correct. No matter our ideals, we need to face the reality of things: we are not a business—we do not have a tangible product. Unlike establishments like boutiques and restaurants, where the products are there and then, it is not in the nature and capabilities of a film festival to conduct that form of commerce.

Sure, we may sell tickets, but the fact remains that even if we sell out every single film, we still make a loss. That is because we are always bringing in the filmmakers, the casts, the production teams, for a screening of maybe two hundred people, for what is the cost prize of paying for venue, logistics, management. So, it is unavoidable that this is a loss-making pursuit. 

The reason why so many art institutions and organizations need grants is because they cannot exist without the money. To think that the revenue from selling tickets to galleries and exhibitions could pay for all the exhibits and programmes is laughable; most of the time, it is barely adequate to cover most organizations’ operation costs, let alone acquiring the historical and artistic artifacts they showcase. 

For the Festival, we face the same issues too. Throughout the last few years, we hoped that we have become more aware about how to work with the sponsors better: to let them see what the festival is about, and to get them to believe what the festival is about, such that certain elements that work for us could work for them too. For example, we could open up Special Presentations—which many festivals, like Busan and Toronto, have—dedicated to high profile films, which allow for a certain kind of red carpet, and then certain kinds of stars will come and generate a certain level of press attention. 

So, is it safe to say that despite its underground roots, the Festival itself has acquired a certain form of polish, even if it is just to survive?

You are right, however, we did try to do it in a way that is still true to the heart of the Festival. The Special Presentation screenings like ‘Mrs K’, ‘Three Sassy Sisters’, and ‘The Road to Mandalay’ are actually amongst the best films in the festival. The reasons why they were chosen go far beyond us just wanting to bring in the stars: they were works of art that deserved the attention. 

In a way, we are still fine-tuning the best way to do it and still stay true to the spirit of the films. This is actually very interesting, because when we first came back in 2014, we were very unused to that sense of melding celebrities with high art—I did not even have a jacket, and had to borrow one; I did not know how to react to Juliette Binoche’s presence, precisely because we have never done anything like that before, and it was a totally new learning experience for all of us. 

Things were literally crazy at the time: Zhang Ziyi was there, the cameras were on steroids, and we did not know what the hell was going on. However, in spite of all that, it had been a truly amazing experience—when I spoke to Juliette Binoche, it was incredibly heartening to know that despite the fact that she is a mega star, she is also a real person who loves her art and is as dedicated as to her craft as any artist worth their salt should be. She is a true artist, and she is a beautiful human being.

Coming back to the sponsors, it is understandable that they tend to need to have bigger names because that's what they are familiar with and what they see as certain mileage for their brands and their sponsorship. Hence, for us to find that balance between the well known and the well crafted is important to the integrity of the Festival in ways more than just artistic.

Do you think that the Festival has a duty to educate the public in terms of its films, or that the films should speak for themselves and the audience should appreciate the films by their own merits as opposed to through their curatorship?

As the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” My take is that it is the responsibility of a festival film programmer to be the bridge between the artwork and the audience. 

Make no bones about it, there need to be tremendous respect from both sides. The audience needs to understand that a festival programmer has their own curatorial processes, and that each act of selection represents a labor of love, while the programmer need to understand that different audience members will have different ideas about the film; some may absolutely despise it, while others may actually love it as well. 

That may actually be one of the biggest joy of the programmer, to watch the audience watch the film and realize that one has found people that too thought to themselves, “Hey, I think this film is amazing.”

Have you ever found yourself disappointed by the ways an audience found a film that you yourself liked?

While I can't force the audience to watch a film, it is still my job as a programmer to present the film in the best possible way, which means I need to moderate how I present the film to the audience, how the film is written about in the programme booklet, and how the film is publicized. 

To bring something wholly unknown to an audience requires presenting it in the best possible way, and there are many means of communicating that: you could, for example, groups films together in certain sections; write about the films with different styles; or even by curating the stills that go on to illustrate the texts. 

I feel that film-writing should be very readable fundamentally. Everyone has read writings where they can see how transparently some writers were trying to make themselves look good by writing very fancily to show that, “Hey, I'm smart. I'm an interesting writer. Read me!” and that is very off-putting.

I find that the toughest form of writing is to write clearly and simply and still say something. To communicate subtlety clearly and concisely is a very hard job to do, which is why you have to know your film really well: you have to research and understand the art at a very basal level. It is the job of the programmer to say this in the cleanest way possible. 

However, this does not mean dumbing down the content—you can still talk about big complex ideas—but you do need to talk about it in a manner that someone who does not know of this work will consume it and conclude that this is something worthy of their attention, rather than something to be left to the insular cultural elites. 

To those who practice the obtuse as intellectual self-indulgence: Yes, you might get to show off your writing skills, but what is the point? That's my philosophy, and I believe that anyone who has a mind to comprehend and eyes to see can enjoy a film. I feel quite strongly about this—film watching is a democracy, and there is no higher or lower audience. 

I am sure that if she has an open heart and an open mind, even any regular old cleaning lady can be moved if you show her a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, because it is just great cinema that transcends everything.

Now that it is moving on into its third decade, what hopes does the Festival have?

Actually, I think it is just to continue. This is because what it means to be able to continue is that we are still doing a relevant job; that what we do has meaning and relevance to the local and the SEA film community and industry; and to allow newer generations of people who came through the Festival to believe in the Festival in a way that those of us who saw the original could not, and find a purpose to continue the spirit of the Festival for. 

That, I think would be the greatest hope, to have something worth fighting for, and never ever back down.

text / photography - alfonse chiu

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