O.P.E.N. Films 2017: Curatorial Notes from Tan Bee Thiam

Curator of O.P.E.N. Films Tan Bee Thiam

“Too often, an arts festival is a U.F.O. which descends on the city and then leaves as suddenly as it arrives.” This sentence is printed in the opening pages of the tactile, orange and altogether friendly-looking Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) programme booklet. One theory as to why the festival booklet looks so innocuous is to help first-timers to SIFA feel less overwhelmed by the over 90 unique events offered within a 4-month period (June to September). These include events under the O.P.E.N., which functions as SIFA’s pre-festival of ideas, designed to encourage audience ownership of the themes and issues SIFA grapples with. 
SIFA is unique in that it seeks to be as participatory as it is innovative. Instead of a U.F.O., it’s that distant relative who comes yearly to visit; familiar, yet challenging in its own way. Besides the usual fare of exhibitions, theatre productions and film screenings, audience members are invited into private homes to cook and share stories, and welcomed onto film sets to observe or be cast on the big screen. It teeters on that edge between comfortable and confrontational. Founding Festival Director Ong Keng Sen reflects, “My team’s main contribution in SIFA has been to invest in and endow the imagination of our audiences.” More than providing an experience, the team hopes audience members will walk away with an indelible gift: a public space for all to interact, to experience what it is to be human, and expand their worlds. 

The Death of Louis XIV

The Other Side of Hope
The festival opens with a question: “What is the ‘intangible value’ in an artwork?” It’s one of those questions that could be plucked from a GP paper. Yet it also offers a good answer through its theme this year: Enchantment. Enchantment is the will to still believe, to be plugged in, to engage with the ecosystem that you live in and above all to embrace hope. If it sounds idealistic, it represents a pushback against today’s climate of cynicism. 
O.P.E.N. Films is a program which runs parallel to the arts festival while expanding dialogue on the issues and forms brought up by the festival. This year, they will screen 26 films, all of which have never been shown in Singapore. We spoke with O.P.E.N. film curator and filmmaker Tan Bee Thiam, who has worked with SIFA for the past four years. He is also producing the Lav Diaz Retrospective. Also check out our previous interviews with Bee Thiam where he talks about backpacking in India and visiting the Dalai Lama, and his co-directed film Fundamentally Happy.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

You’ve been involved in SIFA for four years as a film curator. You’re a filmmaker yourself. Has SIFA helped you grow as a filmmaker, or vice versa? 
I started as an audience, going to film festivals to watch films, which influenced and made me into the kind of filmmaker I am. Even today I continue to watch films. I see myself as programming for my peers as well as the next generation of young filmmakers and cinephiles. Perhaps I don’t have to make a film to share it with the audience in Singapore but I could curate a programme; that programme is my interaction with the audience. 

The unique thing about the O.P.E.N. films is that they’re all Singapore premieres. They do not overlap. They run for two weeks one after another, almost as if you’re watching a very long film or film series. When I put them together it’s also putting them into a sequence. It’s like editing a very long film. 

Railway Sleepers
Was it intentional to get films that have not been shown in Singapore before? 
There’s so many films out there in the world which deserve an opportunity for audiences in Singapore to see them. We thought it’d be best not to repeat the efforts of other platforms in Singapore. That is something obvious to us. That’s why we won’t be showing, for example, Moonlight or Get Out which have already been shown here. When there’s only 26 slots in the programme we want to make every slot count. 

Could you explain how Enchantment shaped the main threads for this year’s O.P.E.N. films?  
I think the theme of Enchantment is very open (A/N: no pun intended?!). In the last few years especially there has been a rise in films with a sense of comedy, almost as if they’re a reaction to the age of cynicism that we live in. I wanted to respond to the theme with films that capture a sense of humour as well as a sense of generosity. 

For people who might always associate festival films with very long takes, slow films or boring films, they will become acquainted with these films that have been so well made. They are entertaining; not just slapstick comedy, but very sophisticated works which deal with humour and respond to something we see in the world today. 

The first weekend is comedy and caricatures of works. It opens with something very upbeat. They’re all deadpan comedy films about unlikely friendships (The Other Side of Hope), then you have dark comedies like Newton and The Death of Louis XIV

On The Beach at Night Alone
The second week is a series of films about family. It will then end with a series of films about very strong women (On the Beach at Night Alone, Félicité) who are not afraid to go away and leave the family and their patriarchal society. It deals not so much with sadness but a sense of freedom at the end of the films. 

There are also hybrid documentaries that imbue you with a sense of wonderment (Railway Sleepers, Untitled). They bring you to a different place and are almost hypnotic in the way they capture a time and space. Railway Sleepers was a film shot over seven years on the trains of Thailand. It was amazing how the filmmaker put together whole narratives about the politics and the people in Thailand through this concept. 

The Giant
How does Enchantment fit in with your personal philosophy on film? 
I’m always looking to bring some surprises to the audience. I think over the last four years we have a very good audience, who are ready to take risks with me and the festival. It allows me a lot of room to try out new things. Some of the films we thought might not work got a full house. 

Increasingly it allows me to push the boundaries rather than keep programming films which are very safe. I’m very appreciative of the audience we have at the festival, and they can expect challenging works that will be fulfilling and that will surprise them. 

What would you say to audiences who are hesitant to buy the O.P.E.N. pass and think the films are a little bit out of his or her comfort zone? (The O.P.E.N. Pass entitles the holder to watch 6 films.) 
I will always suggest that you go for films you think you’ll enjoy. Out of 6 films, choose perhaps 4 you think you’d like. Then choose 2 which you’re not sure of, or you don’t think you’d like. Just to try. 

I would usually ask if anybody wants me to give them suggestions, tell me a bit about you and I will suggest something for you. I will reach out to people sometimes just outside the theatre and talk to audience members. I’m there to consult.

Like a personal curator? 


A/N: He actually did suggest 6 films for me based on my preferences. I will be watching them! (",)

Tan Bee Thiam has worked as a director, producer, writer and editor with the 13 Little Pictures, an independent film collective whose films have garnered critical acclaim. Based in Singapore, his films and projects have been presented in Berlin, Rotterdam, New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and more. His co-directorial debut FUNDAMENTALLY HAPPY, shot by Christopher Doyle, premiered at Tallinn in 2015. Since 2014, he has worked as a film curator with the Singapore International Festival of Arts. 

The O.P.E.N. and SIFA runs from 28 June to 9 September 2017. For more information on the programme and the O.P.E.N. Pass, click here.

Interview by Jacqueline Lee

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