YOUTH. FILM. TALK. A Conversation Between 3 Generations of SGIFF Youth Jurors

A regional powerhouse in not just its film selection, the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has always been about giving back to the society and forging new bonds between filmmakers, film writers, and everyone else interested in the craft.

Notably, its Youth Jury & Critic Programme (YJCP) remains the only youth film journalism incubation programme to be found in Southeast Asia, and has so far fostered five batches of empowered youths to examine, praise, and sometimes pick apart the cultural significances of some of the greatest films of our times.

Now into its 28th Edition, what better way of celebrating the upcoming SGIFF than to take a walk down memory lane? Here, three alumni of the YJCP dishes all on the shenanigans and things learnt during one of the most unique experiences a youth could ever get.

Tanvi: Let’s start with our favourite films. What’s yours?

Alfonse: Mmmm…. I have a favourite director and he is Lars Von Trier. There is just something so beautifully calculated about his films like Antichrist and Melancholia. They draw you in and infect you somehow. I remember the first scene in Antichrist when the couple was having sex and their kid fell out of the window while Laschia Ch’io Pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo played in the background. I feel that sometimes realism in cinema can be very in-your-face and we may be watching too much of it. Films like this take me out of our world and into theirs. It’s somehow at once so amorphous and yet relatable.

Tanvi: I’ve talked about my favorite film so many times, which is The Fall by Tarsem Singh. Though, I do think a ‘favorite film’ is something that changes all the time, which is why I can’t conclusively say it’s my number one favourite film of all time. I guess I call it my favourite film because of the nostalgic personal memories associated with it. I think it is so visually striking and it has a very interesting way of storytelling, the way it shifts between the two narratives. But in terms of a life changing sort of cinematic experience, I guess I had that more recently when I was watched Samsara by Ron Fricke at The Projector a few months ago. It is a very interesting film because it is just a non-narrative series of images, but at the same time that makes it so personal because everyone has something different to take away from the film. I didn’t think I would like the film as much as I did, and I definitely think watching it on the big screen had something to do with that.

Jacqueline: It's Halloween season so I will go with horror. I am in the mood for 28 Days Later which somehow has Mad Max undertones to me. In terms of directors, I like Mike Flanagan. He directed Hush and Oculus. Most recently he directed this Netflix film called Gerald’s Game, a Stephen King adaptation of a story about a woman whose husband, Gerald, dies while she is chained to a bed in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere and suddenly she’s in a survival situation.

Alfonse Chiu and Tanvi Rajvanshi

Alfonse: Have you written a review of your favourite film or thought of writing about your favourite film?

Tanvi: My friend and I have been working on this film zine but we are very slow with it! We call it Worship, and the idea is to ‘worship’ a film director with each issue. However, for our pre-issue we each picked a film to worship instead. I wrote about The Fall, and the timing was good because I had just returned from a trip to Jaipur, India where I saw one the places where the film was shot. I was in Jaipur for a Literature Festival, but while I was there, I went to see the Chand Baori stepwell, which is pretty famous, I think it was in The Matrix too. Anyway, it was very cool. I went to see this specifically because of the film, so I had pictures which I got to incorporate into my review!

Jacqueline: I may not want to review my favourite film because I may be too biased and have only good things to say. Like “everything is awesome”, you cannot be objective about it.

(Tanvi finds the picture of the Chand Baori stepwell)

Tanvi: Oh I found a picture of the well finally.

Alfonse: Oh what kind of architecture is that?!

Jacqueline: Wow.

Tanvi: It is insane! Like one of those mathematical puzzles, or an Escher painting.

Alfonse: Impossible geometry.

(The trio takes a moment to appreciate the stepwell.)

Jacqueline: Back to writing about films you like. I did Film Studies in NUS and the way I chose films to write about was when I had something to say about the film, rather than just strongly liking or disliking it. It would be a more well-rounded essay.

Tanvi: You did Film Studies at NUS? Me too!

Alfonse: So I guess going into the Youth Jury was a natural extension of your studies?

Jacqueline: Yes I think so. Although I applied for the first batch but I didn’t get in.

Alfonse: Why do you think you were rejected?

Jacqueline: I think it was because of my essay. I recycled one of my school essays in my application. It was about a Hitchcock film.

**Interested applicants need to submit a film review and a personal statement about why do he/she wants to be in the Youth Jury Program.**

Jacqueline Lee

Alfonse: I remember they said something like they prefer a local film so I thought about it and decided to submit a review on Pleasure Factory by Ekachai Uekrongtham, featuring Loo Zihan. It was not exactly my favourite film but I thought it would be a good one to write a review of, for a film festival.

Jacqueline: My Hitchcock piece was on Notorious. When I was preparing my submission the second time, I spoke to someone from the first Youth Jury batch and she told me they don’t really care about whether your review is on a local or foreign film. It only matters how you write the review or analyze the film. So I decided to write one just for the submission and I wrote about gender and sexuality in a film called called Girl House. It’s a 2014 Canadian slasher film about a group of camgirls who live in this house and they are being livestreamed 24/7. There were plenty of Rear Window references. Two of the characters went to watch Rear Window and so there was voyeurism,  deviance etc. and I connected them all together in my essay.

(Everybody laughs.)

Tanvi: So…. after passing the bar, how was the actual Youth Jury experience?

Alfonse: For me, one of the most seminal moments was waiting at the festival lounge during one of the film openings standing under the giant film posters displayed at the lounge, mingling with the other youth jurors and Festival Director Yuni Hadi walked out in this emerald green dress. It was strangely cinematic. She looked like Keira Knightley in Atonement.

(Jacqueline and Tanvi laughs.)

Jacqueline: Her dress inspired you, huh?

Tanvi: One of the great things about being in the Youth Jury is that you really feel like you are part of the festival. Like when you attend the opening ceremony, when you attend the awards ceremony, you feel like you're part of that environment. I think that the way the program is structured, you don’t feel like you are separate from the festival.

Alfonse: You don't feel like an afterthought.

Tanvi: Exactly, they even facilitated a session for us to meet the filmmakers! We analyse works by these filmmakers for six weeks or more, and then actually get to meet them. It really puts the two components together, the filmmakers and the film critics. So yes, I think it is a really well thought out program in that way.

Alfonse: One thing that is always funny, that happens in every edition of Youth Meets Film, is that there will always be this topic on ‘What does a film programmer do?’ Every time.

Tanvi: I actually wrote the one for my batch.

Alfonse: Ad I did too for my batch!

Jacqueline: You know before I joined, I didn’t even know film programming was a thing. I didn’t know it existed. You think about film directors, cast and crew, film critics and then there is a gap.

Tanvi: Yeah! I was like ‘Who chooses these films?’ I didn't know there was an actual role for this. (pause) But later on, learning about what they do really inspired me to be a film programmer, because it seems like such an interesting job.

Alfonse: What were the high points for you at the festival? Did your batch fool around or do a lot of dumb stuff?

Jacqueline: I guess one of the high points for me was having Maggie Lee from Variety come in. She offered to give us personal feedback on our articles. I had written one article that she took a look at before sitting me down and talking to me about it. She was very detailed and specific about each line so that was really helpful.

Alfonse: I would love to make a short documentary inspired by Maggie Lee, titled Maggie Mee. It would be about the life of a film critic on the road travelling. Remember that film with George Clooney living from a suitcase and this other one about Tom Hanks being stuck in an airport? My film would have many visual motifs of her going up the escalator and coming down the escalator. It would be a mock-documentary about a film critic that goes to all the festivals and feels a sense of disconnect from reality.

Tanvi: That’s is a cool idea because I don't think I have seen any film about a film critic before so that will be a first!

Alfonse: Did you follow any filmmakers for supper after the screening? My batch did some of that during our time. And last year, after the screening of Don’t Look at Me That Way, the German Mongolian film about a woman who seduces her neighbour and then takes her kid to Mongolia, I went with Kirsten Tan, Sun Koh, and the film’s director to Little India and chatted over supper. We then continued talking all the way till 4am in Sun Koh’s house. It was really moments like these that makes me really cherish being part of the festival and the bigger community. Did you have similar moments like these?

Tanvi: For me, it wasn’t during the festival. It was during the New Waves session organised by the festival in June. They invited some of us back to write articles so I was writing about the discussion between Nelicia Low and Cyril Wong and after the screening we all went for drinks nearby. While we didn’t stay till 4am, it was still nice. There was the SGIFF team there and Nelicia was there. It was really nice to be part of that environment.

Jacqueline: What do you guys think of ratings in film reviews? You know, not every film reviewer gives a rating. And SINdie doesn’t give ratings.

Tanvi: I think if you're a good film critic, you would be able to express what you didn't like about the film without necessarily having to give a rating. Ratings can be harsher than words. If I scroll to the end of a review and I see it got a B-, it automatically skews my perception of the film. But if that rating wasn’t there and I actually read the review, I would understand “okay, this is something the writer thought worked or didn’t work”, which would make me more intrigued to watch the film. I feel even if it’s a bad film, a critic should not discourage others from watching it. That's why I don't like the idea of ratings.

Jacqueline: I think the rating says more about the reviewer then the film itself. It is only helpful if you like this reviewer and you think you have the same taste as him or her. But to judge a film based on a rating doesn't tell you enough about the film.

Alfonse: Tell me about the John Lui incident.

Jacqueline: There was a bit of a tiff between John Lui and the youth jurors during my batch. It could be that the jurors really didn't like the idea of ratings so when he talked about it during the session with us, they decided that this was the moment to turn him into the scapegoat!

Tanvi: I mean it is not his fault right? Everyone does it.

Jacqueline: That’s true.

Tanvi: To extend your point about a rating saying more about the critic than the film, I think what’s even more dangerous is that a rating appears as though it is about the film.

Alfonse: Maybe this way of reviewing is something more reflective of the problem with the industry per se. There are journalism deadlines to meet especially for the daily newspapers and they need to find a way to squeeze everything in the byline. So ratings are a part of the answer to this constraint. I guess that’s the difference between a daily newspaper and a culture magazine like Harper’s or The New Yorker. I think it is a different ball game altogether, and if you are a journalist providing a consumer service, this is what you need to do.

Tanvi: In the same vein, I have a question: Do you guys read reviews about a film before watching them and to what extent does a review affect your decision to watch a film if it all.

Jacqueline: I read reviews after I watch films, just to see how other people reacted. Actually what I do is sometimes, I read the Wiki page before I watch the film. I am immune to spoilers. It doesn't change the experience of watching a film for me.

Tanvi: So you'd say that even if the film is getting bad press or bad reviews, it is not going to affect your decision to watch the film?

Jacqueline: I think it depends on why it is getting bad press. Admittedly, if it's a problem with the storyline, I’ll probably not watch it. But sometimes what the reviewer dislikes is something that makes me want to watch the film instead. What’s your view, Alfonse?

Alfonse; I think it depends on the review. I see around three different kind of reviews currently. One is your standard trade journal like Variety, Hollywood Reporter. They tend to give a good run-down of everything. Next are the newspaper reviews which is very short and descriptive. The last category are the cultural hit pieces written by the likes of David Ehrlich or Anthony Lane. So, I guess it depends on what you are looking for. But most of the times, I don’t agree with the review and my decisions don’t depend on them. Have anyone of you watched The Neon Demon? It has great visuals. If I want to study how to express myself visually then I will watch this. If I want escapism, then I will watch Jurassic World.

Tanvi: Nope, I haven’t seen The Neon Demon. But I agree that we go to the cinema for different reasons. If I want escapism, I love to watch superhero movies and I will always go watch a Marvel movie even if it did not receive good reviews. (pause) Actually, I also want to ask this question. There are some films that are really divisive. A very recent example that comes to mind is Aronofsky’s mother!, I haven't read any review on the fence about this film, critics either love it or hate it. So where do reviews fit when it comes to films like that? How does a film reviewer tackle a film like that?

Alfonse: I think for a film reviewer, it depends on where he or she comes from. Are you used to writing about film festival films, or are you used to entertainment writing and reporting? To be honest, I cannot really tell what exactly being the Youth Jury Programme has done to my style of writing but I can tell there is a shift. For one, I think my writing has become a lot more forgiving.

Tanvi: Jac, I think you might have also had the same experience as me, coming from Film Studies classes at NUS. My film writing style before Youth Jury was very academic. So coming into Youth Jury, what I learned was to keep your writing accessible. I don’t mean dumb it down but to make it readable to a non-academic audience and I think that's a difficult thing to learn.

Alfonse: No citation allows. Delete the appendix…..

Tanvi: No name-dropping. No bibliography.

Jacqueline: Yeah I had the same experience as Tanvi. Coming into Youth Jury, my writing was very academic. It was meant for my film professor’s eyes only. You can't just give it to someone on the street. I remember during my batch I was asking a lot of questions about how to make my writing more accessible but also not losing a critical edge.

Tanvi: I agree. I think the way I tackled this was to work with a word or a concept and build my review from that concept. That “trick” helped me a lot!

Alfonse: The Youth Jury has really given the SGIFF a refreshing angle when it made a comeback in 2014. I believe this was something repeated many times during the Youth Jury sessions. It is something filmmaker Anthony Chen said, that ‘if nobody writes about a film, it doesn’t exist’. But I am not sure if many people in Singapore value film writing enough? Some people may think it is such a useless skill. So what is its purpose in society?

Jacqueline: Well I studied Literature, which is the most useless degree of all.

Tanvi: Hahaha, so did I!

Alfonse: It’s like that song in Avenue Q ‘What do You do with a BA in English?’ Go listen to it!

Tanvi: Oh, I have been on the receiving end of this so often!

Jacqueline: Like… “Oh you’re going to be a teacher?”

Alfonse: Back to the question - I am sure it’s not completely true that without written material about the film, they would cease to exist right?

Tanvi: It is kind of like that philosophical problem - if a tree falls in a forest and if no one was there to see it, did it really fall? It is not that films literally stop existing and that people stop making films. It is more like without writing there is no cultural context given to the film. Like there is no one there to say this is what was going on, and this is how it was received. Writing also serves a kind of archival purpose and that's why I think it is important.

Alfonse: I think memory doesn't change the past but memory changes history and history is what is passed down.  History is what affects decisions and perceptions. It is something that affects everyone of us because each moment we live through, every film we watch, every song we listen to - they are going to affect who you are. So there is not just cultural value, there is also a huge commercial impact. Look at fashion industry. Look at architecture, car design - Why has salted-egg everything caught on? I guess that’s where we come in. You need something to galvanise the consumer or educate them.

Jacqueline: I think writing about films give them a history and significance when you place them in a context, whatever that may be. Maybe you are looking at the themes or how it fits into a movement. It gives the films more longevity because through your writing, other people can discover films from previous decades. How else would you know about an old film? You wouldn't just stumble across a videotape; it’s more likely because somebody wrote about it.

Tanvi: Yeah, that’s true. It would be a really interesting learning exercise to read film reviews from the 80s and compare them to film reviews now. It would be a good way to learn about how our perspectives and our expectations from cinema have changed. Film criticism definitely serves a really important societal purpose!

About the Writers

Tanvi Rajvanshi
Tanvi Rajvanshi has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. She was in the Youth Jury and Critics Programme for the 27th edition of SGIFF. She is currently a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, NUS. Her biggest cinema pet peeve is the violent glaring white screen of a cellphone in a nice dark hall.

Jacqueline Lee
Jacqueline writes bite-sized reviews encompassing all genres of films on Instagram at @filmage. She was a part of the Youth Jury in 2015. She is a huge Horror fan, whether in the form of films or Creepypasta. When not scaring herself she enjoys learning Japanese on public transport and watching videogame LPs.

Alfonse Chiu
Alfonse is a writer, designer, photographer whom no one forgets at first meeting. He was part of the Youth Jury in 2014, the inaugural batch.

The SGIFF Youth Jury is in its 4th edition this year. Be sure to catch them running around at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival starting this Thursday 23 November till 3 December!

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form