Lady Boss: Yuni Hadi Tells All

A visionary who gets things done, Yuni Hadi is one whose resume one could refer to as a trustworthy guide to the changes in Singapore's cinematic landscape: the co-founder to a hell lot of incubational programmes aimed to nurture young talents in the arts, the co-producer of Singapore's first and only Cannes winner, and the executive director of the city-state's oldest and longest-running film festival, the Singapore International Film Festival.

Beyond the press copy and the impressive works though, Yuni the leader and Yuni the artist remains shrouded in the enigma of a consummate professional who prefers to be better known for the quality of their works, rather than their personality.

Finally lifting that veil here as the cover woman of SINdie Magazine's upcoming issue 4, Yuni speaks to SINdie all about her life, work, and what it takes to run one of the nation's most important cultural institution.

Your interest in film and moving image started since your youth, could you elaborate on how that connection grew with you through your formative years?

Growing up, I did not know that you could actually have a career or a job in the arts, because there were so few people doing it at that time. Back in secondary school, I was actually part of the editorial team for the school paper, and the head of the English LDDS, but instead of organizing theatrical performances, I organized film screenings instead, so that may really have been the first signs of the things to come. 

I think one is attracted to the arts because one connects emotionally or intellectually with what you are seeing, watching or listening to. I still see it in a lot of the youths today. That is the basic power of the arts, the reason why it is still important and why so many people are fighting for a space for it.

My mother passed away when I was fifteen, and that was a turning point for me. Before that, I had always been interested in music, films, and television; and for a while, it seemed that was all I did. After she passed, I had to take on a lot of responsibilities, but in a way I also had a lot of free time unsupervised, since my father was away working, and my brother have started his National Service. My favorite place after school was the video shop near my house, and I would go there almost every day. At that time I even thought that it would be quite cool to open a video shop, so that I could watch all these films, which is actually not so different from what I do now every day.

I was looking at my options after secondary school, looking for an alternative to the junior college route. My dream was to go overseas and study journalism and creative writing, but after my mother passed away, there was a need for me to be at home and start working as soon as possible. 

When my friend told me about this art school called LASALLE, I was very intrigued because I have never heard of it before, bearing in mind this was the 90s. She was going to enrol and I went with her and got the brochure. I thought the school was very interesting because they taught so many areas of the arts that fascinated me, such as ceramics and fashion design. They did not have anything related to film then and neither was the arts management department set up, but I was interested enough to apply. In a way—you can call it destiny or whatever—some things find you first before you know you are looking for it.

I was looking for a place that offered me something different, and LASALLE seemed to offer that. It reminded me of the TV series Fame, a school where you feel that everything is coming alive. LASALLE was still a school with an academic school structure, but what they offered me was the ability to cross over to all the different disciplines, so that even though I started in fine arts, I could still take different classes in the design schools and try other subjects such as interior design, drama, or even dance. Those were outside of my normal curriculum and I would take extra classes just to learn more about everything else.

Did you have a lot of pragmatic concerns then, as a student of the Arts?

Even when you are a dreamer, you still live with the practical problem of survival, so I definitely needed to find a way of making a living. Throughout my time in LASALLE, I also had two part-time jobs, one waitressing and another at The Body Shop.

My work at The Body Shop was a contrast to my school life.  I met people from all walks of life for whom the arts had little place in their lives because they had too many other things to worry about, sometimes barely making ends meet. I remember my manager then was in a very abusive relationship, but she was so strong and always so thoughtful to her staff even though she has all these things going on in her life, and that is one of things that shaped the way I grew in a leadership position. I learnt a lot about management, work ethics, and leadership style there.

Sometimes in life, you meet people who are heroes in a quiet way. If you listen and pay attention, they would be the ones who give you clues on how to be a good person, and that is one of the most important things you can learn in life.

In between my school hours and my part time jobs, I would also take on some other jobs such as being a temp staff for museums and galleries that needed extra hands during major events. Those were really good experiences too, seeing how things are organised, and I do think that they contributed to how I came to be where I am today.

When I give talks at secondary schools, I always tell the students to just be open and do things, even if you don't know what you want to do. The best thing to do is not to sit there and wait, but to try everything and figure it out your own way, and if along the way you meet people who can help you out, that is a great bonus too. I think, in general, when people reach a certain level of success, they would always be willing to help if they see someone young with potential aspiring, because they cannot help but remember what it was like when they were young themselves, and I find myself in that position as well. 

You mentioned just now that Arts Management did not exist as a major that could be declared then. How did you find yourself doing it, and how did it impact your career?

I switched my course from Fine Arts to Arts Management around the same time that they started the program, because I realized that I had no natural inclination as a painter or illustrator. So when Arts Management major became available, I took it because it was the closest thing to what I always wanted to do, which was writing.

As things were, doing it as a major was great for my passion for writing: I wrote freelance for a lot of different little magazines that my lecturers introduced me to. It is only after graduating that the reality hit me—no one wanted to hire an Arts Management Diploma graduate, because many employers did not know what Arts Management was in the early 2000s. In fact, even if your major was relevant to what you wanted to do, the system still works against you because institutions like the museums are still quasi-government bodies, and they want to hire degree holders, so they would prefer to hire an English degree holder over an Arts Management diploma holder for an executive job, even if the diploma holder had more relevant experiences and knowledge.

If one applied for an executive job with a diploma at that time, you would be a coordinator doing photocopy work, as we called it. I guess there are two ways of doing things when you are in that situation: one of which is just taking the job and then work all the way up. For me, I felt that I had all this energy and passion to do so much more—so I kept knocking on doors. Later on, while I was with Objectifs, I would end up going back to school to complete my BA and MA in Arts Management, because I thought it was important to not let there be an excuse for me to be held back in a country that puts emphasis paper qualifications.

After graduation, I found my way into this local animation company.

The company has since closed down and had a lot of instability. On the last days of the company, we were meant to finish a government project, which was badly managed by my boss. There was a big 2-D animation presentation at the Istana and very little time left which made it impossible to complete.  I had taken the initiative to come up with a creative solution, which meant pulling an all-nighter alone in the office while my boss was more concerned about getting dressed up for the event. I remember my father being very dismayed when I returned home at 4am, only to go out the door again at 7am for the event. The company folded soon after and left many staff unpaid. But that government project which I came through for, led me to a contract job at the Singapore Film Commission. And it was there that I first worked with SGIFF on an exhibition of P. Ramlee.

Unfortunately, the Film Commission could not keep me full-time because the available positions required a degree. Fortunately and coincidentally, around the same time, someone at The Substation contacted me to inform me that there was this temporary position for a programme executive for their video and music programme and that’s how I started working there. 

I remember that there was only one computer terminal at The Substation office that three programmers shared. You had to wait your turn to log onto the email, because there was only one email address, and each programmer had his or her own folder in that account. 

It was the time when the digital revolution just started so there was shift into making films on mini DV. When I started, people always joked that I have too many overtime hours because I did so many film and music programmes. It was a time of changing management so I had a lot more leeway in the things I was doing and got to experiment a lot. Looking back, maybe I thrived in an unsupervised arena, because I got to dream up all these things that I wanted to do. 

What was your time at The Substation like? What were these things that you ‘dreamed up’?

I did a lot of film events, and I would go online and research and write to all these organisations overseas and propose an exchange of the local short films on our side and theirs. Back then we still used VHS tapes, so we had to send and receive all these huge parcels back and forth.

This was how things happened: you believe that people want to see these films just as much as you do—at that time, whenever I watched Singapore short films, I wanted to share my passion for them with others. A little na├»ve in hindsight, but that was how the exchanges happened. I had a passion for local music and literature too, and I would do concerts in the garden or even poetry events. It was great, and I got a lot of satisfaction from the things I did. 

I even worked with SGIFF again—we did some film workshops during the Festival for one edition, and I remember having lunch with Philip Cheah who was the Festival Director and he asked me what I wanted to do in the future.  I told him that I wanted his job, because I thought there was no better job than to work at a film festival. At that time, I was already doing programming at The Substation, but it was at a much smaller scale, with short films.

And look at me now, right? I suppose, if you are able to dream it, then maybe one day something will happen.

After four years at The Substation, you became the commissioning editor at Arts Central. What were the biggest differences between working for an underground art space as The Substation and working for a big commercial entity like Mediacorp?

When I worked at Arts Central, I was very excited to be able to commission works such as dramas or serials, because I had worked with many short filmmakers who had great potential to do solid television work.

Back then it was unheard of for short filmmakers to work on TV, because the station had a list of production companies that they work with strictly, and few had heard of the short filmmakers before. The rare opportunity to be part of that change and transition was challenging because of expectations and sometimes even in speaking the same language when using creative references.

At pitch meetings, I would hear the references to David Lynch and other auteur directors not connect with some people in the room, but I wanted to make the opportunities happen and tried to bridge that communication gap.

Of course, there would be some successes and some failures but in a corporate setting with so much at stake, the measures of success would be mainly eyeballs and dollars, and it didn't have much room for critical successes the way Netflix has done so today. I enjoy good television and I wished that local production houses would be given the budget for development and more room for creative expression but both the creatives and the broadcaster are limited by a lot of things. I still have high hopes for local television because I believe in our creative talents. 

During my time at Arts Central, I had worked with Lesley Ho, one of the previous Directors of SGIFF, to showcase Singapore short films on the channel. Later on, I had also managed to get some sponsorship to show more short films on the channel. I was already buying some international short films and realised that Singapore short films had not reached its full potential in finding wider platforms such as television. In the early 2000s, television broadcasters around the world were still acquiring short films as content. 

This really was the seed of setting up Objectifs Films in 2006 after I left television, where we would handle Singapore short films for distribution and DVD publication. It would later expand to Singapore and some Southeast Asian independent films and documentaries. Because Objectifs was run independently and we were able to do things that we felt could make a difference. We were the first Singaporean company to venture to Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, one of the most important short film festivals, to set up a booth, hold screenings, and push out Singapore short films commercially. I don’t think anyone else would have been bold enough to do that at that time. Emmeline (Yong), Dawn (Teo), and I did everything from giving out flyers in the snow to hosting potential buyers. It was very difficult but extremely rewarding.

Going back to your conversation with Philip Cheah, and taking a break alongside your co-director Zhang Wenjie after returning for the 22nd Edition, what inspired you to return to revamp and restart everything after three years?

It was after Ilo Ilo, which I co-produced, won the Camera D’Or in Cannes in 2013 and travelled to a lot of festivals, when the sentiments of the community became in general very sad because we no longer had a film festival to call our own. There were people like Sebastian Tan of Shooting Gallery, who was behind the scenes without taking any credits trying to revive the festival, and to me, it just seemed like the right time to return. 

At times it was very hard, especially this going back and forth between Thailand and Singapore, but ultimately, this about just putting your mind to it and doing it. For me, I knew that I wanted to do it because it was that combination of excitement and the slight tremble of fear.  It’s times like these when I recall how I got onto the swim team in primary school. It was by sheer accident that I found myself in the competition lineup and realised it a little too late. I felt excitement and fear. I was small sized and didn’t make good competitive swimmer but I thought only about surviving the moment and surprisingly found myself in third place.

In a sense, one learns not to be afraid even though it may be difficult, because if you do not try then you disappoint only your own self, and I mean, what is the worst that can happen anyway?

Looking back from your vantage point now, how does it feel to have grown with the Festival and gone through all these periods of change and evolution?

I think it is difficult to compare the Festival between editions, because we face different challenges in different eras, and the landscape of cinema have changed so much. 

At the very beginning in the 80s, the challenge for the festival was providing access to all these films that have never been shown before—it was the time when The Picturehouse, which was Cathay's art house cinema before it closed down, was showing a lot of European fare. Singapore was showing mainly European and Japanese fare so when the Festival showed films from Southeast Asia or the Middle East, it was really eye opening because people genuinely have not seen them nor even know of them before. 

Nowadays, it is the exact opposite, because people now have a lot of access to a lot of different types of content, and they have less time than they have entertainment avenues—people can be entertained just texting their friends for hours, for example—so we face different challenges today.

However, I believe that the core value of the Festival have remained the same, which is to give a space for independent voices, original voices, to exist. We believe very much in that by standing together, and having that collaborative spirit, we can be stronger. This is why while we do show international films in our lineup, the developmental platforms that we engage in are focused on Southeast Asia, because we are committed to continue developing that space where works here can still exists. 

It is obvious that in our day-to-day type of commercial filmmaking, be it television or movies, the artist is required to make compromises to get the project going. Artists require a certain space for creation and we believe in the potential of the kind of work that can blossom from such a freedom, so we try to create that environment. At the same time, there is also a business to the art of filmmaking so this year we have the Southeast Asian Producers' Network where we bring the independent producers together to share information, strategies and case studies.

For me, the platforms I create are always about bringing people together and sharing information because I think that can only make you stronger, rather than be in that competitive space where you hide information.

I think one of the great things about the Festival is being able to work with many different people who can bring in very specialised skills that we ourselves may not have, and that is always nice. 

During the time I worked at The Substation, when I started traveling to film festivals, I would write to the Lee Foundation and ask for funding to help me travel from place to place to promote Singapore films with my VHS tapes, and it was the first time that a programme executive from Singapore would travel and do that. Seeking my own funding allowed me a certain level of independence for the kind of work I believed in. 

I would write in to all the different festivals and partners and ask them whether they wanted to show a film. Sometimes, they would accept it, and even though the film may not be in the main program, they would give me time and space in their own festival activities, and I would use that opportunity to travel there and talk about Singapore films and a loose form of cultural exchange programme started. The little time I was allotted were very, very precious in terms of what I shared, and I would be outside the warm theatres in the snow giving out little photocopied flyers, asking people to come and watch these short films. It was very grassroots and there were no big government campaigns because the potential of what cinema could do for Singapore had not caught on yet.

It was very much that sort of hardships that I encountered, and then when thirty people show up I was shocked and so happy that these people were interested in Singapore short films. In a way, you are unafraid because you rolled up your sleeves and did it for the simple reason that you have the conviction that these Singaporean short films you are promoting are so good, that once people are in the room and watching, they would understand, and buy into what you are selling. To a certain extent, that is the only thing that drives you. 

Today, in this position where I am dealing with more than just the filmsorganisational structures and KPIs and things like thatwhat pushes me forward is what happens when I watch a great film. It is still very simple. You go back to the basics where you think that it would be great for people to watch this film and meet these amazing talented filmmakers. We are connected by this love of cinema.

One of the things I love about a film festival is that because so much energy comes from just two people meeting—which you can never get just watching at the movie playing on your iPad—when you are at a festival where a film is being screened with the filmmaker in attendance, there is just so much connection and warmth to be felt in the air.

This makes all the difference, I think, and that is why it is really important to bring the Southeast Asian community together. If you go to the Silver Screen Awards, you genuinely feel that there is so much love even though it is a competition. People are just so happy for each other, unlike some competitions, because it becomes more than just about launching a filmmaker’s career. The role we have is different, and I do not see it as anything less important. I think it is very necessary in Southeast Asia especially, because trends and spotlights on films from different countries in film festivals come and go. For us, Southeast Asian filmmakers still need a place to feel welcome and be celebrated in a consistent manner. We want to tell them that what they are doing is important so that the stories they are telling can be passed down to the next generation. I want my children to watch films from our countries, not just from the United States or Europe, because they are able to connect with them and learn about who they are.

Hopefully, Singapore films can find a place within Southeast Asian cinema where they can collaborate with other talents because the industry in parts of the region are very developed in terms of the talent, such as Indonesia and Thailand, where they have very good crew. People around the world are finally realising the talents we have—for example the same cinematographer that lenses Call Me By Your Name lensed Apitchatpong Weeraseethakul’s films.

One gets to see the breaking down of boundaries in countries and cultures, and that is really wonderful, because you really come together for the love of cinema. I know it may sound really cheesy, but sometimes one has to take away all the cynicism and remember why one is in the arts. It is really easy to be very cynical about it because we are dealing with all the other aspects apart from the art itself, and it is indeed a very competitive environment. So, it would be nice to be in a place where it strips away all those things and reaches the core of why we are doing it.

I also get a lot of feedback that it was great to have SGIFF happen at the end of the year because it is closer to the holidays and provides a space for some self-reflection. It is nice to end it at SGIFF where the industry in the region gets the chance to catch up on the films, development and have that exchange because not everyone has had the chance to meet in festivals in Europe, North America or elsewhere. But meeting in Singapore is an accessible short trip for our regional counterparts.

It may not be the reason why people fund us, but it is definitely one of the reasons why we fight so hard for the festival to exist today.

Five years into your tenure, what do you feel are the most significant ways in which yourself and the Festival have evolved?

On a more strategic level, every year we are trying to figure out the same things; we show films and we do the different developmental programmes, but how do we present things in an interesting way? What kind of people do we bring down that believe in the same things we do and can carry that energy throughout the whole festival? 

Whenever we have the so-called famous filmmakers here, the people I approach are always those who love film festivals, and you can really tell when you communicate with them. They remember what it was like to be at a festival with their first films and they are so supportive, and that is the kind of people you want at your festival, people who want to give back and who care about film festivals because they know that it is important no matter if you are a young filmmaker, an emerging filmmaker, or a veteran. 

It is important to have that space, and so those are the people you really connect with, and I seek them out as much as they seek us out. I guess the biggest challenge is that there are a lot of film festivals now than ever in the world, even in Singapore itself. Even though we are the national film festival, some of the general audiences are not able to differentiate between all the different festivals that are happening, and so in today's climate where personalities are important, you really have to figure out how to communicate the importance of what you do.

People do not have time, so it is really about trying to translate how worthwhile it would be to spend some of their time with us. I think that while having money may be important in terms of having that ability to do marketing campaigns, the best brand ambassadors are the people—the filmmakers and the audience—whose lives have been changed by the festival and the films that they have watched. In a way, word of mouth is still the most important thing for boutique brands like us, and as I always say, everything goes back the basics of why the arts is important in our lives.

It is very much about how one wish to stand out in all that noise. For me, the dream is to have the consciousness that the Festival is around, and that when you take that time to come to the festival, you will discover something new, or something that changes your perspectives, or even hopefully becomes a life-changing experience. 

We are always aiming to create this environment that hopefully will create a bit of magic subconsciously —if you can throw a little bit of star dust into people's lives and they leave a little inspired, that is exactly what we want. What going to the cinema does for people in that two hours, we try to do that at the festival for the 10 to 11 days.

What do you hope the future is, for SGIFF, Southeast Asian cinema, and for Yuni?

My immediate plan is to spend time with my family and take a break, maybe catch up on a lot of films that I have not been able to watch because I was so busy watching films for the festival. I guess I really like movies. Luckily, my husband is a filmmaker and he also really loves movies. Sometimes after the children are asleep, we would sneak out to the cinema just to catch something on the big screen.

For me, the big hope really is that watching a Singaporean film or a Southeast Asian one goes beyond being a novelty or a once a year thing for the general audience. For the next generation, the students and the children now, how wonderful it would be for them to be able to identify their favourite Singaporean or Southeast Asian director when asked is. I think that is when we would know that we have reached a certain level and we can then go to the next step.

I was actually really inspired to do the Youth Jury and Critic Programme during my visit to Berlin International Film Festival a few years ago. They have a Youth Jury Programme where the youth involved are really young like only like six years old. 

I am looking forward to a time when our youth jury could be expanded to primary school too, with the understanding from parents and teachers how important it is to have this space for children to be able to discuss films that deal with more challenging topics and start having that intellectual rigour, and develop the language they need to speak about things they are learning.

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