SeaShorts'18: See Shorts By the Sea(Shorts) with Festival Director Tan Chui Mui

What exactly does it take to start a film festival from ground-up? No stranger to the festival circuit herself, filmmaker and SeaShorts Festival Director Tan Chui Mui sits down with SINdie for a fireside chat on the founding of the SeaShorts Film Festival, and the changing landscape of Southeast Asian short films.

What drove the formation of SEA Shorts?

Fundamentally, SeaShorts is an extension of a "Programmer Exchange" format like the S-Express, which started as this collaborative project between Southeast Asian programmers. It began in 2004 with these 3 programmers: the Singaporean Yuni Hadi (Yuni is also a director of the Objectifs Centre and the current executive director of SGIFF), the Malaysian independent filmmaker Amir Muhammad, and Chalida Uabumrungjit (A founding member of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, and the Deputy Director of the Thai Film Archive), who ran the programme in Thailand. Each of them made a short film programme representing their country, and afterwards, they showed the 3 programmes in their countries. Soon, it became 5 countries when Tintin Wulia (Indonesia) and Alexis Tioseco (Philippines) joined the project -  at one point, Maggie Lee (Currently the Chief Asia Film Critic at Variety) also joined in with Chinese short films.

The S-Express has now been taken over by the newer generation, and in 2015, I was asked by Sanchai Chotirosseranee (Thailand) to become the programmer for S-Express Malaysia. At that time there were already 7 countries in the program, and S-Express was traveling widely to festivals in different countries. In Thailand it was shown in Thai Short Film and Video Festival; in Indonesia, it was shown in Minikino film festival. There was no suitable festival in Malaysia to showcase the complete S-Express programme,  so I decided to start one. 

We were quite lucky to receive a grant from the Japan Foundation Asia Centre (JFAC) for SeaShorts 2017, and the idea quickly expanded with competitive categories and other programmes; however, we are still quite different from other festivals as our focus is more on the programmes and the programmers.

How was the experience from last year, and how did it affect the decision to continue this year?

Our experience during the first year was overwhelming! We got the 3 founders of S-Express, Amir Muhammad, Yuni Hadi, and Chalida Uabumrungjit to become our SeaShorts Competition Jury; and we had the new generation of S-Express programmer - Sanchai Chotirosseranee (Thailand), Leong Pui Yee (Singapore) and Fransiska Prihadi (Indonesia) to be on our selection committee. 

It was more like a gathering, or a conference of Southeast Asian programmers in a way. I remember how excited Cika (Fransiska Prihadi) was when she finally met Amir, Yuni, and Chalida for the first time. 

We did not have enough funding to fly in the filmmakers, but many of them came to the festival on their own anyway. This year we are supported by JFAC again, and we also have Yayasan Sime Darby through a partnership with the George Town Festival, which aided in the decision to move the festival to George Town, as it is a very nice city to experience any festival in.  

What were some of the difficulties you faced starting your own film festival? And subsequently, was there anything that went better than expected?

The biggest difficulty we faced was, of course, funding—we lost a lot of money making the first festival! The biggest support came from JFAC - it was with their support that we flew in our juries and many programmers. This year, we are supported again by the JFAC, and as mentioned, we partnered with George Town Festival, which helped with the cashflow and the logistic in George Town.  However, we still need funding to run the festival; the core festival team basically worked for almost a year for absolutely nothing. 

We did try crowdfunding but the result was also not satisfying. 

Despite all these, the festival turned out better than I expected, mainly because of the energy of the filmmakers and programmers. People recognised the importance of having a festival focused solely on Southeast Asia and short films, and many people came on their own, including programmers  and filmmakers from other Southeast Asian countries, Taiwan, and China.

What do you feel have evolved in the current landscape of Southeast Asian short filmmaking?  

Southeast Asian cinema has been getting a lot of attention internationally in recent years, particularly from Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, which is great!

What do you hope for the festival in the future?

At the moment, the festival seems like a great platform for funding body or workshop like Purin Pictures, Seafic, FINAS, Astro A-List, Shortcuts, Da Huang Pictures, or Next New Wave to look for new talents to develop, but I also hope in the future that the festival can and will also be the platform for filmmakers who wants to continue making short films. 

It is not just a stepping stone to making features; filmmakers with longer works can also come back to enjoy this playground of freedom. 

Interested in what else showed at SeaShorts? Check out the full line-up hereSeaShorts Film Festival 2018 ran from 01 - 05 August. You can support the festival here.

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