Yuni Hadi: “The most exciting thing is when we watch and discover.”

With SGIFF just a week away, we catch up with Yuni Hadi, Festival stalwart and executive director, to talk about running a film festival, life lessons, and all the exciting additions to the historied Festival's 30th edition.

What are some of the things from #SGIFF30 that excite you?

The fact that we have become a regional platform that has weight enough to be able to launch Southeast Asian films! In a way, this is one of the reasons why we decided to have the three Festival commission this year. We wanted to work with up-and-coming filmmakers whose careers have an association with us, and Mouly Surya, Anocha Boonyawatana, and Chris Yeo are directors who have had, in very recent years, their films play very prominent position in SGIFF. Given the general theme of the commission to be about celebrating cinema, we feel that these three filmmakers represent this ethos and the future of Southeast Asian films in a very good way because of the kinds of works they are, and have been, making.

We will also be launching a special series of limited edition postcards based on fan-art of iconic contemporary Singapore films that have shown at the Festival and won awards globally. It will feature five films, interpreted by local creatives who will reimagine the film posters in their own styles. In some sense, being able to do this really makes you appreciate just how far we have come with Singapore cinema—we would not have been able to do this project even 20 years ago.

I think SGIFF turning 30 is also really meaningful to the regional filmmakers, and this is something that reflects the dual roles that we are playing today—the first is obviously celebrating filmmakers and the films they make, while the other is celebrating the audience that has grown with us, and the new audience that we are connecting with now. Our audience has grown quite a bits over the past five year, and we are happy and grateful for that.

Going back to the roots, what were your favourite moments throughout the years and this long relationship you have had with the Festival?

One edition that really jumps at me is the 21st edition of the Festival, way back in 2008, when we were organising the Silver Screen Awards and we had all these filmmakers like Victric Thng, Tania Sng, and Boo Junfeng, who were helping us put together the awards. They were literally physically helping us as part of the team to put everything together, and then they will go home to change and come back to attend the actual awards. This was one experience that I had where I could really feel the community elements, and how much the filmmakers cared for the Festival to the extent that they would spend the amount of time they did helping with all these things.

Generally speaking, my favourite moments every year are when the audience and their favourite filmmakers meet during the post-show dialogues. When we brought down iconic filmmakers such as Fruit Chan, Darren Aronofsky, Im Kwon Taek, and Tran Ahn Hung, we had audiences who will bring out posters and DVDs for autographs; it really shows the level of engagement and growth of the Singapore film scene that you have these cinephiles who have watched every work of their favourite directors. We have all these people meeting their cinematic heroes, most of whom are Asian filmmakers, and that is just how sophisticated our audience is.

This year we are bringing down Pang Ho-cheung and Takashi Miike, and we have people saying how excited they are and how much they are looking forwards to being there. The tickets sold out very quickly, and even now, we have people coming up to say that they have been following their careers and please can they just buy a ticket. This happens to Singaporean filmmakers too; when we screened Royston Tan’s 15 last year, it was one of our first few films to be sold-out and we have audience members clamouring to see Royston and talk to him about the film.

We have put in a lot of work in the industry and we are slowly creating a place where filmmakers are legitimately recognised for their works. It also gets us to reflect on what is our role as a Festival, when the audience grows with us. Having the audience say things such as "I watched my first Hou Hsiao-hsien film here”, or even my own niece who is 17 and wants to watch Naomi Kawase films, makes me very proud that this Festival can connect with someone who is sixteen as much as someone who is sixty, and they are watching the same films.

What is one thing you have always wanted to do with the Festival and have you done it?

Creating the Southeast Asian Producers Network and the Youth Jury & Critics Programme (YJCP) was something that I am really proud of—these were things that I am personally invested in wanting to make happen.

I think the YJCP is something that we really wanted to do when we re-started the Festival in 2014. I was really inspired by a few festivals around the world that have these youth jury programmes where there are these grade-school kids watching really sophisticated films. It gave me that ambition to grow our audience this way, using films to discuss difficult topics, or even just to broaden the mind of our children. It does not always have to be about the art of filmmaking necessarily, but that the story resonates with young people, and we can use it as a discussion platform.

What is the hardest part of running a film festival for you?

I think the hardest part is finding a good balance of films to show. When you watch films you get very excited about the films you personally endorse, and when you do a festival, you try to present a certain tone of what the festival is about. For us, the real struggle for us is really to narrow down the films because we can only show so many films within these ten days. There are great arguments and debates about it, but it is also the most fun part in a way.

For SGIFF in particular, I think the other challenge that presented itself in the past few years was trying to find that footing of having the confidence to articulate what we are about. We are an international film festival that spotlights Southeast Asian cinema and talent, and we want to grow an audience for that. It is being able to be confident and not easily swayed by the trend, and we are really proud to have been able to do that. After five years, I feel that the identity now is quite clear. You do not need to say it in so many words now; people can feel it, and people can see.

…and conversely, what is the easiest part?

For me, not necessarily the easiest, but the most enjoyable part is really just watching the films. This is a dream job if you love movies; I watch it for work, and when I am free, I want to go to cinemas and continue watching films. The most exciting thing is when we watch and discover.

We have our Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, and when we see a bright new talent it gets really exciting because you can really feel that spark and you want to share it with the world. 

For example, even though the participants of the YJCP may not have watched a Southeast Asian film before, we are in this position to introduce cinema of this region to them, and they will then gain this added dimension to their taste and how they make decisions on what to watch. I think one very lovely thing about youths is that when they are excited about something, they spread their joy; they ask their friends to watch it and even bring their parents sometimes.

For me, its my secondary school teacher. She used to go to the Festival when I was in secondary school, and I will go too—now that I am working in the Festival, she is a regular audience and she is so proud of the fact that I am her student, and she would always ask me for recommendations every year. Seeing how the Festival reach out to people from all walks of life, coming together for a common passion, I think that is pretty cool.

Even with Singapore itself being so small and having a national film festival that has lasted for thirty years as an independent entity… I think it really says something about our position and how it is still important. If we were not needed, we would not be here.

If you have one thing to say to the Yuni attending her first ever SGIFF, and another for the Yuni helming #SGIFF50, what would they be?

I can clearly remember the early years attending SGIFF when I was in secondary school, and going to the cinema at Golden Mile, the Odeon. It is a lot like trying out new food and going to new places you have never been before; it inculcates an adventurous spirit and I recommend all young people to try this—it does not matter if you end up liking a new thing or not. The best thing about trying is that it opens your heart. I travel to festivals all over the world and make friends who come from countries so far away that you never would have thought you would make a friend from there. I think it will only make your life richer when you are open to new things, and if you love stories and story-telling, you will find your tribe. I encourage people to have that adventurous spirit, and I really thank my parents for allowing to become this dreamer, for giving me this freedom.

For my older self: do not hold on to things too tightly; leave room for things to happen, and be flexible and able to adjust to different situations. I think the best about the Festival is that it is as much about films as it is about people—the creator and the audience.

Your audience really determines the atmosphere of a screening: if you have people who are actively reacting to things, it improves the vibe and the experience of the films themselves. It feeds into why the post-show discussions are so important, and I think the questions being asked now are so much more interesting than twenty years ago. Back then if you ask if anyone has a question, you just get crickets - now you have people who are genuinely curious and interested. I think for filmmakers, the audience also challenges them to think more about what they are doing, so they cannot take the easy route of saying "I don’t want to explain my art.”

In the future, my dream would also be to pass down my knowledge and create a good working environment because we always forget about the people behind the scene—one thing that happens now is we always see the team photo, and it is my way of acknowledging those that have worked for the Festival through the years.

I feel that the experience of going to the movies have really changed from the time that I started attending the Festival. For me, to go from being a fan to being a curator to now running the Festival, I have come full-circle.

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