SMORGASBORD: Learn From Singapore

Should we laugh or cry? In the month where the most-publicised film event here was a Bollywood awards ceremony, our neighbours down south are pulling off the 15th and most ambitious edition of their international film festival.

I have nothing against Bollywood movies except for their bum-numbing length, but the thought that our government contributed financial resources into courting and then promoting the International Indian Film Awards (IIFA) (a misleading name, since the only films nominated were Hindi ones) is rather disheartening. The official rationale was that it was done to promote Malaysia to Indian tourists – the type of gullible tourist, I suppose, who could be persuaded to hop on an eastbound plane simply by watching footage shot inside the Genting Arena.

Our Minister for Culture, Arts and Tourism said on national TV: “India has one billion people. One billion. That is one hundred million (sic) people. If 15% of them travel overseas regularly, that’s a lot of tourists.” Sponsoring this event is one in a long series of activities designed to put our country “on the map.” I don’t know how much more needs to be done. Isn’t having the Formula 1, not to mention the tallest buildings and the longest roti jala in the world enough to earn this elusive cartographical visibility?

One does not mean to sound like a breast-beating jingoist, but the IIFA is a prime example of one-way cultural exchange. Our media gets to gawk and gasp at Bollywood celebs but the visiting contingent will treat us simply as plush welcome mats for them to wipe their dancing shoes on. It’s also ironic that only a year ago, our self­ same government was all ready to add Bollywood films to the list of bogeys detrimental to social order and cohesion. All it took, apparently, was the lure of tourist rupees to put that admittedly silly notion to rest. Even moral guardianship can be bought – but then again, since when was this news?

Now, on to the 15th Singapore International Film Festival. There are about 390 titles showing, and Singapore is rapidly rising to become one of the most important festival locations in Asia. It began very modestly in the late 1980s but has grown in size, prestige and, yes, visibility over the years. Staffed by a core of committed and frequently sleep-deprived volunteers, it’s moving up in the world.

Out of all the titles showing, thirteen are from Singapore: one feature while the rest are under an hour long. Malaysia isn’t doing too badly with eleven entries: three features (although none as lavishly produced as last year’s Spinning Gasing) and eight shorts. The crucial difference, I suppose, is that many of the Singaporean shorts were made possible by grants from that republic’s Film Commission, which was set up to boost filmic activity there. All the Malaysian entries were privately financed and finished on video rather than film, a sobering sign of how relatively poor we are compared to the films from Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Our own Multimedia Development Corridor has spent the past 2 years talking about setting up a Film Commission here, but nothing other than talk has happened. I would actually put greater faith in Finas, which has at least assisted in a few productions although it is not nearly as well-funded as the MDC. Speaking of multimedia: a focus in Singapore this year is digital technology. Sounds like an ideal focus for our own MDC, does it not?

I managed to cross the Causeway over the weekend and caught some documentaries. The most awesome was The Inner Tour. It follows a group of Palestinians who are allowed to visit Israel for three days. By capturing their reactions at what they see around them, this documentary becomes a powerfully humane look at a land with two parallel and contradicting histories.

I don’t think it will ever be shown here because it is an Israeli work, but the young director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz managed to capture the frustration of Palestinians at what they see as imperialist steps to erase their presence from the land that used to be theirs. Miles beyond a sentimental ”Why can’t we get along?” lament, this packs a real wallop and is especially urgent in light of recent events.

The final scene is more powerful than anything I have seen in fiction. A blind old Palestinian man gets down from the tour bus and finds his way to his father’s grave. His whole village had been decimated decades ago, but he points to the empty green space in front of him and says in the present tense, “Our village stretches from here to there.” Goosebumps are guaranteed.

There were several excellent American documentaries. American “Store Wars” records the efforts of a small American community to resist the coming of the giant retail store; although a true story, it has all the delineations of a modern tragedy. Frequently hilarious was “Lifetime Guarantee,” in which a lesbian punk-folk singer becomes an enthusiastic saleswoman for Tupperware. “I thought there would be a few other avant-garde types here, but I’m the only one!” the spirited Phranc says at a Tupperware convention. Finally, “Horns and Halos”, about an underground publisher with an expose book on George W. Bush, brims with counter-cultural New York chutzpah.

I also managed to watch all eight of the finalists for Best Singapore Short Film. They ranged from the good to the indifferent, but they were all made with a degree of professional polish. The most anticipated of the lot was 15 by the prolific Royston Tan. It’s about juvenile delinquents, is very slick, well-shot and confident but feels more like a truncated feature than a self-contained short. I actually preferred Leonard Yip’s “Eve of Adha”, about a Muslim immigrant in Australia driven to violence. And Wee Li Lin’s “Holiday” has delightful moments in recounting how a retrenched man comes to terms with his joblessness in a kiasu society.

The screening of the Singapore shorts was jam-packed; people were willing to stand or sit on the floor to watch them. Among the audience were many overseas reps curious to see what Singaporean films had to express. At its most simplistic and basic level, this is precisely the sort of cultural dialogue that can take place in an event like this. It’s a game of “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” It is also a small sign that globalisation need not always be a one-way affair in which the developed West (or in our case, India!) merely peddles its wares to us.

The festival isn’t of course mainly targeted at foreigners. Its main point is to expose local audiences to films they would not otherwise see. But along the way, the overseas guests will also get an appreciation of work being done in the host country. We come to see Singapore not only as a comfortable venue with no transport problems or discarded chewing-gum wrappers but a place that can nurture its own burgeoning talent.

Someone should tell this to our bureaucrats – that is, if they can stop gyrating to those Masala musicals long enough to listen.


First Published: 16.04.2002 on Kakiseni

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