More dialogue needed on censorship: Singapore International Film Festival chief

More dialogue needed on censorship: Singapore International Film Festival chief

Yuni Hadi goes “On the Record” with 938LIVE's Bharati Jagdish about the perceived bias against local content and censorship in the industry.

Yuni Hadi

SINGAPORE: Yuni Hadi has been promoting independent Singapore films for many years. She has helmed the film programme at The Substation Centre for the Arts, creating milestone projects such as the annual Fly-by-Night Video Challenge and the Singapore Short Film Festival. She also helms Objectifs Films, a Singapore-based international film distributor. She is also the co-producer of award-winning Singapore film Ilo Ilo which saw its box-office takings in Singapore surge, after it attained international accolades.

Today, she is executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival which takes place from No 23 to Dec 4.

She went “On the Record" with 938LIVE's Bharati Jagdish about censorship and growing the local film industry. They started by talking about the perceived bias against local content.

Yuni Hadi: It’s a problem, but it’s not all gloom and doom. For example, the films by Jack Neo are doing very well in the box office, and Singapore content on YouTube is doing really well, even those that are a little bit more niche. I think people want to feel connected to what is going on in Singapore through Singapore stories.

But for example, if you were not really interested in opera, it is unlikely that you would take that chance to go to a concert. But if it was introduced to you in a different way, let’s say, outdoors in a different setting, you might give it a chance. I think that's what we're trying to do with the film festivals. We have different accessibility points.

Traditionally, part of film festivals’ strategy is to present films that you can't see easily. But in today's world, films get released so quickly after they get made or they premiere in someone's film festival or it's released on iTunes six months later. So the film festival world is, in a sense, questioning its relevance especially today when you can watch films on many different platforms and people have shorter attention spans. I think one of the key things that we do that is, in a way, not replaceable by digital media is having that intimate contact with the people who make the films, the stories and being able to attend a master class or being up close and personal with the heavyweights in the film industry and being in the audience of an emerging filmmaker. Watching a film with an audience is totally different from watching a film by yourself at home, because you have that energy and the vibe of other people. This changes the experience of watching a film.

I still believe the story is what people connect with and sometimes people are surprised after they give themselves a chance to watch films of different genres but what I think is interesting is that the so-called niche audience is actually growing because there are more ways to find information. You can watch the trailer easily, you can read reviews and some of those are entry points for a person to give something they haven't tried a shot. We show films of all genres. We have animation, action from countries like Vietnam and Thailand. We have the serious arthouse films. So there are entry points for different people and we are always hoping that people will be adventurous and try something new.


Bharati: But whether we’re talking about commercial films or independent arthouse films, to what extent do you feel that there might be a bias against locally made content? Local artistes, not just filmmakers but even singers, say there is – that Singaporean audiences don’t pay attention to local content till it gets international recognition, as in the case of Ilo Ilo.

Yuni: I feel that it has changed quite a bit. In the last 10 years, I think people don't have the perception that Singaporean films are not as good as Hollywood films. I do think that they may feel that it's different. Obviously most of our films are in the genre of comedy and drama and documentary. A lot of it has to do with the area of interest of the filmmaker but also budget. So I do think that people are more adventurous because you can watch Singapore films on the plane right now and people do choose it over other types of content.

Bharati: Budgets and financing are a related issue and we’ll touch on that later. But even though some relatively low-budget Singapore films are of high quality, few Singapore films are commercial successes. So while it has gotten better, does the bias still exist?

Yuni: Personally, I feel that there is some perception that Singapore films may not be something you want to watch for example, over the weekend, if you're taking a break from work. But I don't think it is because they feel that it is made with a lower budget or not as good. I think mainly it is about what they find more entertaining. If you want to relax, you would watch a Hollywood blockbuster.

Bharati: So this goes towards themes and genres – they don’t appeal to local audiences enough to make them commercially viable. I keep asking about this because several people have said that they would never go into filmmaking here because it’s not something you can make money from and while audiences abroad may appreciate your work, people feel discouraged when their own population doesn’t. So in order to encourage more filmmakers, this has to change. How do you think the situation can be managed so that Singapore audiences are more open to giving Singapore films more support? Or do you think filmmakers here just don’t have the skills to make commercially viable films or films with a powerful enough message to draw in local audiences. We have seen some successes like the works of Boo Junfeng and Royston Tan who are well-known here, but what’s needed to take this to the next level?

Yuni: There are two ways. First, I think Singapore films or the filmmaker has to be true to themselves and make the films that they want but also, work hard at finding their audience.

Bharati: When you say work hard at finding their audience, what does that entail that they’re not already doing?

Yuni: Being more creative in marketing, being unafraid to explain what their films are about and the other thing is education in terms of film literacy. I think that is really important for primary and secondary schools.

So for example, when I was at the Berlin film festival in Germany, they had a youth programme for kids and the kids were really young. They were in primary school and they were exposed to films you would not think to show to little kids and that really surprised me because if we ran a programme like that in Singapore, we may be more conservative in what we would want to show to the children - what we call family films that are rated G. There would be more restrictions and more protectiveness over what our kids watch. But over there, they allow the kids to watch films that are PG13 in terms of classification and they will explain and talk through with the kids what's going on and the parents allow that to happen.


Bharati: So it could be really difficult themes such as suicide for instance?

Yuni: Yes, so that kids can become more aware of issues and the world around them. So it’s about removing that layer of protectiveness because we shouldn't underestimate our audiences. Let's not underestimate our audience including the kids out there. This will definitely increase support for local independent films too.

Bharati: Film literacy classes for the young sounds like a great idea, but considering what the Singapore school system is like and what our priorities have been for so many years, what do you think it will take for the authorities to start to incorporate this into the curriculum?

Yuni: In Singapore, we always have hopes that there will be more resources spent on the arts because we shouldn't see it in a straightforward way in that, "Oh, we are encouraging people to be an artist" But it's more like: it adds value to your overall perspective as a person.

Bharati: I was just going to go to that. Why should people watch films, why should they discuss them, why should they even think about them? It seems you have to make a case for that because in a utilitarian society like Singapore, the focus is always on the skills that will help get you a job.

Yuni: Well, I think we have seen the impact of the arts and culture in places like Europe where a lot of resources and money is spent on the arts and we have been doing that a little bit in Singapore with the museums for example. So in that sense, the films that we show are no different from promoting artwork in a museum. After all, we all want to have museums as great as those in the UK or New York. So if we admire those museums or film festivals, why are we not putting the resources in our own museums and film festivals and galleries so we can be on par with other people?

Bharati: But it shouldn't just be about being on par with other people, right? Earlier, you mentioned how films can add value to your overall perspective as a person. Elaborate on that for me. Why is that so important and how is it that arts and film can imbue that?

Yuni: I have two children now who are very young and I think about that quite a bit - that balance between doing well in school and having access to different experiences so you can enrich your perspective. You can't argue with the fact that if you expose children to the arts, sports and different areas in life, there is no downside to it. I suppose, perhaps, the arts are sort of always associated with questioning, society, opening dialogues that may not want to be touched. Opening the dialogue to subjects that people might not want to discuss all the time but that are important nevertheless. We don't have that sort of culture to question and to unearth things.


Bharati: Indeed, a lot of people may think we should let sleeping dogs lie.

Yuni: Yeah, it's definitely changing though because there's so much information out there. Also for example, if you're not able to release a book or a film or whatever it is in Singapore, people will just go overseas and do it. So it's a different time. The question is: do we want to allow that space for these things to happen? Or are we going to allow all these artists to go overseas and to let them get their stories released anyway?

Bharati: So here, we're talking about censorship.

Yuni: I think it's a matter of perspective when you talk about censorship. So it really depends who you're comparing to. Every country has rules, regulations and touchy subjects that you are not allowed to go and venture into, and in every country there will be artists who try to push the boundaries and I think we need that kind of interesting tension for things to move forward.

Bharati: It's par for the course for an artist, isn't it?

Yuni: Yeah, even the most liberal countries, there is censorship in one or another. If it doesn't come from the Government, it may come from a very conservative group for example. So it is something that we all face. In Singapore in particular, I think the dialogue is ongoing and part of the responsibility lies on the artist to push the boundaries to have that discussion with the Government agencies, but a lot of it also has to do with the audience - the Singaporean people. When there is a very strong reaction towards something - a film, for example, that is very controversial - people write in and you realise perhaps there are always two sides to a story.

But I think at a point where if you're worried about your children watching this or it's against your belief, then there is a choice always to not participate in it or not watch it. Because how can you really control all the content in the world? If it's not going to be in the cinema or the bookshop, it's going to be on the Internet. So I think in terms of the audience, it's part of our responsibility as well instead of relying on the Government to do all the censorship for us. We need to rethink censorship. Don’t always call for Government censorship. Allow the content to be available, but ultimately make your own choices.

Bharati: People do write to the Government when they have issues with content that goes against their personal beliefs and they want the Government to step in rather than allow it to happen – the film to be screened or the book to be available in public libraries. There’ll always be a camp that feels the option just shouldn’t be out there and they might even say that it goes against “national values”. Do you think the authorities have been too reactive in bowing to such pressure?

Yuni: Yeah, I think there is space for more dialogue to happen. But of course, to be fair, we don't always understand what is happening behind the scenes. Censorship is always very complicated.

I certainly don't envy the position that the Government agencies are in, in terms of censorship because there's a lot for them to balance. They have created some special concessions for festivals to show films that perhaps normally wouldn't be able to be seen. So I think that is a great starting point. I think there needs to be a little bit more flexibility for classification and our role of course is to create that understanding as to why this film should be shown or why these topics are presented in a film or there's nudity or whatever the thing is. In the festival environment, it always helps to have the filmmaker there to tell their story so I think that is one of the key differences - to create that dialogue. I think that is something that definitely helps create better understanding.

Bharati: How do filmmakers respond when you have to talk to them about cutting scenes or that their film cannot be shown here? I'm sure you've had to over the years.

Yuni: Well, the film festival has a no-cut policy. So we don't show films that are not allowed to be screened in Singapore for different reasons. So if it needs a cut, we don't show it at all to keep the integrity of the artists’ vision. So we have that understanding with the artist as well and I think that is one of our roles as a film festival - to fight for the artists’ integrity.

When it can’t be screened, they are disappointed, but they appreciate the integrity that the festival has. But that's not to say that's not something we don't keep trying. There's no way to protect the people of Singapore because if you can't watch the film at the festival, you'll be able to watch it somewhere else. So I feel that it's actually better to allow that space here even if it's for a limited audience size, so at least you can have that dialogue with that audience.

Bharati: To what extent has censorship affected Singapore’s reputation among the international community of filmmakers?
OTR Yuni Hadi SIFF soundcloud

Yuni: We have found that it has not stopped people from sending us their films because the filmmakers separate the role of the festival with censorship classification. They understand that it is a procedure. But we cannot deny Singapore is often associated with censorship not only in films but other areas like media or art etc. That’s the storyline we all want to change because it becomes an easy distraction to what we really do want to talk about which is the art itself.


Bharati: You talked about how the audience needs to realise that they can make choices and that just because they’re against a piece of art, they shouldn’t advocate that the authorities remove the option for the entire country. How do you think Singaporean audiences can be made more mature to evolve to this type of thinking, aside from through film literacy classes for students?

Yuni: What could be changing is what we perceive as not good for our society - the different subject matters that are taboo. Perhaps it is very much in the Asian culture to feel that needed force of protection. Recently, I was on fellowship in the US for several weeks and I thought what was interesting was the fact that a lot of topics that people often don't want to talk about, they feel that should be talked about all the more, so that the underlying issues can be addressed.

So for example, in Singapore, one of the very sensitive topics would be race, racial disharmony. But at the exact same time it is what is so celebrated about Singapore. So how do you reach that balance? How can you celebrate something when you don't want to talk about it in detail and acknowledge some of the problems that still lie beneath the surface? Everything has two sides to it - the good and the bad - and I'm always surprised how topics in Singapore are so sensitive.

Bharati: When you talk about dialogue in the context of race, I’m sure you mean a completely honest dialogue including the unpleasant aspects of the issue, and potentially divisive and polarising opinions. This could help in terms of increasing true understanding, but you do acknowledge there are two sides to everything, so some people might say that not talking about it is precisely the reason that we are harmonious. They might think that, in fact, talking about it honestly might lead to chaos and disharmony. What do you have to say to that?

Yuni: Well, perhaps the greatest example is what's happening in US politics - that people are really expressing their views on all sorts of subject matters whether they are taboo or not.

Bharati: But how is that really helping?

Yuni: What comes out of it are a different sort of educational programs or different sort of advocates and educational campaigns. And I think that is always good. Denying such people knowledge – I think there is no plus to that.

Bharati: So while it may open up a Pandora’s box, it could also be an opportunity for others to learn.

Yuni: I suppose it really depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist and obviously, I see the glass as half full instead of half empty. I think we will mature as a society if we did this.

Yuni Hadi SIFF

(Photo courtesy of SIFF)


Bharati: I promised we would discuss filmmakers’ budgets since that goes towards support as well. What will it take to get more of this from investors and grants?

Yuni: On the creators’ part, it’s about understanding who to approach when you want to get investments, so if you have a commercial product, then you would approach someone who would want to invest in it and later would like to see returns. But if you're doing something that is more arthouse or more personal, you would be looking at grants rather than investments. You need to understand what the other person wants in return when they are providing you the funds for it.

Bharati: We’ll talk about Government grants in a moment. But let’s discuss private investors and sponsors first. Earlier you said that filmmakers have to be smart about this and approach the right people, make a case for their film to ensure also that there will be returns. But we know that can be a challenge. And if money to make the film is so hard to come by, it can be discouraging and it can ultimately affect the quality of the film, possibly making it harder for the film to succeed. How to get investors to take risks along with the artist?

Yuni: Well, the secret about the film business is that it makes no sense. So you can have the best cast, the best director and the perfect story but there is that element of luck involved when you're putting all these things together. It takes so many things to make it a great film but only one thing, for example a simple thing like the actors’ chemistry wasn't that good, to make a film not so great, mediocre. So there's no real secret to it and that's the secret.

So when people are investing in films, it's usually a different reason rather than just getting your money back. I believe that no one wants to lose their money, but the main reason why people invest in film could be that they're just really excited about being part of something different from their daily lives or they want to be part of a new community that goes to film festivals, or they just really love a story and feel that it should be told. Sometimes it's as simple as that, so filmmakers need to tap on that.

Bharati: Let’s discuss grants now. What’s lacking in Singapore in terms of grants?

Yuni: Arthouse films that are put together for example, in Europe, there are a mixture of grants and market money, but the grants there are more sophisticated than those offered in Singapore as they come from various organisations, not just Government agencies. There might be 20 types of grants that you can apply for. There lies the difficulty in Singapore.

Bharati: You mentioned earlier that you need to understand what the other person wants in return when they are providing you the funds for your film and while this applies to investors, it also applies to grant-givers. While that is reasonable, some artists have said that Government grants are even more restrictive. Is there still a tension between filmmakers and the Government agencies that provide the grants in this regard in Singapore?

Yuni: Probably. I always try to have a fair perspective on this. Anyone you're taking money from will have some sort of criteria. But because it is a Government grant, I feel that the criteria should be loosened because Government money is Singaporeans’ money and we are a diverse population. If not, I feel the criteria should be extremely transparent and this will help people to make better choices about whether they want to embark on that long process of getting a grant, applying for it or not. But the reality is that if we're not helping our artists continue and achieve their visions and being able to try new things, we are going to lose them because they will find support in other countries or in other ways. And if we want to grow as a society, the arts and culture is a very huge part of that growth to create the sort of sophistication that we seek. So that’s the decision that the Government has to make. Are we willing to be a little bit more liberal and try to engage our community, or are we willing to lose our artists to other countries?

Bharati: The Government might say that by allowing you to put out content that touches on what it considers sensitive issues that could potentially have what it deems a negative impact, it would hurt the wider community. So the Government might say: “I’d rather lose the artist than do that.” What do you have to say to that?

Yuni: Well, in this situation I do feel that transparency is very important so in the case where that is the feeling, then I certainly hope to create that dialogue or have the opportunity to prove them wrong. I think when you go into those kinds of discussions, you're really talking about getting case studies and data to help create that understanding, trying to balance what society wants and what society needs. I realise that I come from a more liberal perspective, so it's just as hard for me to understand what someone who is very conservative is thinking.

There is no perfect situation but we live in a time when you cannot avoid discussing these issues anymore. If you don’t do it, it will be discussed in other ways on other platforms. In forums or whatever. But at least if we open the opportunity on our home ground then there is a higher chance we can provide both perspectives. Right now, one of the benefits of a Singapore film being successful at winning awards at film festivals is gaining the attention, putting the spotlight on Singapore and that helps to create a different kind of image for Singapore which is so obviously known for things like censorship and the chewing gum ban. It's often referred to when we travel. So it achieves so much more. So perhaps there could be more types of grants out there as well. So if you are looking to do a project that's more commercial, it would be grant A. If it's something more artistic it would be grant B. So there will be different requirements for each one.


Bharati: In a nutshell, what is your advice to Singapore filmmakers if they want to make a mark and get more in terms of support for their efforts?

Yuni: Well, if you're starting out as a young filmmaker, one of the best things to do is to join a film lab, which is one of the reasons we created the Southeast Asian Film Lab. It will expose your project to the different markets and you’ll get to meet producers and investors and exhibitors in different countries to give you that broader understanding of different ways you can distribute your film after it's been made. It will make you more aware of how you can find your audience and not limit it to just Singapore audiences.

Bharati: At the end of the day, many Singaporeans who may have an interest in filmmaking may ultimately not pursue it because of bread-and-butter issues. Can this really be a viable career?

Yuni: Well, there are certainly more film schools in Singapore and programmes where you take up filmmaking or video-making. I think there is a definite interest in it. But like all careers, it's something people have to try out and really want to do to survive in it, but they have a lot of opportunities and different ways to make a living when they have that skill of film or video production. For many filmmakers in Singapore, making a film is really sort of a personal expression and how you survive in the film industry is by multitasking with a lot of different jobs which could be teaching or making videos for other purposes. It’s a matter of perspective - what you consider the benchmark of success for a career. What's interesting is that now there are more Singaporeans in the arts that have high positions overseas and that could help newcomers in making the transition too. That’s one way to move forward.

Bharati: What do you think the targets should be for the local film industry in the next few years?

Yuni: One of the easy goals is to look at numbers but I try to stay away from that. Saying that we need more films to be made isn’t necessarily great because we already have a reasonable amount of films being made, but I do think that more resources needs to be put into development which takes a lot of time, research, writing and also more opportunities for collaborations to happen between producers. So a skill transfer among filmmakers themselves. I think that's really important and we attempt to do this through the festival as well in terms of encouraging potential mentors to meet up and coming filmmakers. Bearing in mind also the things we talked about earlier – things like film literacy classes – I think we can make a real impact in the future.

Source: CNA/ly