Keeping the Lights On: Putting Together the 31st SGIFF in a Time of Darkness

The possibility of holding the 31st edition of the Singapore International Film Festival seemed like a no-go when the coronavirus pandemic hit. But for Executive Director Emily J. Hoe, it was important to forge ahead.

“Having just dimmed the lights after the celebrations of SGIFF’s 30th edition last year, we didn’t think we would be faced with a global pandemic that would bring everything to a standstill,” she said in an email interview with TheHomeGround.Asia.

“But amid the uncertainty during this unprecedented period, one thing remained clear for us – the need for us to keep the lights on.”

Celebrating resilience through film

That’s a theme that runs central to this year’s edition of one of the world’s most celebrated film festivals. This year’s SGIFF, which will run from 26 November to 6 December, celebrates resilience and hope, as the festival renews its purpose to discover Asian stories and deepen the appreciation of cinema in Singapore.

There are more than 70 films from 49 countries in its showcase this year, each a reflection of the times we are currently living in, each a story that maps our universal search for identity, community, existence, and desire for change.

A first time for everything

And the person responsible for putting all this together? Hoe, who is helming the festival for the first time. She replaces veteran Wahyuni Hadi, who had been executive director since 2014.

Hoe’s takeover came at a perplexing time. Appointed just a day before Singapore went into circuit breaker, Hoe was apprehensive about putting together a cohesive team.

“Even today, there are team members who I haven’t been able to meet in person,” she said. “The challenge has been to grow the team and foster a supportive and nurturing culture without having the physical contact and personal interactions of being together in an office.”

The challenges only a pandemic could bring

Not being able to meet her team was just the beginning of a series of challenges Hoe has faced in preparation for her first SGIFF. The pandemic had also put in place restrictions that would effectively cancel beloved parts of the film festival – world premieres in cinemas, live panel discussions with directors and actors, and the networking of the international film industry on our island.

“The uncertainty of what we as a Festival would be able to do in terms of events and largescale activities definitely threw a curveball in our path,” shared Hoe.

But, remaining socially connected despite being physically apart has been a priority for Hoe for her first festival.

Connecting even if it’s just virtually

To minimise face-to-face interactions in cinemas, the festival will introduce a hybrid format that will provide Singapore audiences the opportunity to connect with filmmakers through more than 30 online Q&A sessions recorded by SGIFF after film screenings, using questions received from the audience. These will be made available online to engage international audiences.

The Film Academy programme with its Southeast Asian Film Lab, Southeast Asian Producers Network, and Youth Jury & Critics Programme, will also continue with several networking and social sessions – all hosted online, as part of the new normal.

The other major change is the introduction of virtual screenings. There will be some films that will be hosted at cinemas at Shaw Lido, Filmgarde Bugis+, Oldham Theatre, and The Projector, but there will also be concurrent virtual screenings on The Projector Plus for audiences in Singapore who wish to maintain social distancing efforts while still taking part in the festival.

Despite the challenges, Hoe is thrilled SGIFF will remain an iconic event in the local arts calendar that has gained international recognition for its dynamic programming and focus on ground-breaking Asian cinema.

“We continue to champion cinematic brilliance from Singapore and the region, spread the love and appreciation for film and storytelling, with its many layers of inspiration, perspectives, creativity, emotion, fantasy, and conversation,” she said.

Looking forward this year

This year’s festival, in particular, does highlight how the pandemic has shaped our world. “With the lockdown restrictions, many filmmakers expressed that they took this opportunity to reflect on their works and map out new film ideas and techniques that they have always liked to explore, but have never had the time to do,” shared Hoe.

One thing Hoe urges festivalgoers to recognise in this year’s selection of films is the honesty and vulnerability filmmakers are showcasing through their art.

She commented, “There is vulnerability but also strength in their message as they speak for the times we live in and help us navigate the search for identity, for one’s belonging, for the meaning of existence, questions of community, of social change, and the desire for improvement.”

Looking ahead

This seems to be the direction Hoe will be taking SGIFF in the years to come. SGIFF has always been a community, but more than ever, the SGIFF of the future will be fostering this spirit while overcoming physical distances to build strong and meaningful social connections.

“Whatever the future holds for festivals, their traditions or new hybrid forms, we strongly believe that the ritual of coming together for a shared experience, and the beauty of hearing diverse viewpoints and stories, contribute positively to our sense of community,” concluded Hoe.

“SGIFF will remain committed in being the key cultural institution that inspires, creates, and shapes the direction of film across the region.”

Tickets to screenings and more go on sale 6 November, 12 p.m., via www.sgiff.com, SISTIC and www.theprojector.sg.

 

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