Bringing a Film Festival Online in the Pandemic Era – An Interview With Nicholas Chee, Festival Co-Director of SeaShorts Film Festival 2020
From Tribeca to Cannes, the COVID-19 outbreak has brought this year’s film festival circuit to a grinding halt. While nothing will beat physically attending and experiencing the festivities, some festivals, such as the SeaShorts Film Festival, have endeavoured to bring their event online.
Now in its fourth year, the festival, founded by award-winning filmmaker Tan Chui Mui, has steadily etched its mark on the regional calendar as a must-attend festival. The festival looks to showcase Southeast Asia’s stories while shining a spotlight on the region’s emerging filmmaking talents. This year’s theme, “Reimagining Short Films, Reinventing Southeast Asia”, sees the festival continue to position itself at the forefront of Southeast Asia cinema.
Originally planned to take place from 25 to 30 August at Ipoh, Perak, the team made the difficult decision to bring the festival online and postpone by a month. Consisting of a volunteer team based across countries, realising the festival was certainly a challenge – even without a pandemic. Still, the team pushed on to present an exciting slew of short films, forums and masterclasses.
Now set to be held online from 12 to 20 September, the festival has recently announced its full lineup of programmes and films on its website, with all the latest updates available on its Facebook page. The festival pass is also now available for purchase at $10 USD through this link.
We spoke with this year’s Festival Co-Director Nicholas Chee to find out more about the challenges faced by this year’s festival team, how they have worked to overcome them, and his commitment to his volunteers’ growth.
Tell me a bit about your work with the SeaShorts Film Festival
I started out as a supporter for SeaShorts where I offered monetary support for the festival. This was about two years ago. That was for the Penang edition [in 2018] when they did a fundraising. I have known [Festival Founder and this year’s Festival Co-Director] Tan Chui Mui for a very long time and she is someone I have deeply admired. With [Malaysian film production company] Da Huang Pictures, she constantly creates opportunities for the next generation in Malaysia, which is very similar to what Sinema has been doing.
I had some extra money that we could offer the festival so that’s what we did. Last year, instead of just giving some money I thought that I could help them with partnerships and sponsorships. I brought in my friends from Apurture, Zoom, and City Music and my connections with Panasonic.
I remember it was the last day of the third edition of SeaShorts  in Malacca when Chui Mui suddenly asked me if I wanted to take over the festival. I was so surprised and did not really get what she meant. After explaining that she had a film to make this year, she proposed that I run the festival instead. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea initially because Mui is the face and soul of the festival. However, we came to an agreement and decided that we would run it together as co-directors.
What was the inspiration behind this year’s theme?
I think it was Mui who came up with the rough ideas about questioning what short films are and also questioning the identity of Southeast Asians. This is especially so amongst filmmakers who are responsible for crafting narratives that make sense of what our collective identities are. This year’s theme was definitely more from her. I just tried to make the words a little bit more catchy and coherent.
This year has brought about unprecedented changes – What are some of the primary considerations for moving an event like this online?
Let me rewind a bit before answering the question. One of the things I wanted to do when we took over was to establish SeaShorts as not just as a once yearly festival, and to turn it into a permanent organisation. I wanted to create and register SeaShorts Film Society and have year-long activities and engagements. It would also help to connect Southeast Asian filmmakers and people who are into films and storytelling with the audience as well.
We were serious in moving forward, of course, but just as we were due to open our call for entries in April, Singapore witnessed a Circuit Breaker. We were not sure how it was going to pan out because based on government advisory, everybody expected [the Circuit Breaker] to be only a three months thing – especially based on [previous experience with] SARS.
Everybody thought that by the second half of the year, normalcy would return. Perhaps that is why we saw several film festivals and events around the world shift to the second half of 2020.
From there, we started the call and decided to see what happens in due time. When we closed on 31 May, it was apparent that there was no end in sight for the pandemic. We were also supposed to do groundwork in Ipoh where the festival was supposed to be held, visiting Ipoh, checking out the venues and hotels. Another major factor was the changed political situation in Malaysia; the people that we spoke to in the Ipoh government were replaced.
There were really a myriad of reasons and one thing led to another. We were inspired by the We Are One Film Festival that took place on YouTube and started to really consider taking the festival online. Plus, we are all getting used to living our lives online and we thought this was something we should try. Going online has the potential to reach out to a larger audience as compared to a physical event because there is less effort required to “reach” the festival.
What were the considerations of restricting the films to Southeast Asia?
I see it both as a good and a bad thing. The good being that the films are no longer just screened in Malaysia; a physical festival limits the possible audience of these works to only those who are able to attend.
The reach being concentrated to Southeast Asia was purely because we need to respect filmmakers rights. They might be submitting their films for other festivals which may require premiere status. This is why we geo-locked screenings for these films [from those outside of Southeast Asia] for them to remain Southeast Asia premieres. Also, the festival is called SeaShorts so it does make sense for Southeast Asia to have access to it.
Originally, I wanted to use this opportunity to reach out to viewers outside of Southeast Asia but of course, as I mentioned earlier, it was really that to respect the premiership rights of the filmmakers that might be submitting to other festivals.
What are some of the challenges behind organising an online festival and how did you overcome them?
I think the greatest challenge was in having to work together as a team solely online. The core management team consisted of members working from two countries. [Festival Manager] Ying Tong, [Assistant Festival Manager] Miranda, and I are based in Singapore. Meanwhile, [Programming Director] Wei Jie, [Festival Managers] Han Loong and Nikki are based in Malaysia.
There has not been a single opportunity for a physical meeting this year. We have been ‘Zooming’ and it’s just very different. We can only be so close and then, of course, it was a question of how we distribute work and how we manage that distribution. That was very very challenging.
Experiencing a film festival online is wildly different from physically attending one. How will SeaShorts look to capture the mood of being there?
One of the ideas I had was to try to emulate, as close as possible, the experience of physically being at the festival.
At first, we weren’t sure if the move online was possible. Some may have Internet connectivity issues and may not be able to catch the films in time. Then, there is the whole question of engagement when it comes to traditional post-screening events, jury discussions, masterclasses and forums. Without a physical space, there might be opportunities for the audience to interact with each other to mingle and network – which is core for every festival-going experience.
I think it was Wei Jie who came up with the idea of a Zoom room online throughout the festival duration for people to mingle, and to pop in and out of. For what is certain, our online screenings will be limited to allocated timings just like an actual festival would. However, some programmes that are non-competition will be available throughout the entire duration of the film festival. We are always constantly thinking of ways to emulate the experience as best as we can.
Talk me through your working process with the various stakeholders such as the volunteers and the SeaShorts team?
As we are a non-profit society, we depend a lot on our members and volunteers. I have to say that the basis of how I approach working for the festival and with the team is about being as open as possible. While we definitely work hard on the mechanics of the festival, we cannot forget about the volunteer experience as well.
My experience last year, stepping in as Partnership and Engagement Director, gave me an opportunity to see how we can optimise volunteer experience. I felt that this could be done through understanding and identifying each volunteer’s strengths. This is to ensure that they can get to play the roles that they are most familiar with to most optimally contribute to the festival. That has always been my guiding principle.
At the same time, the society in the festival benefits the most from this. So just like any non-profit organisation’s core is its people; the festival’s core is its people and the people working for it.
How do you extract the best from each volunteer?
I have volunteered in various activities and organisations throughout my life and one of the things I have realised is that most volunteer experiences just look for warm bodies, hands and legs. Whereas the way I approach this is also how I manage my team in Sinema and [production house] The Flying Kick Asia. It is really to identify and help shape their progress path.
The first part of this is to understand what each volunteer wants out of the experience. The second part is understanding each volunteer, making sense of who they are and what we can do to help them move towards what they want to achieve with the experience. This is very HR-related and it’s a science – if not an art form – by itself. We also look to ensure that our volunteers would want to return no matter the capacity as I’m quite sure that if we have a physical event, at least 70% will return.
This year’s edition is wildly different, with requirements out of the team suddenly becoming very technology-driven. Nonetheless there is still a lot of administrative and logistics work that needs to be done. In fact, I think the coordination becomes even more difficult with the festival being held online. I mean, if someone doesn’t come online in time for a Q&A session, what do we do?
As Co-Director, how do you balance your day-to-day commitments with the operations of the festival? What drives you to?
I think a lot of heavy lifting at this point of time is done by Miranda, who has been doing a great job. I don’t try to balance. Whatever attention that is required at a point of time, I will give my time. Am I tired from this? I think this is an extraordinary year. There is so much that can’t be done yet there is also so much that can be done because of the new opportunities.
Do you think there will be more festivals brought online even after the pandemic?
I’ve been to a couple of forums and a lot of programmers are thinking of a more hybrid concept – if we do come back to a place where we can all gather and meet. I think the human experience is not going to be neglected but we can now pair the two. A hybrid model is where I see the future of film festivals to be and where it should have been a long time ago.
Essentially what we want to do is to make sure that all these individually unique stories can reach as many people as possible. That is what we have to look at now. So the question will be, how can we bring the films to the audience and the audience to the film? By recognising where they are or where they can or cannot be, we can think of the solutions to make that happen.
(Banner image credit: SeaShorts Film Festival Facebook page)
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