An Interview with Lim Wei Jie, Programming Director of SeaShorts Film Festival 2020
Through their selections of films, programming teams craft the heart and soul of every film festival. Heading the team tackling this task for SeaShorts Film Festival 2020 is Programming Director Lim Wei Jie.
Wei Jie is a filmmaker based in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, and an alumnus of the New York Film Festival’s Critics Academy and Tokyo International Film Festival’s Southeast Asia Programmer’s Workshop. After returning to Malaysia in 2017 from his studies abroad, he took on multiple roles on a freelance basis, including as a Programmer for independent film space Cinephilia in Kuala Lumpur.
With the mass disruption brought by COVID-19, the SeaShorts Film Festival team has had their work cut out for them. Originally planned to take place in August at Ipoh, the festival will now be held exclusively online from 12 to 20 September with the theme “Reimaging Short Films, Reinventing Southeast Asia”.
As Wei Jie shares, programming teams do much more than just picking the films to be showcased, with him viewing his role as shaping the overall film festival encounter for attendees. Moving the festival online brought about a slew of challenges for the team to reach this goal.
Nonetheless, this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival will feature a wide selection of films. These films will look to give virtual attendees a glimpse of the film stories from across Southeast Asia, complete with special showcases of renowned film festivals from Taiwan and Japan.
In our interview with him, Wei Jie elaborates further on the exciting plans that had to be nixed due to a global pandemic, his approach to this year’s festival theme, and film’s role in the reinvention of Southeast Asia.
Tell us about yourself
I came back to Malaysia about two and a half years ago in late 2017. Before that I spent about five years pursuing my undergrad in New York City. Upon returning, the plan was really to try and see what I could do in the film industry at large. I mostly freelanced and wrote spec scripts for an independent film director and a local production studio.
Things picked up pace when I got involved in a microcinema in Kuala Lumpur. Together with a few like-minded peers, we sought to screen films you couldn’t see in a multiplex, which reminded me a little bit of the days when I used to intern at Anthology Film Archives.
At some point, I got back into filmmaking and I’m currently developing a short film and a long-term documentary. I guess, like a lot of people in this industry, freelancers especially, you have to wear many hats.
How did you come onboard as the Programming Director for this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival?
In 2018, Chui Mui invited me to write a review on one of the programs screened in SeaShorts. And last year I was one of the festival moderators. Earlier this year, Jacky [Programme Director of SeaShorts 2019] had to leave SeaShorts for multiple reasons so [Festival Co-Director of SeaShorts 2020] Nicholas got me on board.
What is your job scope as a Programming Director especially now with the festival ramping up? What were the compromises that had to be made with bringing the festival online?
The planning of the festival started in December last year when Jacky and I had a meeting to see what we wanted to do as an overview for this year’s edition; obviously, we did all that without knowing COVID-19 was going to happen.
The initial plan I had was to invite May Adadol Ingawanij, a Thai, UK-based curator who is part of a programming collective called Animistic Apparatus, to screen 2 programs. The ethos of their curatorial project is to re-imagine film exhibitions from a less human-centric position, meaning films are not necessarily or just primarily screened or exhibited for people, but for the landscape and other nonhuman presence inhabiting the shared space.
I was trying to steer the programming direction towards an angle that engages critically with our film histories. We don’t just watch films in a multiplex. I remember when I was growing up in Klang, we were watching giant projections of Wuxia (martial heroes) films on open fields, sometimes during the Hungry Ghost Festival. I wanted bring that awareness back into SeaShorts. At some point, we realised that a lot of these plans were almost impossible to carry out because of COVID-19.
The job scope is pretty nebulous. There are concrete roles such as reaching out to other partners and festivals for collaboration through emails, and more abstract roles such as discerning the kind of film festival or cinematic encounter you want for your festival attendees.
Would it be fair to say that revisiting Southeast Asia’s past and how films used to be screened in this region was your main approach to this year’s theme (“Reimagining Short Films, Reinventing Southeast Asia”)?
Yes. I’m not sure how much of that is reflected in the current programme due to the number of different measures we had to take. The online space is different.
With COVID-19, we thought about questions like what it means to travel in the future within Southeast Asia, or to travel outside of Southeast Asia for work. One of the ideas that crystalized from that is the Taiwanese programme called Migrating Forms, a series of films featuring Southeast Asian migrant workers based in Taiwan. That’s where we hope to continue the conversation.
In your opinion, what is film’s role in “Reinventing Southeast Asia”?
I’ll answer indirectly with an anecdote. While moderating a S-Express series on Cambodia last year, featuring films made by young Cambodian filmmakers, one of the questions I asked Danech San, the director of A Million Years, during the Q&A was if she felt pressured to explore Cambodian Khmer history in her film. Her answer was that history has its own weight on everyone’s mind, and she feels that she is free to explore the topic at her own pace.
I was approached by a Frenchman after the Q&A and he expressed confusion over Danech’s film. He felt that he couldn’t get a sense of what Cambodia was like from watching A Million Years .He said that sometimes when people watch these kinds of S-Express series, or come to a different place to watch films from a different country, they want to get a sense of the sociality of the place. He felt that A Million Years was missing that.
Similarly, when I was studying in the States and whenever there was a Thai film playing in the art house theatres, some critics would always compare them to [Thai film auteur] Apichatpong’s film. For better or for worse, Apichatpong is forced to bear the yoke of representation for all things Thai cinema, and because some of the critics don’t have access to the region’s larger history, or rather they don’t do the necessary work to understand it, everything is deduced and viewed from a very narrow lens.
I think there’s a lot of space in Southeast Asia for filmmakers to determine what kind of films they want to make. One wonders about the true authorship of a film nowadays with larger festivals dictating trends and topicality. Hopefully filmmakers will find other kinds of languages that they are comfortable with when it comes to understanding their own heritage and not necessarily subscribe to a language that emerges from other, larger festivals or trends.
As a filmmaker, what does it mean to reimagine short films?
I think this is a conversation that Jacky and Mui have had in the past. We do get a number of submissions every year, 500 this year. From that, you get a wide survey of the kinds of films that are being made in the region right now, and a good number of them still fall into the category of fairly conventional narrative films.
Through our programming, we’re trying to probe filmmakers to consider other forms of filmmaking, especially because, arguably, you can do so much more with short films compared to feature films.
Do you feel that in this process of reimagination, filmmakers in this region risk a wider disconnect with the mainstream, mainly multiplex-going audience?
When Lav Diaz attended the previous edition of SeaShorts as the jury member, he mentioned how he was screening his feature-length films for free in different villages, projected on the side of their houses. The villagers watched and connected with the films.
Apichatpong talks about something similar. He was showing Tropical Malady in the northern region I think, where the film was shot and people understood the mythic bond he was going for. It becomes double-edged when we try to preempt what audiences want. There is a wider palette out there and sometimes when people encounter it, they will understand it pretty instinctively.
What has the films in this year’s SeaShorts Competition segment said about this year’s theme?
All of the films we get are pretty different thematically.
In your opinion, what is the future of SeaShorts Film Festival?
Film institutions across Southeast Asia can be quite uneven. In some countries, there’s adequate government funding and support, in others there’s virtually none.
Young filmmakers can take advantage of SeaShorts as a screening and networking platform. By watching the competition shorts and the curated programs, you can get a pretty good sense of what’s being made in Southeast Asia at the moment. Coupled that with the masterclasses and forums on offer, there’s plenty of space to meet kindred spirits and launch co-productions.
If we’re able to solidify this platform and build a vibrant ecosystem for young, up-and-coming Southeast Asian filmmakers to collaborate, it will be really exciting for the entire region.
Why should everyone attend this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival?
By just signing up online, you’ll get access to a wide variety of contemporary shorts being made in the region, from narrative films to documentaries.
Beyond that, we also feature curated experimental shorts from our Japanese programming partners Image Forum Festival and the exciting Taiwanese films from two festivals – the Kaohsiung Film Festival and the Golden Harvest Awards, one of the oldest shorts film festivals in Taiwan.
On top of that, our opening film MEKONG 2030, is an anthology featuring five of the most promising directors from the Mekong region. This five-film anthology is produced by our programming partner, Luang Prabang Film Festival, and explores how some of the dam projects across the Mekong Region are causing an ecological crisis.
In terms of the diversity of countries, films, and genres featured in SeaShorts 2020, there is nothing more accessible than this.
The SeaShorts Film Festival will be held online from 12 to 20 September, with its full line up of programmes and films available on its website. The festival pass is now available for purchase for $10 USD through this link. For all things SeaShorts, check out the festival’s Facebook page.
– Setting The Scene: The Urgent Issues Of The Mekong River Region Today
– Bringing a Film Festival Online in the Pandemic Era – An Interview With Nicholas Chee, Festival Co-Director of SeaShorts Film Festival 2020
– Through “Blood, Sweat and Tears, Hell or High Water”, Laos’ Growing Film Industry and First Female Director Boast Ingenuity and Determination
(Banner image credit: Lim Wei Jie)