Interview: Emily Hoe, Executive Director, Singapore International Film Festival 20207 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Every edition of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has had to face and tackle their own unique set of challenges – yet perhaps none have been more daunting to navigate than for this year.
Nevertheless, this year’s team, led by Executive Director Emily Hoe, were undeterred by the global pandemic. The marquee event of Singapore’s film calendar will be returning for its 31st edition from 26 November to 6 December 2020.
It will present 70 films by filmmakers from 49 countries through a hybrid format of both cinema and online film screenings. Singapore filmmaker Tan Bee Thiam’s debut feature Tiong Bahru Social Club will be premiering at SGIFF 2020 as its opening film.
Films aside, the festival will also feature a slew of talks and panel discussions. These, together with networking sessions, will look to maintain the sense of community synonymous with film festivals that may be muted with the SGIFF 2020’s hybrid format.
Film lovers can look forward to talks hosted by acclaimed filmmakers Ann Hui and Man Lim Chung, as well as Japanese producer Shozo Ichiyama. SGIFF 2020 will also play host to panel discussions featuring an international selection of speakers on the topics of Southeast Asian identities, the future of cinema, and more. Visit the festival’s official website for the full line-up of programmes and purchase of tickets.
Appointed earlier this year, Emily brings to the team over a decade of arts management experience. She credits her time at The Substation and its Associate Artist Programme as the start of her continuing interest in Singapore cinema.
The challenges arrived almost immediately for Emily, with the Circuit Breaker measures announced the day after she took on the role, and soon having to work remotely away from the team. She shared with SInema.SG via Zoom: “I think we are all on a learning curve for how to navigate this pretty strange and sometimes uncomfortable new situation that we find ourselves in.”
“With me being completely new, having a small team and then growing that team while doing it all remotely, I think it worked pretty well given the circumstances. However, I don’t think you can completely replicate that personal interaction from being in person.”
Even after the Circuit Breaker and due to safety guidelines, the team hasn’t fully returned to the office yet, with most meetings held through Zoom and phone calls. Still, despite these hurdles, one thing was clear for the team: the show must go on.
Emily said: “We had lots of contingency plans – A, B, C, D. I think we had a Z at one stage. The end of the world as we knew it would have been to cancel [the festival] and that in itself was a consideration. But I think we also very quickly went: ‘No, we are going to push on.’”
One of the considerations for this year’s plans was with how films could be showcased amidst the circumstances and environment, and if filmmakers would be willing to give the festival the rights for their works to go online. Adding onto the difficulties are of a smaller audience for screenings necessitated by safety distancing measures.
These were circumstances that the team had to balance and overcome to continue to engage the festival’s supporters, donors, and stakeholders, while striving to share the “cinematic brilliance” the festival looks to present.
The festival will be working with its screening venues to ensure safe management measures are in accordance with the latest directives. These would be familiar for film lovers who have headed to the cinemas recently, including enhanced cleaning, disinfection of theatres between sessions, temperature screenings, and limited seating capacities.
With limited seats comes limited ticket sales. When asked about how the festival will look to balance itself financial-wise, Emily shared that the budget for expenditures was brought down compared to initial plans prior to her joining the team. While capacities have increased since then, the team is still in “uncharted territory”, with the large unknown being if audiences would be eager and feel comfortable enough to head to the theatres.
On the other hand, the pandemic has also presented opportunities for audiences to watch the films online. Emily added: “I think the flexibility of choice for the audience is great. It will remain to be seen as to what the take-up rate will be…We wish we had the crystal ball to tell us how popular the online screenings will be but it is an unknown factor. If we don’t try, we won’t know.”
(Don Aravind’s short film Silk will make its world premiere at this year’s Singapore Panorama programme)
Despite the festival’s hybrid format and its wide array of international selections, the team will look to retain the ‘Singaporeaness’ of the SGIFF. She said: “Out of the over 70 films we have, 22 are by local filmmakers. I think that’s a healthy number and we are really thrilled to have Tiong Bahru Social Club as the festival’s opening film.”
“I think there will always be a strong Singapore presence. I don’t think that will ever dissipate… I don’t think we will ever forsake our local filmmakers. We might as well close shop if that is the way we go. They are a core part and a very valued part of the festival so they will always be recognised.”
While there were plans to tinker with the festival’s format and its programmes to maximise their purpose, not too many changes were made this year given challenges brought by the pandemic.
Her vision for the festival’s future is to continue to expand the audience while deepening the engagement and appreciation of film. Emily hopes to expand programmes such as the Film Immersion Programme, which managed to reach out to as many students this year as it did last year. Amongst the axed plans for this year was for a drive-in cinema and for the Moonlight Cinema programme to return outdoors, both of which were a part of Emily’s goal for wider engagement.
For audiences that may feel intimidated attending the festival with how most of the films showcased are atypical of blockbuster fares, Emily hopes that the vast variety of genres, formats, and themes present in the selections will be able to tide newcomers over. She suggests the festival’s short film programmes as a possible starting point.
When asked about why everyone should attend this year’s edition of the SGIFF, Emily reiterated the strength of the lineup and how some films might not be available again for audiences in Singapore. She added: “I think [the team has] been extremely fortunate that the majority of titles in this year’s festival are 2020 releases.”
“At one stage, we weren’t sure what we would be able to have access to, given that even some of the big production movies had their production schedules delayed. That goes right down into the short films and everything in between. I think we are very lucky. We are really very thrilled that we have such a strong lineup of 2020 films.”
For the latest updates on all things SGIFF, follow the festival on Facebook and Instagram.
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