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Interview: Vess Chua, Programme Executive, Singapore International Film Festival 2020

4 December 2020

Interview: Vess Chua, Programme Executive, Singapore International Film Festival 2020

First attending the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) during her junior college days, Vess Chua, enamoured with the atmosphere and community of such festivals, found herself wondering what the programming decisions behind film festivals are. She shared: “I wanted to know why festivals picked certain films because after I watch a certain film, I get either super emotional or I hate it to death.”  

It was this early curiosity that sparked her decision to join the student-run Perspectives Film Festival, first as a programmer in 2018, then as one of its festival directors in 2019. Since then, after graduating from Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information earlier this year, Vess has continued with her passion for film programming a programme executive for SGIFF’s 31st edition.

Her first engagement with the festival’s initiatives had been as part of its Youth Jury and Critics Programme in 2018. Heartened by her experiences, she decided to give back to the festival: “I really treasured that opportunity with the Youth Jury so much that it did feel really natural to say ‘yes’ the following year when [the SGIFF team] asked me to come back to help out for SGIFF. It’s something that I felt was, in a way, giving back to an organisation that gave me quite a lot.”

(Photo credit: Nikki Draper on Facebook)

This materialised through her internship with the festival as a programme assistant, before extending the stint to her current role. Her job scope as a programme executive has varied in intensity. Earlier in the year, Vess and the team were tasked with watching a ton of films to decide the festival’s lineup, as well as working closely with artistic director Kuo Ming-Jung for the FIlm Immersion Programme, Youth Jury and Critics Programme and Film Academy programmes

As the festival’s opening day drew closer, the team would be busy with logistical arrangements and test screenings (“We sit in a cold and empty cinema by ourselves watching the heaviest films you can imagine”). 

Vess hopes that this year’s selection of films and programmes will continue to champion the festival’s goal of being an “anchor for Southeast Asian cinema”. She added: “In a regular year when you could have all these filmmakers come in, [SGIFF] really was like a touchpoint for Southeast Asian filmmakers to come together, meet, and talk about their projects. This is something we definitely want to carry into this year.”

(Vess on the job during the festival / Photo credit: Vess Chua)

“I also think that the funny thing of being cooped up from the rest of the world this year is that it really gave SGIFF a chance to look internally… I think this year we really have a stronger focus on the Singaporean voices we are showing. It was a really good time for us to take stock of what we have locally and help lift up local filmmakers.”

Vess shared that the most challenging aspect of her job is with having to handle the festival’s breadth of films – 70 films from 49 countries in total, and a sharp increase from her time with Perspectives Film Festival. She has managed every part of the tiring and difficult process, including watching the films (sometimes having to watch the same film three or four times over), to have them sent over, to test them at the screening venues. 

Her picks for this year’s lineup include Monograph, a series of video essays commissioned by the Asian Film Archive, and films Here We Are, Beginning, and You and I, the third of which hasn’t failed to make her cry throughout her repeat watches.

The festival’s hybrid approach this year also presented unique obstacles where some films could not be brought online due to filmmakers’ concerns. Vess explained: “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult because filmmakers are definitely very protective of their films. Their films are essentially their children and, of course, they don’t want piracy [and similar issues]. Some filmmakers are adamant against going online and this is something you have to respect because it’s their work.”

Adding onto the weight of her role are her ever-looming doubts. Vess shared that her biggest is whether the festival-going audience will appreciate what she and the team are trying to bring across. “Sometimes it’s difficult to reach an audience that doesn’t want to listen. The challenge is really how [you can] make them interested in what you are saying..the greatest reservations are that you will be speaking to a wall.”

Still, she adds that her work in the Film Immersion Programme has been quietening her doubts. Through engagements with upper-secondary, post-secondary, and tertiary institutions, the programme looks to nurture media literacy and appreciation of film among youths. It was a heartwarming experience for Vess, with students looking to find out more from the team on how to become filmmakers and how to get their work seen. 

She added: “In that sense, you do feel quite heartened that there are people out there willing to listen and willing to open their minds to a new sort of film education that might not be generally available to them.”

(Vess at the Opening Night of this year’s SGIFF / Photo credit: Vess Chua)

This empowerment of young talents is also where Vess sees the festival continue heading towards moving forward. She hopes that SGIFF continues to be a place for Southeast Asian filmmakers and regional filmmakers to connect and nurture their talents.

Although film programming is a career path that not many choose, she does feel that the opportunities for would-be programmers are growing in Singapore. Vess cites the Objectifs’s Curator Open Call, the continuing work of the Singapore Film Society and the Perspectives Film Festival as three examples. She does hope that there would be more film programming-related academic opportunities.

Vess looks forward to continuing her journey with SGIFF, believing that the host of challenges working on the festival brings will motivate her to further her goals as a film programmer. She also hopes to continue her interest in producing short films.

On why everyone should attend the 31st edition of SGIFF, Vess eloquently expressed: “You have been cooped up at home for so long. I am sure you are dying to return to the cinemas as much as we are dying to have you there.”

About the Singapore International Film Festival

The marquee event of Singapore’s film calendar returns 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, together with a slew of talks and panel discussions. For the latest updates on all things SGIFF, follow the festival on Facebook and Instagram. Visit to grab your tickets now.

Read more:
An Interview with Perspectives Film Festival 2019 Festival Directors Danelia Chim and Vess Chua
Interview: Joshuah Lim, Film Student and Director of ‘And They Roamed’
Interview: Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, Directors of ‘The Cup’
Interview: Emily Hoe, Executive Director, Singapore International Film Festival 2020

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.