7 June 2018 | Daniel Yun | Today
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Singapore Film Commission (SFC), whose role is to support and promote Singapore film through funding, training and public education.
It would appear that SFC, now a division under the Info-communications Media Development Authority, has many notable achievements to celebrate.
This perhaps is a time to take a step back and look at the relationship between Singaporeans and Singapore films.
With the international success of Ilo Ilo, winning the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the best feature film at the 50th Golden Horse Awards, followed by more global accolades for Apprentice, Yellow Bird and Pop Aye, we can safely say Singapore independent filmmaking has come of age.
Yet do these achievements mean anything to Singaporeans? A recent independent straw poll shows over 80 per cent of Singaporeans think Singapore films are important for Singapore. Yet less than 30 per cent of Singaporeans have seen a Singapore film in the last year.
The Singapore films that are top of mind include Ah Boys To Men, I Not Stupid, Money No Enough, Ilo Ilo and 12 Storeys. Other titles that registered are Homerun, 881, 15, The Maid, 7 Letters, Pop Aye and Ramen Teh.
The poll also asked this question – what if all these films in the last 20 years were not made at all?
How would the life of a Singaporean be impacted if there were no discernible Singapore films?
The qualitative responses to this question are telling. For some respondents, they would feel a disconnect. For others, there would be a void in our culture.
But the sad truth is that for most, life goes on. And is it a surprise at all?
Movies like Ah Boys To Men, Long Long Time Ago, Lulu The Movie as well as Young And Fabulous are the exceptional commercial successes.
Ilo Ilo, 7 Letters and Apprentice have also done relatively well.
Yet Singapore films still account for just under 5 per cent of a thriving total box office of almost S$200 million a year, compared to about 10 per cent in Malaysia, over 50 per cent in Korea, about 70 per cent in China and almost 90 per cent in India.
The experience of Kirsten Tan, whose debut feature Pop Aye was picked as Singapore’s 2017 submission to the Oscars in the Foreign Language Film category, is revealing.
“Coming into my own and making a feature like Pop Aye, I realised that what was more difficult than making the film and having it premiere at a good festival, is to actually get enough local audiences to see the film,” she told me.
Lim Teck, founder of Clover Pictures, noted that even when Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo won big at Cannes, “it took an unprecedented win at the Golden Horse for local audiences to want to watch it”.
“Singaporeans are generally suspicious of the appeal of local films. A Singapore film is guilty until proven innocent,” he said.
The Development Assistance and New Talent Feature Grant by SFC have propelled the output of Singapore films to new heights, and its support of film talents in film labs and festivals have helped filmmakers win global acclaim.
However, reactions from Singaporeans at large have been lukewarm.
So how can we get Singaporeans to support homegrown films?
Almost every one in the industry concurs that the challenge is to raise the level of film literacy among Singaporeans.
This would require exposing students to good films at a young age, inculcating the understanding that our films tell our stories like no other films can or will.
In most developed and cultured nations, the promotion of film literacy and film education resides within the remit of a film centre.
SFC director Joachim Ng noted that while the government has many funding priorities, at some point, Singaporeans deserve to have our own film centre to celebrate and build our film culture.
A film centre operates a film archive and library. It conducts the preservation, research and screening of classic films. Ultimately it promotes film as an art form to the community.
A film centre can also support filmmakers, community and youth groups through training programmes on filmmaking.
They are conducted by industry professionals, and are often in collaboration with entertainment companies and educational institutions.
All these go beyond what SFC has been doing.
Aside from film literacy through exposure and education, local films need to be better promoted.
In a country where Hollywood titles dominate, our homemade films are shut out because they do not have the funds to compete for visibility and share of voice.
For a start, mainstream media coverage of Singapore films can be more extensive, including featuring human interest stories of the cast and crew. This can create awareness of the production while generating anticipation in the lead-up to the launch.
It is time for the SFC to look at the flip side of the coin in filmmaking – marketing and distribution. This is an area many local filmmakers are weak at.
A film worthy of support in production should also get SFC funding for marketing expenses.
The SFC can also work with Singapore media owners and cinema operators on schemes to further defray marketing costs.
Yet ultimately, Singaporeans must want to watch a Singapore film. And this comes down to taking pride in the made-in-Singapore label.
In 2016, when Joseph Schooling won the gold medal at the Rio Olympic Games and Nathan Hartono almost took home the Sing! China crown, something happened to us as a people.
Across the island, Singaporeans felt a source of collective national pride we have not experienced before.
This pride unites us and is more spontaneous and powerful than any national campaign.
For younger Singaporeans, they suddenly understand what it means to follow your heart and pursue one’s dream because it can become a reality.
Has a Singapore film made us feel this way?
Sean Ng, founder of Amok who is preparing to shoot his first feature, reflected on the standing ovation at the Cannes Festival screening of Eric Khoo’s My Magic in 2008: “I felt a pride I have never felt before. For my country, for Singaporeans, and for filmmaking.
“My pride filled me with a sense of hope that making films can indeed be a livelihood. I could now hone my craft to tell stories from where I grew up.”
What will it take to have Singaporeans rally behind Singapore films?
Jennie Chua, who has chaired SFC since 1998, made a reassuring observation of filmmakers.
“They express themselves creatively, passionately, sometimes even angrily. They have something to say about our society,” she told me.
“Whatever the message, the films are made with love. And all of them love our country dearly.”
After 20 years, perhaps it is time Singaporeans show our filmmakers the love they deserve. It will need to start with appreciating their efforts and feeling proud of their works.
Or as pointed out by Ray Pang, founder of a new film crowd-funding platform called Premise, supporting Singapore films should not be the sole responsibility of the SFC.
“Everyone, from our media, the exhibitors, the public at large, should support. If we ourselves don’t support our own film industry, no one will.”
This is the final piece in a two-part series on the film industry here. Read the first piece here.