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Monday, May 14, 2012

Why film festivals matter to me

(UPDATED: This blog post was initially a repost of an email on the Malaysian Cinema mailing list from Venice Film Festival programmer Paolo Bertolin asking for the means to contact FINAS (the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia). Was hoping that posting this in public would help him get a reply.

He got it, problem solved, so as per his request, I'll remove his email exchanges in the mailing list. And expand more on my last few paragraphs regarding my thoughts about film festivals. It's sort of a love letter for film festivals, perhaps.)

The Malaysian Cinema mailing list is a mailing list started by filmmaker Amir Muhammad back in 1999 that, miraculously, remains (rather) active until this very day. It is frequented by all kinds of film people, directors, actors, critics, fans and the like. Almost everyone is in this mailing list, from the late Yasmin Ahmad, to folks like Tan Chui Mui, Woo Ming Jin, Ho Yuhang, Liew Seng Tat etc.

I usually recommend this to aspiring filmmakers, film lovers, or other people with some sort of casual interest in Malaysian independent cinema, in case they want to find a place to contact these filmmakers, or know about certain film screenings and other events that are announced in the mailing list.

One of the members of this mailing list is Paolo Bertolin, film programmer of Venice Film Festival (and a few others, like Udine Film Festival). I've known Paolo for a couple of years and he is an ardent supporter of Malaysian cinema. Long has he tried to make sure foreign countries are exposed to Malaysian film directors and their works. And because of his efforts, I had the opportunity to have my short film KINGYO screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival back in 2009. For an unknown then-25 year old small fry Malaysian filmmaker like me, to have such a platform to present my work was quite a life-altering and mind-blowing experience (for starters, you get upgraded from "small fry" to "slightly bigger but still rather small fry"), especially when you know that only a handful of other Malaysian films before yours were shown in Venice during its nearly 70 year history.

(in case you were wondering about what other Malaysian films were shown in Venice before: the first was Saw Teong Hin's 2004 costume epic PUTERI GUNUNG LEDANG, still the most expensive Malaysian film to date, I think. Yeo Joon Han's 2006 short ADULTS ONLY and his 2008 debut feature SELL OUT! And then there's also Ho Yuhang's 2006 film RAIN DOGS). On the same year that KINGYO was shown, Woo Ming Jin's WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER (which I produced), was also screened under the Orizzonti section at Venice.

Ming Jin, Paolo, Fooi Mun and me
Ming Jin and I with Paolo, at Cannes 2010 (along with THE TIGER FACTORY lead actress Moon Lai).

A few days ago, Paolo explained to a member of the mailing list why he had "rebeloftheneongod" on his email address. This was what he said:

"Rebels of the Neon God" is the title of the debut feature of your fellow national Tsai Ming-liang. You might not know it, but Mr. Tsai is the most widely known and internationally respected Malaysian-born film director - although, alas!, he has been almost entirely active in Taiwan. And I am very glad to add that in 1994 his second feature film, "Vive l'Amour!", was a winner of the Golden Lion at the festival I am working for (you might not know it, but this is one of the most important awards in the international festival circuit, and in the past directors like Andrei Tarkovski, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Robert Altman, Alain Resnais, etc won it).

I was excited to see these names being mentioned, names of my heroes like Tarkovsky (I wrote about him to commemorate his 80th birthday last month), Resnais, Altman (I wrote about his film, The Company, back in 2006, long before I knew I would really be making films for a living, and about him again later that year when he passed away). Their Golden Lion wins cemented their places in the Pantheon. I was actually quite glad that Alexander Sokurov joined the club last year with his latest film. Sokurov is a filmmaker whose films I had been watching quite a lot recently and might write about in the near future if I have the time or opportunity.

Tsai Ming-Liang was a Golden Lion winner. Unfortunately, not many casual Malaysian film viewers (or Malaysians in general, really) have either heard of Tsai Ming-liang, let alone seen his films. But then, for those who have actually seen his films, not many of them knew that he's Malaysian either! (I wrote about his career advice for me in 2007, and also posted videos of his Q and A sessions for Visage at the Tokyo Filmex 2009.)

I guess that happens when your films are played more in festival circuits.

"Film festivals are meant to educate the audiences." Was a line from film critic Chris Fujiwara (currently the artistic director of Edinburgh International Film Festival) that buried itself deep in my heart when I first heard him say that during the CON-CAN awards ceremony. It really summed up for me one of the great joys of attending a film festival, it's not just about walking the red carpet or promoting my own films, but also (mostly) the fact that I can watch other films from countries I've never been to, by directors I've never heard of. Most of the time, they can be such pleasant discoveries!

I never heard of Nuri Bilge Ceylan until I saw 3 MONKEYS at the Dubai International Film Festival 2008. I heard of Theo Angelopoulos but had never seen any of his films until I saw DUST OF TIME at the Berlin Film Fest 2009 (which, sadly, would end up becoming his last film due to his untimely passing earlier this year). In Venice Film Festival 2009, I managed to catch Brillante Mendoza's LOLA, that was the first film of his that I ever saw.

Aside from providing long overdue introductions to the masters, they were also perfectly wonderful opportunities to discover new directors.

For example, last year at the Tokyo International Film Festival, I was absolutely enthralled by FIRST RAINS OF SPRING, a Japanese/ Kazakhstan production by Shinju Sano (from Japan) and Erlan Nurmuhambetov (from Kazakhstan). I liked it so much that when I bumped into the filmmakers at the closing party, I had to tell them about it. And because of that, I wanted to keep a look out for their future films. Shinju Sano had been in Kazakhstan for a long time, directing and producing many award-winning films in that country.

I always like to remember the time when I was rushing to AN EDUCATION screening at the Berlin Film Festival, I saw, a short distance away, that the film's young actress was walking excitedly down the red carpet with its director, smiling at the flashing cameras. I noticed how happy she seemed, to be there, how fresh and young she was. And just a few short years later, she, Carey Mulligan, would be delivering all kinds of wonderful performances in so many good films.

There are all kinds of similar examples I would love to give, from the film festivals that I managed to attend in the last 4-5 years. But I don't even know where to start, or where to end. I had wished so much to share these beautiful experiences with people I met, films I saw or discovered randomly. Yet I have to resign to the fact that those I can share this with back in my country is rare. And thus, when I tell stories of film festivals, I can only talk about famous directors or actors I met, instead of the films I actually saw.

The sad fact is, until this very day, most Malaysians don't know what a film festival is really about. Which is unsurprising, aside from the glorious Kuala Lumpur International Film Festival that lasted for a lengthy two years (2006-2007), we never really had an actual film festival. It is something entirely alien to the fabric of our culture, to our everyday lives. (there are some small festivals organized by foreign embassies or private bodies in multiplexes, like a "Hong Kong Movie Festival", "French Film Fest" or "Japanese Film Festival" where, in a span of a week, 5-6 films from one particular country are shown.

I am often asked by people back home whether I am flying to all these film festivals by parasiting on my family's fortunes. (and also that I was never truly regarded by most as a "filmmaker" because my films are shown in this weird thing called "film festival", instead of in multiplexes of their favourite shopping malls. So even though I have been producing and directing films for a few years, many friends from school back home still refer to me as "the future film director", because the existences of what I do now are denied.)

For many, going to the cinema is viewed only as a social thing to do (I know many who are unwilling to go to a cinema alone), a mode of entertainment to pass time and forget about after you exit the theaters. The fact that cinema can be more than just that is beyond comprehension... or it induces groans and eye-rolling with damning mutters of "artsy fartsy". (There is a stigma to "film festival films" that they are always boring. The word "art film" is mostly thrown at films that are inherently boring and slow-paced.)

I grew up being slightly self-conscious that I was a bit more passionate about cinema than people around me. It's a funny thing, growing up in Malaysia as a filmmaker.

But when I'm in a film festival screening, sitting and waiting comfortably in the dark for a film to start, the rest is forgotten.