Madeleine Lim knew she wanted to be a filmmaker from the time she was 15. Charlotte Lim rented a VHS copy of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together at 17 years old, and realised that cinematic language could be harnessed to reflect real life. Siew-Hong Leong was handed a copy of The Godfather in her young adulthood, and was blown away by the pure power of the film’s narrative. This year, all three of them—and their movies—have made it to the Singapore International Film Festival.
No two filmmakers’ origin stories are the same, but those from Asia can come together at SGIFF to share those stories, collaborate and dialogue, and pass on their love of the craft to the wider community. Though the bulk of attention usually goes to the main lineup of screenings in November, one event at the Festival to particularly look forward to is the New Waves programme, which has looked to raise up underrepresented and emerging voices in filmmaking in the past.
This year, SGIFF is also using New Waves to respond to an unprecedented time. Prevalent themes of identity, isolation, and social justice have already begun to emerge from filmmakers across the industry in response to the coronavirus pandemic. With women doing everything right now from leading some of the best-prepared countries out of an incredibly dark and frightening time, to having to stay home as primary or sole caregiver to children for extended periods of time, the female perspective is a critical one at this juncture.
As such, female filmmakers will be at the forefront of New Waves this year. Over two days, SGIFF will be screening films on everything from the power of translation to the transitory nature of a country’s soul. It will also play host to a rare Singaporean classic about immigrant Asian lesbian identity that has been banned from the country for more than two decades, Sambal Belacan in San Francisco. The director of this film, Madeleine Lim, says she’s overjoyed that Festival officials obtained even a one-time exception to finally screen the movie in her home country: “It’s been my dream since I created the film 23 years ago.”
Lim says that in moving to San Francisco from Singapore to work alongside other documentary filmmakers like Yvonne Welbon and Aishah Shahidah Simmons, she realised that she wanted to tell stories that authentically portrayed her lived experience. “Because if we didn’t, who would?” she asks. “I wasn’t going to wait for the day that Hollywood finally got it right.”
In the Q&A, which will be recorded and posted, the New Waves filmmakers are expected to address the challenges they’ve faced, both generally as directors and specific to their own experiences. When one is an independent filmmaker, familiar refrains like those of securing funding, quelling that insidious and insecure inner voice, and dealing with censorship are almost time-honoured traditions. Siew-Hong Leong, whose movie Blind Mouth deals with a father and a daughter bonded only by speech and survival in a dystopian world, says that dealing with censorship from the Malaysian authorities has been a particular struggle. “I think to keep writing and shooting on a low budget is the only way to keep going,” she says. “Just don’t stop doing what you love.”
Also permeating the festival will be the swapping of lessons learned, both by novice directors and filmmakers with decades of experience. Charlotte Lim, who will bring Taboo to New Waves and who has been in the industry for 18 years, has worked as an assistant director to such prolific filmmakers as Ang Lee, Tsai Ming-Liang, Liew Seng Tat, and Singapore’s own Anthony Chen. She says that she’s learned from them that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” movie, but that if you’re not being honest with your audience, they can always tell.
With programme highlights like a series of panel discussions featuring local luminaries like Jasmine Ng and Nguyen Trinh Thi, New Waves plans to approach traditional messages from fresh angles. It will awaken audiences to the dynamism of women in society at large, and try and positively shape the way we look at our communities and each other. “Film has such a power to sway emotions,” Madeleine says. “I hope that viewers will walk away feeling connected and inspired.”