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As Executive Director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Wahyuni Hadi and her team go through about 15000 films from around the world annually before narrowing down the selection to about ten per cent of those submissions. It's a mammoth task but her life has always revolved around movies anyway; and a large portion of her career is devoted to supporting young talents through various programs and institutions she has founded. Just ask one Anthony Chen, whose Cannes-winning debut feature Ilo Ilo was co-produced by Ms Hadi. Together with Programme Director Zhang Wenjie, the pair have been credited with reviving the then-troubled SGIFF in 2014. But Ms Hadi protests that compliment ever so slightly. "Restarting the festival is almost like building up your own business, requiring entrepreneurial skills such as budgeting, marketing and sponsorship," she says. "My team is made up of passionate individuals with different skill sets and we are driven to make the festival a success every year."
How did you first get interested in films and what are some of your early movie-going memories?
Even though my parents were working in business and finance, they were very artistically inclined. I remember us having vinyls, VHS tapes of classic John Wayne and martial arts movies, and my father loved collecting art. At 14, I dragged my family to watch La Femme Nikita and Cyrano de Bergerac with me and at 16, going to watch a David Lynch film late at night with my brother. I discovered SGIFF when I was 16 and there was no looking back after that. (Also) when we were growing up in the 80s and 90s, there was no cable television. We had an antenna that I would move around trying to get the Malaysian channel TV3 because it showed my favourite TV shows like China Beach and Northern Exposure.
Boo Junfeng's Apprentice and K. Rajagopal's A Yellow Bird (which SGIFF is screening) both made waves at Cannes this year and we've gone beyond just getting one new Jack Neo film every Chinese New Year. At what stage is the local film industry, and how do we raise our game from here? We don't have a culture of investing in films in general and so when sponsors do come in, they tend to want to have in-your-face product placements which can at times work but many times, ruin a good film. So films that are of a more cultural nature rely very much on grants from arts or government agencies that invest in films for a different reason. The truth is there is no guarantee that a film will win an award and that is why the credibility of the people making the film is so important. There is something to be said for good taste, very much similar to the design industry or music. Singaporeans are also generally not risk takers and don't leave room for failure. Overseas, there is a heavy emphasis on nurturing and mentoring through programmes and grants which we need more of.
What do you think is unique about the local industry and its talents? I'm always optimistic about where we are heading because I believe there's an inherent need in us to find out who we are, question our identity and find a way to express all of those thoughts. All the best films keep to simple universal themes even if the setting is different. Singapore is so unique as a country and we have our own backyard of stories waiting to be told. As a parent, I think that it is important for our children to grow up with stories they can find themselves in.
You were behind one of Singapore's most successful films, Ilo Ilo; what do you think was its X-factor and how can we replicate its success? The funny thing about the film business is that you can't replicate any success by formula. It takes so many things to work together for a film to be successful but only one thing to not work for a film to fall apart - which could be anything from the actors' chemistry to the music. But it all starts with a good and solid script. I would advise young filmmakers to keep working and be on set. The more you practise the better you get. But since making a film is quite expensive, any opportunity you get to work is a blessing. Being a part of the film community and watching films at our arts centres, festivals and museums is a way to understand how we are developing as an industry.
What is your current film-viewing habit like? I watch a lot of films for work but I also love watching films and TV shows during my downtime. We are also seeing more filmmakers who have been celebrated by the top film festivals like Wong Kar Wai, Baz Luhrmann and Spike Lee crossing over to create series for Netflix and Amazon. I think artists just want to be able to keep on working and creating, and are curious about this change that's happening in our industry where it is easier to watch films wherever we are but hard for the creators to make money. It's hard to find money for new projects even for people at the top. These days, I am (also) watching a lot of Peppa Pig and Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom with my three-year old. I am really appreciating the talent behind children's content because it's hard to do it well. I love everything from arthouse films to romantic comedies to documentaries and even horror. But I would say I am most inclined towards straightforward drama with solid scriptwriting because it doesn't require any tricks or fancy effects, just dialogue and acting.