A Small Film at a Big Festival
Early this September, a small short film from Singapore entitled “Birthday” had its International Premiere at the 61st Venice Film Festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals in the world.
I call it a small film because it's a film without any stars. No Star Actor. No Star Actress. And no Star Director. I call it a small film because that was what the film's budget was.
Shooting the film was also a rather small affair. I gathered a group of like-minded friends I had known from way back in Film School, as well as from working in TV commercials. Using mostly short ends left over from commercial shoots, we stuck together for 9 days attempting to capture as honestly and intimately as we could, this beautiful story of two teenaged parents entrapped in a relationship who keep falling in and out of love with each other.
A young couple struggles to make ends meet while having their innocent ideals challenged.
Even after the film was completed, it remained a small film because there wasn't any hype generated for the film. No one went around boasting that this film would have a Premiere at Cannes, or Venice, or Sundance. No one claimed that the film had been invited to 50 international film festivals. In fact, it was such a small film that when it was submitted to the Singapore International Film Festival for the Silver Screen Awards, it was promptly overlooked for selection.
Initially, I had planned for the film to screen at the Singapore Film Festival so that I would be able to show my peers, my fellow countrymen, what my vision of a Singaporean Film was, albeit just a small short film. So when it was rejected by a Singaporean Festival that was supposed to support Singaporean Films, the only thing that came to my mind was: So much for my supposedly honest and intimate film! I just made a bad, shit film! In fact, it probably is so shitty that even with the good grace of my fellow countrymen, it still fails to pass the mark as a half-decent, watch-able film.
My instincts then were to hide the film away in my closet and enjoy it personally only as a self-masturbatory masterpiece. That was the initial plan. Thankfully, a few good friends persuaded me to do otherwise, and to continue sending it to other film festivals. After all they argued, all work, regardless of good or bad, should be seen, and not hidden away. Grudgingly, having voiced that phrase many times before myself to other filmmaker friends, I found myself unable to back down from my own words.
In late August, the advice of those few good friends bore fruit when I received that letter, the official letter from the Venice Film Festival informing me of “Birthday's” acceptance. Almost immediately, the disappointment of failing to make the mark at the Singapore Film Festival was completely forgotten. You can accuse me of non-patriotism as much as you want, but hey man, it's Venice calling, as they say!
So in early September, “Birthday” travelled to Venice for its International Premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it would be the opening film for the Official Competition for Short Films, as the only Asian Film in its section.
Now, Venice, as everyone knows, it as big a festival as it gets. Especially more so this year, with the presence of many great directors whom I greatly respect such as Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Michelangelo Antonioli, Alejandro Amenabar, Francois Ozon (just to name a few), and many film stars whom I've spent many a night gazing at on the silver screen like Nicole Kidman and Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro and Javier Bardem.
With such presence at the festival, what kind of attention did this small film from Singapore get?
Well, to be completely honest, from the paparazzi, Nicole Kidman only had to flick her hair to get more attention from the paparazzi than the film. But that's just the way the media works. After all, even in the Singaporean Media, Nicole Kidman did get more attention in the pages of the Straits Times than the film did.
But from the people who attended the festival for the films, especially those whom had caught the premiere of Birthday, the responses were extremely positive.
Many were very touched by the scenes between the teenaged couple, for its honesty and realness in its depictions. Especially the younger generation in the audiences, who could relate very much to the kind of relationship I wanted to capture in the film. They felt that its depiction of a young relationship was very, very real, and that they themselves had been through many of the situations depicted in the film. All in all, they empathised with the teenaged couple, and understood exactly what I was trying to say with the film. And that is the greatest thing that a director can wish for from his audience.
Because of that, the responses from the festival organisers and fellow directors were also hugely encouraging. I was congratulated and praised for the film's direction; the actors were also praised hugely for “not acting” (Every actor should know what this means, or he shouldn't call himself an actor).
In general, I must say that the film was a big hit at the festival. And because of how well it did at Venice, it has already earned its next screening at the Stockholm International Film Festival in November. For a small and simple short film about love between two people, I must say that I am rather pleasantly surprised at how well it's been received.
All this has encouraged me to think that I am at least beating down the right path. In the Singaporean industry where people tend to think they have to be controversial to be considered creative, that they have to be censored to be considered an artist, and that they have to have people swearing in Hokkien for the film to be considered Singaporean, it's nice to know that in the bigger picture that is the world, it's not how much nudity or vulgarity you show, but how much heart and soul you show that counts. It's nice to know that simple, subtle, but well-crafted films like “Birthday” still have a place somewhere to be appreciated, if not in Singapore.
by Bertrand Lee