Meeting Kenneth Tan

Kenneth Tan, the chairman of Singapore Film Society, speaks about his 29-year-long association with the European Union Film Festival.

19 min read

Kenneth Tan started going to the cinema alone when he was 11 years old. At the age of 13, he felt his adrenaline rush, when he was invited to the projection room. Barely a year later, he was allowed to press the changeover button under many pairs of watchful eyes. Kenneth devoured everything there was to know and learn: about the rostering of staff, scheduling of screenings, planning of advertising campaigns, and he had watched Taiwanese director Hsu Chin-liang’s The Fellow Who Rejected College [拒絕聯考的小子] a total of 43 times, theatrically—all before his O Levels.

He signed up as a member of Singapore Film Society (SFS) in May 1982 to watch Brian DePalma’s Obsession, and was co-opted into the SFS Committee in December that year. Kenneth did everything a volunteer could do—shuttling to and from the airport, and Board of Film Censors; writing aerogrammes to overseas film institutes; manning the desk and door on screening nights; writing freelance reviews for The Straits Times. In November 1983, he was elected Secretary of SFS. On 12 October 1984—he was 19—he made history by becoming the youngest Chairman of the Society, a position he has held continuously since then.

The European Union Film Festival (EUFF), stepping into its 29th year, has collaborated with the Singapore Film Society since its inception in 1991. Our editor Ram met Kenneth, and spoke about his association with the festival, its evolution over the years, his most cherished memories and the many lovely friendships he has forged.

You have watched the European Union Film Festival from its infancy and you are affectionately called The Godfather of EUFF. Could you tell us about your involvement and how the festival has grown over the years?

The Singapore Film Society has been involved with the European Union Film Festival from the beginning. When it started, it wasn’t even called the EU Film Festival, it was called the EC Film Festival. The political and geographical grouping was known as the European Community at that time. But it had the same purpose. In the European Union, a member country takes up presidency of the group in rotation each year. They also take political responsibility in Europe for a lot of things, policies and so forth. In our context of cultural activities, normally the country that held the working presidency would also take charge of the festival working committee to put things together.

1991 was an exciting and seminal period for cinema in Singapore; it was a real watershed year when movie classification was introduced for the first time. Prior to that, there was no classification system, which in turn meant that all films for public screening in the cinemas or even for events like EUFF, all had to be censored for common, general audiences. That meant that a lot of things would be cut because they had to be completely family-friendly. It also meant that the range of films that could be brought into Singapore was limited because a lot of filmmakers would not be too thrilled to have their work cut. That was not the reason why EC Film Festival began. But this festival opened up new possibilities.

France, Germany, and the UK, for quite some time already, had their own cultural presence here with Alliance Française, Goethe-Institut (German Cultural Centre), the British Council, and their own country specific festivals, which they organised with SFS. I don’t remember if it was one particular person or country that first thought of the idea but it was a collective thing. If there was a European Community grouping then why not do a festival of films from that community? That’s how it began.

I remember a few things vividly. When we started, we didn’t have the wide variety of screening venues that Singapore now has. Ticketing was manual. We had a duty cash box that was placed at the registration table outside the auditorium every day for every screening. Along with the SFS, there were different embassies and high commissions involved in this. We would take turns to man the table, and the person manning it for the last festival screening of the day would take the cash box home, along with all the proceeds for the tickets that were sold at that table. That was how different it was. We were using 16mm film prints, which is a format that is seldom seen today.

As the years progressed, the EC became the EU and its membership has grown tremendously. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get a kind of momentum. We realised one thing was constant despite EU diplomats completing their postings, leaving and coming again. After a while it would be a completely different set of people at the embassies. For example, the cultural councilor at the French embassy is the same post but a different person every few years. Over a period of time, my colleagues at SFS and I became the institutional memory of the festival, how things were done, how to get the certificate from the Censorship Board, how do we apply for a higher age limited rating so that the film doesn’t have to be cut, things like that.

Then the age of the multiplex arrived. That’s when the EUFF, as it came to be known by 1996, moved into the commercial cinema complexes and took on another phase of life. In a mainstream cinema complex, there are a lot of other films, and there is a chance for general moviegoers to find out about the festival. So the scale of the festival started to grow, the attendances began to grow. It became necessary to go out and look for sponsors. The more films you have, the more screening slots you need, the more time to rent a venue and so on.

I gradually grew to appreciate the continuous turnover of diplomats every three to four years, not necessarily all starting and ending at the same time. I initially felt sad that people who had become good festival colleagues and friends would leave. But I grew to celebrate the fact that our network of international friends kept growing. The diplomats would finish their posting, they would go back to their home country or somewhere else, but they would still stay in touch. Many embassies, high commissions, and many foreign ministries have systems where the email addresses stay the same regardless of the posting that the person takes. So we kept in touch.

As the festival grew in size and diversity, it became more and more useful for an independent partner like SFS to plan the schedule. In the early years, they would do it as a committee, and it would take hours and days to agree on whose films should be shown at what time. One day I remember our Italian friends were holding the presidency and they said, “Why don’t we ask our Singaporean partner (SFS) to do a first draft and let us all comment on it?” And then twenty pairs of eyes looked at me. I went back and I have been doing that ever since.

The festival has developed in a number of other ways as well. In the 1990s, all of the films screened at this festival were ones that would never, ever, ever be shown in Singaporean commercial cinemas. These sort of films just didn’t get picked up by the theatrical distributors. But when the new millenium came and the cinema scene progressed, we observed that there were times when a film that a particular European country had earmarked for EUFF already had a distributor in Singapore. Or the other scenario was that as a result of being shown and seen during the EUFF, a film attracted the attention of a distributor. We saw a little bit of crossover into the commercial space. This was never a top priority for the EUFF but nevertheless it was a wonderful side outcome that they could report back to their home country ministry saying, “This isn’t just for cultural profiling but there’s some commercial traction as well because our films got noticed, picked up and after that ran for three or four weeks in public cinemas.” That trend has continued.

The films also get noticed for other purposes in Singapore, like Ireland’s Sanctuary last year. The Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore spotted the film and we arranged for them to get it screened in their film festival. About ten years ago, we thought of giving something back to the community here. That was when working with film schools in Singapore began. Student short films could be paired with the main features and shown as a way of docking with the local community, giving something back.

There are countries like Norway, which is not a member of the EU, but they participate as well. It’s a festival of films from Europe. Countries that are members of EU warmly embrace and welcome this. Over the last few years, I have been particularly happy that the festival has been able to bring down some of the filmmakers as well. Last year, the Austrian director Mirjam Unger, screenwriter Sandra Bohle and the Finnish director Paavo Westerberg came down. When a filmmaker is able to present his or her work and have a dialogue with the audience, it makes the experience more complete. Today the EUFF is the longest, continuously running festival of its kind in Singapore. Of course, SGIFF has been around for a long time but that doesn’t have a specific geographical focus. EUFF does.

Next year, it’s going to be 30 years since EUFF began. This is an event that people look forward to on the film and arts calendar every year. It’s now become very common that barely is the year’s EUFF over and people start writing in to us and I’m sure they ask the EU delegation office as well, “So are the dates confirmed for next year? Do you know what films will be shown?”

This is the third consecutive year that the German European Singapore School is on board with us. Working together with young people and educational institutions is a meaningful thing to do. The EU is one grouping but it’s very diverse. It’s a celebration of diversity, that’s one of the unique characteristics of this film festival.

I try professionally not to have favourites since SFS is involved in so many film festivals. But I have to confess I’m particularly fond of EUFF, not least because we have been doing it for such a long time. More than any other such film festival in Singapore, because of the constant natural turnover of diplomats, the role of the local partner is important for this one. We are very glad to be able to work together and make so many friends. It’s a real joy.

Kenneth and his wife at EUFF 2018

What are the memories you have of the very first edition of this festival?

One of them was how manual everything was. We were in Raffles Hotel at the Jubilee Hall, that’s a very beautiful venue. It probably added another level of significance because it’s a Singapore icon. I remember we were all perspiring because the foyer of the third floor outside the Jubilee Hall was not air-conditioned. The men were in suits, we were dripping with sweat, but happy! The audience at that time were largely expatriates. But if you drop in to any EUFF screening in Singapore today, you’ll see locals mostly and that’s good. Of course, the festival welcomes everybody but it’s especially meaningful for each of the countries doing international outreach if it’s really reaching out more to the locals.

It was a lot more difficult to get films at that time. Now communication is so much easier. The facilities at the disposal of a festival are also a lot more. I was asked about five or six years ago by a journalist, “There are so many film festivals in Singapore. Is there a film festival fatigue?” I said, “Honestly I don’t think there is fatigue. There are so many good films, not just from Europe, but from around the world. You can never have enough film festivals. It’s good to give people choice.” I do see that the film festival audience is getting younger as well. I’m quite certain it’s not because I’m getting older!

We are seeing more university students and young working adults in their twenties. That’s also because of the way young people access information. They learn about it from social media where the EUFF has an active presence by choice. The EU delegation office has a young millennial intern, SFS has a young millennial young intern, and that’s by choice. We want them to help drive social media. When we started, we didn’t have people like Shirlene and Phish Communications Media (EUFF’s official partner). We did everything ourselves. Now we have professional expertise and partners who help us to do these things and that’s better.

Shirlene’s husband, as you may know, Raphael Millet, wrote a book called Singapore Cinema. Speaking for Singapore, I’m very proud of the fact that Singapore touched Raphael so much that he made it his home. He’s originally French, came here to work for the embassy and then left that job and decided to make this country his home. He wasn’t here just for EUFF but he worked for the EUFF by representing the French embassy. One European colleague from Europe who came to Singapore, worked on the EUFF, has chosen to make Singapore his home and has married a Singaporean. That’s nice, isn’t it? These little anecdotes that happen along the way really root and ground this festival very deeply.

I think it’s also lovely that for three years now the festival has been at the National Gallery. It gives it another dimension. It’s an art space. It has a nice and cosy auditorium. There’s also the symbolic meaning.

The first edition of the festival was very small, about seven or eight films. Now the lineup has grown threefold, you have almost thirty films (EUFF 2019 has 27 films). Next year, we haven’t discussed this yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s on the minds of a lot of colleagues, the thirtieth year, I think we’re going to shoot for thirty films. I don’t know if we can get them but we’ll try.

The other thing that might be of interest is that the EUFF was not always held in May. When it started, it was held in October. I’m not sure why, probably a matter of convenience and venue availability. The last time EUFF was held in October was in 2006. That was when Finland held the presidency and was the featured country. The decision was taken to colocate the EUFF with Europe Day, which is in May. There was very short lead time from October 2006 to May 2007 to make that happen. But after that it was reset. Since EUFF 2007, the festival has happened in May. It’s usually the day after or two days after Europe Day. I guess the logic was to have a concentrated set of Europe-centric cultural activities happening within the same month, for public attention and media coverage.

If you look at last year and the year before, some sort of clustering of sub-themes has emerged organically. We do have children’s films and films featuring children. Many countries in Europe have rich and beautiful histories and so you do have period dramas, stories about real life artists, painters and writers. The war is not something that a lot of us like to think or talk about but it’s a part of reality. There is in most years at least one film set during that period. The Austrian film Fly Away Home screened last year is a good example. We also have light, fun, entertaining films. Norway has a disaster movie about a fjord collapsing and producing a tsunami (The Wave). It’s billed as Scandinavia’s first disaster movie and I’m looking forward to seeing it. You’ve got a real mix. When you screen that many films, there’s also room to curate, programme and experiment. The Dutch contribution this year The Wild City is a city tour seen through the eyes of a cat! The moment you tell someone this in an elevator, their eyes just light up at the thought of it.

[See Priyadershini’s artwork inspried from Mirjam Unger’s Fly Away Home here.]

Do you happen to remember the first film you saw at EUFF?

I do. It was a film from UK, Raining Stones directed by Ken Loach.

Do you remember the experience of watching it?

It was at the Jubilee Hall, brilliant auditorium, 372 seats. I remember the film was a bit scratchy. The image on the screen wasn’t very big because it was 16mm. I remember the air-conditioning was absolutely freezing but everybody had a good time.

You mentioned working on the scheduling of films. Have you ever been part of the curation process?

I am. The countries vary in terms of how they get films, the ease with which they get them and the the range of films they’re able to choose from. Some countries make a lot of films. So the universe that they can choose from is big. The parent ministries of some countries give them a choice of one, in which case there really is no choice. You either accept or don’t accept.

My involvement in the curatorial process has evolved. All the information is shared. Sometimes we suggest a particular film that has garnered a lot of attention, if the international reviews are good or if it has won an award somewhere. A good example this year was Poland’s film Cold War, which was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The Polish embassy originally identified this film and then they consulted us. But by sheer coincidence we had acquired it for our own screening. So they said okay and that it would free them up to choose another film. They requested to have twenty seats to our screening and we agreed with pleasure. Our Polish embassy friends came dressed up in traditional Polish costume for that screening. We didn’t choose the film that they eventually picked for EUFF but because of our involvement in knowing what they were thinking of choosing, it enabled them to have two Polish films screened in cinemas this year.

Sometimes an embassy or high commission may be offered a film, they may receive the film, some photos and a three line synopsis. But they would need more information. We’re film buffs. We very happily research and sometimes contribute to the programme notes so that it’s a bit more complete. Audiences want to know about the filmmaker and his or her background. Why is this film interesting or noteworthy?

We also help with the workflow of getting these films through the local certification process. We are dealing with the IMDA all the time and I used to work there as well. Oftentimes if someone is fairly new at an embassy, they need a bit of handholding in terms of how to do that, how to get the screeners from the sales company and send them in for rating. And in some cases if the subject matter is a bit sensitive, to get that done and to get an affirmation that the film can be passed for public screening in Singapore before they actually confirm that they’re getting that film. That’s not really curating but it’s managing the downstream process a bit and helping to make it easier for everybody.

You mentioned that you’ve made a lot of friends as part of this journey. Are there a few who stand out?

Wow! I think there are many. It seems to be a built-in characteristic of people who do this kind of work, for the foreign service, they are all lovely people to interact with. But I’ll name one or two. For last year’s EUFF the Finnish filmmaker Paavo Westerberg was here. He had all of 72 hours in Singapore and we spent a significant part of it together. It was his first time here. We just talked and talked and talked and talked. There was so much to share! He’s a consummate filmmaker and storyteller. An absolute sponge in soaking up cross-cultural experiences! He left a very deep impression on me. Also a really nice man.

I remember all the EU ambassadors, all of them. Holger Standertskjold, Marc Ungerhauer, Dr Michael Pulch, and now Ms Barbara Plinkert. All wonderful, lovely people. The previous deputy here Bernhard Faustenhammer is now posted in Ottawa. For the outgoing Finnish ambassador Paula Parviainen, who’s leaving next month, it’s her second term in Singapore. She was here in the 1990s as the Deputy and then she came back four years ago as the Ambassador. When she was Deputy, thanks to her, I was invited to the Finland International Film Festival in Finnish Lapland. She arranged it all when she was here. By the time I went to the festival, she was back in Finland and she took me out to dinner. That was surreal because Paula from the Finnish embassy in Singapore was now Paula my Finnish friend in Helsinki. She’s been as warm and wonderful as she was back then. The Embassy plotted a surprise farewell party for her a few weeks ago. Three hundred of us were sworn to secrecy. She thought upto the point when she stepped into the venue that she was officiating at a Finnish business event. And then the lights came on and three hundred of us said, “Surprise!” And she cried. Paula cried. These are the friendships you make through doing these things. I cherish them. I really do.

That’s lovely. There is diversity in terms of the films and the cultures from which these films are curated. Apart from that, do you think there’s any other unique aspect of EUFF that sets it apart from other festivals?

If I were to point out one striking aspect of movies from Europe, compared to movies from anywhere else in the world, I would say that somehow the European filmmakers, when they treat and portray interpersonal interaction and human relationships, they do it better. Maybe it’s because these are more intimate portrayals. These are not stories and dramas and comedies that rely more on big budgets and packaging. Some of these films were not made cheaply either. The first and foremost focus is the story, the interpersonal relations and the drama. I find that European films in general are very real because even if the culture is very different to ours, the youngsters feel that their films are quite relatable, something you can identify with. Be it the generation gap as shown in the the film from Latvia last year, Grandpa More Dangerous Than Computer. It really is the portrayal of the human condition. I don’t think the cinema from any other part of the world achieves that in quite the same way.

How do you think European cinema compares to Singaporean cinema?

There are many similarities. A lot of the films from both parts of the world are personal stories and deal with cross-cultural topics. A lot of the films are made by independent filmmakers who sometimes work with not enormous resources and yet are able to tell amazing stories. There are also some differences. Singapore has a rich, multi-cultural heritage and so do all of the European countries. But many of these countries have much, much longer histories. Singapore is a young country with just 54 years of independence. That said, there are also some European countries that have much shorter, current histories compared to Singapore. The commonalities probably outweigh the differences.

What’s also striking is that if you go to any EUFF screening and look at the young, local people watching, there is no cultural barrier. Yes, they are relying on subtitles if they can’t speak the language, but otherwise they are relating just as well to those stories unfolding on the screen as would an audience from Europe.

Kenneth at Cannes, during the Marché du Film

Since you mentioned subtitles, I’m curious to know, do you remember the first film you watched with subtitles?

I’m not absolutely certain that this was the very first but it would have been I think one of the early ones. It was actually a commercial Tamil film starring Rajinikanth called Aaru Pushpangal. I asked my friends and they told me it means Six Flowers. I watched that in the cinema when I was a child. Of course, I don’t speak Tamil but it was subtitled in English.

If there is a choice with a film in its original language with subtitles and dubbed, I will never choose the latter. Unless there is really no other way to watch the movie. Even if you don’t understand the language first hand, the nuances, just seeing and hearing what’s being spoken in the original form, I think there is no substitute for that. Even with the best subtitling, there are things lost in translation. But I much prefer that to watching something that’s dubbed.

In countries like France and Japan, if you go to public cinemas, let’s say it’s an American film, there will be halls that are screening the dubbed version and halls that are screening the original. I always pick the original.

Is there any one film you watched at EUFF that has stayed with you over the years?

I do remember the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke and his film Funny Games. The movie is very disturbing to watch. It’s about two criminals, two young men, who under the pretext of borrowing eggs, enter the summer cottage of a young family—a husband, a wife and a child. Then they hold the family captive and torture them. There’s almost no bloodshed on screen but it’s acutely unnerving and disturbing. That film certainly impacted me a lot. It’s a film I’ve always remembered.

On a much lighter note, a film from Finland, Tommy and the Wildcat, was about a young boy and his naturalist father, and a lynx that was held in captivity because it was injured. The lynx had recovered, the father was to release it back into the wilderness, the little boy had developed an attachment to the lynx, so he ran away trying to find it and got lost. In the end, the lynx was found, the boy was found, all’s well that ended well. It was a beautiful film. The Finnish Lapland landscape, having also been there myself, maybe not to that forest, but I had seen that kind of place. That was just a beautiful film, visually and narratively.

So two extremes. Something supremely beautiful and something supremely disturbing.

Culturally, what do you think Singapore can learn from Europe and vice versa?

A number of the EU countries have about the same population size as Singapore, like Finland. I think it’s the same in Finland, about 5.5 million. They also have local languages that are quite unique, for example, I don’t know if quite a lot of people outside Finland speak Finnish. But European films have very successfully travelled around the world and within Europe. That’s a great accomplishment when you make a film in a local language that not many other countries speak. This is something Singapore can learn from them. We are working hard to try and find that balance between local relevance and international appeal for our own local films.

What can Europe learn from Singapore? Singapore as a matter of necessity and survival has learnt to punch above its weight, in terms of international representation. I mean generally, not just in terms of films. We are very small, we are what we are, we know what we’re not. The number of international trading and collaboration partners this country has is quite amazing. There is a leaf or two or more that can be borrowed from Singapore, not just in Europe but anywhere else in the world too. I spoke at a co-production conference in Finland below the Arctic Circle. The film festival was above the Arctic Circle and this one was just below. There were a 104 participants from Asia and it was organised by Finland. I think they wanted to bring Asia there to hear the experience. It may be a bit too lofty to say to learn from Asia. At least to hear, to exchange experiences and to be inspired.

Since you mentioned that you’ve travelled to Europe, is there any particular film watching experience or a film festival you attended there that you cherish?

Yes! The Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finnish Lapland in Sodankylä. It was in June with twenty four hour daylight. One of the screening venues was like a circus big top tent pitched on a large field next to a lake. That tent could seat 800 people. Good sound system. Live piano accompaniment to the film. The screening was at half past two in the morning. And after the movie, you come out of the tent at 4am and it’s still daylight but not bright, blazing sunshine. It was sort of an orangy, grey glow. It’s two degrees celsius. People are holding styrofoam cups of coffee, sitting on the grass in the field, holding the coffee to keep warm. There’s steam coming out of the coffee cup and condensation coming out of the mouth. I can’t draw to save my life, I can’t paint. But I feel in that instant, if you gave me a paint brush I could probably draw something. That I cherish.

What are the future plans of collaboration between the Singapore Film Society and EUFF?

One, definitely to carry on. Two, next year would be the thirtieth. We know we want to do something big and significant. Honestly we haven’t started talking about what that would be. At the media conference, somebody asked about an award… maybe, maybe. We really haven’t started talking about it. But I think both sides know for sure, 200% sure, that we definitely want to continue working together.

You mentioned the Norway disaster film that you’re looking forward to watching. Is there any other film you’re eager to watch at EUFF this year?

I want to watch them all! But let me highlight a few. Romania’s film Beside Me is interesting because of the simplicity of the idea. You have these subway train passengers and they’re stuck together, what happens in the confined space. It’s a fascinating idea. Hungary’s film The Whiskey Bandit is apparently based on true incidents. The notion of a perpetrator of crime becoming almost legendary is very interesting. Ireland’s movie is called Sing Street. It’s a coming-of-age, street cred film with song and dance. That kind of culture is universal, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in and which country it’s from. Italy’s film Magical Nights sounds like a film buff’s film. It’s about an era in Italian cinema, a comedy of misadventures. I’m looking forward to watching everything.

In the films you’ve seen at EUFF, has there been a character who resembled you very closely?

Two years ago we opened with a German film called Tschick. It’s a road movie about a young boy who decided to steal a car. Not that I have ever done that. That fifteen or sixteen year old protagonist’s controlled rebelliousness against the establishment, that is exactly how I felt as a teenager. But I never stole a car. I thought some of the things he did, even the facial expressions would be what a lot of us, or I, could relate to as a teen. That struck a chord. It’s apparently based on a book that every German school child has read. I have not read the book but I really like the film.

I would also mention Latvia’s film last year Grandpa More Dangerous Than Computer. I’m not old enough to be a grandpa but I identified with that sense of helplessness where the young child is so far ahead of you in terms of technological savviness, you feel you want to relate to him or her at the same wavelength but you can’t. I don’t even know how to switch the thing on. I can relate to that even though I’m not a grandfather.

Special thanks to Shirlene Noordin and Deepika Shetty for making this interview happen.

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