An interview with film curator Tan Bee Thiam

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 8, 2015

After my interview with Noorlinah Mohamed, I knew I had to call up Tan Bee Thiam, the film curator and filmmaker who drew up the first drafts of the film program at The OPEN.

YS: Can you tell me about your curating process?

TBT: I started around the end of last year. It was a really organised process. What Noorlinah and Keng Sen did was give me some guidelines and themes and program texts, so I saw what they programmed and their themes and sub-themes, and just selected films to respond to them. It's a challenging theme: there aren't a lot of films about "Post-Empire", so I decided on many conversations about points of entry.

Usually, for a lot of festivals, they program for representation and diversity, so you have a film by this group of people, that group of people. What I do when I program is I look for a space for dialogue, films that can expand that space for conversation. So very broadly there are films that are couplets, almost as if they are two filmmakers playing chess with each other not the kind of chess where you have the pawns and kings, but weiqi, where it's just black and white, where the idea is to expand the space and encircle, and to think of that space in terms of dialogue.

Say, for example, the trilogy of films by Pablo Larraín which are films set in the time of Pinochet in the 70s and 80s. So these are films about antiheroes, what happens in their time and after. Whereas Pedro Costa did three or four films which are almost the opposite, about Portugal, about the immigrants who are haunted by the failed promise of the Carnation Revolution.

In the 70s, Portugal overthrew their dictator, whereas in Chile a dictator took over but it was not just the overthrow of the dictator, but also the withdrawal of Portugese people from their colonies. So what happened was, there were immigrants who went into Portugal seeking a better life, but twenty years later. So this kind of conversation is an example of a couplet, of filmmakers playing chess.

Other examples you'll find: Citizenfour, which consists of interviews with Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, and you know at that time he was in exile and unable to go anywhere because of his passport. And you'll have someone like a banned filmmaker like Jafar Panahi, who was under house arrest in Tehran, and you'll find him making a film in the confines of his apartment, called This Is Not a Film.

YS: I was surprised you didn't include more films from Asia in this festival.

TBT: We tried to. We were thinking of featuring two films from Asia, but they came in a 35mm format, which Projector cannot play. We wanted to show City of Sadness by Ho Xiaoqian, and a film by Oshima, Night and Fog in Japan.

But we don't curate based on trying to represent based on certain countries and regions. That's not really how I do my curation. It's like the European Union Film Festival, where you have a film from every country. It's not like the Singapore Chinese Film Festival, where you have to think about what is Chinese. It's not like the Singapore International Film Festival where you have an international buffet.

So the open film is not a festival festival, it's a program that responds to the works and the themes of the arts festival, which I think is why it is interesting for me to approach it differently. 

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  • 2015