Being Tan Bee Thiam, curator of The O.P.E.N. Film Festival

Ng Yi-Sheng

May 15, 2016

There weren't a lot of folks at yesterday's Insider Series talk at Library@Esplanade. So I figure I'll be doing everyone a service if I do a little online summation of Tan Bee Thiam's talk. 

It's his third year curating the The O.P.E.N. Film Festival. Doesn't time fly? (By the way, that was the best candid shot I could get of him during the talk. It's just coincidence that makes him look like he's wafting away a stealthy fart.)

TBT: So what I wanted to talk about is, why does the arts festival have a mini film festival inside?

Good question. But of course, he couldn't start there. He had to tell his superhero origin story first: how as a little boy, changing TV channels at night, he came across an Arts Central screening of Wong Kar Wai; how he ended up at the old National Library Building's AV archives watching the complete works of Orson Welles on Laser Disc; wanton years of watching film festivals and volunteering to be part of people's film crews on arts mailing lists, because he's part of a generation that had been inspired by the great wide world of culture, and needed to tell its own stories...

(That's him with Boo Junfeng, Alfian Sa'at and others being extras in Brian Gothong Tan's film Invisible Children.)

TBT: After that, I started to go back to an audience perspective again. Because after making the films, where do we show them? We don’t want to just make them for our family and friends and nobody watches them.

And that's how he became a film curator and film activist. This wasn't just about giving exposure to his friends' films—although he did note that the only place to get yourself shown was at the Substation's First Takes festival—it was about realising that the vast majority of films are forgotten, and how some don't even get seen once, and lie mouldering in their vinegar-scented decay in badly climate-controlled warehouses. (I interviewed him ages ago when he was still part of the Asian Film Archive, which preserves and promotes regional AV works.)

... aaaand that's how he ended up curating for SIFA. At Noorlinah Mohamed's invitation, btw. BFFs!

And he finds The O.P.E.N. Film very exciting. Because it's not your typical film festival—it doesn't curate based on geography (no deliberate attempts to be international, regional, national, etc), ethnicity, genre or format.

Instead, he curates based on the following three guidelines:

1. Cinema and Art

2. A Pre-Festival of Ideas

3. A Treasure Hunt

Regarding art:

TBT: That is something that I feel is very overlooked. A lot of us we look at film as film. But film is not just film: it is also literature, it is also performance, it is also visual arts. Why are we not also discussing them in terms of those art forms?

And regarding the pre-festival of ideas—the very concept of The O.P.E.N.—it's a way for Ong Keng Sen to warm up audiences in preparation for SIFA, exposing us to artworks with similar themes, using a similarly challenging, experimental format.

TBT: We will not be choosing a film that is very Hollywoodian or which is very straightforward. We are choosing a work which is groundbreaking or doing something we haven’t seen before.


This year, with the theme of POTENTIALITIES, he's following two main threads:

· Celebrating the individual (i.e. invididual voices in what characters have undergone)

· Presenting the adventurous auteurist voice (the changed careers of auteurs as they break new ground)

And regarding the treasure hunt—well, that reflects his philosophy for the way he's put things together.

TBT: I look at it almost like a constellation. I don’t want it to be too clear. 

This year I think one thing about The O.P.E.N. Film Festival that it doesn’t have any overlaps. It is a film program where you can watch every film. Every film. If your family and your loved ones allow. So I’m almost taking my audience on a journey. 

So what will this journey be like? Well, there's 25 screenings of 22 films. That doesn't mean there are double-takes: it means there are some films that are six hours long, such as our opening film, The Arabian Nights Trilogy by Miguel Gomes. It's a fantastical fable about the Portuguese financial crisis, set not in the past but as images for the future, and it's divided into three screenings over the day. 

The Arabian Nights Trilogy by Miguel Gomes

Bee Thiam also talked about the pairings he was able to create, such as Jumana Manna's A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, which looks at the diverse, domestic and disappearing musics of Israeli/Palestinian sub-communities. It's a short one, so it's screened with Woo Ming Jin's Return to Nostalgia, which features the director's journey through Malaysia and Singapore in search of a lost Malaysian film. Voyages through human archives, both of them.

A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, by Jumana Manna

Return to Nostalgia, by Woo Ming Jin

TBT: The other thing about film curation is after you have chosen all these films, you have to decide how they will go together. Like if you’re ordering a meal, you can’t just have ten courses of oysters or ten courses of cheesecake… OK maybe some people can…

Basically, he's trying to mix it up by varying themes. So the first weekend will have loads of experimental, adventurous works, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul's horror film Vapour, which is silent but screened with live music by Bani Haykal, while a later block will have a theme of home movies, with works like Chantel Akerman's No Home Movie, about the last days of the director's mother (who was an Auschwitz survivor) and Aaron Brookner's Uncle Howard, which looks at the forgotten video archive of the director's uncle, who chronicled the New York glam scene in the 1970s before succumbing to AIDS...

Uncle Howard by Aaron Brookner

Bee Thiam further extolled the variety of works on show: from the animated collage work Sixty Six to the epic two-part Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) to the deadpan Italian comedy The Treasure...

TBT: We are hoping you;ll be coming to discover the treasure.

He further extolled the fact that with a single $45 O.P.E.N. Pass, you get to watch every single one of these films.

TBT: It is the best bargain in town. That means it costs only two bucks per film. So that’s the freedom that the festival has given. It gives us the freedom to experiment and take risks.

Just sit back and drink in the strangeness!

Sixty Six by Lewis Klahr

But in all seriousness, I stayed back after the talk and Bee Thiam was expressing his very deep gratitude to Noorlinah for giving him this rare privilege. He doesn't have to search for famous, buzzworthy directors and titles or stump hard for individual works in this festival—it's one ticket for all, and the people who buy the ticket are naturally curious cinephiles.

So he really has genuine freedom to program what he thinks is best. That's a rare privilege, in this or any other country. He can't take it for granted.

  • 2016