Be­yond‘ lights, cam­era, ac­tion!’

In­ter­views with an Os­car win­ner, Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor and Phua Chu Kang him­self – all in a day’s work for the BRATs at Tropfest SEA.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BRATS - By AMANDA NG and SATHESH RAJ Pho­tos by AMANDA NG and MARCHELLA PININTA brats@thes­tar.com.my

Movie mad­ness:

WHAT do you get when you put a Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor, an Academy Award win­ner and young South East Asian film­mak­ers to­gether? A whole lot of mind-blow­ing in­spi­ra­tion, of course!

Tropfest South East Asia (SEA) landed on the re­gion’s shores for the very first time with a week-long fes­ti­val held in Ge­orge Town, Pe­nang. The an­nual celebration of short films has its roots in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, 20 years ago, when more than 200 peo­ple squeezed into a café for an in­for­mal screen­ing.

Now, Tropfest Aus­tralia at­tracts an au­di­ence of over 150,000 in a sin­gle night, and has ex­panded to other coun­tries in­clud­ing the United States and New Zealand.

Closer to home, Tropfest SEA saw a crowd of more than 4,000 sprawled out on the grass at the Es­planade in Pe­nang, en­joy­ing mu­sic, good food and the 12 fi­nal­ists’ short films un­der the stars.

As BRATs, we were ec­static to be able to ex­pe­ri­ence Tropfest SEA in a fuller di­men­sion – from at­tend­ing the Rough­cut Sym­po­sium, to in­ter­view­ing the “big shots” one-on-one and at­tend­ing the fes­ti­val night it­self.

In­spi­ra­tion over­load

To speaker Ja­son Van Gen­deren, short films are “cre­ative ther­apy you can share”. The Tropfest New York 2008 win­ner uses film­mak­ing to make sense of the world around him.

“It’s my way of pro­ject­ing the way I’m fig­ur­ing things out, and mir­ror­ing it to an au­di­ence,” he said.

Van Gen­deren’s win­ning en­try, Mankind is No Is­land, is a po­etic take on ur­ban home­less­ness. It was shot en­tirely on a mo­bile phone, prov­ing that film­mak­ing is not al­ways about ex­pen­sive equip­ment or fancy ef­fects.

“A story needs to sur­prise you,” he said, ex­plain­ing that half the bat­tle for peo­ple is un­der­stand­ing that they can­not al­ways pre­dict where their next story comes from.

“Be a story catcher. Iden­tify and hold it – it’s about what you do in that mo­ment that makes a dif­fer­ence.”

Academy Award win­ner and Tropfest SEA judge Adam El­liot ex­pressed sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments, kick­ing off the Rough­cut Sym­po­sium by shar­ing his jour­ney to­wards the Os­cars.

Be­fore the nom­i­na­tion, the Aus­tralian stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tor had A$88 (RM260) in the bank and was re­ly­ing on gov­ern­ment aid to sur­vive.

El­liot spent over 15 months com­plet­ing the win­ning short film, Harvie Krum­pet. He worked out of a tiny room in his fa­ther’s stor­age fa­cil­ity, with no air-con­di­tion­ing, and no ac­cess to a toi­let af­ter 5pm. The so­lu­tion? A bucket.

“What we knew we had was a good story. And that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s not about the money or the fame; it’s about be­ing a good sto­ry­teller.”

Ten years af­ter win­ning the Os­car, El­liot con­tin­ues to do what he is pas­sion­ate about – telling sto­ries via good old-fash­ioned clay stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion – and re­mains con­nected to the ob­sta­cles young film­mak­ers face.

To him, events like Tropfest SEA al­low film­mak­ers to hear each oth­ers’ “war sto­ries” or chal­lenges.

“We all have so much in com­mon – feel­ing alone, go­ing through pe­ri­ods of self-doubt, feel­ing like ‘I’m a fraud, I’m no good, I have no tal­ent …’” said the quirky El­liot, who looks like one of his own clay fig­urines come to life.

“It’s early days for Malaysia, but you al­ready have fan­tas­tic film­mak­ers and get­ting to meet some of them yes­ter­day for me was a real hon­our,” he added.

Closer to home

The Rought­cut Sym­po­sium brought to light the big­ger chal­lenges South East Asian film­mak­ers face be­hind the scenes – a lack of gov­ern­ment sup­port and fund­ing, cen­sor­ship is­sues, a lo­cal pref­er­ence for Western films and more.

How­ever, ob­sta­cles also abound for those in front of the cam­era, as speaker Gur­mit Singh (aka Phua Chu Kang) at­tested to.

The Sin­ga­porean ac­tor high­lighted the re­al­i­ties of the “volatile” film in­dus­try.

“I think a lot of young peo­ple have this mis­con­cep­tion that when you start out, it’s just an au­di­tion. Then if you’re se­lected, you go to par­ties, get free clothes and cars.

“Like any­thing else, you have to put in hard work, put your back into it,” ex­plained the Me­di­a­Corp artiste who started out as a dancer and ac­tor in small-scale pro­duc­tions.

In his 20th year on TV, he ad­mits that it’s been “very dif­fi­cult”.

“There are good days and bad days,” he said. “I have missed im­por­tant dates – like when my daugh­ter crawled for the first time.”

How­ever, Gur­mit keeps go­ing, out of his love of “cre­at­ing some­thing” – that sense of achieve­ment when you can say, “This is mine. I’ve done this.”

Reel-ly awe­some stuff

Per­haps that was the same feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ment the 12 Tropfest SEA short film com­peti- tion fi­nal­ists ex­pe­ri­enced when their films were se­lected out of the 184 en­tries from nine coun­tries.

Us­ing the “Tropfest Sig­na­ture Item” of “RICE”, the film­mak­ers had to in­cor­po­rate the re­gion’s sta­ple food in their short films.

The panel of judges con­sisted of El­liot, Legally Blonde di­rec­tor Robert Luketic, Sin­ga­porean di­rec­tor Glen Goei, Malaysian ac­tress Shar­i­fah Amani, and Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Roger Gar­cia.

The 12 fi­nal­ists had vary­ing lev­els of ex­pe­ri­ence with film­mak­ing (for some, it was their very first short film), but they had all come a long way to be at Tropfest SEA in Pe­nang.

For Cam­bo­dian film­maker Mony Kann Darung, 23, the ex­pe­ri­ence was “un­be­liev­able”.

“A few days ago, I was a no­body, and now, I am meet­ing Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tors,” said the as­sis­tant TV show pro­ducer. “When I got back to the ho­tel, I was like, ‘oh my god, how did this hap­pen?’”

Per­haps the jour­ney was even more sur­real to Thai film­maker Su­pawit Buaket, who be­came a fi­nal­ist in an in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val at 19.

He may still be in high school, but there was a cer­tain sense of ma­tu­rity as he de­scribed the chal­lenges he and his team went through to pro­duce their short film.

“Af­ter shoot­ing 50% of the film, our nine-year-old ac­tress died in an ac­ci­dent. It was re­ally sad, and we had to change the script,” he said.

But de­spite all the amaz­ing en­tries, the judges’ de­ci­sion was unan­i­mous. First-time film­maker Sothea Ines, 24, from Cambodia, clinched the top prize for her film, Rice.

Set dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge pe­riod, the short re­volved around five or­phans at a Com­mu­nist chil­dren’s camp, who se­cretly col­lected grains of rice to stave off star­va­tion, but were even­tu­ally caught and pun­ished.

The silent film was shot en­tirely in mono­chrome, but it man­aged to keep the au­di­ence en­gaged through­out the seven min­utes – ad­dress­ing a mon­u­men­tal part of Cambodia’s his­tory through one small in­ci­dent.

As a scriptwriter by day, Ines said her main chal­lenge was con­struct­ing a re­al­is­tic set of 1975, with cos­tumes and lo­ca­tions, to re-en­act the Kh­mer Rouge killing spree.

Work­ing with chil­dren who weren’t pro­fes­sional ac­tors was another huge chal­lenge.

“I al­most wanted to re­sign,” she added with a laugh.

Ines was in tears of joy at the end of the night, look­ing over­whelmed by the un­ex­pected win.

“It’s just so in­cred­i­ble to be here. I made it. With the prize, I will go back to my kids (who acted in the film) and tell them, they’re the win­ners of Tropfest!” she ex­claimed.

Ines walked away with US$10,000 (RM33,500), and a five-day im­mer­sion trip to Los An­ge­les. We’re pretty sure she’s glad she didn’t re­sign af­ter all.

The brains be­hind the fes­ti­val

Ac­cord­ing to Gur­mit, if Phua Chu Kang were at Tropfest, he’d prob­a­bly say: “Don’t like lah, so short. Come here all the way, the film is shorter than my flight.”

How­ever, the short film fes­ti­val is se­ri­ous busi­ness to Tropfest SEA Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor Joe Sidek.

When asked if there’s a recipe to putting to­gether some­thing as epic as Tropfest SEA, his re­ply was sim­ple: Courage and pas­sion.

At Tropfest Syd­ney, Sidek saw for him­self films be­ing watched by hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, and thought, “Wow. So this is what film­mak­ing is all about.”

There, big names like Ni­cole Kid­man, Cate Blanchett and Ge­of­frey Rush at­tended Tropfest. And this time round in South East Asia, so did in­ter­na­tional and lo­cal fig­ures. None of the speak­ers were paid.

“It’s not just about films. It’s about shar­ing jour­neys, and in­spir­ing peo­ple to con­tinue their jour­ney,” said Sidek.

Sto­ries of sto­ry­tellers

At the heart of it all, Tropfest SEA was about film­mak­ers and their sto­ries.

The road has been a long one for many of the per­son­al­i­ties at the fes­ti­val, in­clud­ing El­liot, who was more than happy to share his wis­dom.

If he could rewind back to 1996 and meet him­self when he was in film school, he would tell him­self to “stop be­ing so wor­ried about ev­ery­thing”, and just fo­cus on the work – one script at a time, one film at a time.

“When you’re young, you worry about what your peers and fam­ily think, but as you get older, you start be­com­ing more com­fort­able in your own skin and in your own self,” he ex­plained.

On a larger scale, young South East Asian film­mak­ers may also be con­cerned with the per­ceived lim­i­ta­tions of the in­dus­try in our re­gion.

To help ad­dress those con­cerns, the fes­ti­val gath­ered voices from all over the in­dus­try who shared in­sights and of­fered an­swers to press­ing ques­tions.

Van Gen­deren said: “Tropfest’s role here in South East Asia is to help pre­serve and fos­ter lo­cal sto­ries and sto­ry­telling cul­ture, and give it a home and a base. That is the real po­ten­tial.”

Through his years of ex­pe­ri­ence hon­ing his craft, Van Gen­deren be­lieves that fail­ing is in­evitable, but suc­cess is also in­evitable as long as you don’t stop try­ing.

His ad­vice to as­pir­ing film­mak­ers is to trust their in­stincts and never stop look­ing for sto­ries, be­cause every­body has a story.

“You need to be brave, ad­ven­tur­ous, and be­lieve that you can tell a story and not give up,” he said.

East up for the first-ever

Tropfest South peo­ple turned Over 4,000

Town, Pe­nang. held in Ge­orge Asia event,

SEA 2014 of the Tropfest The three win­ners

(from left) Eze­quial com­pe­ti­tion, short film Sothea Ines from

Malaysia, Pao­linelli from Cambodia.

Polen Ly from Cambodia and Tropfest New York 2008 win­ner Ja­son Van Gen­deren. BRATs re­porters

Satesh Raj (left) Amanda Ng and

(right) catch­ing Singh from

up with Gur­mit PhuaChuKang. the many He was one ex­cel­lent of

speak­ers at SEA. Tropfest

Ng and satesh get­ting quirky with Academy Award-win­ning stop­mo­tion an­i­ma­tor Adam El­liot.

Tropfest Sea man­ag­ing

di­rec­tor Joe Sidek. This story was pro­duced by mem­bers of The Star’s braTs young jour­nal­ist pro­gramme. ap­ply to join braTs 2014 to­day by log­ging on to face­book.com/star­brats.

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