Michelle Chong’s Best Director Award Comes From A Dubious Film Festival

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Lulu The Movie wins Best Director at Canada International Film Festival

I’m a big fan of Michelle Chong.

Like many other Singaporeans, I tuned in religiously to Channel 5 every Wednesday night as The Noose delivered punchline after punchline, bringing laughter to thousands of homes as Leticia and Co. fearlessly satirised the current state of affairs on our island.

The wildly versatile actress also went behind the camera, directing, producing and acting in 3 features that cemented her position as a media all-rounder in Singapore.

Overjoyed At Win

Hence, I was overjoyed when I heard that she had won the Best Director award at the Canada International Film Festival (CIFF).

Finally, she’s getting recognised for her wide array of talents, or so I thought.

However, a sense of doubt soon creeped over me as I recalled a particular lesson by my lecturer: “Singapore films based heavily on a local context won’t do well overseas,” he said.

Indeed, why would a foreign film festival award one of its top-billed prizes to someone whose movie they probably couldn’t understand?

 

Not that Chong isn’t great, but considering Lulu The Movie is a comedy chock-full of jokes only locals — and to an extent, Chinese — would understand, it is indeed perplexing that a bunch of ang mohs could digest the film enough to crown its director with top honours.

So, I did some investigation.

History Of CIFF

In an exposé on bogus film festivals by IndieWire, CIFF was revealed to be purchased by venture capitalist Monty Lapica as part of a bundle that included three other festivals — the Honolulu Film Awards, Mountain Film Festival, and Nevada Film Festival.

The “franchise proposal” was offered by Las Vegas businessman Rick Weisner, who promised (anyone) access to all the resources needed to run a festival for a “price in the thousands”.

As such, striking similarities can be observed between the festivals started by Weisner, most notably in the designs of their websites.

This allowed any Tom, Dick, and Harry to simply purchase the IP rights and organise an event meant to celebrate cinema, even though they might not have any knowledge or background in film-making.

How Is It Dubious?

When I originally visited the CIFF site, the first thing I noticed that was amiss was their contact information — it was missing. Besides a cursory link to their e-mail address and social media pages, there were no addresses or telephone numbers listed on the site.

I eventually discovered more information on their profile on Withoutabox (the largest film festival submission site in the world), but their contact details were suspect.

Not only was their “telephone” line listed as the fax number of a book publisher and marketing agency, the address provided leads to a P.O. box owned by BestCoast Enterprises, a postal rental company, despite being made out to read as suite addresses.

Office of Canada International Film Festival

CIFF’s “office” turned out to be a print shop.

The Festival Itself

What about the festival itself? If things run smoothly, who cares if they don’t have a proper office or line of communication… right?

Well, here’s the thing.

There is no festival to begin with.

While the CIFF was traditionally held in Vancouver’s Edgewater Casino for the past eight editions, the organisers have since “transitioned to an awards based, online film and screenplay competition”, starting from 2017.

Sadly, the crowd seemed to comprise of only the participating filmmakers and their friends, family members and crewmates.

Photo: Canada International Film Festival

This meant that none of the films submitted to the competition were “physically screened for the public” — and Chong’s sophomore effort was no exception.

Even prior to its semi-closure, the festival looked amateurish. The quality of the event photos were poor, there were no trophies given — certificates were awarded instead — and apparently, they had forgotten to present it to one of their prize winners, much to her disgust:

Who Judged?

While one may point out that her award was still a recognition by cinema experts, it is worth noting that there are zero details on the festival jury on CIFF’s press releases, website, and social media pages.

In short, we do not know who is judging the films, nor can we confirm if they are qualified to do so in the first place.

An introduction to the jury is a staple in any film competition — even small-scale ones in Singapore do it. Knowing their qualifications and the expertise they bring will undoubtedly lend credibility to the festival, so the curious reluctance of CIFF to parade their line-up doesn’t exactly inspire trust nor confidence.

The IndieWire team had previously suspected that the film juries for Weisner-associated festivals were assembled via unconventional means:

Indiewire has obtained the text of a Craigslist ad used to seek out jury members for one of the competitions. It states that they are volunteer positions and that each juror will receive several films and a form to fill out to rate each film and provide detailed assessments of its strengths and weaknesses.

Though the ad asks for industry professionals, a source close to the competition says that mostly mere film enthusiasts answer the ads, though some script readers do, too.

Better luck?

After notching her virgin Best Director honours, Chong released a victory statement as her alter-ego Lulu, seemingly proud that the award came from an “ang moh country” and that she “didn’t even have to pay for it”.

This is my first Best Director award, and it comes from an ang moh country no less! And I didn’t even have to pay for it! It’s moving to me that the Canadians understand and appreciate the style and humour of the movie. Lulu love Canada! Lulu love Justin Trudeau!”

That’s partly false, since, well, feature-length submissions to the festival start at $29, according to CIFF’s website.

While we’re guessing Chong submitted her movie to CIFF unintentionally, possibly based on poor research done by her management team, it is important to note that not all film festivals are equal in prestige or standing.

Tier D Festivals

Festivals can usually be classified across four distinct categories — Tier A to D.

The Tier-A big dogs — Cannes, Venice, Boston, Sundance, just to name a few — they belong on the premium end of the spectrum that most filmmakers dream of reaching one day.

Tier B festivals are those that are professionally run — backed with a healthy budget, heavyweight sponsors and strong attendances — but are lacking in history and prominence. The brilliant Singapore International Film Festival is a prime example.

Tier C festivals describe those smaller-scale viewings that are either new, or especially niche in nature. They are often run by amateurs and might not have the budget or the content to attract large audiences.

Tier D festivals are often bogus, online-only competitions that do not screen any works to the public. The organisers are often out to make a quick buck by preying on budding filmmakers eager to showcase their works and earn laurels for their portfolios.

This tier is where the CIFF falls into, unfortunately.

What Does The Future Hold?

In the light of Chong’s achievements, social media has been set alight by the news, with many praising her for emerging victorious on the international stage. Even our national broadsheet The Straits Times ran a story on it.

While patriotic feelings can run high when the stamp of “foreign approval” is earned, it is crucial to do our research and look at things objectively amid feelings of overzealousness.

In this case, the CIFF was sadly nothing more than a Tier-D pitstop and isn’t as glamorous or prestigious the mainstream media tried to make it out to be.

With that being said, Michelle Chong will always remain a Singaporean treasure and we can’t wait for her works to get recognised in more (proper) festivals worldwide.

To be able to complete a movie in Singapore is already a minor miracle of sorts — much less having to produce, direct and act in it — and we hope the success this movie has brought can open up new paths for more hilarious, engaging and thoughtful content, and maybe, just maybe, the boldness to depart from the slapstick genre that has dominated our cinema screens for the past few decades.

Featured image via Lulu The Movie, Michelle Chong

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