Our history since 1958
This section is excerpted from:
Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde. Latent Images: Film in Singapore. CD-ROM. Singapore, 2003.
The Singapore Film Society (SFS) thanks the authors for their kind permission to use this excerpt on our website.
SFS relocated with Golden Village, in 2014, from Marina Square to Suntec City.
SINGAPORE FILM SOCIETY
In the Republic, the Singapore Film Society (SFS) has played a significant role in broadening the film-viewing horizons of local movie-goers for more than 40 years, becoming in the process the longest-established cultural film organization in the country.
Registered in 1958, the non-profit organization was set up by a nine-member committee to promote the appreciation of film as a medium of art and entertainment. The film society began at the former University of Malaya and, in the initial years, was based at the university's Guild House at No. 15 Evans Road. Edgar Koh, a film critic who also served as the film society's secretary in the 1970s, claimed that it was "started mainly by a group of expatriates."[i] Although little is known about the society's founders, it is certain that a Mr. E. Mottram served as its first chairman while a Mr. Keith Payne occupied the position of secretary.
However, records from the 1960s and 1970s suggest the Film Society might have been active even before 1958. A January 1961 Sunday Times article noted that the Singapore Film Society had been "in existence for six years."[ii] Similarly, in February 1971, film critic Koh wrote that the society "had been in existence for some 16 years."[iii] In the 19 March 1985 edition of The Singapore Monitor, Wong Sing Yeong claimed that "the Singapore Film Society was formed in 1956 to complement the commercial cinema by screening less popular art films."[iv]
Even though the Film Society screenings are a very desirable complement to the regular commercial movies in this country, its primarily non-mainstream content makes it hard for the SFS to keep afloat despite its tax-exempt status. This status, originally intended to help, became a double-edged sword since it restricted the Society's income to what it could draw from membership subscriptions. Even now, only members are admitted to the Film Society's regular screenings which are free. Individual admissions such as those in commercial theatres cannot be sold.
In 2003, the subscription fee was $90 for twelve months, $60 for six months and $50 for three months. Full-time students, full-time national servicemen and persons over 50 years of age were offered an annual concessionary rate of $60. In the early 1960s, those aged 18 years and above paid an annual seasonal subscription of $7 while those who were younger could acquire student memberships at $5 per season.
Although the Society's fees have by no means been exorbitant, attracting new members to its seemingly esoteric film menu has always been a challenge. As early as 1961, the Sunday Times ran the following report: "The Singapore Film Society...may have to close in March this year unless it can get more members to help meet running expenses. The society needs at least another 500 members if it is to carry on. At present, it has 300 members. The history of the society has been one long fight for existence."[v]
In an attempt to simplify the admission rules and to increase much-needed revenue, the SFS considered allowing non-members to attend its film shows for a fee in 1978 but the negotiations for tax exemption on non-members' entrance fees were unsuccessful.[vi] As explained by the former SFS chairman, N. Subramaniam, "The sale of tickets to non-members for individual film screenings would alter the status of the SFS and make it liable for taxation."[vii]
The 1960s and 70s
The 1960s and 70s were particularly difficult years financially for the Film Society as it was "expanding from being just a 'home-made' society ... to an active, full-fledged national film organization with regular programmes". For most of those years, the society found that its expenditures exceeded income subscriptions. Not surprisingly, it made recurring appeals for new members. In 1971, Chan Heng Wing, then chairman of the SFS, noted that "Ideally, Singapore needs an arts cinema, but things can start moving only if more people join up."[viii] For some time, the Film Society membership was stagnant at 450-500. According to Edgar Koh, one reason why people seemed hesitant to join the SFS was that only one film a month was shown. However, without enough funds from members' subscriptions, the SFS simply could not afford to put on more films, thus creating a vicious circle.[ix]
Koh said that new members usually joined through introductions. In addition, he pointed out that "those who attend foreign film festivals are potential members" citing the jump in membership when more than a hundred people joined the SFS after the French Film Festival, jointly organized by the Film Society, Alliance Française and the French Embassy was held in 1970.[x] Other than gaining access to the calibre of films shown at the Film Society, joining the club had other advantages. As Koh remarked, "Contrary to what some people think, it is not impossible to see a show in Singapore without having to sit through 45 minutes of commercials, being bothered by black market touts or being treated like primary school children by the censors."[xi]
The film society's sluggish subscriptions were aggravated by the growing cost of film projections. Despite being exempted from taxes, including the 33 per cent entertainment duty,[xii] each film society screening in 1974 cost about $1000, inclusive of airfreight and censorship charges.[xiii] To economize, the SFS borrowed prints from foreign embassies and cultural institutions, and also co-operated with the newly formed Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia[xiv] (Malaysian Art Film Club) in obtaining films.[xv]
There were also hopeful occasions when the Film Society felt that the public was becoming more receptive to their films. For instance, the 1974 screening of the controversial The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964), billed as "simply the best biblical film ever made", attracted more than 400 people to the screening, half of whom were new members. Similarly, when Day for Night (La nuit américaine, 1973), a classic film about film by director François Truffaut, was screened during the French Film Week of the same year, it received an enthusiastic response.[xvi] The unexpectedly warm reception of these films prompted Koh to express reserved optimism for the future of serious films in Singapore despite the general public's preference for action films and slapstick comedies.
But he also cautioned that the situation in Singapore was difficult and that films which favour the artistic aspect of cinema, including those which have received international critical acclaim, "have never had it so bad ... They seldom last more than a week in commercial cinemas, more often not even seeing the light of a third day after release."[xvii] An example was Sleuth (1972), the screen adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's award-winning play, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, which came and went within a week. Another was The Go-Between (1971), directed by Joseph Losey and winner of the Golden Palm at the 1991 Cannes International Film Festival, which stayed barely three days in the local commercial circuit.
By the late 70s, the cautious optimism that quality films and the Film Society would thrive in the city-state had soon waned. In 1978, the SFS released a daunting bulletin highlighting its dire financial situation and the impact of this on its programming. The following excerpt from the bulletin published in The Straits Times outlines the obstacles faced by the Film Society at the end of the 1970s:
We find that many of the serious films or art films, whatever they are called, do not pull in new members because, unless one reads the film journals, which are not widely available here, many of the continental names are unknown... In addition, an imported film which used to cost $400-$500 in the early '70s now runs up a bill of about $1,000 which includes print, hire and freight. This amount does not take into consideration the hire of hall, printing bulletins like these or film censorship fees... So now we run a balance of commercial films which pull in new members (Gone with the Wind, because it is so famous, pulled in more than $1,000 for the Society) and "difficult" films like this month's L'homme qui ment [xviii] which we feel a film society should show...[xix]
According to the bulletin, prints of renowned films such as François Truffaut's Story of Adele H. (L'histoire d' Adèle H., 1975) might arrive in Singapore in transit to another destination without ever being screened in the city-state if local commercial exhibitors considered them unprofitable propositions – a sad situation indeed. At the same time, the Society was unable to show such films because the release rights were prohibitive.[xx]
Moreover, it was sometimes difficult for the Film Society to stage a re-run of a film that had already passed censorship and been screened locally. John Boorman's thriller Deliverance (1972) was an exemplary case of bureaucratic tangle. The film was allowed to be screened in Singapore, albeit with cuts. These deletions had to be restored to the print before it could be shipped to Kuala Lumpur for a projection where it was again subjected to the censor's scissors, according to Malaysian regulations. Even though the SFS would have paid for the film to be freighted to Singapore in addition to the $150 print-hire fee for a re-run, the prospect was not lucrative enough for the distributor to go through with the paperwork of the re-censoring process. Nevertheless, despite its financial struggles, the Film Society has managed to offer a consistent repertory of culturally and artistically significant films.
Although only an average of one film a month was shown in the first two decades of the Film Society's existence, first at the Drama Centre in Fort Canning Rise and later at the Regional English Language Centre (RELC) in the first two decades of its existence, these screenings were invaluable in introducing influential works of international directors to its audience of university students, teachers and professionals. In the Society's early years, feature films were often preceded by a documentary.[xxi]
Films shown by the SFS in the 1960s and 70s included Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history; The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin, 1958) and Red Beard (Akahige, 1965) by the Japanese master of image Akira Kurosawa; Le Week-end (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), the rebellious French New Wave classic which was allowed for screening intact; and Young Torless (Der junge Törless, 1966) by the German New Cinema filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff.
A little known activity of the Singapore Film Society in its infant years was a film competition held alternately each year with a Malaysian amateur cine group in Selangor for the five best locally-made amateur films, usually short documentaries.[xxii] Today, the SFS leaves the task of organizing film competitions to the Singapore International Film Festival and continues instead to develop and expand its programming activities, which include organizing mini-festivals in collaboration with cultural institutions and commercial exhibitors in Singapore, as well as providing consultancy services in the management and promotion of film events.
In the late 1970s, the film society began to collaborate with the Goethe Institut. When the latter moved into the Singapore Shopping Centre in 1980, Goethe Institut invited the Film Society to use its 250-seat auditorium for its regular screenings, which allowed the latter to double its Friday screenings from one to two shows. Since then, the Goethe Institut Auditorium has served as the Film Society's base for 16mm screenings. This auditorium "was, and still is, at its new premises in Winsland House II, the best 16mm-equipped venue in Singapore".[xxiii] In 1984, the SFS took another step forward when it started co-operating with the British Council to organize a festival of British films, which has since become the Society's longest-running national film series.
The 1980s brought a period of falling cinema attendances followed by the closing of many film theatres in Singapore. Fortunately for the Film Society, a team of dedicated film enthusiasts took charge of its affairs in 1984: Kenneth Tan[xxiv] became the chairman while film critic Toh Hai Leong[xxv] served as secretary. Since then, the SFS has not only resisted this depressing trend but has in fact made some significant strides.
The Society has traditionally been at the forefront of the struggle for a more mature approach to film in Singapore. In 1987, when the local authorities banned the seminal Fifth Generation film Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984) brought in by the SFS, on the ground that it was politically objectionable, the Society successfully appealed against the ban. This without doubt strengthened its prestige and credibility.
On another occasion in 1990, the ban on Stephen Frears' Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Maurice (both 1987), a James Ivory film adaptation of E. M. Forster's book about homosexuality, provoked an outcry from numerous movie-goers and film professionals. They joined the voices demanding a film classification system which "would give clear criteria for assessing films or defining restricted audiences."[xxvi] Frears' film was eventually allowed to be shown with cuts. Even more important was that the Film Society's role in this incident gradually led to the introduction of film classification in 1991. That year, the Singapore Film Society organized the British Film Festival (again with the British Council), the first non-commercial event under the new classification system.
The 1990s – A New Home
The last decade of the 20th century – the era of multiplexes – changed the structure of film exhibition in Singapore significantly. The Society seized the opportunity to revitalize itself when it was approached by Golden Village Entertainment to work together on the National Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1994. Thus began a unique 'cultural-entertainment partnership' between the Singapore Film Society and one of Asia's leading film exhibitors. The SFS hails the alliance as "a new paradigm in local arts management ... with Golden Village offering not only its state-of-the-art multiplex cinemas as film festival venues, but also its marketing expertise and operations infrastructure."[xxvii]
In September 1996, the SFS moved into the plush, technologically advanced ambience of its new home at GV Marina in the city centre, the flagship location of the major international distributor and exhibitor. It is here that the society's 35mm screenings are held every first and third Wednesday of the month, except during the Singapore International Film Festival in April. The GV Marina projection facilities leave little to be desired. Chairman Kenneth Tan said, "I believe we are the first film society in the world to use an interlocking system, 'looping' the same 35mm print through the projectors of two separate, adjacent cinema halls, for regular members' screenings."[xxviii]
While the recent co-operation with the SFS has helped to bolster the cultural image of Golden Village, it has also given the Film Society a friendlier and more accessible image. Previously regarded by some as a club for the 'elite', the Film Society's membership base has been widening: it grew by 35 percent in 1997, by 17 percent in 1998 and by 21.8 percent in 1999. At the end of October 1999, the SFS counted 1,436 members. As of November 2002, the Film Society's membership had reached 2,274, a 58 percent increase since 1999, with the biggest growth in the 20-30 age bracket.
For the first time in a long while, the Film Society managed a surplus for the fiscal year ending August 1998 and kept it up with an even bigger surplus for 1999. As a result, its cinema capacity at GV Marina was doubled to cope with the increasing attendance. This was augmented in 1999, when the SFS expanded its venues to include two new GV cinema locations: GV Plaza in Plaza Singapura (Dhoby Ghaut) and GV Grand in Great World City (River Valley). However, the Film Society remains based at GV Marina, where its regular screenings are held. In 1999, the SFS had a year-long programme numbering over a hundred feature films. Three years later, in 2002, this figure had risen to over two hundred.
The 1990s – New Programmes
As in its former years, the SFS programming in the 1990s has remained eclectic. Comedies, like the Marx Brothers' classic Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933), and campy musicals like Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), are interspersed with more serious fare such as It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946); The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956); Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo, Akira Kurosawa, 1957); An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji, Yasujiro Ozu, 1962); Belle de jour (Luís Buñuel, 1967); Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974); Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten, Wim Wenders, 1974); City of Women (Città delle donne, Federico Fellini, 1980); Jesus of Montreal (Denys Arcand, 1989); A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989) and Double Life of Veronique (Double vie de Véronique, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991).
In addition to its regular screenings, the SFS also organizes Gala Charity Premieres. In 1995, it pulled off a publicity coup when it hosted the Asian Gala Premiere of the James Bond movie, Goldeneye. Six previews were organized in 1998, including the Singapore-made box-office hit, Money No Enough. The Film Society cooperated with JSP Entertainment, the film's production company, in researching, synthesizing, copywriting, designing and producing the marketing and publicity material for the film. The society's most popular series has been the Japanese Film Festival which the SFS began to co-organize with the Embassy of Japan in 1993. Among the festival's highlights were two lectures by acclaimed film critic Tadao Sato in 1995.
1998 was a busy year for the Film Society which also organized its first Sri Lankan and Australian film festivals in addition to its regular British, Mexican, European Union, French, Japanese, German and Mandarin film series. Including festival screenings, the SFS projected a total of 161 feature films. In November 1999, the Singapore Film Society was officially invited to the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund to select films for the festival of Nordic films to be held in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei. Kenneth Tan reveals that festivals of Chinese, Egyptian, Israeli and Pakistani films are planned for the near future. Like the Singapore International Film Festival, the Singapore Film Society is keen to promote local filmmaking talents and has programmed the works of local filmmakers such as Tan Pin Pin, Christine Lim, Sandi Tan, Victor Pan and Lim Suat Yen.
Into the 21st Century
In addition to its regular screenings, the SFS has been concentrating on increasing the number of its collaborative film festivals, spreading these throughout the year. Compared to three events in 2000 and two in 2001, ten projects were realized in 2002, including a comprehensive Fassbinder retrospective with the Goethe Institut, the Nordic Film Festival, Asian Children's Film Festival and programmes dedicated to the film talents of Japan, Israel, Australia, the UK and the European Union.
The Society's biggest 2002 event, however, was the first-ever China Film Festival which ran over a ten-day period in July with ten films and 11,000 admissions. It was accompanied by a ten-member delegation from China, headed by Mr Tong Gang, then Deputy Director General of the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television for the People's Republic of China, and Professor Zhang Huijun, who was then Vice-President of the Beijing Film Academy. Says Kenneth Tan, "I'm sure it was a co-incidence but I hope their visit to Singapore had something to do with it – both gentlemen have since been promoted".
For the Film Society, too, the impact of the Chinese visit and the China Film Festival was significant. According to Tan, three things would happen as a result of that festival: First, the event would take place every year; and in 2003, Shanghai would be highlighted. Second, the Beijing Film Academy would work with the SFS and another local company to bring its Master of Arts programme to Singapore – the first time it would be introduced outside China. Third, in 2004, the Film Society would, together with the Singapore Tourism Board, mount the first Lion City International Chinese Film Festival in Singapore. It would be a competitive festival for Chinese-language features, shorts and documentaries from all over the world.
In January 2003, the SFS entered into a partnership with the French Embassy in Singapore and the Alliance Française (AF) to programme the Ciné Club screenings at AF. The Society will co-organize six of the 48 screenings. Other than the Film Society's core screenings every first and third Wednesday of the month at the GV Marina, it also shows movies on selected Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut respectively.
The struggle for more choice and better quality in Singapore's film theatres is unending. It will take time and effort to cultivate a discriminating viewership. Now in better form than ever, and run by an executive committee of dedicated professionals and film buffs, headed by its experienced chairman Kenneth Tan, the Film Society is ready to face the future with confidence.
[i] In Edgar Koh, "How to Beat the Censor: Join the Film Society", New Nation, 6 February 1971, p.11.
[ii] "Film Society Needs 200 New Members to Keep Going", The Sunday Times, 29 January 1961, p.11.
[iii] In Edgar Koh, "How to Beat the Censor: Join the Film Society", New Nation, 6 February 1971, p.11.
[iv] In Wong Sing Yeong, "Movies - the Way We Were...", The Singapore Monitor, 19 March 1985, p.20.
[v] "Film Society Needs 200 New Members to Keep Going", The Sunday Times, 29 January 1961, p.11.
[vi] "Society May Open Its Shows to Non-members", New Nation, 2 June 1978, p.5.
[viii] In Edgar Koh, "How to Beat the Censor: Join the Film Society", New Nation, 6 February 1971, p.11.
[xii] Entertainment duty was abolished in 1994 with the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax.
[xiii] "Growing Interest in Serious Films by S'pore Cinemagoers", Sunday Times, 24 February 1974, p.4.
[xiv] The Singapore Film Society and the Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia became affiliates in 1984 which allowed members of both clubs to enjoy reciprocal benefits.
[xv] "Growing Interest in Serious Films by S'pore Cinemagoers" Sunday Times, 24 February 1974, p.4.
[xviii] English title: The Man Who Lies, 1968. Alain Robbe Grillet.
[xix] "Film Society Faces Uphill Task", The Straits Times, 5 June 1978.
[xx] The Film Society Bulletin in 1978 revealed that even a re-run like Death in Venice(Luchino Visconti, 1971) could cost $10,000
[xxi] "Film Society Needs 200 New Members to Keep Going", The Sunday Times, 29 January 1961, p.11.
[xxii] "Film Society to Hold Show Tonight", The Malay Mail, 17 November 1960.
[xxiii] Kenneth Tan, in an interview with the authors, 11 June 1999
[xxiv] Tan is also the author of Cinema Management in Singapore, 1988. Singapore: Singapore Film Society.
[xxv] Toh freelanced as a Chinese language film reviewer for The Sunday Times between late 1986 and 1993.
[xxvi] Warren Fernandez, "Movie-goers Want Rating System," The New Paper, 11 September 1990, p.5.
[xxvii] "Partners", Singapore Film Society, http://www.sfs.org.sg/partners.htm, 25 June 1999.
[xxviii] Kenneth Tan, in an interview with the authors, 30 April 1999.