A Sincere Hunger for Something Bigger: Talking Tropfest SEA with Joe Sidek

I’m not sure I know a people more hungry for content, culture, and art than us Malaysians and our Southeast-Asian neighbours. Specifically, locally made content, culture, and art — that seemingly elusive/ignored/undervalued/underfunded resource.

Don’t get me wrong, please — I am not saying that Malaysia is a barren wasteland when it comes to local content, local content creators, or spaces for local content; you can’t be part of something like ISSUE without being made even more aware of how many awesome and inspiring efforts there are out there to enhance and better our arts and culture. But I’ve also noticed that the demand seems never to wane, that we are not yet sated.

Say what you will about issues of quality, representation, the breadth and diversity of what’s on offer — forget about wanting better for a minute — what I’m seeing is that we’re still stuck wanting more.

Growing up, I was fed (like most of my peers) a lot of Western media, my diet skewed to art and entertainment made outside of my culture. There’s that old joke about how you can go to the most remote nooks of the world and find a Malaysian talking about missing nasi lemak; we seem to have a nomadic quality that makes us look outward to the far reaches of the places we see on TV, in films, hear in music, read about in books. This same curiosity, I think, also feeds into our innate desire to look back, to look inward, to see if we can find ourselves however far we go.

It can be a sad place to be. You want to be like the cool kids you see on the shows you watch after morning session in secondary school or agama class or tuition at a friend’s house, but none of the cool kids are anything like you or your friends. Of the things I saw and read and heard, no one was writing about a brown girl growing up in PJ, eating her McDonald’s fries dipped in Lingam’s, going to One Utama on the weekends, speaking with an American accent and butchering her Malay, growing up Malaysian with her other Malaysian friends. It pushed me to write my own stories, boring as they are, to find friends that did the same, to try and piece together some sort of narrative and meaning that gelled with the mundane and fascinating reality of where we came from, grew up, where we lived.

I think we’ve distanced a lot of young people from the arts. You cannot blame them for not liking art or culture or heritage, because there’s nowhere for them to go and see it.

While this hunger drove me and so many others to insert ourselves into larger stories, to ensure our own visibility, I can speak from a place of unique jadedness only privileged twenty-somethings have and say that this hunger also made me bitter. Why couldn’t I be fat and full, instead, I wondered? Why were the local arts so far behind? It felt too easy to close myself off, to starve, or to feed myself junk.

To meet Joe Sidek, managing director of the George Town Festival and short film festival and competition Tropfest South East Asia (SEA), is to have him gently ease away this briefcase of bitterness I carried around. The man is both constantly inspired and strikingly inspiring, talking a mile a minute with truly infectious enthusiasm. He is also someone who wholeheartedly believes in what he calls his “ASEAN roadmap”, his belief in the value of our region’s deep cultural wealth and what that means for crafting ASEAN narratives that will be known by the mainstream.

I want an ASEAN story — I want our stories, our eyes. So that we’re different and unique.

As a festival director, he tries to visit as many global festivals as he can, looking both for content to bring back as well as what ASEAN exports he can spot.

“I just came back from Edinburgh (Fringe Festival), first time I’ve ever been. I was so inspired by the spaces, and the city and all that. [However] something that caught my eye was posters for this Thai transsexual show — that was the only Asian element that I picked up from all these visuals around me. I thought, the Mecca of performing arts — where is the ASEAN representation?”

Why does he believe so much in the ASEAN region, I asked.

“600 million people — why are we not sharing resources? We’re exciting, we’re a goldmine, we’re the next boom area — why aren’t people seeing that? The uniqueness? [In South East Asia] there’s never been a collaboration platform that’s bigger than a small room.”

That’s my take on the arts now; I think we really need to build back an audience, we really need to get connected again.

He mentioned that figure a few times during our conversation — 600 million people, 600 million voices. It was an abstract idea, a number that in a lot of ways meant nothing, but it illustrated what a lot of “locals” forget exists right in our backyard — the richness of our intertwined histories, the abundance of stories.

Three years ago, Joe saw just exactly what could happen when a community harnessed their voices towards a singular goal: to tell all their stories while making up one large story about themselves. He had seen 15 Tropfest short films in the Australian High Commissioner’s home, and in a rare occurrence, found himself liking all 15 films. He asked to screen the finalists locally two years in a row, but it was when he went to a screening in Australia that he saw the true driving energy of the festival.

“I saw 100,000 people watching films, and the energy was so real. In the last maybe 10 years, Australians have really made a home in Hollywood; the Australians help themselves. So why don’t we try to help our young talents the same way?” And so he met Tropfest Australia’s managing director and they started laying down plans for a South-east Asian version of the festival and competition. Back home, the idea wasn’t met with quite Joe’s level of enthusiasm.

“I asked a really, really good friend who’s a local filmmaker, ‘Would short films make it in Malaysia?’ And he said, no, no. And then I called a good filmmaker friend in Singapore, who also said no. But I thought, what is filmmaking all about? It’s about sharing stories, it’s about letting people see your movies, not just showing it to a group of intellectuals, jurors, academics, arty aesthetic people — it’s about enjoyment, entertainment, all that. So I like the base of Tropfest, and I really love the idea of it being there as a platform to help people.”

I love the sincerity of, “It’s about filmmaking. It’s about storytelling.”

In our conversation, Joe confessed to having a passion for mentoring and teaching others, of guiding them on their individual journeys and providing spaces for them to come together and realize their visions. A word that kept coming up was “sincerity” — sincerity in people’s intentions in making art and putting it out there in the world, and sincerity in their love of art, in wanting it to succeed and be accessible for everyone.

“Whether as an individual, or as a person organising a festival — the sincerity of who you are is important; whether you’re a filmmaker or a dancer, you’re doing it for a real reason as opposed to ‘I want people to like me’ or ‘I want [this to be] the best film or the most scandalous.’ Why does Tropfest work? Look at the stars that attend and participate — why do these people give back to the film industry? They were not paid millions to make an appearance — Nicole Kidman, Toni Collette, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Hugh Jackman — they give back for the love of filmmaking. I think something must be right in this organisation if that happens. It’s about helping. It’s not because ‘I’m appearing on the red carpet’ or anything like that. I love the sincerity of, “It’s about filmmaking. It’s about storytelling.'”

Joe is neither the first nor the last person who will build and promote platforms for the arts in Malaysia — be it for dance, performance, music, filmmaking, etc. But he sees his role as a jigsaw piece that’s part of a larger puzzle (he had a way of using many such metaphors which sound way less impressive written down), and with Tropfest SEA, he’s excited about what this could mean for us jaded young people.

Storytellers are everywhere — most of us also have an idea for a movie or short film rattling around in our back pocket.

“I think we’ve distanced a lot of young people from the arts. You cannot blame them for not liking art or culture or heritage, because there’s nowhere for them to go and see it. And when they go it’s really boring for them, because it’s not in the language that they know, it’s not in the packaging that they like. I like the idea of trying to get back the public with (work that is) short or open. There’s a freedom to it. That’s my take on the arts now, I think we really need to build back an audience, we really need to get connected again. That’s why I think the festivals that work around the world are those that are connected, connected to the people, connected to the spaces.”

Tropfest Australia is now the largest short film festival in the world. It started from a screening for 200 people in a Sydney café 20 years ago, and it’s only gotten bigger from there. It has kickstarted the careers of many Australian directors and actors, and now has many different iterations around the world — in New York, Abu Dhabi, New Zealand, Berlin, London (to name a few) and soon South-east Asia. No doubt Joe has even bigger dreams for Tropfest SEA.

“I want an ASEAN story. I don’t want international entries because then it’ll be the same as the other Tropfests in Australia and America — I want our stories, our eyes. So that we’re different and unique.”

This Tropfest 2009 finalist stars a certain Pitch Perfect actress.

I was speaking to a few friends after my interview with Joe, and we came to the conclusion that most of us know at least one person who is somewhat directly or indirectly involved in either broadcasting, television, or filmmaking (ISSUE interviewed one for our FILM edition, of course!). Most of us also have an idea for a movie or short film rattling around in our back pocket. And when it comes to film, it’s getting easier and easier now to slap together a basic story that works — look at YouTube obviously, but look also at Vine –six seconds and the things people can do with it!

Storytellers are everywhere, and some just need to be given the means to get their stories out there. It’s getting the courage and the motivation to use your voice that’s sometimes the challenge, to fight against the instinct that your small story doesn’t matter.

Joe’s advice to counter this is predictably and endearingly enthusiastic and full of unwavering belief (I say this after one hour with him!):

Be brave. Only scale [your dream or project] down because of physical limitations, or money, or God, or whatever, but aim high. It’s about dreaming, it’s about not being afraid as an artist — you see other international artists doing it so why do you start out small. When you see a big production, try to want to do something like that.

The deadline for Tropfest SEA is on October 28, 2013. The screening and judging of the finalists will happen on January 25, 2014 in Penang. Each submission must be no longer than seven minutes and include the Tropfest Signature Item (TSI); this year it’s “Rice”. The list of exciting prizes are below and you can find out more about the competition by checking out their website or following them on Facebook or Twitter. Find out more about other international Tropfests and check out finalist films here. We encourage all of you to submit something, or mark down the date of the screening in your calendar and come along. Let’s stop starving and start cooking up something worthwhile.

Tropfest 2014 Prize Poster

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