Let’s Get Physical (with safe-distancing measures)


The new normal has us at our laptops at odd hours, attending more film festivals, music gigs, classes and webinars from the safety of our own homes than we ever did back In Real Life (the unplugged, offline world, a.k.a. IRL).

Just months ago, we lamented the unprecedented state of isolation, setting up Work-From-Home desks right next to our beds. Today, we are no longer surprised when we have to attend huge festivals digitally.

Here at Singapore Film Society (SFS, that’s us!), 2020 has us postponing, cancelling or pending decisions on 5-6 annual film festivals. Navigating the unpredictable future – performing the tango between ‘is it time to move online?’ and ‘maybe we should hold off a little more?’ – has been nothing but tricky.

But one amongst us danced its way through! Taipei Film Festival 2020 successfully held a physical festival in June. Jealous? No need to be; we got the scoop straight from the team.

We grabbed an exclusive interview with two key members of the TFF team –
Ya-Mei Li, the Festival Director, and Stephanie Su, the Head of Programming – to find out how the TFF team pulled it off.

About Taipei Film Festival 2020

COVID-19 has been running high numbers worldwide all of 2020, with countries taking turns to spike in case counts. Fortunately, Taiwan has managed to keep their ‘rookie numbers’ low, a good thing memes aside. As a result, TFF 2020 was the 1st (safe and successful) physical film festival since COVID-19 turned our cinemas into germ-imaginariums.

Compared to its internationally renowned counterpart, The Golden Horse Film Festival, TFF targets a younger and more niche audience and focuses more on Taiwanese films to showcase Taiwan’s own talents. In its 22nd year running, TFF’s 2-week run in June 2020 pulled through against all odds and now gives us hope for a near-future of safe physical film festivals (yes, we miss your faces IRL too!).

SFS: When did you realise that COVID-19 would affect this year’s festival, and how did you pivot the programme to adapt to the pandemic?

Scene from Opening Film (KO Chen-nien, 2020, Taiwan)

It started in March 2020. TFF acted on its contingency plans by first cancelling all large outdoor screening activities that aimed to bring in more than 300 attendees.

The next important step was the decision to set a deadline to make THE decision (that darn tango). April was when they had to, and eventually did, make the final call to go ahead with the festival slated to open in late June. Plans A & B were drawn up.

In Plan A, the only difference from the original programming was the absence of international filmmakers. This was immediately set into motion. Invitations were cancelled and all-around understanding was exchanged.

Plan B was to call off all physical activities (cinema screenings, talks and award ceremonies) if a large-scale community outbreak loomed over them closer to June. These would have then been taken to virtual platforms, as is the case now for almost every other event.

The only thing that worried them was to closely monitor expenses and budget so that the switch between plans would be seamless if called for. Thankfully, Plan A commenced.

SFS: Did anything move to digital platforms? Was it a question of ‘to hybrid, or not to hybrid?’

Since Plan A was locked in, the only aspect of the film festival that was missing was the international filmmakers.

To remedy this, they recorded short interviews. Not wanting to take too much time in the theatres during screenings, the videos were posted on TFF’s online platforms for the audience to watch anytime and anywhere. Despite less audience interaction, many of the filmmakers were thrilled to have their films screened in physical theatres and to have a platform to boost their message through the recorded interviews despite the pandemic. This was as much a win-win as the situation allowed.

Though international filmmakers could not travel to Taipei, local filmmakers also could not travel out of Taipei. Result? More local filmmakers than ever before were available to hold live Q&As for their films during the physical screenings at TFF 2020.

SFS: How did you ensure safety?

Pre-Festival Talk took place with a full house of pre-registered audience, 13 June 2020

Without a doubt, TFF was concerned about the safety of its staff and audience, and pushed hard for systems to be put in place to ensure there would be no chance of a community outbreak during the festival.

Unlike Singapore, due to a significantly lower number of confirmed COVID cases, Taiwan did not go into lock-down, but still had less intensive safety measures. Taiwan did an excellent job in combatting COVID-19, but that also meant that TFF had to initiate a lot of the measures they wanted to put in place since they were the first ones to host such a large-scale event after COVID hit.

Contact-information-based measures (similar to our Safe Entry but no real name or ID was collected) were employed to match and log audience members to their seat numbers. Mask-wearing was enforced, hand sanitisers were in abundance and automated temperature checkers were rented. Everything was new to Taipei’s event industry, but TFF quickly understood the need for all the measures, problem-solved from the drawing board, and executed the measures safely and successfully.

SFS: Was it difficult to convince people of the safety?

Thankfully, TFF did not need to work that hard to convince its audience.

TFF’s Li, posting with Director, Producer & cast from Opening Film, 25 June 2020

Once they had put out the initial Press Release stating the extent of the safety measures, not much more convincing was needed. They then focused on delivering their promise of an excellent, undiminished Taipei Film Festival 2020. Since the festival was unique in pulling through almost as originally planned, a lot of media exposure and coverage also helped boost TFF’s success.

In its aim to reach younger audiences, TFF focused more on short-form videos and platforms like Instagram. Success! Most of the attendees were young cinephiles who despite being masked, still unleashed their full energy in attendance.

The one thing that was tricky was keeping sponsors, despite the surety of safety. Even brands that wanted to stay on were not allowed to sponsor internationally (due to their own company policy during the pandemic) and had no choice but to pull out.

Despite the setback, TFF was a huge success. Not only did it manage to end the festival with its trademark well-attended live Award Ceremony represented by a full-house of Taiwanese filmmakers, it also managed to grow its festival box office by a solid 10% compared to 2019!

SFS: What else was pulled back?

Apart from the international filmmakers having to record their interviews instead of doing it live, there were 2 other little (unnoticeable) snags.

Firstly, programming shrunk minutely. Since other film festivals were cancelled or postponed, a number of films they had originally programmed were unable to send them screeners or attain premiere status before participating in TFF, and therefore had to pull out.

Secondly, a focus on a well-known Brazilian filmmaker (hmm, we wonder too but hush hush, let’s let TFF surprise us next time) was pushed back to another year so proper emphasis can be given to his new projects.

Despite that, the programming was mostly able to go ahead because Berlin Film Festival closed successfully before COVID-19 hit. TFF had a slew of options from Berlin Film Festival and some quality works from 2019 to include in their line-up this year.

SFS: How’s the local film industry doing?

2020 Taipei Film Award Grand Prize & Best Narrative Feature winner (Detention, John Hsu, 2019, Taiwan)

Even though the overall scale of Taiwanese film productions has been affected by the pandemic, Taiwan’s outstanding record in keeping COVID-19 under control continues to help keep cinema and film events in operation.

As expected, cinemas in Taiwan were not immune. The number of films, both local and international, enjoying theatrical release has dropped. But an unexpected side-effect of the pandemic is that some viewers (perhaps yourself included) have moved to Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms (i.e. streaming sites). As a result, content is still in demand. Many young filmmakers in Taiwan are working on OTT projects, and this will help keep the industry growing for now.

SFS: What’s 2021 looking like?

TFF, like the rest of us, hopes to have physical film festivals back to normal soon. Taiwan’s older, more popular Golden Horse Film Festival which focuses instead on Chinese-language films from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia etc., seems to be ready to take off as planned in October, with its regular schedule of masterclasses and seminars. The international film community is keeping a close eye on how the festival will pan out.

For TFF, the plan for 2021 is still up in the air as of the release of this article, and it seems we will have to wait to find out more. Stephanie Su predicts that with the changing demands of the audience, next year’s programming might have titles more in line with topics that pertain to our current unprecedented situation.

What’s more certain, however, is that TFF’s Ya-Mei Li is determined to push forward and secure the budget to continue the new Supernova New-Talent Showcase that they started this year, to “help up-and-coming new talents with resources, networks and a platform for them to shine.”

If travelling is safer by next year, Taipei Film Festival is one you should pencil into your calendar. Watch this amazing team put together another brilliant and insightful run in 2021!

For now, here’s hoping we can practise what we learnt from TFF and slowly and safely bring physical screenings back to normalcy.

Photo credit:
Taipei Film Festival, www.variety.com

Interviewers & authors:
Singapore Film Society’s passionate volunteers Priyanka Nair & Sally Wu

Note: The interview was conducted in a mix of English and Mandarin, and the interviewees’ answers have been partially translated and rephrased for clarity.

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