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.:.: the birth of ifva

 

ifva Ready for Transformation
An Interview with Jimmy Choi - The Man Who Started It All

 
This is the Art Form that is at the Heel of the Latest Trend
An Interview with one of the ifva Co-founders Lo Tak-sing
 

 

 

 

ifva Ready for Transformation
An Interview with Jimmy Choi - The Man Who Started It All
Interviewers: Ka Ming, Teresa Kwong
Compilation: Ka Ming

 

The Origin of ifva


Q: How did ifva come into being?

Choi: I was in the States prior 1994 and I was then pondering which medium was the most suitable for upholding democracy and freedom of expression. Videocam was then popular and the young were not that keen on writing. I came back in 1994 and I was thinking of combining the Independent Short Film Competition with the Hong Kong Independent Video Awards into one big unit. I contacted the then Urban Council requesting for such a change. However, they believed it would be better to keep them in separate units. So the Arts Centre hosted the first Hong Kong Independent Video Awards on its own. A year later, probably because of the lack of short film entrants for the first year of the Hong Kong Independent Video Awards, the Urban Council back then wanted the two competitions to be merged. It was 1995 when the Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards, in which two media were incorporated, came into being..


Q: Was there anything unforgettable during the time of your first ifva collaboration with the former Urban Council?

Choi: There should have been quite a few, but I have forgotten them all. But in collaboration with any government departments, issues concerning execution are unavoidable. For instance, sponsors. They are more sensitive on this aspect and it leads to problems in execution. It took us a long while holding many meetings to come to a compromise. But once we had reached our agreement, the Urban Council didn't have that much an involvement in execution. We had not encountered any great problems and the process was quite smooth.


Q: In the 1995 programme, you said that you did worry about the juxtaposition of two media; it might undermine each other's development. Subsequent development showed that video has become that de facto medium of creation. If the two competitions had remained independent, could it mean a greater living space for short film (creation with film)?

Choi: The demise of short film as an art form had nothing to do with the combination of the competitions. As a matter of fact, few used 16mm at that time, even in cinema schools or film departments in the universities. They preferred the video instead. We should know that these places are the source of short film entrants. Short film died a natural death.


Q: Why did you choose competition as a means to promote independent short films in the first place?

Choi: Competition is the more appealing mode. It is easier to promote a piece of work if it has won awards. It adds creditability to a piece of work if it has won certain awards from certain competitions or has been an entrant to certain festivals. Film festival organisers have to go through a lot of films in making their selections. "Awards" will make a good reference.

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Independence /Autonomy/ Youth


Q: "Independence" seemed to the major criterion in deciding your positioning. Why was that?

Choi: Autonomous as well as independent were both in our choice of positioning. (We had thought of using "autonomous", as well as "independent".) Since the latter was used by the Urban Council whilst I had no particular objection to it, we finally chose independent. The two words are similar in meaning anyway. They both mean "self-determination". Of course "independence" can be defined in many different ways. But spiritually speaking, independence means free of influence from others. It also means letting your own creativity flourish and your voice heard. As we had to depend on big firms, commercial factors must be taken into consideration. Naturally, we would conform to their decisions.


Q: But doesn't "Short Film" already mean " independent"?

Choi: "Short Film" does not necessarily mean "independent". It is relatively easier to survive, because it is cheaper to make. When we talk about "independent", the length of the work no longer takes into account. It means creativity, self-expression and any bizarre forms of expression you care to use. Short film is just a format; properties such as cheap and short do not necessarily mean independent which are not the imperative conditions for independent.


Q: You just mentioned "creativity". How did you weigh creativity and freedom of expression then?

Choi: We gave them equal importance. "Freedom of expression" means whether the creator believes in what he says. So long as it is what he believes in, however cliched the message or the method employed, it is mission accomplished. Hence we put "creativity" there as a directive. It is our wish that the creators will not be influenced by media such as TV. Independence also applies to the method employed. This demand may infringe on their freedom of expression. But there are so many means of expression, why do they have to follow what they have seen on TV? This relates to the pursuit of creativity.


Q: Independence and autonomy were major criteria in the set-up of the competition, then have you defined what it means by "commercial involvement"?

Choi: It has to be discussed case by case. If the commercial involvement extends into the production process, then it will not be tolerated. We have to judge it case by case, and it depends on the criteria of the organizer and the jury. We only give the jury non-specific directives. It is left for the jury to decide. Some are strict in their principles and will not tolerate any product placement. It is left for them to decide.


Q: When ifva first came into being, what were your goals and what were in your agenda?

Choi: Our first goal was to expand the independent creation to allow greater participation. Then it was promoting it to the youth. When I was in New York, I was greatly impressed by the video creations from the youth center (such as Education Video Centre). They were very high in standard. I brought several back to Hong Kong. Before setting up the ifva Youth Category, I showed them to some schoolteachers and then discussed with them whether the category was feasible. If their feedback was positive we could apply for more grants. It was 1996. The teachers were enthusiastic and they too were greatly impressed by the videos.


Q: The Youth Category came into being in 1997. In 1999 the Grand Price was won by a Youth Category entry. It showed that your work there had a fruitful end. You must be excited at that time. Now that several years have gone by, looking back, do you think it was a bit over-hyped?

Choi: We were happy indeed, and I kept using the 17 and a half year old girl as an example. I don't think it was over-hyped. In fact the jury took particular care and we had braced ourselves for challenges. Was it a one time off miracle that was not repeated after 1999? I don't know; I was not in Hong Kong in that several years. We can say that girl was particularly talented. Anyway, I have heard comments from Youth Category jurors; they too thought that our youth had creativity. Of course there were dreadful works, the disparity between the good and bad was quite extreme.

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Short Film and Video in Present and Future


Q: Short film screening and distribution has always been a problem in Hong Kong. Creations will never be shown to the public. Some people only create for ifva. It is a common phenomenon. Do you agree it is a dead end of short film creation in Hong Kong? Will there be any changes in the foreseeable future?

Choi: The problem has always been there, and it is serious. Back in the old days cinemas used to screen short films with the feature film. But the practice had ceased for many years. The Arts Centre, for a time, used to screen short films of less than ten minutes in length with the feature films, and split the proceeds with the creator. But now time means everything to the cinemas and they have no time for short films. It is not easy to convince TV stations to show short films. But now we have the internet; it means another screening channel for short films. The situation has not greatly improved though and short film distribution is still an issue to be dealt with. VCD is another option to be considered. Short films may not be screened in traditional cinemas. They can be distributed and sold like books. There are technical problems to overcome, but it is an option worth exploring.


Q: Besides dissemination channels, educational promotion too is also important?

Choi: It is always important, and not just for short film. It applies to all cultures and arts. I am pessimistic in this aspect. From the perspective of our socio-economic structure, short film is an every inexpensive art form, it is affordable to everyone, but no one takes it up. Should they have the spare time, the people here prefer to use it to make more money. And spare time is getting scarce. Since the economic downturn, it seems everyone now works from nine to nine. They are tired out by work, who has the mood for filmmaking? If they have the time they prefer to go home and sleep. What we face here is an exploitative society. It sounds old-fashioned to say so. But in a capitalistic society we are not our own masters. Even if the economy picks up again the employers will want to recoup their loss first and it will not translate into better times for the working class. I have long predicted that the greatest enemy of short film is the invisible "social structure". Through social "education", people come to realize that art does not pay. This sense of value also comes to affect the promotion of art and culture here. The thinking of "time means money" and exploitation is more serious here in Hong Kong than in New York. Of course, there are always exceptions, like you and me. But to promoters, exceptions do not count. So we are fighting a losing battle here. What I see is just exploitation, exploitation, and exploitation.


Q: You said the traditional cinematic mode would change. Then what about short film and video creation? What about the future of ifva?

Choi: I am pessimistic on one hand. Cinema will live on, but traditional screening will die out. On the other hand I am optimistic, because it will be replaced by other formats. I have emphasized time and again, it will be a brave new world. It may not be "cinema" as we know it, but so what? Theoretically it is easier for short film to transform into a new medium. We cannot stay in one place forever. Cinema is still my love, but I will be excited by the appearance of new stuff. Besides, because of the narrowcast of internet, there will be niche virtual communities for people of special or weird tastes over the world. In the world of short film, we too should think outside the frame.


Q: What do you most desire to see in coming ifva?

Choi: Transformation, transforming into "new media". We have no set criteria for this new medium, whatever that comes into being at that time. Before our transformation we still have room for changes, such as enhance its festivity. That will be fun. For instance, we can invite filmmakers to give talks, or more activities for participation, instead of just screening. There are so many options, but to make them work it needs money. It is always a matter of money.

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Jimmy Choi

Jimmy Choi sees film and video not just as an art form but also as expressions of the social and the personal, and has a long history of participation in social matters (e.g. one of the organisers in the Protection of Diao Yu Dao Movement 1971) and film culture (co-founder of Phoenix Cine club 1973 and co-maker of the award winning super 8 film The Diary of a Student ). After graduated from the City University of New York he returned to work in the film industry for about three years and then turned to journalism working for "Asiaweek", RTHK and ATV. Seeing the inadequacy of mainstream media, he set up Videopower with a group of like-minded video workers to make documentaries with under-privileged groups. His work June-4th and Beyond has been shown in the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 1995 and International Video Festival Dhara 1996. While running the Film and Video Department of the Hong Kong Arts Centre (1990-2000), he set up the Zeman Media Centre and ifva to build a favorable environment for the development of indepdendent productions. Fascinated by the seemingly endless possibilities of new media especially the Internet, he pursues his PhD studies in UK and is now starting his research in Hong Kong while teaching part-time. Vastly experienced in organising film programmes and festivals, he has been on the jury panels of various international film festivals.

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This is the Art Form that is at the Heel of the Latest Trend
An Interview with one of the ifva Co-founders Lo Tak-sing
Interview & Compilation: Ka Ming

 

Two Units, Two Roles


Q: In 1995, the then Urban Council co-organized ifva with Hong Kong Arts Centre, how did it come into being?

Lo: It was around 1992; the now then Urban Council organized the first Hong Kong Independent Short Film Competition.  The competition entered its third year in 1995.  About that time, Arts Centre also hosted the First Independent Video Awards, with Urban Council funding.  Though not exactly the same in nature, these two projects were competitions sharing a lot of similarities.  When I first took over I found it not a good arrangement, so I talked with Jimmy Choi of Arts Centre.  Jimmy was interested and he got some feedback from the sector.  We both thought we could give it a try.  One of our main considerations was that by combining the two competitions, we could pool our resources together for bigger promotion.  With more manpower and resources under our disposal, we could achieve better results.  Moreover, at that time, we saw that the short film entries were limited in number and video had a greater drawing potential.  We thought that it would be a bit of waste if the committed resources were spent on short film (project) alone, it would be a better option to combine the two together.  Since Arts Centre already boasted a Media Centre with comprehensive facilities, it was only logical that the merged competition should be handled by Arts Centre.


Q: Upon the decision of co-organizing ifva, how did you split the responsibilities between Urban Council and Arts Centre?  In which stage saw the greatest government involvement?  And what was the nature of the involvement?

Lo: We practically handed in the general operation to Arts Centre, and we limited our involvement to key issues.  The pattern of operation in Government is different from NGOs such as the Arts Centre.  We wore two hats at that time, the first was backer, giving financial support, and the second was supervisor.  The Government puts great emphasis on supervision.  Poor supervision, like the Harbourfest, will lead to criticisms. We are talking about public money after all. Arts Centre understands why we take it so rigorous.  Our manpower input was limited.  I was then handling three festivals (HKIFF, International Arts Carnival and Asian Arts Festival) for the Festivals Office; I was really hard pressed.  Since the Arts Centre was capable of handling it alone, our involvement would be redundant.  It was only in supervision,  or post-competition review, that we had a greater presence.


Q: With the growing popularity of videocam, short film creation was already dying out in the 90s.  As the organizer of the Short Film Competition, you found it a shame?

Lo: Film is a unique medium, and one with a high quality.  Of course it would be a shame if it were no longer used.  But the advance of history cannot be stopped.  Even commercial cinema is going digital.  We have to be practical in our evaluation.  Shooting with film will still be taught in film schools.  But at the end of the day, what medium you choose to create with depends on your interest and what you can afford. 

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ifva Ups and Downs


Q: In the years of involvement, what were the great and not so great moments for you and your colleagues?

Lo: I think ifva has been doing very well.  The Youth Category, which was added later, let us know that our youth is actually full of creativity.  The year on year entrant number increase is quite marked, and the entries have been high in level.  We are of course very glad of it.  Jurors have always been contributive and have had a lot of inputs, even in criteria of categorization.  We talk a lot every year and it is a good phenomenon.  Sometime arguments are heated but plethora of ideas from different people only pushes us to think more, and they are conducive to the development of the competition.


Q: In the initial stage, were there anything you regret about, or thought they could have been better?

Lo: Well, art can always be improved; you can always go for a higher level.  I think the most important thing that there is room for sustained development.  Reaching the "ideal" only means it has turned stagnant.  I always maintain a more balanced attitude and have had no regrets.  Even today, the programmes I am responsible with are still evolving.  Back then, ifva were constantly evolving, we kept thinking up ways of making it better, like the addition of pre-competition activities and post-competition activities.  There are always new ways to explore, and we should adapt to the times.

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And Video for All


Q: In the years you were involved with ifva, besides the steady increase in entry number, what were the more marked changes?

Lo: I would say it is the divergent background of the entrants.  We used to think that the entrants would be professionals, and at first we also meant to encourage practitioners to try their hands in independent filmmaking.  But the competition has attracted entrants from all walks of life.  One of the winners was a housewife; it was amazing, and quite surprised us.  Hence I always think that we shouldn't put up frames, but open to all and welcome anyone who is interested.  In time ifva did achieve this goal. 
And the post-competition follow-up is very comprehensive, with seminars, screenings of overseas works, and recommendation of ifva films to overseas film festivals.  The first ifva was wanting in many aspects.  But you learn as you go.  With the promotion by organizations such as Ying E Chi, ifva development has been smooth.


Q: The Urban Council was a co-organizer of ifva, what had it done to promote short film and video creation with other departments, such as collaboration with education department or arts festivals (including film festival)?

Lo: Yes, but not formally.  For instance, Hong Kong Arts Development Council had set up special team and allocated fund to subsidize independent filmmaking. With the opening of the Film  Hong KongArchive, an exhibition was held, showing some early Hong Kong independent short films they had found.   HKIFF and Film Programmes Office respectively had corresponding promotion activities.  Different departments and organizations had taken part in promotional activities through various channels. 


Q: But in recent years, the Government seems to be phasing out from ifva.  It is now only a sponsor.  Why the change?

Lo: It is the general trend.  In the early days, the Government was a co-organizer, but in name only.  The operation was effectively taken over by Arts Centre.  You can see that the Government mode of involvement has changed.  It has been promoting the privatization of many art groups, such as the Chinese Orchestra, Hong Kong Ballet, or CCDC.  We have turned to subsidization. It is the general trend.


Q: What is the Government's direction in the promotion of independent short films in the coming years?

Lo: It is too early to say, with the Committee on Performing Arts just being set up in November 2004.  In their two-year term, they will discuss the future role of the Government in performing arts, and give strategic advices to the Government.  Members of the committee include Clarence Chang and Ma Fung-kwok.  They care about the development of local cinema.  But the committee is just formed and they don't have a timetable yet.  Only after they have kicked into action we will know about the future direction.


Q: What do you want to see in the way forward for ifva?

Lo: I want to see it reaching out to more people.  I want to see everyone taking up a videocam to create some works or just shooting some personal records.  I don't expect everyone to enter into competition.  The purpose of competition is to remind people of this medium of expression.  Individual creations may not be of immediate use to the individuals or the society.  But in time they will become important individual or collective social memory.  We used to do it with camera, now it is videocam.  Video of course is a more comprehensive medium.  I hope ifva will attract more people to create with videocam.  For the competition to get better, it has to be a competition for all people, for all walks of life.  Videocam is common nowadays.  Film is the art form that is at the heel of the latest trend.  With new technology development and the trend for multi-media, its future is unlimited. 

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Lo Tak-Sing


Lo Tak-Sing is a veteran arts administrator. He is currently the Chief Manager (Stadia,Ticketing & Special Duties) of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Hong Kong SAR Government. He has also been in various key positions in the performing arts such as the Chief Manager (Cultural Presentations), Chief Manager (Film and Cultural Exchange), Head of Film Programmes Office and major festivals including the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Festival of Asian Arts, Thematic Festival on Chinese Arts and International Arts Carnival.

 

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