A still from Sisterhood. Photo: IFFAM
A still from Sisterhood. Photo: IFFAM

Barely a month ago, the International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM), the special administrative region of China’s first ever international film festival, was in trouble. Its director resigned without explanation, and the whole thing threatened to unravel.

In the event, proceedings shifted along nicely, albeit with one or two teething issues. Stars including Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi and a famous Kpop singer turned out for the the marquee event. A masterclass with Tom McCarthy, the Spotlight director, was met with enthusiastic aplomb. And at red carpet events across four venues, crowds greeted the cast and crew of various movies eagerly.

It may be a case of baby steps, but IFFAM has the potential to establish itself and help the local film industry, experts say.

Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes speaks at IFFAM’s opening gala. Photo: IFFAM

Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, the acting festival director, told Asia Times that the festival can introduce Macau to a wider international audience.

“By having different producers and film crews here, we stand the chance to introduce Macau to them and eventually entice them to consider Macau in their future projects,” she said.

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Senna Fernandes is also the director of Macau’s tourism office and president of the festival’s organizing committee. She stepped in to fill the role of festival director after Marco Mueller, a veteran festival director, left abruptly over differing opinions on how the inaugural event should be run.

The Venetian Macao, one of the largest casinos in Macau and also one of the venues for IFFAM. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Long hailed as the Las Vegas of the East, Macau is dotted with glitzy casinos and gigantic LED signboards everywhere you look. Critics have often decried the territory’s over-reliance on its gaming industry: close to 60% of the economy depends on that sector. But IFFAM attendees said Macau’s existing infrastructure for events might prove to be an advantage in terms of establishing a film festival that can attract an international audience.

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“My impression is that Macau is a very suitable location for doing an event like this, because you have all the supporting hotels, facilities, entertainment, convention centres – so I think it’s a good idea to have a film festival here,” said Jeffrey Chan, COO of Bona Film Group, one of China’s leading film distributors.

But, he adds, the challenge is for the festival to develop its own distinct identity – and have the patience to allow that to happen.

“It really depends whether the organizers, the sponsors and the government have vision long enough to keep it growing. It will take years to make it more established,” he said.

Local filmmakers hopeful

Tracy Choi, a young director whose film Sisterhood was the only film from Macau in contention, hopes IFFAM will bring about an exchange of ideas and open up funding from other places for local filmmakers.

Sisterhood director Tracy Choi. Photo: IFFAM

“We hope that we can exchange ideas with people from different countries that come for the festival and get more chances to show our works and maybe get some funding from other countries,” said Choi.

IFFAM also marked the first time that the Film Academy of the British Film Institute (BFI) has collaborated with practitioners outside of the United Kingdom. Promising young filmmakers were selected to form a film crew to make a short film in six days, with guidance from professionals from the UK, including the director Ben Wheatley.

“The project was a huge success, huge, and it exceeded my expectations. The group (of filmmakers) that we worked with were amazing,” said Jen Sobol, the manager of the BFI Film Academy who oversaw the workshop.

Peeko Wong (back row, second from right) and Ben Wheatley (front row, third from left) pose with participants and BFI staff.

Peeko Wong, who directed the short film, said the experience was vital in terms of learning professional standards.

“The people from the UK were very professional and they were very rigorous and strict on the schedule, whereas sometimes in Macau we will be a bit lax in that aspect,” she said.

Aside from nurturing filmmaking talent, however, developing a local audience that has an appetite for the cinematic artform is also crucial to building a sustainable industry. As Senna Fernandes notes: “Having a film festival here would mean our local audience gets exposed to a wider range of films other than commercial films.”