The following is an audio interview and discussion that took place online between AFA staff, Lim Si Qi (Theatre Manager), Diane Toh (Theatre Assistant) and Viknesh Kobinathan (Film Programmer) shortly after Singapore went into a nationwide partial lockdown known as a ‘circuit breaker’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on 11 April 2020. AFA’s programmes at the Oldham Theatre is on a hiatus till further notice and all AFA staff are working from home.
Regular patrons to the Oldham Theatre might be familiar with Si Qi and Diane. Here is a chance for readers to find out more about them, their experiences at the AFA and their hopes for the future.
Viknesh Kobinathan: Diane, could you tell us a bit about what you do at AFA?
Diane Toh: I am the Theatre Assistant at AFA and I help to ensure the operations of the Theatre, everything from front-of-house, volunteer management, box office and testing of films before they get screened, go on smoothly.
VK: Before you joined, what were your expectations of the job and what were your initial impressions when you first joined?
DT: I was really excited when I first read the job scope. It sounded like something I was familiar with because I have volunteered for different arts companies in the past, mainly with front-of-house. But there were also areas that are new to me and where I wasn’t sure or didn’t know how it would turn out. Sorry, what was your second question?
VK: What were your initial impressions when you joined?
DT: It’s quite different from a regular office job because you get to move around a lot more and you do a lot of hands-on things, aside from the admin work. I thought it was interesting because every day is different – it’s a different screening every day, a different set of programmes. I thought that was really fresh.
VK: Naturally, if you are working at AFA, can we assume there is an affinity you have with films or cinema. What have you recently watched or what new things would you recommend to people to watch?
DT: Due to this whole virus situation and people staying at home, I’ve been watching a lot more movies that I’ve been wanting to watch for a long time. I recently picked up The Handmaiden, the Korean film. I would recommend it to people because the plot is clever, especially if you, like me, enjoy thrillers. I think you will enjoy the plot because it comes in three parts, you’ll see how the dynamics of the different characters play out when you see things in their different perspectives and how they see each other. I thought it played out nicely and the costumes were good. I would really recommend that.
VK: Fantastic! As a follow-up question to that, while at AFA with all the films that you have tested and sat in on, what are some new discoveries you’ve made, either a director, actor through the films you have watched?
DT: Wow, (laughs) there’s actually a lot! Okay, wait let me think.
Lim Si Qi: I think it’s quite difficult to pinpoint because we really have a lot of programmes…
VK: Maybe not just about film directors or actors specifically, but is there a film or moment in the theatre that you remember or something you would think about from time to time?
DT: When we have films that touch on social issues, such as feminism, I would think, how would our audience react to this? And if they are already here because they know the film is going to explore this topic, how does the film affirm their existing beliefs?
VK: So a curiosity about how audiences will react to certain issues on screen?
VK: Nice. And when you have those questions in your head before the film starts and you see people come out of the cinema, what’s it like to hear how they react?
DT: Definitely rewarding when they come out of the theatre and they tell you that they really enjoyed the film. I think that is encouraging!
VK: Thanks! Let’s move on to Si Qi. Could you also tell us more about your role at AFA and what you do?
LSQ: I joined AFA in May 2019 as the Theatre Manager. Because this was a new position, I didn’t know what to expect but I had some background in the arts and was able to apply my experience managing venues and operations. I had some experience with running film programmes as part of the festival as well. Here, we basically run the operations of Oldham Theatre – managing the whole team, including volunteers and technicians. I find it difficult to fully describe my role. Sometimes when people ask me “Eh, how’s your job?” or “what are some of the things that you do”, I struggle a bit when thinking of a response. It’s very hard because we have to be responsive to what crops up and it can be very time specific.
VK: I guess all of us at AFA have this issue where it is quite hard to describe our job. There are many moving parts and different challenges each day. One must adapt and be collaborative as well. It’s so many different things coming together.
LSQ: When people ask me what I do, I just say I run the theatre, with my team – including our part-timers and volunteers! (Diane laughs.)
VK: I guess that sounds very cool!
LSQ: Managing Oldham Theatre has made me notice many small details that I would have otherwise overlooked. For example, ensuring the film is playing at an optimal volume; the curtains do not block the image; making the theatre a conducive environment overall. Whenever we test films, we are not just watching films for entertainment, there is an added responsibility of ensuring that the clips play smoothly, which requires a bit of experience to catch these details. I think it is about thinking of ways to offer a better experience to visitors – from the moment they enter the NAS building and take the lift to level 3, buying tickets at the box office and at registration. Every cinema has its own charm that brings audiences back!
VK: Okay so I guess linked with that, when you watch films for leisure, what do you look for? What kind of films are you drawn to?
LSQ: When it comes to film festivals and even our own programming, things that I would be interested in are normally films that have some sort of narrative. I think the one I really remembered was Microhabitat from the Faces of Korean Woman programme. There’s something very nice and cosy about it, even though it is kind of sad. I think I tend to go for things like that. I am also interested in animation, stop motion. I really wanted to watch the SGIFF films, which was screened at Oldham Theatre. I think it’s a Cambodian film [The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh]. I really wanted to watch it, but didn’t get a chance to because we were busy running around…
VK: Job hazard… So you like a good story, a good emotional core to a film. Those are good expectations to have in a film, I think. A lot of films try to achieve those things, and they don’t really get there. Sometimes when you find a film that is done by capable hands you’ll think, “wow, this is what great cinema can achieve!”.
LSQ: Yes, I’m always looking for films that hopefully give me that feeling.
VK: Moving away from talking about films for a while, I want to ask some questions about the non-film related parts of working. Diane, I think this is an issue for all of us every day. Where do we go eat? (Everyone bursts into laughter) It’s a good problem, because we have so much choices around where we are, whether it’s at Oldham [Theatre] or Bugis. There must be some favourite places you don’t mind eating at often. What are some of these places?
DT: I think I eat Wok Hey a lot (laughs). Especially when we are working at Oldham, I will buy it at least once a week. The egg fried rice is my to-go.
VK: Is it really that good? Or is it just convenient to eat?
DT: I think both. They are quite generous with the eggs – they’ll give 2 servings of eggs. It is not that salty or tasteless. Or the Thai food at Funan. I think there’s a few, but it is the one at the back on level 1 [Took Lae Dee].
VK: I think we should also just put a disclaimer that this is not paid.
DT: We are not sponsored to say this (laughs).
VK: While we are at it, Si Qi, could you give us some of your food recommendations?
LSQi: I don’t really have any (laughs). I’m not a fussy eater, I will eat almost everything.
VK: So you don’t mind going wherever the office is going?
LSQ: Depends on my mood on what I feel like eating because there are really a lot of food options in both Bugis and City Hall.
VK: Let me ask you both – it is very hard to not think about what will happen to what we do – running the cinema, running the film programmes. It is difficult to not think about the future given the current situation where we could face a closure that, at the extreme, last up to a year. In this context, what are some thoughts that are running through your mind? What do you expect? Or what are some hopes even?
LSQ: I think it is a good question, not just for us, but for everyone because it is a problem affecting operations across all sectors. A lot of things have to be prepared in advance so that people can work from home. The theatre is a physical thing because you have to go to a cinema in order to watch films on a big screen. So I think it is very difficult to replicate it at home. Even with Netflix at home, the feeling is different from going to a cinema, right? I do hope that the cinema will still be open in the future, but it is also about how we are able to put up some films online as well so that they are accessible. We screen some good films and have an archive collection that is the core of what we do. It would be good if people are able to access that. The thing is, our programming is seasonal. Supposing I wanted to watch films from the Faces of Korean Women programme but may have been busy then or was overseas, it would be nice if we are able to have some of these classic films available throughout the year for people to refer to. I feel that it is an entry point – people can ask their friends or family or colleagues, “Have you heard of AFA? Have you watched this film?” and familiarise themselves with us. Whether it is online or in the cinema, it is something I hope we can consider doing.
DT: I think for me, while everyone is encouraged to stay home for now, I feel that after this is over, hopefully not more than a year and we will be out and about soon, I think there would be a greater demand for such activities that you can do with your friends. As Si Qi said, things you cannot do at home. The whole experience of getting ready and making your way to the theatre, making plans with your friends – that is irreplaceable. I hope more people will be encouraged to try new things and check out Asian films when we reopen.
LSQ: Since the theatre closed, Diane and I have been working with our colleagues in Collections to refresh the content of archival materials, cataloguing and subtitling. It is something I really appreciate because it gives us some familiarity and connection with the materials and the archival side of AFA. It gives us a lot of background to work with. Thanks to the Collections team!
VK: You are getting an in-house training at this period of time.
VK:. I think for me, it is a bit scary because we are in a situation that we cannot fix, neither can we wish it away, so we just have to deal with it. In situations like this, the only thing we can do is to react accordingly and think of new ways where we can continue to do our work but slightly differently. A lot of times, it is very easy for us to keep to things we are familiar with. This is forcing everyone to think outside of our comfort zone. I guess what we are doing right now, is one way of trying to overcome this “standstill” we are going through. We don’t have a cinema for now, but it doesn’t mean that we stop making things or stop trying to connect with people by showing our personalities and letting people know this is who we are, the people who work behind the scenes. Maybe some people want to listen to us, maybe they don’t. (Everyone laughs)
For programming, we have to start thinking about how do we programme outside of a venue; how do we engage people via the digital platforms. What does programming online mean? These are active steps we need to start taking so that the work can continue without a physical space. Hopefully when the cinema opens again, like Diane said earlier, people might have an increased desire to watch films or they might have learnt things or explored things while they were at home and they are ready to come out and be involved with the cinema. There’s a lot of work to be done from now to that point. There’s a lot of re-calibration to do but at least we are all in this together, so I am feeling hopeful!