Regional collaboration for unique cinematic aesthetic | Sunday Observer
Asia Pacific Screenplay Lab:

Regional collaboration for unique cinematic aesthetic

16 July, 2023
Jeremy Chua, Akiva Tevet, Yoshimasa Jimbo, Deyali Mukherjee, Herman Van Eyken, U Wei Haji Saari, Prasanna Vithanage,  Vimukthi Jayasundara, Pavel Jech, Sobanasivan Velrajah and Amir Amenov
Jeremy Chua, Akiva Tevet, Yoshimasa Jimbo, Deyali Mukherjee, Herman Van Eyken, U Wei Haji Saari, Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara, Pavel Jech, Sobanasivan Velrajah and Amir Amenov

The second session of the eighth Asia Pacific Screenplay Lab recently concluded at the Habarana Village by Cinnamon in Siriya effectively serving as a catalyst for nurturing talent, fostering collaboration, and enhancing the quality of projects in the Asia Pacific region’s film industry.

The Asia Pacific Screen Lab is a developmental laboratory for early career feature filmmakers from across the Asia Pacific, who have typically made at least one feature film within the frame of their national cinema and are now ready for a larger international framework. By providing mentorship, script development support, and opportunities for cross-cultural exchange, the lab aimed to empower filmmakers and facilitate the growth of co-production initiatives.

The Sunday Observer had an opportunity to conduct an in-depth interview with Prof. Herman Van, the founder of Asia Pacific Screenplay Lab and the head of the Griffith Film School in Australia. We discussed the objectives of the APSL, the selection criteria for the four chosen projects of the eighth edition of APSL , and how they contribute to the enhancement of the unique cinematic aesthetic in Southeast Asia.


Q: Can you tell us more about the Asia Pacific Screen Lab and its objectives in fostering co-production among filmmakers in the Asia Pacific region?

A: The Asia Pacific Screen Lab plays a vital role in fostering collaboration and co-production among filmmakers in the Asia Pacific region. As an incubator for emerging talent, the lab offers a unique opportunity for selected projects to receive guidance and mentorship from experienced professionals.

The lab operates with a clear objective: to identify projects with great potential but in need of further development. A diverse group of industry experts, including mentors from the Asian Pacific Screen Academy, are carefully chosen to guide participants throughout the lab process. These mentors bring valuable insights and expertise to the projects, ensuring that filmmakers receive support tailored to their specific needs.

While the lab is not directly focused on pushing participants into co-production, it creates an environment that encourages collaboration and the exploration of potential co-production opportunities. By connecting participants with mentors from different backgrounds and countries, the lab offers a chance for cross-cultural exchange and opens doors to potential co-production partnerships.

Though the lab primarily focuses on fiction and documentary projects, it remains open to exploring other genres, including animation. The goal is to support filmmakers in various disciplines and provide them with resources and guidlines to bring their visions to life.

Q: What are the selected four projects that have been developing in the Asia-Pacific Screenplay lab?

A: We have selected four diverse and compelling projects for development. The first project is from Sri Lanka, exploring post-war reconciliation and bridging cultural divides by Soban Velrajah. Renowned filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage mentors this project. The second project, led by Indian filmmaker Deyali Mukherjee, tackles a complex subject and benefits from the guidance of acclaimed director Vimukthi Jayasundara.

The lab also chose a challenging documentary from Japanese filmmaker Yoshimasa JIMBO, impressed by his portfolio and ambition. Lastly, a promising project from Kazakhstani filmmaker Amir Amenov caught the attention, guided by an experienced Singaporean producer for international co-production opportunities. These projects will receive mentorship from industry experts and benefit from the lab’s year-long development process.

These selected projects in the Lab have distinct trajectories in terms of their target audience and potential for international co-production. The Sri Lankan project is primarily focused on national cinema and is likely to remain rooted in Sri Lanka. The Kazakhstan project, on the other hand, is aimed at the international market. Similarly, the Indian project is also eligible for international co-production.

Each project has a dedicated mentor, including an experienced writing expert Pavel Jech from Czechoslovakia who brings a strong background in script development, a respected Malaysian director U Wei Haji Saari, serves as the directing expert, offering valuable insights from a directorial standpoint. Lastly, an accomplished producer Fran Borgia with expertise in complex financial planning, who won the Critics’ Week jury prize at Cannes, completes the team.

Q: What criteria are used to select participants for the Lab, and what are the benefits they can expect from the year-long immersive development program?

A: The selection process for projects is rigorous, with the lab seeking stories that deserve to be told and have the potential to resonate with audiences. Our emphasis is on script development, allowing filmmakers to refine their narratives and enhance the quality and depth of their projects. This focus on storytelling ensures that the projects are compelling and ready for future opportunities, such as pitching sessions or potential financing sources. While the lab values projects in various stages of development, even those in rough form, the intrinsic potential is a determining factor.

International collaboration is also a significant aspect of the selection process. The lab aims to facilitate partnerships and opportunities for co-production, recognising the value of bringing together talent from different countries and cultures. Additionally, the lab is committed to providing a structural approach to the projects, ensuring participants receive guidance and support to develop their ideas effectively.

The lab is particularly interested in opening doors for filmmakers from countries without established film schools. By offering them a platform, the lab aims to unleash the untapped talent in these regions. English serves as the working language for the lab, enabling effective communication and collaboration. Projects submitted must demonstrate a proficiency in English to ensure successful participation.

While the lab acknowledges the achievement of awards, its primary focus lies in making films a reality. The lab has witnessed a high success rate, with more than half of the projects developed within the program reaching fruition. Notable accolades have been received by lab-developed films in esteemed festivals, further highlighting the lab’s commitment to nurturing projects with significant potential.

Q: How many projects did you receive for the Asia Pacific Screen Lab?

A: We received around 50 projects for the Asia Pacific Screen Lab this year. Normally, we select three projects, but we decided to expand that to four for this edition. Moving forward, we may adjust the number of projects chosen to maintain a balanced approach. It’s worth mentioning that the lab operates solely on philanthropic funding and doesn’t rely on state funding. This gives us the freedom to maintain our independence and integrity, as we’re not obligated to meet any government or national project quotas. The final selection is made by a panel, usually consisting of at least two directors.

In the Asia Pacific Screen Lab, we have three directors overseeing the operations. I am one of the directors, and alongside me are Ki Yong Park, the founder of Asian Film Academy, and Anne Demy-Geroe, the vice-president of NETPAC. When it comes to the panel selection, we ensure that at least two of the three directors are actively involved.

Additionally, we invite industry professionals who bring unique perspectives and expertise to join the panel. For example, in the past, we had a jury member from Indonesia who organises a festival there. We also had the privilege of working with Vimukthi, who was part of the APSA jury that year. As a director, I also keep an eye out for interesting persons who approach me or are associated with APSA, and if feasible, I collaborate with them. This is how I had the opportunity to establish a closer working relationship with Vimukthi.

Q: As an organisation, how do you aim to enhance the unique cinematic aesthetic in Southeast Asia, which often features issue-based cinema, without limiting the imagination that can be easily understood by European audiences?

A: As an organisation, we are constantly focused on enhancing the unique cinematic aesthetic in Southeast Asia while ensuring that it can resonate with European audiences. This is a topic that we are all deeply involved in, whether through our work in film commissions or film schools. We believe that storytelling is at the core of it all. There must be a genuine need to tell a story, a sense of ownership from the filmmaker, and a connection that can be established with the audience.

Our panel is truly international, with myself being European, Demy Geroebeing Australian, and another member representing Korea. We aim to bring even more diversity to the panel by inviting guests with different perspectives, such as a documentary specialist from France and Vimukthi. This eclectic mix ensures a wide range of viewpoints when evaluating projects.

Not every project receives unanimous agreement among the panel members, but ultimately, we select projects that we all believe are exceptional and deserving of support. The connection to the story and the filmmaker’s drive to share it are crucial factors in our decision-making process. Additionally, we consider the project’s potential to travel and reach a global audience, regardless of whether it’s a local or global story.

We have been successful in our efforts, as demonstrated by the recognition and awards our selected projects have received at major festivals. This motivates us to continue our mission of enhancing cinematic aesthetics while bridging the gap between Southeast Asian and European audiences.

Q: Are there any specific success stories or notable achievements from previous editions of the Asia Pacific Screen Lab that you would like to highlight?

A: We have had two remarkable success stories in the Asia Pacific Screen Lab that highlight the impact and recognition our selected projects have achieved. The first success story comes from an Iraqi filmmaker. This film provided a unique and controversial perspective on the inner conflict of a sniper questioning the morality of his actions. It gained international recognition and won a major award at the Busan International Film Festival, propelling Mohannad’s career as he later became a film commissioner in Iraq.

The second success story revolves around a Singaporean filmmaker who explored the integration of foreign workers into Singaporean society. The film, which won the first award at the Locarno Film Festival, captured the attention of audiences and critics with its fresh and original approach. The filmmaker’s career flourished, and he has since embarked on various creative endeavors, including projects in performing arts.

These success stories have been instrumental in showcasing the positive impact of the Asia Pacific Screen Lab. We are publishing a book commemorating 10 years of the lab, which will feature testimonials from the filmmakers who have participated in the program. The book will provide insights into their experiences and the profound influence the lab had on their careers.

Q: What advice or insights would you give to early career filmmakers in the Asia Pacific who aspire to participate in the Asia Pacific Screen Lab or achieve recognition for their work?

A: As an early career filmmaker in the Asia Pacific region, my advice would be to seize the opportunities in the current industry landscape. There is a growing demand for diverse stories and non-English speaking voices, which creates a chance for us to be heard and for our projects to travel globally.

However, it’s important to remember that there is also pressure to deliver content quickly and cost-effectively. Despite these challenges, it’s crucial to stay true to our artistic vision and maintain the quality of our work.

In a highly competitive market, it’s essential to focus on creating compelling and impactful films. Development is a vital stage that shouldn’t be overlooked, as it plays a key role in producing high-quality projects. So, as emerging filmmakers, let’s embrace these opportunities while staying committed to excellence in storytelling.