Talking film with Nicole Midori Woodford

by Victor Chen
07 May 2020

Cloaked in critical acclaim and recognition, Singaporean filmmaker Ms. Nicole Midori Woodford happily straddles the boundary between short and feature films.

What I have seen of filmmaker Ms. Nicole Midori Woodford’s works are short videos that call to mind arthouse outputs — deliberately slow- paced, darkly lit, elegiac.

But I felt that I was merely scratching the surface as the Singaporean filmmaker is steadily getting noticed in the industry, with many of her films being shown at important international festivals. Her latest short film, “Permanent Resident,” was screened at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival 2018, Busan International Film Festival, and SeaShorts 2018, among others.

Ms. Woodford started making films in 2009 after graduating from film school; her first effort was “Kitchen Quartet,” a school thesis which starred Singaporean actress Oon Shu An, and led to many subsequent credits from directing short films.

A turning point finally came with “For We Are Strangers,” a short film that premiered at Busan International Film Festival in 2015. “I had joined Zhao Wei Films as a director, and I started getting recognized as a director for both my narrative and commercial works,” she recalls.

“Filmmaking is a way for me to discuss issues that are perceived to be difficult to address,” Ms. Woodford discloses. “Traumas, socioeconomic gap, gender inequality — these are issues we think about but don’t express. And having faced a couple of dark chapters in my life, I, too, struggled to find light in the darkness.”

Through those personal battles, the catharsis of her own trauma pushes her “to tell my stories by confronting uncomfortable truths.”

“I am fascinated with how films in the uncanny or horror genre evokes this same catharsis. At times, this idea of mining our emotional and physical scars into stories can be unsettling, but they are what helps us move forward and face our fears.”

This theme will be the basis for her upcoming debut feature film, “You Are There.” The project is a co-production that is set in Japan and Singapore, with cinematographer Hideho Urata, who lensed “A Land Imagined.” It is being produced by Jeremy Chua and Shozo Ichiyama, in collaboration with Diaphana Films of France.

In this film, Ms. Woodford will be tackling issues that surround a young woman’s coming of age with a story of a teen’s special abilities to depict her odyssey, as well as the fragile relationship between mothers and daughters.

Set in the present day, against the historical backdrop of the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the film is a way for Ms. Woodford to pay tribute to the memory of those who perished and the families who suffered despite surviving. “I hope that this film can be a discovery of how the healing that we need lie in each other, after losing our loved ones, especially in today’s volatile world.”


Trophies and Plaques

Industry awards and favorable reviews often go unacknowledged when artists discuss their work. Many auteurs are more comfortable talking about their latest films and inspirations than the impact that a glowing review, a tremendous performance at the tills, or a coveted award has had on their film.

“Industry awards are definitely impactful,” Ms. Woodford candidly admits. “I do acknowledge the attention that critical acclaim brings because they help distinguish filmmakers from today’s competitive and saturated scene. However, I strongly believe that we shouldn’t dwell too much on awards and neglect the crucial process of developing ourselves through films.”

Her main inspirations come from the valuable lessons she has learned while working with her collaborators — not necessarily from awards. “I first met my mentors, Mátyás Erdély and Cristian Mungiu, at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and at Torino Film Lab, a script laboratory. They shared their personal filmmaking insights, which inspired me to explore outside of my boundaries.”

Knowing that audiences connect with her films is also a great motivation. “In most of my films, I incorporate fragments of my own personal history and fears. By doing so, I am, ultimately, sharing my vulnerability with everyone and this can be terrifying. But when my stories resonate with people, it creates a tangential tension and I become drawn to discover more about myself for my next projects.”

One award that Ms. Woodford finds particularly meaningful was the Youth Inspiration Award that she received from *SCAPE’s annual National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) last year. NYFA is the only platform that is dedicated to youth filmmakers, aged 15 to 35, in Singapore.

As a lecturer and mentor of student filmmakers at Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design & Media, Ms. Woodford has mentored students who have made short films that have won awards at NYFA, and have gone on to receive recognition at notable festivals such as Cannes Film Festival, among others.

“The award was an honor that recognized the significance of my support for the next generation of our film industry. I’m looking forward to returning as a NYFA jury member this year, and discovering the next generation of filmmaking voices in Singapore.”


Supersizing Networks

Films need an audience, if not for anything, at least to get the word out; the bigger the better. In spite of the many platforms on which talents can share and propagate their work, a sizeable film industry is still a powerful vehicle for filmmakers to get noticed.

In Singapore, “the industry” is often replaced by the regional film festivals circuit, with many locally made feature films making their debuts abroad, and only getting local attention — and screen time — after they have won awards overseas.

Ms. Woodford takes the predicament with a mixture of hopefulness tempered with pragmatism. “Film festivals are crucial to filmmakers, especially Southeast Asian filmmakers. Festivals help showcase the filmmakers’ stories; they also help us understand what resonates with the audience and what doesn’t.”

Film festivals are also a crucial market for many independent filmmakers in the region who are looking to fund their projects. “It’s difficult to find financing and produce the films,” admits Ms. Woodford, who adds that festivals are effective platforms to land support and meet like-minded filmmakers from other parts of the world.

“My participation at Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Busan International Film Festival, and Asian Film Academy and Berlinale Talents opened up many doors for me, but most of all, it gave me the opportunity to meet peers from Asia and Europe to have an ongoing dialogue about filmmaking.”

Today, Singapore hosts two major platforms for filmmakers — SGIFF and NYFA. As the longest standing film festival in Singapore, SGIFF is the most renowned and is a great way for local filmmakers to become recognized, Ms. Woodford says. “For a film to be screened (in it) means that you have a strong story that can stand alongside international films. It also means that the audience enjoys it.”

Meanwhile, NYFA is a platform that provides youths the opportunities to gain recognition, connect with veteran filmmakers and peers, and initiate dialogue about new films. “This support and guidance for younger storytellers is ultimately what helps to sustain the Singapore filmmaking community.”