The new executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Roger Garcia, talks about his vision for the event and the challenges facing Hong Kong filmmakers.

Roger Garcia, who was appointed executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (HKIFFS) last September, was previously director of the festival not long after it started more than 30 years ago.

Since then he has worked as a programmer, curator and juror for many international film festivals; produced films including Columbia TriStar’s The Big Hit and Raymond Red’s Manila Skies, and worked with several government departments to develop Hong Kong’s arts and cultural sector.

He is also a respected film critic, writer and educator and was the first director of the Filmmakers’ Development Lab for the Korean Film Council from 2005-2008.

In his new role he is overseeing the HKIFFS’ three flagship events – the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), Asian Film Awards (AFA) and Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF).

The HKIFF opens on March 20 with screenings of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, and portmanteau Quattro 2, produced by the HKIFFS.

How does it feel to back at the helm of HKIFF after so many years?

It feels good. The festival is completely different to the operation I left 30 years ago. It now has the Asian Film Awards and HAF and the event has grown a hundred times. So it’s challenging but nice to be running it again.

My main purpose in coming back, apart from helping to keep Hong Kong on the map as a cinematic hub, is to develop the next generation of cinephiles – people who can run the festival in the future. So I suppose I’ve set myself the task of finding my successor.

What changes will you bring to the festival? 

I promised myself that I wouldn’t fiddle too much this year as it’s good to understand how the moving parts work together. One thing I want to do is reach out to the audience with technology so we’ve developed an app for the iPhone and Android platform that allows you to download the programme and set up your own calendar. I’ve started using it and it looks good, so I’m proud of that as you can literally walk around with the festival in your pocket.

As for the programming – I don’t see need for drastic changes as I feel there’s already the right balance of contemporary and historical cinema. Of course programming is always a combination of what’s available and what you want to show, but I feel we have the right mix. We’re all on the same page in terms of our vision of cinema.

What do you see as the major remit of HKIFF? As a showcase of Chinese cinema or to serve the Hong Kong audience with the best cinema from around the world?

 The remit is both those things and more, in different quantities, depending on the prevailing conditions. When I was running the festival years ago we didn’t have the Chinese cinema that we have today so we looked at the region, including the burgeoning Korean film industry.

The way I see it, the festival with the awards and HAF is the glue to make Hong Kong the hub of Asian cinema, not just Chinese-language cinema. Asian cinema, compared to 30 years ago when we were on the periphery, is now at the centre and I believe Hong Kong can be of service to the whole region. If you look at HAF that is something that has a strong component of engaging with both emerging and established talent – the festival is driven by respect for the director and is engaging closely with Asian auteurs.

Also my view of cinema is non-chronological. I believe festivals should present not only the best of contemporary cinema but also discoveries of the past. It’s good to challenge audiences not only with the avant-garde but also films from the past. I believe our retrospective of cult filmmaker Kuei Chih-hung is equally as important as our programme of James Benning avant-garde films. 

What is the budget of HKIFF and how is it funded?

The budget is around HK$20m [US$2.6m] which is similar to last year. Roughly half of that comes from government and half from sponsorship, box office and services.

How do you feel the Asian Film Awards are shaping up now they’re in their fifth year?

They’re shaping up nicely. I have to say that putting on a show like this is not easy – it’s kind of like an Oscars show with one hundredth the number of staff. So it’s quite a challenge working across Asia, but if Hong Kong is to be a regional hub, then this is one of the things that we should do.

We’ve done well on the broadcast front – we were in 25 countries last year and should be in the same this year. The awards also feature a good mixture of commercial and arthouse cinema that you don’t see in other mainstream award shows. But it’s still a work-in-progress and we need to build it more. We need to get the Asian studios to realise that the Asian Film Awards are a good platform for making people aware of filmmakers from other countries.

What do you think of the current state of Hong Kong cinema?

In the past three years we’ve seen some very interesting young Hong Kong filmmakers who are telling Hong Kong stories. They tend to be in the minority but two interesting things are happening.

One is that it’s great to see Sammo Hung in Ip Man 2 and to be reminded how great Hong Kong martial arts choreography can be. He’s really reviving something that has been fading away. 

And secondly it’s good to see young Hong Kong filmmakers are doing films in genres that have always been strong in Hong Kong, like comedy, martial arts and realistic, urban tales. It’s an encouraging sign that they’re finding ways to work with these genres because they appeal to local audiences. The challenge is whether they can make those films work across the board.

Hong Kong filmmakers are in a fairly unique situation because they’re making films for a mature economy but also a developing economy. China has developed cities as well as people at a rural level. So they have to grapple with how to cater to both those audiences as well as the Asian diaspora and the global audience. The challenge is going to be how they figure all this out.