The Singapore International Film Festival (Siff) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, opening with a Sri Lankan film for the first time - Prasanna Jayakody's feature debut Sankara, a Buddhist fable.

This is in line with Siff's main function of forging bridges with lesser known cinema regions. When it was the South-East Asia representative of the Hubert Bals Fund in the late 1990s, the festival played a key role in securing finance for, and promoting the careers of, then unknown film-makers, such as Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Vietnam's Le Hoang and Indonesia's Riri Riza and Nan Achnas.

It has also focused on Arab cinema and rediscovered many south-east Asian classics, which were subtitled in English for the first time.

Festival has been important launchpad for local talent
Launched in 1987, Siff is one of the longest-running film festivals in the region. Its founder, Australian-born architect Geoff Malone, the lead actor in Peter Weir's first independent short feature Homesdale, believed a festival could kick-start the local industry.

Since then, Siff has been an important launch pad for new homegrown talents, from Jack Neo, Kelvin Tong and Han Yew Kwang to Eric Khoo and Royston Tan.

This year, local productions receiving world premieres at Singapore include Kan Lume and Loo Zihan's Solos, which will compete for the Silver Screen Awards; Chew Tze Chuan's F, a documentary about local film critic Toh Hai Leong's battle against diabetes; and Boo Junfeng's short film The Changi Murals.

Despite being renowned for serious programming, Siff's limited finances prevent it from having a market component that might help to entice more international interest. Unlike the glitz of the government-funded Bangkok International Film Festival, Siff is also unable to afford to host big stars.

While the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) deserves credit for consistently sponsoring the event since 1998, funding varies each year. This year it doubled its contribution to $66,000 (s$100,000) in support of Siff's 20th anniversary.

'After a period of nurturing, we encourage Siff to seek out commercial funding and private-sector corporate support rather than relying on government assistance to sustain itself,' says MDA's CEO Christopher Chia.

Rival event complicates financing
Complicating the situation is the launch of a rival, the Asian Festival of 1st Films (Afff), in 2005, which is fast becoming a big attraction. Although MDA has declined to disclose its funding for Afff, the festival benefits enormously from being held in conjunction with the Asia Media Festival (AMF), an anchor event by MDA which consists of a TV and film market.

Afff was founded by Sanjoy Roy's Indian production company Teamwork Films to promote first-time film-makers.

Siff is also plagued by censorship difficulties. Unlike Thailand, Singapore's festival films are not exempted. Although a new M18 film rating was introduced in 2004 to ease the laws, six titles were removed from Siff in the same year.

'The fundamental still does not exist. There is no free space for films, even at an international film festival,' says Philip Cheah, festival director since 1991.