Shaping George Town Festival

How do you put together George Town’s biggest annual festival with very limited time, funding and space? That’s what Joe Sidek has to think about every year. He’s the director of George Town Festival, and like Cindy Gallop, he was at TEDxGurneyDrive as one of its seven speakers.

Sidek modestly says he isn’t much of a public speaker, and yet he struck a chord very early in his speech, saying that “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”. Not only has George Town Festival been covered in the New York Times, CNNgo and the Wall Street Journal, it is now a staple in the arts and culture scene in Penang. It is tempting to conclude that George Town Festival was that kind of powerful idea. We sat down with Sidek to find out more. 

What are the key elements that have been essential to the festival’s success?
Honestly I didn’t have a real focus for the festival, but I’ve always tried to make it relevant and interesting. Things usually come to me by sheer coincidence and sometimes I include acts which I want to learn from, like Manganiyar Seduction. It’s only now that I feel that the festival does have a shape, one which comprises traditional performing arts of Asia.

It must be tough to find that balance between bringing in international names and showcasing local talents. You know, we’ve been a acked for not having enough local content, but how do you become a regional attraction if you only have local acts?
I suppose I see it as a 10-year plan, of which the first three years are spent on building a name and getting people interested in the festival. Do you know that we’ve had far more international proposals coming in than local ones? We’ve had proposals from Brazil, Portugal, Australia, France, London, New York and the Philippines, but only a handful of local proposals.

How does George Town Festival compare to other festivals in Asia?
If you look at those in Singapore and Hong Kong, they are very established. They are 20 to 30 years old and they have all of the funds and space in the world. We don’t. We have a 1,000- seat civic hall for a performing auditorium. How do you bring in world-class productions there?

But what we have here is special – Singapore doesn’t have it. When the Singapore National Heritage Board came to Penang to check us out, I told them, “You all do it brilliantly but you do it in a museum, you do it in beautiful books and you put it in gilded frames. In George Town, we live it.”

Joe Sidek speaking at TEDxGurneyDrive.

Have you ever had to compromise certain aspects of the festival because of funding?
Of course. Every year, you know, I ask for five-point-something million, and then I scale it down. This year I failed because I didn’t know how to ask for money. But I’m learning. You see, it takes seven years for a festival to be established and we’re only three years old. Companies don’t know us – why would they fund us? But a friend told me, “In two years’ time they will come to beg to sponsor you.” 

Would you like to see support for the arts from the state government?
I’m actually already very, very grateful to (Chief Minister Lim) Guan Eng and the state. They’ve supported us by giving total freedom to the arts in Penang. You’re a Malaysian, right? Do you know anywhere else in Malaysia where there is total freedom in the arts? Not even clients will give you that. A client will tell you, “No I want it in yellow.” I’ve done shows all over Malaysia but I’ve never ever experienced this kind of support.

So what does it mean now that George Town Festival has signed on Tropfest South-East Asia, one of the world’s largest short film competitions?

It’s big news for us because I hope to tap into the Asean region of some 600 million people. I’m just going to enjoy this journey because as much as I like the creativity and all that, it’s the people that keep me going. This is their festival, you know?


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