Filmmaker Nicole Midori Woodford behind the camera on the set of Permanent Resident (2017). Photography Amandi Wong
Some didn’t think she would cut it as a film director, even though her work proved otherwise. Nicole Midori Woodford responded to her detractors with a spectacular comeback: a shiny credit roll of commercials and narratives, and even more accolades for her work.
This year, the gifted storyteller took home the Youth Inspiration Award at the annual National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) 2019.
Organised by the Singapore International Film Festival and presented by *Scape, the NYFA recognises and honours young professionals who have made exemplary contributions in Singapore’s filmmaking industry.
Looked upon as a mentor by aspiring filmmakers, the 33-year-old is also a film lecturer at the School of Art, Design and Media at the National Technology University (NTU).
The impact Nicole has made on her students also saw her receiving the NTU’s Koh Boon Hwee award, with her student, Shoki Lin, whom she mentored. And Nicole’s cinematic body of work speaks for itself.
After directing five short films, Nicole is now working on her debut full-length feature, You Are There, which is in pre-production.
Produced by Singaporean producer Jeremy Chua and veteran Japanese producer Shozo Ichiyama, the film is set against the backdrop of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
It pays tribute to those who lost their families, and those who survived the disaster.
A Rocky Start
Despite displaying talent in filmmaking, it was never easy right from the start. Nicole recalls: “I faced a lack of belief from some of my peers while I was deciding on directing as a career more than a decade ago.
I also think women get assessed for their appearance or personality in the film industry here.”
Nicole was picked on for her soft-spoken demeanour. When she was assertive, sharing her decision-making choices on some film productions, she was seen as being “too meticulous and detailed”.
Nicole has had her own #MeToo moments, where she stood up to sexual harassment.
“As a woman, I realised that I have to constantly deal with it, but it doesn’t put me off my choice of career.” She observes that discrimination of female filmmakers has evolved to become more insidious today.
“Women are at times assumed to have reached where they are professionally because they’re lucky or for just being a woman,” laments the elder of two siblings.
“It’s dangerous for such attitudes to fester in an industry where male directors greatly outnumber females.” Still, Nicole believes that female filmmakers are here to stay, pointing to the work of directors who’re making an impact in today’s cinema.
They include Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Bora Kim (House of Hummingbird), and Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire).
“Locally, I look to fellow directors Kirsten Tan and Tan Pin Pin.” The former – who is Her World Young Woman Achiever 2017 – is known for her 2017 feature Pop Aye. Pin Pin’s 2005 documentary Singapore Gaga was the first local documentary to have a theatrical run.
Nicole with the crew on the set of For We Are Strangers (2015). Photography Dju-Lian Chng
The Mentor In Film
Nicole’s passion in filmmaking saw her going from part-time to full-time film teaching in NTU, where she has been lecturing for eight years. Her decade-long experience behind the camera – and in the classroom as a teacher – provides a good starting point for young filmmakers into the world of cinema. This year, she was instrumental in guiding the NTU student-team’s short film Adam, which was selected for the Cinefondation at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the fourth Singapore film to be accepted in this category, which platforms emerging talent from film schools around the world.
“I always emphasise to my students that they need to find their own path, discover their own stories, while giving them a glimpse of how I tell my stories through my craft,” Nicole says, with conviction.
Goh Kok Wee, *Scape’s executive director, describes her as someone who strikes a balance in her commitments between filmmaking and nurturing young talent.
Nicole’s former student Low Ser En, a British Academy of Film and Television Arts winner, adds: “She’s an inspiring figure in my career as a filmmaker, and Nicole has given me invaluable advice over the years.”
Always encouraging her students to watch as many films to discover their own taste in cinema, Nicole says diversity is important. “I feel that students should realise this process is equally important as the final film.”
My Life, My Films
Nicole had a strict Catholic upbringing, and it was her mother who introduced her to the world of storytelling with a trip to the library. Her father, who loves music from Fleetwood Mac, sparked her love for music.
“Like all married couples, there are always issues that arise, which I find intriguing. So for a film workshop, I asked my parents to play themselves in the short film and they agreed,” Nicole says.
Her films convey emotional overtures – and sensitive topics – with much sensibility. She draws much of the pain and experience from her personal battles in life for the storytelling in her films, through the eyes of a female protagonist.
As writer-filmmaker Ken Kwek says: “Nicole isn’t afraid of tackling ‘ugly’ subjects… whether it’s sexual assault in For We Are Strangers or parental neglect in Permanent Resident, she examines the effects of trauma with delicacy.”
Nicole, who is married to a designer, is not all work and no play.
“Happiness is curling up with my husband and cat on the couch with a gin and tonic, or locking a cut of a film I’m working on,” Nicole says. “I savour the time I spend with my students in classes. To accidentally discover something that falls into place effortlessly is a slice of happiness!”
This story was first published on Her World's Novmber 2019 issue.