Friday, February 11, 2011

Is Swansea scamming international film-makers?

International Film festivals can be an exciting place for filmmakers to get an audience outside their own circles. However one Swansea man seems to be ruthlessly exploiting film makers. In May 2005 Binda Singh created The grandly named 'Academy of Media, Recording, Interactive, Television & Stage Arts' (AMRITSA). Recently filmmakers have been sharing their experiences of the shambolic AMRITSA events, most notably his Swansea Bay Film Festival.Due to my investigation in 2011, Hollywood actress Catherine Zeta Jones, BBC news anchor Huw Edwards and actor Michael Sheen resigned from Binda Singh's events. Read the full story below.

My own films were shown at the first Swansea bay film festival in 2006. TheSouth Wales Evening Post billed it as the 'City's own Oscars'. I joined other filmmakers outside the finale festival dinner as none of us could afford the overpriced supper. Whilst chatting we realized that we all had the same experiences. No published programme, no posters, no advertising of any kind so not surprisingly no audiences.Meanwhile during the corporate gala dinner my films was announced as winning 2 awards. These turned out to be an empty tin can, sprayed gold and stuck to a piece of MDF. So no money is being spent on the awards.Rene Kinzett, was one of the founding Directors of the Swansea Bay Film Festival.

Rene Kinzett is 3rd from left on back row
Kinzett said  'There is no selection committee, there is no real judging process..there was no real organisation behind the screenings. I lasted two Festivals.' Rene has severed all links with the event.

Four years on and very little has changed. While I only traveled 3 miles for the Swansea Bay festival, one couple traveled 7000 miles from California in 2010 to be told by the festival founder, Binda Singh that 'it was up to the filmmaker to find and bring the audience to the showing of their film, Boyhood Shadows .'

Not to be deterred, Steve Rosen,and his co-director Terri DeBono, went out into Swansea, a city they had never been to before, and managed to persuade people to attend their showing. Unannounced Binda Singh decided to change the time and venue. The filmmaker did what filmmakers do best- they picked up their camera. Their film 'Looking for an Audience' has been released on YouTube which follows their journey from the USA to Swansea, collecting interviews with other film-makers who attended the festival from Denmark, Scotland and USA. It is a shocking insight into an event which has actress Swansea born Catherine Zeta Jones (photo) as a patron and Port Talbot born Michael Sheen (photo) as vice president. When I asked Steve if he saw any publicity for the festival anywhere in Swansea he replied-
'No. In fact even the place I rented the tux (for the festival gala dinner) didn't know about the festival, and Binda sent us there!'
When asked why Steve made his film about his journey to the festival he said
'We had an Executive Producer for BOYHOOD SHADOWS who graciously paid for our trip to Wales.There is an obligation of accountability when you're spending someone else's money. This little film is the result of the promise we made to our funder to document our experiences at the festivals in lieu of her attending.'
Binda Singh (R), Karen White (C) Filmmaker (L)

Their video report can be watched on YouTube.
Once again no programme was printed for the 2010 festival, no synopsis of the films are published online, and no visible signs of any advertising for the festival around the city. So again no audiences. The film makers paid $100(£63) to have their film chosen for the Swansea Bay film festival.

Another film-maker drove across the UK, from Kent, to attend the awards ceremony only to be ushered into the bar. Colin Holt recalled;
'We sat in our hired tuxes watching the goings-on upstairs on a plasma screen, along with plenty of other disgruntled attendees who also didn't want to pay £50 to have dinner...It was a complete waste of time, money and effort.'

Another director traveled 600 miles to the Swansea event and explained;
'I turned up with my other half at the start time advertised to us in emails and weblinks, only to find out that the place wasn't even open yet. Eventually we got fed up and went for a walk, returning half an hour later to discover that, an hour after schedule, Mr. Singh and co had arrived.'

He described the room that had been set up for the showing of films;
'A poorly calibrated, off-colour projector against a battered old screen. left the room feeling very disappointed, not just for my film, but for all the other filmmakers who had spent their money and effort getting to the 'festival'.'

An AMRITSA spokesperson explained in an email to a German film-maker;
'Binda Singh founded AMRITSA, and its role is to act as an umbrella organisation or one-stop-shop for film makers who wish to access international film festivals without needing to apply to events separately.'

While his website states 'AMRITSA Film Festivals do NOT charge an entry fee until you have selected status. Unlike many other film festivals which charge you just to enter, AMRITSA Film Festivals put you, your film and your money first.'

So if a film maker enters their film via AMRITSA, they shouldn't be surprised that all 10 festival have chosen their film to be shown. Since all the festivals are linked directly to Binda Singh, it is clearly in his own financial interest to get each film maker paying $30 for each festival. However having their film shown in his festivals could mean 4 chairs in a broom cupboard in Ireland or a portable TV in a corner in South Africa. With no festival expenses such as a programme or posters, the $30 appears to be profit for Singh, while his website claims 'Enter now, you've nothing to loose'(sic)

One Australian film maker recently submitted her film to the AMRITSA Gay film festival and was surprised to receive an invitation to screen her film in Ten other AMRTISA festivals. She declined when AMRITSA requested $330 from her.

Michael Sheen, is vice president of the Swansea Bay Film festival.In his online video (displayed on this page), the Hollywood actor from Port Talbot states that 250 videos were shown last year in the Swansea Bay Film Festival. Do the simple maths (250 x $30 = $7500 (£4700).Since Singh gets his venues for free, spends nothing on publicity or programmes, where does this cash go? AMRITSA accounts show no sign of any income so what happens to the cash? AMRITSA accounts clearly display Cash in bank as only £1 on March 31 2010.
Replicate this with 10 other festivals worldwide and you get a picture of how Mr Singh is funding his lifestyle.His latest scheme is persuading filmmakers to pay him $40 to upload their own films to his amateurish website.

I asked the Vice President of Swansea Bay Film Festival- Hollywood actor Michael Sheen who replied;
'Allegations of financial misdealings are obviously very serious and those making the claims, as well as those that the claims are about, need to be sure that they are working with fact.'

On March 16th 2011 I received official confirmation that Michael Sheen has withdrawn his vice-presidency of the Swansea Bay Film Festival. He gave his reasons in the following statement;
'When I first got involved with the Festival, I was happy to be a part of something that was encouraging young and new filmmakers. The inclusivity of the Swansea Film Festival was something I felt could benefit a lot of people. However, I am concerned about a film festival that does not have the quality of its films as a top priority.'

Michael Sheen continued;
"While there are so many issues unresolved at present, no matter what the agenda of those raising those issues may or may not be, I feel until those issues have been resolved openly and fairly, I need to withdraw my endorsement."

Singh's chaotic Swansea Bay film festival is not an isolated event.The Swansea man is running similar festivals in Australia, Egypt, USA, Ireland, Thailand, as well as the Caribbean amongst others.His South African Film Festival last year was such a shambles that it ended with Singh dumping all the DVD's on an unsuspecting audience member before he left the country. A Canadian film maker who traveled to the festival explained Singhs management style. She said
'it is important to note that B.S blames the locals on poor organization and when I confronted him about the film festival, he just said it was all the locals' fault and he had nothing to do with it. All the local South Africans did their very best and they weren't given any information or tools to accomplish the job.'

South African newspapers and media journals have written about the festival describing it as the 'Phantom film festival' writing that AMRITSA South African International Film Festival 'had no publicity material, no programme, only make-shift screening facilities, hardly any audiences and no jury.Despite this, at the end of the festival a long list of films that had won in many categories was published.'

Another film maker who also traveled to South Africa wishes to remain anonymous said;
'There was no audience, only other duped independent film makers. Between us we made the most of it, but unfortunately that wasn't much at all. The "gala dinner" drew upon local businesses and media, none of who attended any of the screenings. The screening rooms were pathetic empty spaces where a lousy projector was hooked up to the left channel of a semi-working PA system. The projectionist would throw things on at random and stop films mid-credits.'

Singh creates the jury for the film festival awards in a bizarre way. To nominate a film for one of the numerous awards in his festivals, a person has to first pay £25 to join AMRITSA.In an email exchange with one AMRITSA member, Binda Singh appears to be stating that film-makers can win awards just by paying for them. Singh wrote;
'Unfortunately every process no matter how we attempt to safeguard it, the ingenuity of those focused on winning, will always find a crack.Even the £25 fee to join AMRITSA doesn't deter folk who just WANT that nomination... irrespective of the quality of the piece.... or the price they pay.'

One film-maker, who is a paid up member of AMRITSA complained;
'I have never received any information about awards, nominations, meetings, bylaws,
rules, regulations..nothing. Basically my 25 quid was sucked into the void and while my name appears listed as a "member" that is the sum totality of what I got.'

Binda Singh's festivals, including the Swansea event, is focused on the dinner for his sponsors and the minor celebrities he can attract (few of whom bother to attend any of the film showings). Film-makers are generally excluded from the gala, unless they can afford £50 per head plus Tuxedo hire. With glitzy dinners and celebrity presenters such as Liz Fuller (ex Miss Great Britain).Singh uses that one evening to present his festival as a well organised event. By inviting the local newspaper editor to present one of the numerous awards, he ensured uncritical media reviews from the South Wales Evening Post. However the newspaper which produced enthusiastic video podcasts promoting the festival in 2007 has now backed away from being involved.

Cathy Duncan, Assistant Editor of the South Wales Evening Post said
'The South Wales Evening Post has sponsored the festival in the past but was not a sponsor in 2010. We covered it for our publications as we would any sizeable event in the city. We have no plans to sponsor the festival in the future.'

The main company engaged in promoting Swansea is also no longer involved in Singh's event. Fiona Rees of Swansea Bay Futures said
'We did have some involvement with the Film Festival in the first couple of years - providing welcome packs for visitors from outside the area who were staying in the region and hosting a reception for the international film makers - but have not been involved since 2008'

None of this has affected Singh, as he displays no signs of stopping, creating International film festivals in West Wales in Llanelli.. For 2011, he has created a Gay film festival,Digital Arts and also a Youth event.Singh appointed a new director for his Spiritual festival- a man who operates under the pseudonym of Darren Michael and promotes himself as Psychic Darren- the clairvoyant medium. Darren Hembrow (his real name) has since told me
'I haven't been involved with Binda for ten months and am no longer running the festival.I have never been financially involved with him.'

Having high profile celebrities as Patrons of his events is a key part of Binda Singh's operations. In March 2011 Huw Edwards of BBC News was listed as a Patron of Singh's 'International Film Festival of West Wales (WWFF)', at least until I contacted Mr Edwards with my findings. The BBC news anchor replied to my email stating why he got involved with Singh's International Film Festival of West Wales-
'I agreed as I always try to support cultural activities in my home town (Llanelli). I had never heard of Binda Singh, and have had absolutely no contact with him. I severed all ties with the WWFF after the Swansea Bay controversy and Michael Sheen's response to it. You can imagine my feelings on the matter.'

The festival director Kelvin Guy has also quit and so too has the festivals President, Kevin Green, star of Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire. Mr Green told me;
"I was president of the West Wales Film Festival but in light of recent events surrounding the Swansea Bay Festival and other festivals run by Amritsa have resigned. I do not know and have never had any dealings with Binda Singh."

However as fast as his celebrities resign, Singh dreams up a new scheme- this time raising his events profile by thin associations. Splashed across his new Swansea Bay Film Festival (now moved to Port Talbot) website was the statement 'The home town of acting legends Sir Anthony Hopkins & Richard Burton'.
He is obviously using the images of Burton and Hopkins without permission to promote his own event.

Singh managed to keep the local radio stations on board as supporters up the last minute, perhaps because he was a presenter for Swansea Sound, The Wave and Real Radio Wales from 1995 to 2000. In April 2011 the Director of The Wave & Swansea Sound, Helen Bowden told me
'We are no longer media partners for the film festival.I pulled out from being a media partner over a month ago.'

Meanwhile as the pressure grows on the Swansea Bay Film Festival, Karen Struel-White, the festival Executive Director finally acknowledged that there was a problem and released this quote;
'Its a great shame when some excellent films get small audiences and we share the disappointment of film makers who fail to get the numbers they would wish to see attend their screenings. To that end we are increasing the number of venues for 2011

This shows how AMRITSA have ignored what the problem actually is. Just having more places to show the films is not enough. If anything, this suits Binda Singh as more venues means he can squeeze more films into over packed schedules, hence taking even more money from film-makers. Since AMRITSA made their statement, two venues have pulled out of the Swansea Bay film festival while others are considering their position. Their logos have been removed from the Swansea Bay Film Festival website.

On the AMRITSA website is a list of people who make up the 'Swansea Bay Film Festival Team'.Alongside a photo of Swansea Councilor Nicolas Bradley, is a few paragraphs of his supposed involvement. However when I pointed this out to the Councilor he replied 'I am certainly not a member of the festival team' adding he has 'never actually been to one of the events'. He also replied 'some of that statement is completely made up!'

Why is there so many discrepancies in this festival? Just what exactly does Binda Singh and his company AMRITSA hope to achieve?

The 6th Swansea Bay Film Festival takes place in May 2011. Binda Singh is using the event for self promotion by premiering his new play entitled 'Encore'.The new main venue will be Apollo Cinema in Port Talbot, hometown to actor and former festival vice president Michael Sheen. They have offered the venue for this year's festival for free.A spokesperson for Apollo Cinema told me;
'We do not have any involvement with the organising and running of the Festival, and will continue not to.'

Apollo Cinemas continued to say:
'Until your email alerted us to the growing number of complaints from filmmakers about Mr Singh and his company, AMRISTA, we have not directly received any complaints.'

However just a few weeks before the start of the festival, Apollo Cinema pulled out of the event, leaving Singh to scramble a new venue in Blanco's Hotel,Port Talbot. By moving his venue from Swansea to Port Talbot, perhaps Singh hopes to leave the criticism behind. But I am getting reports from film-makers who have entered their films but are now contacting AMRITSA demanding to withdraw and have a full refund. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to divert the criticism, Binda Singh closed submissions a month early to his Swansea Bay Film Festival. Originally planned to close on April 1st 2011, his website stated on March 3rd that 'SBFF 2011 deadline for entries has expired.'

I smell panic in the air. Most film makers enter their films in the last few weeks for festivals so I suspect he is battening down the hatches and waiting for the barrage of criticism coming his way. On March 12th 2011, Binda Singh radically changed his AMRITSA website. Gone are any links to his AMRITSA portfolio of 'actors' and his 'video on demand channel'. Now it just links to a page stating that his events are now being run by a William E. Edwards under the name of Planet Film Festival. I suspect that since William E. Edwards has no history or known associates or even an internet presence, he is just a figment of Mr Singh's imagination.

It is important that film-makers understand the full story about AMRITSA/Planet festivals, before they part with their hard earned cash and films.

The latest sponsor is TheBestofSwansea and its director Elizabeth Hollingworth-Evans told me her company plans to write blogs and interviews about the festival. She said;
'We are not organising the event nor are we being paid for this service as we publicise all local events for free for the benefit of the community and those coming to Swansea'

In theory anyone can post their own review (or testimonial) of the festival,but in practice only reviews supporting Binda Singh and his festival are being allowed to appear. The only published testimonials allowed so far are by people linked directly to Binda Singh and mostly directors of his events. Any testimonials which don't give glowing reports about the event will not be published. Instead Elizabeth Hollingworth-Evans stated they will be 'passed onto the businesses for them to deal with...It is up to them to deal with any negative feedback. Elizabeth Hollingworth-Evans obviously realised that there is no future in running a company like this, so by April 2011 she closed her company as a franchisee 'The Best of Swansea Limited'.

On March 30th the mainstream press finally took notice and published an article in the South Wales Evening Post and the Western Mail about the festival. However I find it laughable that Binda Singh is allowed to frame the serious issues surrounding his Swansea Bay Film festival as a simple tale about his Hollywood star just being asked difficult questions by journalists.Mr Singh is quoted as "It is obvious why Michael Sheen has withdrawn. He is being harassed and asked questions for which he has no answers."

Micheal Sheen was vice president of the event so he should spend the time to find those answers. He needs to pull his finger out and work out what is going on in any event which uses his status to promote itself to film-makers worldwide. The reputation of Swansea city is being tarnished worldwide because of this event so we need a real investigation into the allegations being raised.

On April 12th Catherine Zeta Jones resigned as Patron of Swansea Bay Film Festival.
The BBC followed my investigations and published their story online.

Binda Singh told the Western Mail that he blamed the California film-makers;
'I cannot speak for her but I feel Catherines decision must have been influenced by the anti-Swansea Bay Film Festival brigade inspired by our Californian friends.Essentially we are a small Welsh festival which has fallen foul of two skilled American film makers who took umbrage because their movie coincided with a free drinks reception.'

Er..No Binda. Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Sheen have resigned because you refuse to accept any responsibility to produce a quality event which supports film makers. Instead you just see them as a way to make some easy money. But the story has been splashed all over the media including BBC so hopefully film makers won't be wasting their time and money by entering their films next year.

His 2011 film festival went ahead in a tiny hotel conference room in a Port Talbot hotel. Film director Nick Padley was invited to do a Q&A about his film so he traveled from Yorkshire to attend. He described the experience;
'My film was stuffed into a laptop and shown on a poorly calibrated projector that resulted in hugely overexposed image.I apparently got a deal (as a festival attendee) on my room which still cost £80 and I did a round trip of 9 hours in the car.Please avoid this festival at all costs. It is a waste of time and I really hope all of this helps to being it to an end.'

Another filmmaker, Anthony shared his experience;
'There was no serious publicity. There was no real audience. I arrived and Binda Singh was there and on introduction to me, made his excuse and left asap.Some American guy waffled and introduced each film. There was no audience other than the other film makers. It was sad. I laughed and left.'

Months after I broke the story, on June 26 2011, BBC produced a radio report based upon my investigations. The BBC reporter doorstepped Binda Singh about where the money goes, and added interviews with film makers, Councillors, and key people in the Welsh film industry. Listen to the radio report here. . The BBC website headlined with 'Swansea Bay Film Festival: questions about finances'

I would like to believe that this is the end of the story for Binda Singh but I am quiet sure he will pop his head up somewhere to dupe unsuspecting film makers, actors and musicians. The Daily Mail followed up on my story months later and interviewed Binda for This is Money.

They wrote:
Singh, who has doubts about the future of the Swansea Bay Film Festival and claims to have left to pursue a teaching career, said: 'They're not even huge awards. Really it is a reason to have a little party. People want to say their film was accepted into a festival and screened.'

He doesn't give in does he?

2013 update: Binda Singh reinvented himself in 2013 as Belvedere Pashun and
Jeroboam Snatch. Read my report here

Investigation and article written by
Paul O'Connor who is co-founder of Undercurrents- an award winning alternative news service


Anonymous said...

Some very dodgy people down West.

Donshades said...

Hi there and thankyou for breaking this story!

Back in 2008 we entered a film to the SBIFF, and got a reply saying it had been accepted by the "Heart of England" Film festival.

We brought a ticket to the Gala dinner - the works. What can I say; shambles! the event took place in a remote hotel location, with the only attendees the directors/producers of the various films being showen.

We didn't win an award, and we felt sorry to the film makers who did - as they had to take the stage and feel embarrassed accepting an award from such a chaotic affair whit no emphasis on film making.

It's funny - we often talk about that experience saying that we hope the organiser gets his dues eventually. I'm thankful to you for breaking the story!

Anonymous said...

I think Binda Singh sounds like a con man!!! Why hasn't some Watchdog style programme taken him to task?

Is it the same Mr Singh now involved in "publishing" in the Swansea area??

Anonymous said...

My name is Huhnkie Lee, the director of the movie, "A Therapy for Metrophobia."

I am obliged to offer some defense for Mr. Singh.
My film was accepted by Amritsa in 2011 and I attended a couple of their associated venues.
Yes, one was empty, but the other was a good festival.

I have to tell you, it's how you make of it.
True, Amritsa has some promotional issues among other problems, but they can improve.
No business is perfect from the start.

In my opinion, or more of in my personal feeling, Amritsa is better than Sundance.
Why? Because they accepted my movie while Sundance didn't.

Think of it this way, folks-- is it better to pay and get rejected, than to pay and get accepted?

Paul O' Connor said...

It is better to not pay to enter your film into any festival. Why should the film maker have to pay to make the film and also pay to get them seen?

Binda Singh took money off hundreds of film makers to show their films very badly with no advertising and virtually no audiences. That is a scam.

Anonymous said...

lol, Hello Mr. O'Connor,

I didn't expect anyone reading this as I was-- thank you for the response :-)

I understand the frustration of many filmmakers.
Well, I will not comment on the original intention of business of Mr. Singh,
because as long as we are not mind readers--no one is--, our thoughts are no better than speculations.

I want to point out to see a matter by the result. I've been to Ireland Film Festival, which was a venue I accessed through Amritsa.

It was a legitimate film festival and everyone, including filmmakers from America, England, and Germany, was very very satisfied with the festival.

It is regrettable that some other venues of Amritsa didn't share such level of achievement, and that is what Amritsa should work on, and improve upon.

Let us be constructive with optimism, rather than destructive with pessimism and criticism. I understand the value of correction and reprehension. But, we better end with a note of hope. Well, at least that's how I end my films :-)

Paul O' Connor said...

I spoke to the organisers of the Ireland Film Festival and Binda Singh had very little to do with that event. This is why it was so good.

If you read my article you will see it is full of facts rather than speculation or pessimism.Yes we are not mind readers but we can all make rational decisions once the facts are laid out.

Singh and his company AMRITSA are driven by the money he can make and also his huge ego. He has to be stopped before he rips more film makers off.

Anonymous said...

I'm an international broadcaster, & a couple of years ago I was asked if I would host parts of the Swansea Bay Film Festival. At the time I was engaged with other projects around the time of the festival, so declined the offer. It looks like my circumstance was a blessing in disguise.

My experiences with the festival organiser (Mr Singh) have been ... well, very up & down. That's all I will be prepared to say at this time.

Digitalli Written said...

I'm so sorry to read about this and to watch Steve Rosen's account of his experiences on YouTube. I've been an onset photographer (and all round gopher) on independent projects, I've supported crowd-funded projects both in the UK and overseas in whatever way I can (I'm not rich - it's often more about helping to get the campaigns seen), I've worked in various online and print media oulets over the last 14 years and have been involved behind the scenes of more than one type of event organisation and promotion. So I have an understanding, from various angles, of just how much work goes into completing a project in the first place and then to reach an audience, as well as the ins and outs of putting events together which organisers, attendees and fans can both enjoy and be proud of. I'm also British and an avid film fan, and it's such a shame that international film makers may end up thinking that all film festivals in the UK are run in such an unprofessional, fraudulent and farcical manner. There are many events, such as Sheffield Doc Fest, the No-Gloss Film Festival in Leeds and the Whitby Film Festival to name but a few, which are properly organised and where film makers can be assured of a warm welcome, strong support, and not least, respect from the organisers, whilst reaching an enthusiastic, engaging and supportive audience made up of media, industry people and filmgoers. I just hope SBIFF and Mr Singh haven't completely turned them away from bothering to submit their work to, and to attend, film festivals in the UK. They are the exception, rather than the rule.
All the best.