To what extent have independent and alternative film movements emerged in Southeast Asia? What forms do they take, and what roles do alternative, non-mainstream films currently play in countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and even East Timor? Moreover, how does one get to see such films? Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia provides some cogent answers to these questions.
Since 2005 an annual ‘South East Asian Cinemas’ Conference has been held in the region, its venue rotating between a number of Southeast Asian capitals: Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City. Academics, postgraduate students, filmmakers and archivists from the region and around the world regularly attend this conference, and an increasing body of work has emerged. This excellent book, addressing in many dimensions a new and largely unknown area of filmmaking, originated in networking that occurred at the 2006 Conference held in Kuala Lumpur.
The first section of the book, entitled ‘Action’, addresses in a variety of ways some diverse initiatives that have emerged, what has prompted or facilitated them and what obstacles they faced. There are interviews with the founder of Q!FF (Queer Film Festival in Jakarta), John Badalu, and with a quiet, self-effacing, but determined figure, a young film editor in Singapore, Martyn See, who has made documentaries about political figures targeted by the Singapore government. In 2005 See made Singapore Rebel, a short documentary about Dr Chee Soon Juan, a key activist with the Singapore Democratic Party who has tested rules for holding meetings in Singapore and been successfully sued by Lee Kuan Yew for defamation. Subsequently See made Zahari’s Seventeen Years (2006) about a left wing journalist arrested in 1963 and imprisoned for seventeen years, who is now living in Malaysia. These films are banned in Singapore but readily available on the Internet. An informative article by Hassan Muthalib begins by outlining the role of Indians and Malaysian-Indians in developing the Malay film industry, and then goes on to give an account of films made in Malaysia by fourth generation Malaysian-Indians associated with the Little Cinema movement from 2000 on, representing the lives and characteristic experience of mainly ethnically Tamil Malaysian people, often regarded by the country’s Malay elite as second-class citizens. Although the Little Cinema movement is one product of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir’s prioritisation of digital technology, these socially conscious films of the Little Cinema movement, and some mainstream films also made by Malaysian-Indians were not (until very recently) eligible for the 25% entertainment tax rebate because their dialogue is not 70% in the Malay language. John Torres, an Indie filmmaker in the Philippines, reports on his own (unsuccessful) attempt to put his films into distribution via the film piracy networks so rampant in Manila, concluding that it was very difficult to penetrate such organisations. There is a survey of the gradual emergence of the Thai short film, and of longer independent films, particularly since the mid-1990s, by the director of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, critic and archivist, Chalida Uabumrungjit.
The second section of the book, entitled ‘Reflection’, consists of highly professional scholarly analyses of a number of significant recent films and related phenomena. One of the editors of the book, the late Benjamin McKay, provides a thoughtful account of the relation between ideal and reality in three of Yasmin Ahmad’s feature films that address issues of communication between ethnic groups in Malaysia (Sepet , Gubra and Mukhsin ), arguing that these films present not “an imagined community” but a “dreamed community”, and that in their representation of Malaysia her films reflect “optimistic possibilities, rather than grounded practice”.(112) Gaik Cheng Khoo provides a carefully argued account of the ways in which Chinese Malaysian filmmaker James Lee’s films, despite their minimalist aesthetics and apparent lack of direct interest in politics, may be seen to model “workers alienated from the products of their labor through capitalism”.(122) Marian Lam discusses the new phenomena of feature filmmaking in Vietnam by overseas-based, diasporic Vietnamese filmmakers, and the links of these filmmakers with state-based production in Vietnam and their influence upon it. Here a remaining question is the extent to which new discourses are introduced into Vietnam by this phenomena, as well as new methods of production and new entertainment genres. Angie Bexley in her discussion of the “framing of Timor Leste”, examines two streams of representation: how East Timor has been represented in Indonesian cinema; and how the younger generation of East Timorese, who grew up during the Indonesian occupation, want to represent their country, in contrast to the views of the governing elite, members of the Generation of ’75, who “construct Portugal as the legitimate and authentic root of the Timorese national imaginary”.(143) As seen in the film, Rock ‘n’ Roll with Jakarta, made by a group of politically active young East Timorese connected with the ‘Sahe Institute for Liberation’, some of the younger generation of East Timorese want to continue to work with Indonesia in areas of cultural production, but they also want an international justice tribunal examining the abuses of the Indonesian occupation. Pioneering scholar, Benedict Anderson, who has written major books on history, politics and language in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, offers a characteristically illuminating and vivid account (supported by his informants) of the kinds of jungle experience we are induced to encounter in the second half of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sat Pralaat (2004) (known outside of Thailand as Tropical Malady but better translated as ‘Strange Beast’), arguing that Apichatpong appeared to have wanted to make a film not ‘about’ but from ‘inside’ the world of the Thai chao baan (villagers), which explains why it has been better received by upcountry people (including its romance between the two male protagonists), while being so threatening to Thai middle class Bangkokians.(155) The overseeing editor of Glimpses of Freedom, May Adadol Ingawanij, who also wrote the book’s theoretically adroit introduction, offers a multifaceted alternative reading of cultural politics in Thailand, for example highlighting the achievements of the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, but also addressing the question of the attempted appropriation of this Festival and of short films in general by “cultural entrepreneurs and big brands”, including state bureaucracies associated with ‘royalist democracy’, seeking to celebrate Thai uniqueness in this late phase of the current Thai monarchy.(177-9)
The final section of the book, entitled ‘Advocacy’, contains essays exploring diverse but related issues of technology, form and alternative means of distribution. The late Alex Tioseco, founder of the influential website on Southeast Asian film, Criticine, reflects on what constitutes independent cinema in the Philippines now that the studios have begun to use production methods used by Indie filmmakers, such as shooting cheaply on digital video. He argues that independent cinema is distinguished by its form and content, exploring this with a discussion of long takes and body language in Lav Diaz’s nine-hour Heremias (2006) and experimental narrative organization in films by Raya Martin. Tilman Baumgärtel addresses the many dimensions of film piracy in Southeast Asia, suggesting at one point that piracy (including the wide distribution of pirate copies of DVD releases by Criterion Collection) has facilitated knowledge of cinema in countries deprived of convenient access to film history. Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde provide a history of the first permanent venue for independent film in Singapore, the converted power-station in central Singapore, known as ‘The Substation’, an independent centre for contemporary arts. Film screenings became a regular part of the centre’s programming in 1997. Also discussed are the widening networks of support for cinema by older and more conservative institutions in Singapore, now providing venues for independent film and discussions of film history, such as the National Museum (which has in the last few years even become involved in funding major film restoration projects in neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia). Eloisa Hernandez compiles a survey of the evolution of digital (as opposed to celluloid-based) filmmaking in a number of these countries, arguing that the establishment of digital oriented production houses such as ufo Pictures in the Philippines and Red Films in Malaysia has provided “financial and production support while allowing filmmakers to retain their creative control and freedom”. (229)
This wide ranging and theoretically diverse book also contains numerous reflections on what the term ‘independent’ can mean in the different contexts of filmmaking and film cultural work in each of the countries under discussion. One area lacking in the book is any discussion of films by Indonesian independent filmmakers, some of whom have played a role in re-examining Indonesia’s past under Suharto (for example Lexy Rambadeta) and who have also directly addressed problems in militarily suppressed and exploited regions of Indonesia (notably Ario Danusiri who has made important films in both Aceh and West Papua).