May 6, 2015 – 3:59 pm

The increasing number of Asian documentaries is really just a long bottled-up suppression that was just waiting to explode. It’s a long history of experiencing injustice and feeling helpless about it. As Philip Cheah says, It’s just a long time coming.

In just 25 years, the landscape for Asian documentary films has so radically changed that one would be hard-pressed to recognise it. In 1989 when Yamagata became the first Asian documentary film festival, their festival programmers could not find any Asian documentary worthy of competition selection.

Today, a very conservative estimate would put the number of Asian documentary film festivals at over 30. In Korea, we know of the DMZ and EBS documentary film festivals, but I’m sure that there are others that I don’t know about. There are now many other such festivals in China, India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, $ingapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Iran and Egypt.

Interestingly, excepting Yamagata, most of these documentary film festivals only emerged in the 21st Century.

The Beginning

The father of Japanese documentary, Shinsuke Ogawa (1936-1992), was instrumental in founding the Yamagata documentary film festival, and personally moderated the Asia Symposium, a seminar on Asian documentary during the first festival.

It was a historic gathering of Asian filmmakers and critics such as the Philippines’ Teddie Co, Nick Deocampo and Kidlat Tahimik, Malaysia’s Stephen Teo, Mansor Puteh and Zarul Albakri, Taiwan’s Peggy Chiao, Thailand’s Manop Udomdej, Japan’s Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Takagi Ryutaro and Sri Lanka’s Sumitra Peries. It must be noted that half of them were not even involved in documentary and that suggests just how young the documentary field was at that time.

They were there out of an interest in documentary and also to debate the puzzle of why Asian documentary was so undeveloped. As filmmaker Zarul Albakri stated then: “Similar to Thailand, most of the documentaries that are made - in fact, all of the documentaries that are made - are basically tourist documentaries, government documentaries, corporate documentaries. There is no independent documentary movement in my country at all… As to why no one is looking at the idea of doing documentaries… the government has over the last 30 years, which is the period of our independence, been controlling the media.”

We all saw the injustice and now we are letting you see it as well…

In many ways, what the discussion centred on was the notion of independent documentary. Of course, there was a history of documentary since the silent film era. For example, silent newsreel footage of King Chulalongkorn visiting Europe in 1897, two years after the first Lumiere screenings took place in 1895, still exist. But that’s what they essentially were - newsreels.

Early Asian documentary mostly existed as newsreel. This early state information service devolved into propaganda depending on political shifts. Documentary during World War II in countries dominated by Japan were shaped into war propaganda. As filmmaker Tsuchimoto Noriaki (who made the famous Minamata disease documentaries of the ’70s) said at the Asia Symposium: “In Japan, there was a time when the documentary was highly regarded. That was during the war. In wartime, people who were then making advertising films for dairy products companies were asked to go to the front and make ‘victory’ films, such as the conquering of the Chinese continent or the victory over Singapore… Ironically, the war gave birth to documentary films in Japan. This was what a mentor and senior colleague of mine, (filmmaker) Kamei Fumio, used to say.”

This propagandist strain in documentary continued during the Cold War in countries where military dictatorships were in power, such as Korea and Indonesia.

Another Beginning: the First Rage Against the Machine!

Interestingly, while Japan spurred the documentary forward during the war via propaganda, it unleashed a reverse cycle. By the ’60s, a new generation of anti-establishment youth keen to change the system arrived.

Ogawa’s fellow director at the Iwanami Production company, Tsuchimoto Noriaki, was one of them. Liberal-minded, Tsuchimoto wanted to make films that spoke about people, rather than about companies and products. As he said: “Even now, I clearly remember the project. It was in 1965 when the Federation of Malaya was broken up to become Singapore and Malaysia. A new evolution was about to take place. A Singaporean foreign student on national scholarship, claiming that British influence on the country was too much, staged a radical demonstration in Tokyo. The young man who staged that demonstration was immediately stripped of his student status and his scholarship was suspended… Finally, I made the film from my own resources – a self-financed film.”

The film, Exchange Student Chua Swee Lin (1965), launched the independent documentary movement. Ogawa then followed with Sea of Youth (1966) and then the famous Sanrizuka series, about the Narita farmers who resisted against forced eviction to make way for a new airport.

In a similar vein, that anti-establishment youthful idealism, that rage against the machine, appeared in Korea 15 years later. The reason for it was a movement towards democracy. As Kong Su-Chang, co-scriptwriter of May 80 - Dreamy Land (1988), remembered: “It was in 1980, when a video documentary of the Kwangju Incident appeared that the independent movement caught people’s attention… We, the members of the independent filmmaking movement of Korea, are a ‘generation without mentors’. We have no one to guide us. There was no one to teach us how to make films… We used to buy books published in foreign countries, translate them, shoot with Super 8 and learn through trial and error.”

Like Ogawa, Korea also had a father figure for documentary film. Kim Dong-Won’s Sanggye-dong Olympic (1988) was made in three years when the director lived with and documented the hardships of residents who were forcefully evicted from their homes. It became the first Korean documentary invited to Yamagata in 1991.

Raging Against the Machine TODAY!

It’s not hard to see why and how the documentary film woke up from its slumber in Asia. Avant-garde/documentary filmmaker Masao Adachi puts it best: “if you’d ask me what documentary is, it is nothing else but ‘How to denounce this contemporary world.’ It’s the same for drama. If you say that drama should confront the times and depict the people in this cursed age, documentary is exactly the same.”

Is it any wonder then that so many of the troubled Mekong delta countries in South-east Asia used the documentary form to revive their film industry? Before Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh made his debut feature Rice People (1994), he had already made a handful of documentaries examining the violent legacy of his country under the Khmer Rouge. He then set up the Bophana Audio-Visual Resource Centre in 2006 with film workshops for young directors, many of whom made their first short documentaries. This was also the case with Anglo-Burmese filmmaker Lindsey Merrison, who returned in 1996 to make the documentary, Our Burmese Days, and then set up the Yangon Film School in 2005, where short documentaries could be made in workshops.

With filmmakers in each new generation getting younger, the documentary film functions as an exercise to remember and reflect on the past and present. It becomes an essential way for the young to engage with history and reality.

“This cursed age” has driven documentary directors to confront countless issues from politics (the recent Arab Spring documentaries are a prime example), environment (Indian and Bangladesh documentaries have covered flooding and dam building, the Japanese have extensively covered the Fukushima nuclear disaster), poverty (Indonesia, Hong Kong, Philippines have all tackled activist issues investigating poverty, slum living, migration trends and homelessness), colonialism (an ongoing topic for every Asian country excepting Thailand as it was not colonised), gender (taboo subjects on transgender trends are slowly coming out from the most religious societies, India and Iran), censorship (many festivals have emerged under the banner of freedom and human rights from Malaysia, Korea to Jordan), and personal issues (many filmmakers are using the essay film to document how they see themselves as part of the social fabric).

Perhaps the energy that spurs independent documentary filmmaking is not how cheap and available digital cameras are. It’s not how many more media outlets there are today than ever before. It’s not the internet. It’s really just a long bottled-up suppression that was just waiting to explode. It’s a long history of experiencing injustice and feeling helpless about it. It’s just a long time coming.

We all saw the injustice and now we are letting you see it as well…

Note: This essay was first given at a talk: The Presence of Asian Documentary, during the 32nd Busan International Shorts Film Festival on April 28, 2015 for Chunbuk National University, Korea.

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