November 16, 2011 – 5:38 pm

Is culture one of the last arenas of post-colonial expression? While the world is embroiled in battles for territory, art imitates life, and the film festival world is a conflict zone for the possession of world cinema. Longtime festival watcher, Philip Cheah, watches the wheels go round and round.

Several years ago, I suggested to a European film critic that the film festival is now a post-colonial arena. He was not amused.

After over 20 years of tramping around the world’s film festival circuit, from Jogjakarta to Cannes, from Moscow to Kazakhstan and from Hawaii to New Delhi, I have often thought about the matrix of power that culture is often trapped in.

Picture this in your mind. When a big film festival plans its programme for the next year, a team of scouts is sent to various parts of the world, each with his own territory mapped out. Within the selection team, there are experts specializing on various countries and territories.

As Edward Said once remarked on Antonio Gramsci: “I say this is the single most important thing that I took from Gramsci… the idea that everything… really the whole world, is organized according to geography. He thought in geographical terms, and the Prison Notebooks are a kind of map of modernity. They’re not a history of modernity, but his notes really try to place everything, like a military map; I mean that there was always some struggle going on over territory.”

For most of us in Asia, we have won our hard-fought independence only in the 20th century, after several centuries of colonialism. Sometimes, that one step forward sets us back two steps, without us realizing it.

This has happened in culture. Every year as I scan the Asian newspapers, I wonder why is it that the Filipino media gets so excited when a local film gets selected in Cannes. This happens as well in $ingapore, Thailand and here in Indonesia. Perhaps, our cultural inferiority hasn’t been liberated by our political independence.

It was perhaps a legitimate reaction 30 or 40 years ago when there were just a handful of Asian film festivals such as the South-east Asia Film Festival in the ’50s and the Asia Pacific Film Festival in the ‘60-’70s. It was a time when Asian films didn’t have so many places to go to. But this is truly not the case today. There are over 30 film festivals in the city of Seoul alone. New ones are even sprouting up across Central Asia. We have Asian film festivals coming out of our ears.

It’s the biggest new market phenomenon. Film distributors tell me that they are exhausted trying to meet the requests of hundreds of Asian film festivals. It’s become a new revenue stream of charging Asian film festivals to show Asian films. For example, to rent a Malaysian film from a French distributor, to show in a Philippines Film Festival, it costs 800 Euro for one screening. But it used to be FREE.

So here’s the question you should think about. Why isn’t it just as significant that an Asian film gets selected in an interesting Asian film festival?

Most of you know the answer already. As Edward Said wrote in his classic book, Orientalism (1978): “To the West, Asia had once represented silent distance and alienation; Islam was militant hostility to European Christianity. To overcome such redoubtable constants the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races and cultures in order to posit them - beyond the modern Oriental’s ken - as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient.”

It’s an illusion to think that [film] audiences can be predicted. This illusion is a legacy of colonialism and imperialism that believes that there are a chosen few who understand the masses more than them, and knows what is good for them.

This has happened in the arena of world cinema. Western critics have mapped out and defined Asian cinema to the point that if it doesn’t exist in its frame of reference, then it doesn’t deserve to be canonical. They become the experts in this arena of cinema and the media and other local cultural institutions are led to believe the same.

The example I have is Sri Lanka. For many years, the classic legendary figure in Sri Lankan film is Lester James Peries, whose body of work in the ’50s defined cinema in that country. But when the Sri Lankan new wave emerged in the ’90s, it was difficult to see the linkage in terms of cinematic style. In 2003, the Singapore International Film Festival held the first retrospective of Dharmasena Pathiraja, showing his classic works of the ’70s that revealed the linkage with the new wave.

As Sri Lanka leaned towards the Eastern Soviet bloc in the ’60s, the cinema of the ’70s did not travel westwards. Two years ago, when another Pathiraja retrospective was held in the Jeonju International Film Festival, a French critic asked: “Who is Dharmasena Pathiraja?”

This retrospective was also held at the 4th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival in 2009. I remember an Indonesian film curator told me this year that she was so excited when she saw Pathiraja’s films as they were incredibly modern.

The example of Pathiraja is just one of many. I have seen careers of many directors who have been handicapped as they were not selected and approved by western festivals. This is not really such a big problem if Asian media, film festivals and critics leaned more towards the East for an equal balance.


One of the basic challenges facing film festivals today is that we only claim to be interested in culture. What is happening is that many of the big festivals are really interested in cultural power. Hence big festivals tend to express their power by mapping the world, by interpreting and insisting what they think are cultural trends.

As Edward Said observed in an interview from the book, Power, Politics and Culture (2001) - “if you’re going to go on fighting the battle of truth in a polemical and purely intellectual way, it’s an endless war… Obviously, you can try to wipe out the other person; you can try just to sweep the field. But in intellectual issues, it never happens…”

The better option is the reverse of this expression, which is the film festival that exists to return the voice back to its native land. Such festivals are interested in culture and therefore spend a lot of time listening to what local filmmakers are saying.

Culture and aesthetics often have local and global characteristics. Some aspects of local culture and aesthetics cannot translate globally but this does not mean that they are lesser as a result.

An example here is Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s The Woven Stories Of The Other (2006). Unlike other war films, Sanchez brings an intimate view of his native region of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, to tell how the battle between government troops and communist rebels have impacted his community. But because he doesn’t compromise the folklore and local details of his area (for example, the role of the balyan or priestess who has her bloodied hands symbolically bandaged), the film remains elusive for most foreign audiences.

As Philippine cinema has been so capital-centred, there has been a concerted effort by its filmmakers to decentralize it. Last year at the Cinemalaya Film Festival, a wave of New Regional Filipino Cinema emerged. They were - Halaw by Sheron Dayoc (Philippines, 2010), Limbunan by Gutierrez Mangansakan II (Philippines, 2010) and Sheika by Arnel Mardoquio (Philippines, 2010).

But this development was really fuelled by the Cinema Rehiyon Film Festival which started in 2009, with the push of film critic, Teddy Co, to collect and exhibit shorts and features from the surrounding provinces. As a result, the Manila-centric audience of Tagalog speakers found themselves hearing all the regional dialects such as Ilonggo, Cebuano, Pangasinan, Kapampangan and so on.

One of the chief virtues of film selection is honesty and the spirit of sharing. If you honestly like and believe in a film, no matter how strange or foreign it may look, then the only reasonable response is a desire to share this experience with your audience.

This trend, by the way, has not registered in the Western festivals. It is too local, too incomprehensible. In many such instances, a work considered too local is dismissed from global film culture.

But this effort by local critics and filmmakers shows that within Asia, there is already a struggle to find equality amongst the cacophony of voices. This struggle for equality amongst different ethnicities also began in Indonesia many years ago.

In 1991, I had a conversation with Indonesia’s Garin Nugroho. He told me that under the Suharto regime, the only culture was a Javanese one.

“But what’s it like to be Indonesian?” he asked. “Trying to express identity in a country of so many islands, regions, languages and ethnic groups is difficult. Film can let us discover what it’s really like. Listening to sobbing is being Indonesian. The human face is the face of our archipelago. See the face and you understand the family.

“All the clichés of pluralism and multiculturalism can be made honest through film.” This is what Garin did throughout his film career. His films mirror the many voices and faces of Indonesia, from the Acehnese in The Poet (2000) to the Papuans in Bird Man Tale (2002).

So if Asians struggle within their own societies to find cultural equality, shouldn’t they find that equality exists outside in the international arena as well?


Film festivals played the role of cultural promotion by bringing these films to foreign audiences. But today, if you sit in many selection committees, the remark that you often hear is - “I don’t understand this film so I don’t think that the audience will understand it either.”

Here’s Edward Said again in an interview from the book, Power, Politics and Culture (2001): “Intellectuals have to be moved, I think, by what (Julien) Benda said, by a sense of justice; and that’s what I find missing… You know, (Joseph) Conrad says he was moved by a few very simple ideas. I feel the same thing. For intellectual discourse and for intellectual activity, one has to be stimulated not by highfalutin ideas in the appallingly solemn Habermasian sense - you know, the public sphere and the discourse of modernity, which is all just hot air, as far as I’m concerned - because there is no moral centre to what (Jurgen) Habermas does. I think there has to be a kind of moral view, as you find it in (Noam) Chomsky, or Bertrand Russell, and people like that. I feel that’s the only hope…”

In my 20 years of being in film festivals, I know that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to know what audiences will like or not understand. It’s an illusion to think that audiences can be predicted. This illusion is a legacy of colonialism and imperialism that believes that there are a chosen few who understand the masses more than them, and knows what is good for them.

One of the chief virtues of film selection is honesty and the spirit of sharing. If you honestly like and believe in a film, no matter how strange or foreign it may look, then the only reasonable response is a desire to share this experience with your audience.

We must listen and we must share. How else to understand culture and each other?

Note: The above essay was originally presented on October 14, 2011 at the 7th Indonesian Arts festival in Surakarta, Indonesia.

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  2. Truly illuminating. This got me to thinking whether there’s also the phenomenon of similar hegemony immanent in individual Asian countries as well, curated by a circle of film critics in their efforts to ‘represent’ the Best locally produced films in the last decade etc.

    By Richard Oh on Feb 10, 2012

  3. Thankyou Phillip, for this excellent piece of analysis. Very informative and insightful.
    The same thing seemed to be occurring at the Brisbane International Film Festival in Nov 2011, when the audience’s top 3 films were quite a big surprise to many. 1.”The Orator”,(Samoa) 2.”The Tall Man” (Documentary about a Queensland police matter relating to the death of an Aboriginal man in custody)and 3.”Uma Lulik”, a docu from Timor Leste. The first and third film were ‘first films’ which revealed a lot about local cultural ways. These were the most popular three, although some other films were much more commercial, and there were quite a few from world famous directors such as Almodovar and Nikita Mikhalkov. Perhaps Australia could also be seen as being in “post-Colonial” era too - such a young country.

    By Cynthia Webb on Feb 10, 2012

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