By Shaheen Merali, Project Director, House of World
You have been involved with the Singapore Film Festival
for a number of years - can you please elaborate on this
period of its activities.
was with the festival since its inception in 1987. Being
young, I didn't worry about the many problems we had - from
an inadequate budget to incredible censorship hurdles. For
example, in that very first year, we had wanted to show
Istvan Szabo's Academy-award-winning Mephisto and the censors
wanted to cut the film because it showed naked breasts.
Of course, Szabo was dumbfounded when we told him since
the film had already travelled the world and won countless
awards including the Oscars. He rightly refused the censorship
and withdrew the film from $ingapore.
my feeling about that first edition was that the American
content and presentation was too pronounced. I told the
festival founder, Geoff Malone, that to be a unique festival,
we had to find our Asian voice. We did this when I started
to travel around the region to see the films first hand
instead of relying on secondary recommendations.
1994, we decided to refine our specialisation to South-east
Asian film. In the process of doing many programmes on young
regional directors, it occurred to me that our collective
memory of South-east Asian film drew a blank, meaning that
while each country knew its film masters, that knowledge
wasn't shared by its neighbours. Also, we began to realise
that film archiving was in a terribly poor state. The existing
ones then in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand were grossly
underfunded. In Jakarta, they had to charge you just to
set up research screenings as that constituted revenue for
them. And the joke about how film prints were kept under
beds was really true in South-east Asia. Even as recent
as 2004, when we organised the first international retrospective
for Laurice Guillen, we found that there wasn't an intact
copy for her 1981 classic, Salome. Can you imagine how dire
the situation is when even an '80s film is lost?
you briefly explain what is and why this particular film
concept for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt has been proposed?
was conceived on a wing and a prayer. I do a lot of my thinking
intuitively, meaning that what I understand also has to
feel true. So when Dr Hans-Georg Knopp first met me in 2002
and asked me what I would do if I had to do a programme
on South-east Asia, I instinctively said state-led terrorism
in South-east Asia. After 9/11 in 2001, the media made it
sound as if terrorism was a newfound threat. And of course
it's not. Any student of history can tell you that. But
that's not what the media told you day in and day out. It
seemed almost as if a new enemy had to be created.
that enemy has been with us throughout much of South-east
Asia's modern history. And most of that terrorism was conducted
by the state itself. Even in $ingapore where the terrorism
is not of killing and bloodshed but of censorship and the
silencing of the mind.
are the main issues and considerations that inform the selection
and history play a big part of it. It's fascinating to me
that the history of state-led terrorism has been taken so
much for granted that most of it has been forgotten. So
for example, the Thai shorts - The Wall and Full Moon -
are an anguished cry lamenting that the Thai youth of today
have already forgotten the Thai youth of 1973 and 1976,
the ones who opposed the military dictatorship.
they had to be interesting as cinema. So Lav Diaz's Evolution
is nearly 11 hours long. It's like watching Satyajit Ray's
the Apu Trilogy (all three films) in one sitting. It's as
poetic as Ray's films. It's also about the family and it's
also a document of the times. The only differences are that
Diaz shot it on video and 16mm and he gave the story of
the family a political dimension by framing it within the
period of Philippines' declaration of martial law in 1972
and the people's power revolution of 1986.
tried hard to select films that are definitive to the point
of being regarded as modern classics. So the likelihood
is that films such as Rithy Panh's S21, Garin Nugroho's
The Poet or Lav Diaz's Evolution will continue to be discussed
in film literature in the future. Or at least when this
topic is raised again.
films selected are from a variety of artistic fronts and
regions can you explain further the idea behind both
mixing of film positions but also the region.
must first understand that South-east Asia is a construct
so that's the reason we scratch our heads so much when we
are trying to find a common culture for South-east Asia.
For example, India was once considered as part of South-east
Asia. But not today.
the roots of South-east Asia is warfare and not geography
or culture. South-east Asia became popularised as a region
during the Pacific War from 1941. As Donald Emmerson eloquently
notes: "Making war meant making maps. The National Geographic
Society made them in unprecedented numbers, nearly 20 million
in 1941-44, including for the first time a Society map of
'Southeast Asia' to enable Americans to 'follow every move
by our land, sea and air forces to crush the Japanese.'
The global scale of those moves required the demarcation
of regional theatres, one of which was Admiral Lord Louis
Mountbatten's South-East Asia Command (SEAC), created in
1943... SEAC by name advanced the regional idea.
political and not cultural character of South-east Asia
continued after the war. In 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty
Organisation (SEATO) was born during the Cold War. In this
version of South-east Asia, Pakistan was included as well
as parts of the Southwest Pacific. As Emmerson noted: "The
United States in effect limited the 'treaty area', where
a 'common danger' would justify action, to places subject
to 'Communist aggression'." As the organisation of countries
was a construct, it fell apart in 1977 after Pakistan withdrew
in 1972 and after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
Doongta Pattummasoot's The Wall.
1967, for the first time, the locals took the initiative
to form a regional grouping. It was called the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Emmerson also noted:
"All five ASEAN members eventually suppressed communism
as a political option, opened their economies to the foreign
investment, and enjoyed closer relations with the United
States." That relationship with the US is now getting complicated
in the light of communist Myanmar assuming chairmanship
of the group next year. [Editor's note: In July 2005, Myanmar
announced that it will relinquish its turn to lead ASEAN
Emmerson concluded: "Southeast Asia turned out to be an
aggregate of nations - individually distinct and collectively
a battleground in, first, the Pacific War, then the Cold
War, including two Indochinese wars and finally, in Cambodia,
a Sino-Soviet proxy war. The irony bears emphasis: By attracting
and creating a need to talk about the region, political
disunity bolstered the semantic unity of 'Southeast Asia'.
this brings us back to the curatorial strategy, that because
there is no real common ground, we are using diversity in
film forms and formats. But the commonality is the sum of
our experiences; that we have been subject to the political
whims of our history.
the selected films for the programme "Whose terror
is it anyway?" reflect artistic, aesthetic and political
explorations in contemporary South-east Asia?
most of the filmmakers featured are well-known and award
winners. Let's take for example, Lav Diaz's Evolution. It's
the longest film in South-east Asian film history. Everyone
asks whether it is reasonable to sit through such a long
film. Of course it is, if you are interested. It's literally
an experience. The whole film was shot with long takes and
hardly any close-ups. You are meant to see, feel and experience
what the characters are going through with little cinematic
manipulation through fast edits or music. When the characters
walk, you literally just watch them walk. You begin to feel
the fatigue and the distance they feel.
shot it on 16mm and video and the black-and-white cinematography
is outstanding. If you've ever wondered about digital epics,
then this is it.
something is going on in the film as well. Diaz is showing
us the farmers, the ordinary Filipino who doesn't get enough
screen time in the movies. He's showing us the people who
only matter to governments during election time (which we
see in Ramona Diaz's Imelda when the protagonist campaigns
for votes). And we also see the devastation of the Marcos
years, the debilitating poverty that 80 per cent of his
population suffered from because he plundered them.
Diaz has said: "His (Marcos) credo, 'The Philippines will
be great again!' remains the sweetest music to many Filipinos
and it is just so sad to confront this. Marcos destroyed
us and the greatest tragedy is this perspective of the loyalists
as espoused by that credo. Their stance that Marcos could
have saved the Philippines is bullshit. A lot of loyalists
still believe that Marcos was the Lee Kuan Yew of the Philippines
and they are still saying we need a Lee Kuan Yew. These
fascists want a strong leader who can control everything.
But we do not need that. The Martial Law years was an attempt
to do a Lee Kuan Yew but it failed miserably. Marcos had
a brilliant mind. He was a master politician but he was
Machiavellian. He wanted to change the system of government
to a parliamentary one just like $ingapore's or like Suharto's
Indonesia. Those were his models, including Hitler's of
course. He even kept Mein Kampf by his bed. It would not
work for our people. Eventually, it did not work. During
Martial Law, a lot of promising people and young leaders
were killed, imprisoned, tortured or simply disappeared.
Marcos put in prison all his enemies, like Benigno Aquino.
He siphoned the treasury as well. He got everything. No
matter what they say, he stole everything - the money, our
when you see Batang West Side, his previous film that looks
at the Filipino migrant in the United States, Diaz shows
you the psychic wounds of the Marcos Era. The protagonist,
a police detective was also a policeman in the Philippines.
But his police work in the Philippines operated on a different
standard. He operated through terror.
In traversing geographically, a sense of sudden history
and upheaval emerges - is this the main goal of the film
main goal of the film selection is merely to reveal again
what is obvious and what has been forgotten. That the current
emphasis on terrorism is not new at all, that we have suffered
from it throughout much of history and that the state has
committed those acts of terrorism that are just, if not
more horrifying than what is committed today.
tackling the issue of local and national genocides - a greater
picture of regional drama emerges - a chronicle which is
displayed about survival, about truth, even about deported
narratives. Is this tone a curatorial strategy or something
personal to you?
personal to me and what's interesting to me is what we are
led to believe. I visited Hanoi, Vietnam, for the first
time in my life in December 2004. And it shocked me. It
shocked me because for the longest time in my youth, I was
led to believe in the communist terror, that the communist
terror of Vietnam would sweep down throughout the region.
Many years later, I learnt that the Vietnamese didn't even
want to fight. They were ready to make peace but the Americans
refused to allow them that option. That's in the history
books but during that period, it was suppressed. That's
why in Vietnam, they call it the American War.
I was shocked in Vietnam because these people were more
capitalist than perhaps many in the West. They were businesslike
and were always keen to strike deals and drive hard bargains.
Did these people really care about communism or were they
just fighting a war for independence?
What do you think of Rithy Pan´s work? My own feelings
are that the re-enactment of historical violence in his
work and its presence in global circulation, has helped
to make urgent the need for serious dialogue in the terrain
of South-east Asia which was at best obscured and remained
ambiguous, mainly by the lack of interest by the world media.
many directors in this selection, I love Rithy Panh's work
for its courage and its insistence on truth. Let me just
quote him from an essay he wrote: "I arrived in France in
1979 when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia. I didn't
want to go to France. I was 16 and I had to leave with one
sister older than me. My parents died in Cambodia at the
hands of the Khmer Rouge... The memory of Cambodia was broken
because of the war. I had to go, and I wanted to give others
the opportunity of speaking, of expressing their thoughts,
their feelings, their memories. I tried many things and
finally chose the cinema... The development of cinema depends
on the history and context of each country. In Cambodia,
it is a sort of way of resisting; we resist because we have
In selecting such a programme of films - you are both
risking and advocating... this risk is in taking a certain
stance - can you describe this turn, its circumstances for
yourself in $ingapore and the notoriety this selection might
am already terrified of being terrorised. I didn't want
to do this programme. I didn't ask to do it. But I felt
obliged in doing the job when I was asked to. I was never
a political person and to this day I still don't hold any
position except that of non-violence. I look at the world
with a kind of weariness. The lessons are all there in front
of us. They are simple lessons but for some reason they
are hard to learn. So here's one simple lesson - power corrupts
and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now try telling
that to people in positions of power.
programme is an act of seeing. I am just showing you what
I (and all the filmmakers) see.
as film provisions in South-east Asia head in the direction
of the mainstream - with the recent success of Thai horror
films, Korean thrillers and $ingaporean comedies - what
future is there for documentaries "about truth telling
or truth facing"? When so much of what is circulated
is increasingly under scrutiny and control in the region?
yes, it's pretty bleak. To find real content in the mainstream
media is like finding a needle in the haystack today. Here,
I would like to quote Susan Sontag: "There is no possibility
of true culture without altruism." So on the one hand, globalisation
has created the business of culture and, on the other hand,
the prevalence of surveillance has created a culture of
fear, the future for anyone with something to say, to find
a stage, is quite stark.
I believe that the human spirit is indomitable. We have
lived through worst times before but we have lived. So you
will find new voices. You just have to learn to listen and
"Whose Terror Is It Anyway?" is what can be described
as down below - a subconscious reading of recent history
- what further examinations or details would you be interested
for future statements within film context.
put, it's this. Have you ever wondered why the War on Terrorism
could not have been the War on Poverty? As Rithy Panh said,
we resist because we have nothing.