December 17, 2014 – 12:51 pm

There is a rising “independent” mainstream but what does it mean to be “independent”? By Philip Cheah.

Earlier this year, I was trying to write a snapshot history of several South-East Asian cinemas when I realized that several names don’t exist in the common commentaries.

For example, if you see the Wikipedia entry for Cinema of Thailand, you don’t see Ing K’s name in the narrative. That’s pretty strange as her debut feature, My Teacher Eats Biscuits (1997), is one of the early indie low-budget features of modern Thai new wave in the ’90s, and it’s arguable that it even precedes Penek Ratanaruang’s Fun Bar Karaoke (1997) and Nonzee Nimibutr’s Dang Bireley and Young Gangsters (1997).

Then her milestone documentary, Citizen Juling (that she co-directed with Kraisak Choonhavan and Manit Sriwanichpoom, 2008), the most definitive indictment of the Thaksin regime, with its expose of how the Thai Muslim south was made restive by the military and the state, is also a vague memory. From 2003-2008, there were more than 3,000 disappearances, deaths in detention and state-sanctioned extra-judicial killings in the Muslim southern Thailand. This film has also conveniently disappeared from the “mainstream” independent discourse.

This is not so isolated an incident. Dropouts of this nature also exist in the other regional cinemas. For example, you don’t see much mention of Doy del Mundo’s Pepot Artista even though it won Best Film at the 1st Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. Or in $ingapore, a director such as Kan Lume can make six features and still not register in the independent mainstream’s discourse. In the Philippines, Jon Red’s Still Lives (1999), the first digital new wave feature, is absent from some histories of Filipino new wave.

So here’s what I think. In the recent years, an “independent” mainstream has evolved. I think the most distinct characteristic of this group is its ability to change from one style to another.

It’s apt to reflect on the previous generation’s survival game, for example, the case of Philippines’ Lino Brocka. They all directed commercial movies to afford their more indie outings. But in those days, it WAS about survival. They were independent first and their mainstream work was second. They were always conscious of their mission as artistes, and always battled to change the course of history.

Today, my sense of it is that it’s about career. Often the drive to say something about life, or to tell a meaningful story about people dries up and then the switch to cinema as entertainment becomes an option. It’s also a tough temptation to resist well-paid commissioned jobs. But it does make you wonder why is it that the mainstream independents don’t return quicker to self-expressive work.

Perhaps what also distinguishes the independent mainstream is its inability for self-reflection. More than ever now for us as independents, we have to ask ourselves - WHAT are we independent from? The state, the corporations, commercial branding or what? If we know this, we then know how we are independent.

And if we don’t know this, then it also means that we don’t know just why we are independent.

Note: The above article was written for and first published by the 9th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival, Indonesia 2014 and the 3rd SEA Screen Academy, Makassar, Indonesia, 2014.

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