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As we hurtle into 2023, it’s ironic to realise how we are spinning round and around. As Fleetwood Mac once sang: “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone but don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” A brief attempt at memory and South-east Asian film history by Philip Cheah.

Since it began in 1966, Star Trek’s first three classic seasons, were considered unforgettable. After all, Captain Kirk and Spock defined the intergalactic buddy relationship between human and alien. Later, when Captain Picard arrived with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, Picard became considered as the greatest starship captain in Star Trek history (Ed: Kirk got forgotten so quickly, within 20 years!). After 55 years, many movies and spin-off TV serials, the current final season of Picard has the protagonist summing up his life as “writing books of history people prefer to forget”.

The future always has a place for the past. So it is that the first season of Star Trek sees the crew travelling back to the past in the late ’60s, that is, their present period in terms of production timeline. It repeats again in this last season of Picard where the crew returns to the 21st Century, also their real present time. This signature plot habit of Star Trek seems to emphasise this idea - the future depends on the past and don’t you forget it!

Time is an anomaly. While it can be precise, it cannot be pinned down. It is persistently slipping through our grasp. When we look back on the history of cinema, what can be remembered can never be comprehensive. To add salt to the wound, it is in the memory of Asian cinema where the gaps of memory are particularly elusive since much of it has not even been documented.

Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation said that basically half of all American films made before 1950 are lost and none of the major distributors are looking for them. Even worse, they said that more than 90 per cent of films made before 1929 are lost forever. Yet comparatively, they are in a better state of health.

For in South-east Asia, we know that the film archival movement was a relatively recent phenomenon. There are two strains in the South-east Asian film archive movement, one that is state-directed and the other fueled by passion and independence. You can guess for yourself which voice is louder.

Let’s start with the softer one. Dome Sukvong, Founder of the Thai National Film Archives in 1984, once said: “As a young man, I set out with the intention to write a book on the history of Thai cinema, but I realised that I would never be able to do a good job if I hadn’t seen all the Thai films from the past. So I began hunting for old movies…

“The most exciting incident - I will never forget it - was when I found the surviving fragment of the film, Choke Song Chan (Double Luck, first Thailand film, 1927). The fragment contains just one minute of the entire movie, but its existence has an enormous historical value not unlike the unearthing of a tiny bone of a dinosaur that allows the archaeologist to imagine the extinct creature in its entirety.”

In Indonesia, that passion was given life in 1975 when filmmaker/critic, Misbach Yusa Biran, and screenwriter, Asrul Sani, founded Sinematek Indonesia (Cinematheque of Indonesia), the first film archive in South-east Asia.

Like its cousin archive in Thailand, many years later, state funding was not forthcoming. Worse still, in 2001, the central government prohibited all non-profit organisations, including the film archive, from receiving any government funds and foreign funding also stopped. That was the last year that Misbach headed the cinematheque. Till today, the archive is grossly underfunded.

As of 2012, of the Rp 320 million (US$35,000) needed to run the archives annually, it only receives Rp 48 million. This is comparable to the Thai Film Archives that survived on three million baht (US$89,000) annually in 2008, compared to the state-funded Bangkok International Film Festival that had a budget of 200 million baht (US$6 million) that same year.

In the late ’80s, we all thought that multiplexes were the answer to a richly varied availability of films that would nurture movie culture. Now we know that it was only an illusion, and we also know that streaming won’t be an answer either.

In South-east Asia, state funding makes a fundamental difference in having an adequate budget. Over 20 years ago, I visited the Vietnam Film Institute in Hanoi. Originally established in 1979 as the Vietnam Film Documentation Institute, the Vietnam Film Institute was appointed by the government to archive its country’s film heritage.

This makes it the second oldest South-east Asian film archive after Indonesia. I was struck by the magnificent facilities, a special cold room for its two film vaults housing over 84,000 film cans. One had to wear a decontamination suit just to enter the vaults. They also had a film restoration laboratory and a film studio. There was nothing of this scale in both the Indonesian and Thai archives.

Think about it. When does the central government ever want to preserve its history?

Over the years, it made me think that time gave us an opportunity, but it is also often a trap. The opportunity of time is to effect change. The trap is that we don’t realise that we are repeating past mistakes. Hence that famous cliché - “History repeats itself.”

Time traps us because memory is limited. Time itself is endless but memories are short. The propagandists know this well. This was why the cinema of Indonesia’s New Order used film to propagate official history. Knowing how short memory is, the Suharto regime insisted on screening Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of September 30 Movement, 1984), every year on September 30, to repeat the official line of the New Order’s legitimacy (Ed: It was never legitimate and was destined to fall in 1998 after the Reformasi revolt).

In much the same way, the Vietnam Film Institute has the capability to reiterate the history of its country’s patriotism through its vast archives. Memory is therefore effectively controlled for propaganda. Even the freedom to remember is compromised.

Being from Singapore, I would therefore refrain from saying anything about the Asian Film Archives except to put the word “Asian” in inverted commas. Being a natural born sceptic, I have often wondered what direction the archive would have taken if it had the money but was not hosted by a state apparatus, in this case, the National Library Board. In fact, this is THE question for ALL areas of the Arts in Singapore. We can only wonder.

In the late ’80s, we all thought that multiplexes were the answer to a richly varied availability of films that would nurture movie culture. Now we know that it was only an illusion, and we also know that streaming won’t be an answer either.

Yes, there are interesting national sidebar programmes on Egypt, Lebanon and even Palestine on Netflix but this openness only exists as the rules of the streaming game are not yet set in stone. When the competition heats up with more big-name companies, the viewing menus will return to the middle of the road.

Streaming is currently so widespread, that the old-fashioned DVD/Blu-Ray disc has become a meaningful anachronism. It is the only challenge to the notion that archives need to be national. Aren’t personal, individual archives a valid alternative?

During the waves of all the different physical formats, from VHS (video cassette) tapes, Laserdiscs (Ed: Remember them!!?), Video CDs (VCDs), DVDs to Blu-Ray discs; every serious cineaste tried to collect and establish their own personal archive.

Deep inside all of us, we felt the fear that if a precious film could not be accessed in a library or online, then we stood the chance of owning a copy that could be retrieved. Till today, disc collectors are the last renegades of personal archivists.

Disc collectors also realise that streaming catalogues are transient. They fade away when the contract to show it online ends. Whereas disc collectors can still pull them off their own shelves but only if the disc can still be played. That too is not permanent.

As the android character, Data, said in Picard: “Mortality gives meaning to human life - peace, friendship, love. These are precious because we know they cannot endure. A butterfly that lives forever is really not a butterfly at all.”

Furthermore, as Irish writer Frank O’Connor wrote: “History cannot be remembered meaningfully unless it is experienced meaningfully.” Besides, do you really want to see all those 3-D films again?!

Note: This essay was first published December 2022 in WuBen, an independent Malaysian film journal. They can be contacted via FaceBook at facebook.com/wuben.editor.

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