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Toward New Ways of Seeing Southeast Asian Cinema
Feature by: Benjamin McKay

And while we are on the point of technology, I have over the last couple of years continued to be surprised by the number of times I have heard the issue of the “indigenousness of cinema” in the region raised at conferences and in academic papers. Many commentators still believe that film as product and industry, as art and artefact, are indeed Western practices that have been adopted in colonial and postcolonial societies and therefore somehow lack a certain indigenous integrity. This desire for indigenous integrity appears to be driven by another discursive practice of the Western academe – namely theories of National Cinema. It seems to me that in the inherent irony in the development of an argument about national cinematic cultures, there is still a sense that cinema itself is a form and practice that has been ‘introduced’ to colonial and postcolonial societies and nations.

Cinema as a site and as an industry that creates filmed products is largely the result of technology and capital practices that were forged at the height of the supposed Age of Empire and therefore, should be seen as an inherently global practice. The camera itself is NOT indigenous to either France or the United States for the same reasons that the Sony Walkman is not indigenous to Japan. If we are to continue to speak of National Cinemas and to perhaps widen that discourse to acknowledge the trans-national and the super-regional, then let us begin by abandoning this postcolonial cringe mentality when it comes to matters of indigenousness. Cinema and Film were always, and still are, global entities even when practiced at a local level.

We also need to inform a new critical practice with an understanding of the particularities of the region within which we wish to engage. This goes beyond ‘knowing’ ones own culture and nation and rather calls for a finely-tuned understanding of matters cultural, social, political, ideological and industrial. It is one thing to speak to and of a film as merely text, but when we speak of national or pan-national cinematic practices we need to also speak of context (not to mention of course, inter-textuality and possibly inter-contextuality). I would argue that possible truths and revelations lie at the juncture between text and context and if we are to be rigorous in our enquiry, then the two should be inseparable.

Mainstream popular cinema demands serious critical and analytical engagement. It does not get it when we approach it merely from a textual analysis. A commercial film may in fact resonate with intertextual allusions and if it is a film that can speak across borders, then our criticism and engagement with it demands a degree of contextualisation. Indeed most commercial mainstream, popular films need contextual analysis. I see this as being a sad deficiency in the critical and analytical practices that take place in this region. I am guilty of this flaw as well. Let us discuss how we can address this deficiency.

The analysis and criticism of independent cinema needs to embrace the contextual and inter-textual as well, but perhaps for different reasons. A failure to embrace such analysis condemns independent cinema to the privileged ghetto of the well-educated and discursively adept film festival circuit at the expense of the broader audience it so clearly has the capacity to address.

We need to look at our current discursive practices and see what we can do to make sure that we are indeed seriously engaging with all of the cinematic products of our region of enquiry. We also need to question our regional specificity and make certain that we are comfortable in spatial assertiveness. We need to combine textual analysis with contextual analysis and we ought to be comfortable with inter-textual and inter-contextual considerations. Perhaps we might attempt to apply the same critical and analytical rigour to the supposed mainstream and commercial cinema that we also apply to the independent film movements of the region. And we need to make sure that we have a temporal understanding of the development of the cultures and industries that we intellectually engage with. If we acknowledge that cultural production itself does not merely take place in a contemporary vacuum then we also need to acknowledge that it does not take place in a historical vacuum either.

And we should perhaps be brave enough to assert in our writing our ideological, political and discursive positioning. Declare it for the record rather than cloak it in hyperbole and academic obfuscation. And while the call for a finely tuned ‘knowing’ of our engagement sounds like a Herculean task of intellectual endeavour, let us not be afraid to admit that every time we write about a film or a group of films we are in fact entering into a dialogue with that film or group of films. We are learning through the process of engagement rather than arbitrarily announcing definitive truths. The journey to understand and to articulate the text, context and inter-text of our chosen vocations is a lifelong process of learning. The critical mass that is so needed in the region to engender solid and rigorous intellectual engagement with the films of the region is not served by academic torpidity and disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) rigidity.

There are signs that change is taking place. At conferences, participants are asking that we look at last at hegemonic intellectual practices and at pedagogies too. Some are calling for new ways of approaching research methodology and others have called for a strengthening of the dialogue between the academicians, the journalists and the film practitioners themselves. That dialogue is taking place in Southeast Asia and it bodes well for the health and vigour of a developing critical mass. If people are nervous about the hegemonic weight of Western discourse, then there now appears to be a space in the debate to commence talking about newer and more appropriate local approaches to criticism and analysis. Those approaches need not necessarily abandon established discourse(s) but they may decide to refine such practices to best enter into an informed dialogue with the films of the region.

And there is an acknowledgement that there are better ways that we might approach the teaching of film in our schools, colleges and universities. How that will develop remains to be seen of course, but I am certain that so long as this debate is continued and that there is an acknowledgement that there is room for improvement then film education will change – both at a theoretical and a practical level. Indeed, the study of film in the region is beset by numerous problems, not the least of which is access to appropriate resources. One way that we might improve the teaching of film studies, cultural studies and filmmaking itself is to see the potential for crossover co-operation. This may also help to alleviate the problems of allocation of resources. The dialogue between practitioners and theorists and commentators should commence at the educational level. This cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices has the potential to actively engender the very critical mass and critical culture that some have identified as being vital to our understanding of the film cultures and industries of our region and that many have acknowledged needs improvement.

I said earlier in this article that we should avoid attempting to develop a critical and analytical manifesto and this article in no way attempts to articulate one. What it rather hopes to achieve is the commencement of a formalised debate on these issues and it rather humbly attempts to ask some of the questions that we might address in that debate. I do not pretend to have answers to the questions that I have raised and am happy for others to explore them further. There are a growing number of young and enthusiastic critics, commentators and academics to be found throughout Southeast Asia. I hope that a journal like Criticine can give them a voice to engage with this debate while at the same time providing them with a forum for their work and their scholarship. I also hope that the journal continues to provide a place for the thoughts and ideas of filmmakers as well and that perhaps this will be a site that helps to further erode the barriers between the theorists, the commentators and the practitioners. There are certainly exciting opportunities ahead for all of us in attempting to find new ways of writing about the cinemas of Southeast Asia. Let the debate on how such a new criticism and analysis might evolve begin to take place here.

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