Coming Out of the Film School Closet
Feature by: Vinita Ramani
The story ideas ranged from an alienated couple afloat on a barge in the grey waters of Flanders to the secretive consumers of the sweet and spicy sayur asem soup in a neighbourhood cafe in Jakarta. However adeptly or flimsily developed, twenty students from across Asia and Europe descended to Tokyo for a week to try out a “mock-pitch” of their film treatments to eleven resource persons in the hopes of nailing the ideal angle or approach that will impress potential funders (and distributors) down the road.
The meeting that brought them altogether – now into its fifth year - was organised by the Asia Europe Foundation (www.asef.org) in cooperation with UniJapan (www.unijapan.org). Initiated in 2002 during the Cinemanila International Film Festival in the Philippines, the idea to hold annual meetings focusing on every aspect of film and filmmaking has also led to the creation of the SEA-Images Network (Synergy of Europe-Asia Images: http://sea-images.asef.org/index.asp), which basically acts as a compendium of contacts, websites and articles on cinema from Europe and Asia. If information has been thus far disparate and the distribution haphazard, the hope is that meetings like these and website initiatives along the way will do something to bring the community together – at least virtually speaking.
Through the last few years, the meetings have concentrated on the development and promotion of independent cinema and participants were largely established film professionals or up-and-coming filmmakers. This is the first time since its inception that the focus has shifted to accommodate film students who are in the midst of completing their graduation film, or who want to start work on a feature-length project.
Why film students?
For ASEF, which has always fundamentally focused on promoting cultural exchange, it was the logical next step to explore a segment of the filmmaking world composed of students: ideas are raw, some entirely unrealised and many students arrived with little exposure to cultures outside their own. If not anything else, the meeting would serve the purpose of allowing students to question their own (or other people’s) preconceptions about cinemas from particular parts of the world.
UniJapan’s decision to get involved indicated that there is a growing desire to venture into relatively newer turf by exposing Japanese film students to the international arena. Despite its incredible cosmopolitan buzz, in a strange kind of way, there is an absence of pressure on Japanese filmmakers to appeal to a market outside Japan. Scene veterans like Keiko Araki, Festival Director for the Pia Film Festival—a platform for young, up-and-coming independent Japanese filmmakers to showcase their films—pointed out that because of its vast local market, most Japanese filmmakers are absorbed in the system within the country and feel little or no pressure to have greater international reach.
Both organisations proposed that the focus on film students would prove to be fruitful, at least insofar as allowing film students to interact and see what their pedagogical environments provide for them as aspiring filmmakers or producers. More interestingly, it gave them a taster of the implications in pitching to an audience outside their cultural context. Yes, let’s co-produce (that was the big buzz throughout the meeting), but what does that mean exactly for the film and how much compromise is involved in cooperation?
While these questions were not necessarily raised in the midst of the meeting itself, pitching their projects to each other gave the students an indication of the kind of ideas that would or would not work, when and if they face an international market of producers and distributors vying for projects.
While an array of issues no doubt cropped up in the midst of the meeting concerning distribution, the very idea of a “genre” and whether short films even have a life outside of the festival circuit (what distribution? It’s a short film!), this is a snapshot of what felt like the most resonant, persistent themes for me.
THE SCRIPT IS EVERYTHING
There’s no doubt in my mind that some students probably walked away feeling a little cheated that their hopes of getting concrete, almost formulaic advice (steps 1, 2, 3 and you’re done!) on how to pitch their film scripts went unrealised.
In a post-meeting exchange, I asked Jan Fleischer, screenwriter and senior tutor in screenwriting at the National Film and Television School in the UK, what his impressions were as a resource person, on the overwhelming preoccupation with “the perfect pitch”. His rather wry observation was that after seventeen years of teaching, attitudes haven’t really changed that much. “They (students) always believe (hope) that there is some trick they can learn, but deep in their hearts they know…”
So it came back to the inescapable fact that without a strong script, obsessing on the other technical details is at least a little premature. In that respect, there was plenty of healthy debate on what makes for a good script and theoretically at least, an engaging film.
Interestingly, a good proportion of the students from Asia (Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Japan) had script ideas firmly rooted in the genre you could loosely refer to as the “family drama”.
The struggle there was to provide advice on how to refine the drama without turning it into stock television soap opera fare. While quite a few resource persons strongly recommended that the students should adhere to some narrative conventions (i.e. Where is the conflict? What will precipitate the catharsis and resolution? The 3-Act Structure!), others felt that this smelled a little too much like high school literature classes and might hinder students who want to explore slightly less contrived (albeit compelling) narrative arcs.
Some of that advice would have been lost on a group of students who were taking a considerably different direction. One is going to be a documentary incorporating scenes re-enacting the life of the documentary’s focal subject (from the Cambodian student), another is an experimental film in which Shibuya (the hotbed of youth culture in Tokyo’s downtown core) is as much of a character as the two lovers. Even more eclectic were the pitches from students from China and the Philippines. The former student has made shorts, which would fit beautifully in galleries and small revue theatres showing experimental films, while the latter has created a postmodern satire on filmmakers romanticizing poverty in the name of art.
There were no easy answers on how to develop these ideas, some of which were still in their embryonic stages. It seems convoluted to suggest it (and even contradictory considering what we realised about the all-important script and how that has to be nailed before you worry about who will watch it), but one of the questions the students (and myself actually) were left asking is – just who is exactly is the film for?
Indeed, Silke Schmickl, who co-runs the DVD distribution label Lowave (www.lowave.com), said that the student from China could already find a niche within the avenues where Lowave operates and distributes its catalogue of experimental films. In that respect, considerations of what sort of reach the students wanted to have, seemed to be good indicator of why they had decided to write the kind of scripts they pitched.
The only irony was that seasoned distributors or programmers like Keiko Araki and Lorna Tee, who is the senior marketing and distribution manager for Focus Films based in Hong Kong (www.focusfilms.cc), pointed out to the room of students that there is no such thing as distribution for short films, at least from their perspective. They may find life in the film festival circuit or in a DVD compendium of shorts, but otherwise, both Araki and Tee emphasized that expecting generous funding to make a short film was unheard of and an almost pointless endeavour.
The message from the distributors and programmers in short was: write something you believe in, do everything in your power to fund it yourself and send it to festivals or hand it out to industry people you meet. That’s the only way to go.
As far as reality checks go, the panel discussion on distribution with Lorna Tee and Silke Schmickl provided some perspective for the students. While Silke emphasized the practical value of an independent DVD label which exists to support and distribute films that may otherwise not reach a wider audience or survive the industry’s demands, Lorna’s example regarding Focus Films’ First Cuts project was an eye-opener as well (www.focusfirstcuts.com).
Lorna clarified that the project was called First Cuts because it is the first time in Asia that six films by filmmakers from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan were shot in high definition (HD) technology under a thematic banner exploring the Chinese diaspora. It quickly became apparent that the word “first” had nothing to do with the relative inexperience of the filmmakers. In fact, most have worked in the industry close to a decade and have at least a few features under their belt already. Again, students realised that good old-fashioned persistence and commitment was the most vital prerequisite. Didactic advice, yes, but coming from distributors in the industry and not their film school teachers, it probably held a different kind of significance.
AUTHENTICITY, UNIVERSALISM AND SELLING THE FILM
I was standing right at the back, in the open hall of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Graduate School of Film and New Media (a real mouthful, its students remark), on one of the days during the week-long meeting when it struck me.
The twenty film students were screening their previous short films or film school “exercises”, when one of the organisers made the remark that resonated with what I had been thinking.
He said: “You can practically smell each film…or taste its flavour. You can tell which country it is from!”
Though I’m always told off for making comparisons because it seems like an easy way to evade understanding and critiquing what is in front of you by simply referring to what the film (or even song) resembles or mimics, the remark resonated for me. I found myself thinking, “That reminds me of Thai filmmaker Mingmonkul Sonakul’s I-San Special! The palette of this one makes me think of Garin Nugroho. The nihilism in this film is Lukas Moodysson to the core.”
It wasn’t so much that the students were mimicking established filmmakers from their home countries. Instead, contrary to all that hullabaloo about globalization and its impact on filmmaking (look, we’re all living in a postmodern world and films are increasingly about urban existential angst and identity crises!), films from particular countries (and strangely enough, even from particular regions) had a particular mood to them.
There was in fact, a nihilistic quality and considerably greater angst in a lot of the scripts from the European film students (post-industrial society woes anyone?). Their script ideas continued to reflect this mood. From political extremism in a suburban Scandinavian setting, to Russian teenagers crossing the border illegally into Europe for work and relationships falling apart under the weight of apathy and antipathy, the tone was undoubtedly dark. Even when it got lighter, black humour was the chosen means to show people’s increasing inability to relate, empathise and love.
In contrast, quite a few of the pitches from Southeast Asia (and elsewhere in Asia) dealt with a somewhat different aspect of the spectrum of emotions. Repression or veiling emotions under a veneer of perfection; loyalty; endurance against odds and finding the courage to do so; filial piety and re-investing the “self” with newfound meaning. Their previous short film projects dealt with emotions, which were worn on the surface and displayed explicitly.
Many more of the students from Asia were also preoccupied with signalling that their film, while universal in its thematic concerns, was quintessentially Asian – be it Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian or Korean.  Their European counterparts were far more concerned with the internal worlds of their characters and place – where it played a role and where it was more a metaphor for emotional displacement than an indicator of identity (i.e. this is my home; this is what makes me who I am).
To me, that said a fair bit about how the students understood the treatment of emotions and human relationships and I think cultural idiosyncrasies as well as the relative maturity of the film industry (independent or otherwise) in their respective countries play a significant role in that.
The other technical detail I was left pondering on was the issue of access to sophisticated filmmaking equipment and to a more mature theatre and/or acting scene in Europe as compared to Asia. That there was quite a contrast in the visual and dramatic sophistication of the various student projects (most of the Asian projects were quite raw) gave us all some indications of the differences and – despite the complaints raised regarding the dearth of funding in Europe – how much more support exists for the industry there (at least with regards to these particular points) than in parts of Asia.
For all the railing against generalizations, there were some patterns that emerged.
Yet, quite a lot of the students – in wanting to show that they could do professional pitches – had already learned the vocabulary of “universalism”. They wanted to assure potential distributors or producers that their films would translate, despite the cultural specificity of its locale, language and mood because its thematic preoccupations would make sense to anyone, from any part of the world. But by the time we had come to the final workshop sessions with the students, everyone had come to realise that wanting to create narratives that would appeal to potential producers or distributors is a bad starting point in writing or pitching a script. Many of the students had written stock characters or archetypes that defined an emotion rather than an individual with possibilities or contingent aspects and wanted to go back, post-Tokyo, to re-work these problems.
CO-PRODUCTIONS – IMPLICATIONS
Co-productions – everybody wants to get in on it and in many respects, the meeting was focused on encouraging cooperation to facilitate that. As ideal as it sounds, there is a lot to be said for taking a little bit of a cautionary approach to temper the excitement of what cross-cultural efforts symbolize.
Raya Martin – one of the Philippines’ most promising young filmmakers – pointed out as much by saying that you have to have a strong sense of your own aesthetic and narrative approach before diving into collaborative ventures. 
What do co-productions imply in terms of how the content of a film is influenced? What impact does the consciousness of an international film market and the ability to distribute a film to a global film market have on how one perceives one’s own cultural context? I’m going to hazard another generalization here by saying that while this may not be an issue that weighs on the minds of European filmmakers or film students, it has significant ramifications for Asian filmmakers.
Raya addresses this in his interview when he talks about pressures to conform to preconceived notions of what constitutes “Asian-ness” or authenticity. It’s a subject of ongoing, heated debates with regards to Chinese cinema (5th generation versus the 6th generation and how each has sold a particular image of China for a Western audience).
It may be heavy-handed to bring it up in the context of the Tokyo meeting, but given that this is certainly a direction film students and filmmakers are increasingly looking at (co-productions and in some cases, multiple-country-productions), it is worth thinking about. But that’s probably jumping the gun a fair bit. All theory aside, hopefully, the weeklong trip did something to raise questions rather than providing safe, stock answers for all of us.
While the meeting has wrapped up, we’re all hoping to see something tangible at the end of it: obviously, completed short films for one. Apart from a publication capturing summaries of the sessions and post-meeting interviews with the students and resource persons, the hope is to see a DVD compilation of (some or all) the short films by the participants.  While this won’t be for large-scale public distribution (or sales), it will be a great way for the students to get their projects to the forum of writers, filmmakers and industry associated with ASEF (past and present).
Only trouble is, with all this mulling over film scripts and the demands of the industry, I didn’t do much more than walk around in downtown Tokyo, stopping strangers to say: “Sumimasen, Shibuya doko desu ka?” (Excuse me, where’s Shibuya?)
Well, at least I impressed the locals.