A Conversation with Philip Cheah
Interview by: Philip Cheah
Philip Cheah, the uncompromising festival director of the Singapore International Film Festival, is a long time champion of little known films from the Southeast Asian region. Here he discusses with Shaheen Merali Whose Terror Is It Anyway?, the programme he curated for the Berlin's House of World Cultures, as part of Spaces and Shadows their examination of contemporary culture in Southeast Asia that took place from September to November of 2005.
Shaheen Merali: You have been involved with the Singapore Film Festival for a number of years – can you please elaborate on this period of its activities.
Philip Cheah: I 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 Singapore.
But 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.
By 1994, we decided to refine our specialisation to Southeast Asian film. In the process of doing many programmes on young regional directors, it occurred to me that our collective memory of Southeast 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 Southeast 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?
SM: Can you briefly explain what is + why this particular film concept for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt has been proposed?
PC: It 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 Southeast Asia, I instinctively said state-led terrorism in Southeast 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.
But that enemy has been with us throughout much of Southeast Asia's modern history. And most of that terrorism was conducted by the state itself. Even in Singapore where the terrorism is not of killing and bloodshed but of censorship and the silencing of the mind.
SM: What are the main issues and considerations that inform the selection of films?
PC: Memory 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.
Also, 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.
I 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.
SM: The 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.
PC: One must first understand that Southeast Asia is a construct so that's the reason why we scratch our heads so much when we are trying to find a common culture for Southeast Asia. For example, India was once considered as part of Southeast Asia. But not today.
And the roots of Southeast Asia is warfare and not geography or culture. Southeast 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."
The political and not cultural character of Southeast Asia continued after the war. In 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was born during the Cold War. In this version of Southeast 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.
In 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.
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'. "
So 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.
SM: Do the selected films for the programme “Whose terror is it anyway?” reflect artistic, aesthetic and political explorations in contemporary SE Asia?
Yes, 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 Southeast 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.
Diaz 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.
But 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.
As 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 Singapore'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 dignity."
Then 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.
SM: In traversing geographically, a sense of sudden history and upheaval emerges – is this the main goal of the film selection?
PC: The 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.
SM: In tackling the issue of local + 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?
PC: What's 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.
Anyway, 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?
SM: 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 SE Asia which was at best obscured and remained ambiguous, mainly by the lack of interest by the world media.
PC: Like 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 nothing."
SM: 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 Singapore and the notoriety this selection might face.
PC: I 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.
This programme is an act of seeing. I am just showing you what I (and all the filmmakers) see.
SM: Adversely, as film provisions in the SE Asia head in the direction of the mainstream – with the recent success of Thai horror films, Korean thrillers and Singaporean comedies- what future is there for documentaries “about truth telling or truth facing”. When so much of what is circulated is increasingly under scrutiny + control in the region.
PC: Oh 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.
Yet 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 to see.
SM: If “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.
PC: Simply 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.
[Read Philip Cheah's introduction to the programme Whose Terror Is It Anyway?: click]
Originally printed in the excellent Spaces and Shadows catalogue book published by the House of World Cultures. See links for information on how to purchse. Reprinted in Criticine with the kind permission of Philip Cheah.