By: May Adadol Ingawanij & Ben Slater
Introduction by May Adadol Ingawanij
“And yet most of what remains to be done can best be tackled by ourselves, the owners.” A passage by Chinua Achebe stands as an introduction to what would turn out to be Alexis’s last issue of Criticine. In it are the responses to the questions that he had sent, a few years earlier, to filmmakers, programmers, writers, film historians and researchers who live in Southeast Asia, or who still call a corner of this region their home: Why and for whom do you film/write/work today?
Achebe’s passage was Alexis’s answer to another, similar question, which he had placed at the beginning of that last issue. It’s the one whose time for asking has come again: Why and for whom does Criticine exist today?
Time is doing its work. This strange interval in which our task as stunned caretakers of Alexis’s publication was to finish off an outstanding issue we had promised to help him with, and to maintain the site’s continuing presence for the time being, can now come to an end. Thanks to a group of his compatriots, close friends and film critics who have pledged to continue this labour of love, future issues of Criticine will remain rooted in the Philippines.
What of its routes? One of the contributors to this site likes to cryptically ask his students to invert the telescope. That’s a life-long teacher’s old-fashioned way of telling them that to see is to be situated. To look into the eyepiece of an instrument of expanded vision that’s been flipped round is to see the same existing world with haunted eyes. We can no longer go back to the picture of our little pocket of the earth seen only from over here. As soon as we start following the arc of that roving instrument we’re pushed into comparing the views that now exist simultaneously inside us – our home from over here and our home from over there. The vertigo of seeing anew is the tough gift handed to us once we begin to stray from home.
Like many of the people he’d invited to write for Criticine, Alexis’s voice as a film critic was shaped by a peripatetic trajectory. The pieces that together make this publication come from migrants and voyagers. Many of them explore the creations of those who have come back. A fledging conception of “Southeast Asian film criticism” hovers faintly, instinctively, across this site. There are explorations of narratives and impressions of home made by those who don’t feel at home, and there are the criticisms of those who have left or who have returned. Probably above all, the voices on this site belong to those who commit themselves to the art of moving in time the better to transport themselves to a place that compels them to look again at an all-too-familiar landscape.
In this context, aligning Criticine with Achebe’s call for the “owners” to take responsibility for criticism isn’t to lay a claim to cultural ownership on the basis of a nativist assertion. Nor do the criticisms archived here seem to be especially drawn to that quintessentially post-colonial stance of the native’s “look back.” Looking inwardly through an inverted telescope, certainly. And more tentatively perhaps, we can also detect the beginnings of the act of looking across – engaging with films from nearby countries and taking an interest in their filmmakers’ struggles. Someone watches a Filipino film in Thailand. That instrument for teaching the ethical imperative of never being at home in one’s own home does a semi-circular turn. What does that person see? What resonates? The view is not the same as over here, but neither is that world so distantly, so angularly, over there.
Amongst other journeys, time travels and conversations, this long overdue issue of Criticine features a phantom film. Alexis and Nika were in Bangkok, only a few weeks before they were killed, to help out on Lav Diaz's retrospective. At the end of the event Lav impulsively added one more screening as a gift to the organisers, a work in progress at that time called Agonistes. On a sunny Monday afternoon a group of us crept into the screening room of a cavernous university library and hunkered down to watch the film with Alexis and Nika. They sat together in the front row, and at some point someone’s faint, helpless giggle charmingly crystallised our collective realisation that we’d be in for some hours watching three men dig god knows how large a hole. After the screening some of us waved Alexis and Nika goodbye for the last time in the fading light on the ferry pier next to the old university, and the rest took our guests from Manila to dine on a kitsch river cruise. We didn’t say much about the film, apart from some bemused joking. Was Lav doing a Warhol on us, or maybe a perverse Buster Keaton?
The next morning I was astonished to receive an email attachment from the Thai critic Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa, aka Filmsick, who had been there at the screening. It was his note on Agonistes, accompanied by a message that he was so krataek [jolted, violently touched] by it he had to sit down and write this out. Agonistes has since morphed into a very different film called Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. But we’d like to start the issue with this phantom, and what it becomes in this particular piece of writing. The words that came to Wiwat that night, and are remade here in translation, go to the heart of what Criticine is about. Filmmaking is commitment to the continual process of truthfully distilling life. Film viewing is a penetrating look. Southeast Asian film criticism is that which remains to be done: our taking responsibility for articulating the sidelong glance in order to speak at all of home.