Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Meet Bee Thiam Tan, Engineer and Archivist
“An archive is not a building,” contends Bee Thiam Tan, “ it is a memory institution.”
Tan is the innovative executive director of the Asian Film Archive (AFA) in Singapore. His background is unusual for a film programmer and an archivist: he trained as an engineer. “The engineer tries to solve problems” explains Tan.
The problem: how to create an enterprise based in social entrepreneurial principles that would last 100 years, according to Tan. Another problem: the vibrant, emerging southeast independent cinema has not found a home in any of the national archives in the region and has not reached a wider audience.
The solution: a business model for an archive that both collects and programs works. It follows in the tradition of the European cinemateques in the 1920s. The AFA’s business model evokes the current political economy of public media survival in underfunded and financially threatened nonprofit media arts institutions in the US. It can be summed up in one word that functions as both verb and noun: partner.
For storage of works and to increase access, the AFA partners with the National Archives of Singapore. To screen works, rather than building its own theater, it takes advantage of the plethora of theaters not filling up with audiences in Singapore. To find new audiences, it partners with secondary, polytechnics and universities with its Cineodeon program to encourage the development of more cinephiles, programmers and critics.
Asian Film Archive and its Films
Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, the archive was launched by Tan in 2005 to collect films from Singapore and independent, non-studio produced works not archived elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The archive has collected 1,554 titles from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere in the region. The collection includes works by internationally acclaimed Singaporean filmmakers Erik Khoo, Royston Tan and Tan Pin Pin, Malay classic films, and films from the Golden Era of Singapore cinema in the 1950s and 1960s.Remarkably, it has saved 60% of the films made in Singapore, deposited in the National Archive of Singapore, an AFA partner.
AFA houses key works from the Malaysian new wave, including films by controversial documentarian Amir Muhammed (The Last Communist, 2006). It also has collected banned underground cinema works from China.
The archive focuses on films not archived in the larger national archives, such as the Vietnam Film Archive, the largest in the region.
In the last ten years, accessible digital video has ignited southeast Asian independent work. A festival circuit has emerged in the region to nurture these new transnational and cosmopolitan southeast asian film movements.
However, although many of these films receive accolades at internationally prominent festivals like Oberhausen, Berlin, Hong Kong, Sundance, Rotterdam and Pusan, they survive almost exclusively at film festivals, excised from theatrical distribution and non-cinephile audiences.
Community Building through Outreach
To solve this problem, AFA not only aggressively collects these films, but develops imaginative outreach strategies to get the works out to new audiences. They screen at schools, polytechnics, universities and museums. They partner with other institutions to do programming. And they run a variety of workshops on cinema literacy, archiving, film and culture, the archive’s filmmakers, and filmmaking.
Referencing early cinema, the AFA ‘s Cineodeon project aims to build new audiences by training students to learn how to become programmers through a mentorship program. They appraise the collection, immerse themselves in watching films from the collection, and develop screenings where tickets cost one Singapore dollar (about 70 cents US).
The achievements of AFA as an independent arts organization need context. Pragmatic and business oriented, Singapore does not yet have as developed a nonprofit sector and noncommercial cultural and artistic milieu compared to other global cities like New York, Hong Kong, London and Dubai.
Social Entrepreneurship: Film History meets New Archival Models
Tan’s ideas about social entrepreneurship, imaging technologies and search engines drive his unique conception of the role and function of an archive. As an engineer, Tan trained in new imaging technologies, but also harbored a passion for cinema. In 2003-2004, he moved to the San Francisco Bay area to be part of a special program to train entrepreneurs. There, he became intrigued by the idea of social entrepreneurship, the idea of identifying a social problem and deploying entrepreneurial skills to create and manage solutions through synergies and partnerships.
Motivated to learn more about national film archives and their challenges, Tan benchmarked archival practices around the world by backpacking through the US, Europe, China, Hong Kong and visiting major national archives. His goal: to solve the problem of how to develop a nonprofit that could sustain itself and make cinema sustainable for future generations.
Two historical movements in the United States inspired Tan.
The first was Anthology Film Archives, created by experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas. Tan admired that an independent media arts organization could be self-sustaining and attract ardent followers and fans.
The second was the vibrant civil society that defines the Bay area. AFA commingled the ideas of an independent media organization and civil society into an archive that not only collects films but convenes communities of discourse around those films. Rather than building a physical facility for archiving and screening, AFA partners with a variety of organizations in Singapore, such as the National Archives, universities and commercial theaters.
A Business Model for Sustainability
Tan’s business model evidences a new vision of a mixed economy for a nonprofit media organization: 30-40% of income is derived from long term projects, 30% by corporate sponsorship, and 20-30% from DVD sales of works in the collection.
Dedicated to making its collection accessible, AFA sells DVDs by Singaporean experimental filmmaker Rajendra Gour, Philippine director Lino Brocka, the Malaysian new wave filmmakers such as Tan Chiu Mui, Singaporeans Roystan Tan and Tan Pin Pin, Vietnamese director Dang Nhat Minh, and collections of shorts from Singapore.
“AFA continually asks what kind of value do we give to filmmakers, to people, to users of the archive, to audiences, to scholars,” explains Tan. It’s this kind of interrogation of interface with users that caught the attention of Singapore’s National Volunteers and Philanthropy Awards: in 2007, AFA was named the winner of its New NonProfit Initiative Award.
Tan’s motto is simple: “an archive collects films and good will.”
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
A film movement is emerging in full force in Southeast Asia. And it is transnational, experimental, and jacks us into a new sense of time and place.
Last Friday on March 5, I popped over to the National University of Singapore(NUS, the other major university in Singapore) with my NTU (Nanyang Technological University) colleague Nikki Draper for a screening of five Asian short films from the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand.
With about 200 people in the audience, the screening was part of the NUS Arts Festival (NAF) 2010. The festival, which includes music, theater, dance, literature, and film, probes the cultures and debates of what it terms “global Asia.” The place buzzed with people.
Before the screening, we ambled around the opening exhibition of influential Singapore painter Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) at the university museum, a few steps down from the theater.
Cheong’s work hybridizes early European modernism with Southeast Asian painting and compositional styles. Many of the paintings are vertical, referencing Chinese scrolls. But the style is expressionist, exploding in rich oranges, greens, and reds. The paintings claim a different sense of time to absorb their complex compositions, their stillness, their groundedness in everyday life of people, buildings and land in Southeast Asia. In many ways, the paintings provided a template for the screening to follow.
Long takes, tableau shots, complex sound designs, and details of everyday in interiors characterize this new film movement.
Cosponsored by the Asian Film Archive (AFA) to celebrate its fifth anniversary, the screening featured new works by Lav Diaz (Philippines), Hong Sang-soo (Korea)Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia), Christopher Chong Chan Fui (Canada/Malaysia), and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand).
Curated smartly and aggressively by Bee Thiam Tan from AFA , the screening was demanding and rigorous. The films insist on a different temporality from commercial cinema with their long shots and long takes. They required concentration so the eye can learn to scan the frame and the spectator’s body could settle into a slower pace.
My colleague at NTU, Adam Knee, a specialist in Southeast Asian cinema, connected with us during the intermission. He pointed out that this Southeast Asian film movement is transnational and fluid, with filmmakers from different countries working on each other’s films, and some filmmakers working in Canada and elsewhere but linked back to the region.
Many of the filmmakers trained at art schools in Southeast Asia and the United States. They appear to be influenced by structuralist experimental filmmaking but torque it with a unique Southeast Asian mise-en-scene and atmosphere.
Here, narratives unfold in space rather than propel forward. As Nikki observed, this is a cinema that rejects the adrenalin-pumped, close-up infused classical Hollywood narrative style. It is a cinema where the frame always has characters together, interacting in space. The films operate in the liminal zone between narrative, documentary and experimental film.
Butterflies Have No Memories (Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-Paro, Lav Diaz, 2009) is a 45-minute narrative chronicling the fissures between economic difficulties in the Philippines and the return of a Filipino ex-pat living in Canada. It was commissioned as part of the Jeonju Digital Project in Korea, a major new initiative to stimulate independent filmmaking in Asia.
In Everyday Everyday (Tan Chui Mui, Malaysia, 2008), Sook Chen leaves her job and fantasizes about going to Peru. Long takes and careful compositions allow the interactions between the characters as they sleep and eat to function as the topography of a relationship.
The final two films in the program were formally challenging, conceptual standout works that seem to suggest that space and place trump time. A Letter for Uncle Boonmee (Apichatypopg Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2009) features a slow tracking shot through a home on stilts in northeastern Thailand, concentrating on photographs, bowls, wooden walls. In voice-over, we hear young soldiers recite a memorized letter to Boonmee.
Block B (Christopher Chong, Malaysia, 2008) is composed of one long shot of a multistory housing project, with the elevator shaft splitting the screen in half. People move around the balconies, women discuss cooking, and hang their laundry out. A sari falls to a lower floor. The film evokes Warhol, but instead twists us to learn small details of interaction between residents from a distance. The sound is proximic while the shots are distant. This conceptual strategy suggests that larger housing landscapes conceal microterritories of narratives . The film unfolds human-scaled actions that the large state-financed structures obscure.
Intrigued, I asked Adam what factors propelled this new independent cinema movement. "1997 (the year of the Asian financial crisis) did not precipitate a movement away from feature production but rather marked the start of a rise in local production in both features and experimental and short works, " he explained. "Not a movement away from features, but a new push to create a local alternative to Hollywood product in the wake of the financial crisis and IMF interventions."
The diffusion of lower cost digital video increased access to production and stimulated regional voices.
Most importantly, contends Adan, numerous film festivals showcasing shorts, experimental works and documentary have developed in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines in the last decade, serving to nurture this filmmaking community through screenings, dialogues, and connections.
These films challenged me to consider how this Southeast Asian regional, transnational cinema movement unsettles our film study categories of genre, style, shorts, and the national. I want to see more.