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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:16AM
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By Patricia R. Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University  Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

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.”

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