Film can be a material anchor for memory.
Words by Shawn Hoo
Initially slated to open in Ipoh, Malaysia—this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival has moved onto a virtual platform and will be, for the first time, available to stream throughout Southeast Asia. From 12 to 20 September, and for a festival pass priced at USD$10—catch the Official Selection of the SeaShorts competition, as well as collaborations with Kaohsiung Film Festival featuring migrant stories, moving image art from the Image Forum Festival, and attend masterclasses with leading film industry figures from the region. In collaboration with SeaShorts, B-Side peeks into the creative process of some of the festival’s most exciting filmmakers. This is the second of three articles – click here to view the first article.
Why do two millennial filmmakers feel compelled to tell stories that reckon with a disappearing past? Rather than a sentimental act of nostalgia, these two filmmakers from the Philippines and Singapore respectively are interested in the politics of the past’s future. Cris Bringas’ newest documentary, A Remembering of Disremembering (2019), captures the timeless lure of Times Theatre, Manila’s oldest cinema that has fallen into disrepair of late. He emphasises the feeling of asynchrony he relishes when he enters these old sites, and believes that the future of buildings is also enmeshed in a “politics of representation”.
Similarly, filmmaker and multi-disciplinary art practitioner Grace Constance Song visits her Aunty Maggie and shares in the fading world of Cantonese Wayang or Street Opera in Last Time I was an Actress (2020). If the past is no longer accessible for her generation directly, she is still in search of ways in which the past can continue to shape the future of one’s cultural identity.
B-Side speaks to two Southeast Asian filmmakers on documenting spaces, stories, and the future of cinema.
Both your films are love letters to things old and fading, whether it’s cinema or Wayang. How would you describe your relationship with these forms of art?
Cris: The film was born out of my fascination for old spaces and buildings—the remains of colonisation. As a millennial, I watched films in standalone cinemas as well as mall cinemas, and have a sense of how the two spaces compare. I made this film during the Centennial Year of Philippine Cinema in 2019, when our film industry was focussed on celebrating movies and icons. No one wanted to talk about space, so I decided to make my work spatial-focussed. Times Theatre smells of age, dust gathers in its corners, and the floors are cracked. But more than eyesores, these signs of decay are layers of accumulated time that mark the place as one that remembers—in a nation where the act of remembering is already being forgotten due to the fast-changing times.
Grace: Wayang used to be performed in a bigger space with proper seating areas for everyone, and now the places that I have been to watch amateur Wayang have been demolished. Because the spaces are no longer there, I question myself if I actually went through this experience in my childhood. The point of shooting this film was to profile a person who is my aunt, an amateur Wayang artist. I could have filmed the spots that are now gone but I chose a very specific area which is in the HDB, where most Singaporeans are born. It also reflects who she is: a homemaker and someone who takes time out to do opera.
The documentaries also focus on real people who inhabit these very real spaces too. How did the subjects in your films react when you told them you wanted to shoot this film? How did they shape the form of the film?
Grace: My aunt is the kind of person who is larger-than-life. At first, she thought I wanted to profile her as an actual Wayang actress rather than as an amateur. In the first take, she was telling stories about being an actress that never happened. I asked her if she did experience these things, and she told me she didn’t, “I thought you wanted me to act like that.” (Laughs.) As a child, I had the impression that she was this big idol, but asking her about it, I learned that she was an amateur Wayang performer who performed at community centres and old folks’ homes. It sounded very haphazard, the way they got a professional to teach in community centres and how they only had very little time to practice and learn their lines.
Cris: I have three subjects in my film: the actress, the projectionist, and the cinema. The first one is a late-bloomer whose dreams of acting were only fulfilled after five decades of waiting. The second one has been a projectionist since he was fifteen. He has been in the cinema for all his life, with a job that he dearly loved. When I put their narratives together, they had a kind of push and pull that gave a voice to the third one—the cinema. While the projectionist was sentimental about the cinema which has become his home, the actress has come to terms with the cinema’s eventual closure. One remembers so much and keeps on looking back, while the other chooses not to and instead, focusses on the future, thus A Remembering of Disremembering.
Would you characterise your films as working in the mode of nostalgia?
Grace: Unlike my aunt who can be sentimental about her past, I can’t be nostalgic about it simply because I live in a different age—and am caught in this limbo between what the past really was and how we can build a future for Singapore that is not devoid of culture. I totally agree with Cris about how memories cannot be trusted. Memories fade, and sometimes what you remember is warped by how you felt at the time. For me, my approach is to document like a historian—digging like a detective, but wanting to love Wayang fully is another thing. It’s not nostalgia but maybe it’s a knowledge and appreciation of what came before and trying to forge something new.
Cris: This has also something to do with defamiliarizing ourselves with the concept of memory and identity. . I treat spaces as public art for people to read and analyse. When we read spaces, we treat them as text, and this allows for a kind of social, historical, and cultural critique. When we look into a space, we get to ask who controls the narrative and who controls what people can or cannot remember. So this makes memory and identity political; that beyond nostalgia, it shows us how our definitions of these spaces change over time because of power relations. In the Philippines, we always say that Filipinos are forgetful and Times Theatre becomes, for me, not a symbol of loss but an embodiment of how we, as a nation, treat memory and identity.
Both Wayang and cinema are live forms of art—something that is under threat not only because of cultural neglect but also because of the ongoing pandemic. What are your assessments on the future of these arts, their spaces, and cinema in general?
Cris: Cinemas—old and new—were already struggling as they go against the onslaught of digital cinema, the likes of Netflix and other online streaming sites. But the pandemic proves to be a much bigger nemesis. The manager of Times Theatre just told me that they might close down soon and for good, because it’s hard to operate within the current situation. If you’ve read about the Scala Cinema, one of the last standalone cinemas in Bangkok, it has already closed down because of the pandemic, and in Berlin, the Colosseum Cinema too. But digital cinema isn’t cinema. This might be a strong statement, but there is no substitute for the live interaction between the film and the audience, and amongst the audience too. The personal, communal spirit is one vital thing that we give up in exchange for new ways of viewing.
Grace: Maybe if it became so bad that movie theatres start closing down, and there is no longer a physical space for people to watch movies anymore, history might repeat itself. In the early years of film distribution, filmmakers went from town to town to show their film, taking along their film reel and a projector—for example with Frankenstein in Europe. They travelled with their film physically, where people in small towns gather together to watch. Maybe the children of the future will wonder what it is like to be in a cinema. I hope not, I would hate to imagine such a future. If you bring a film that is meant to be shown in cinemas onto Netflix, the effect is totally different too, especially on our attention.
What is next for the both of you as filmmakers?
Grace: I am currently working on this short film titled Morning Glory, which is about a young French hornist who has a phobia of moths and encounters one that won’t go away. It is done with the programme Leap!, which highlights the theme of mental illness.
Cris: Writing during the pandemic is hard, and it is harder because of the current political climate in my country. But I always try to make small progress in order to create meaningful stories. As for the Times, as I talk to the theatre manager, a part of me is already preparing my camera. If they demolish the cinema, I will rush to Manila to get one last shot of it alive. That’s what we do as filmmakers—shoot and create films that can become a material anchor of memory in a world where there is hardly anything left of it.
Cris’ and Grace’s films will be screened in SeaShorts Competition 4 as part of the Official Selection.