How can one begin to document a cinema of Southeast Asia that, until the first decade of the 21st century, has been neglected within the international cinematic landscape? Tilman Baumgärtel’s Southeast Asian Independent Cinema:Essays Documents, Interviews (2012), a collection of eight essays, five documents, personal accounts of, and interviews with, eight Southeast Asian filmmakers, answers this question by thinking about the independent cinema scene in Southeast Asia. The overarching argument of the book is seemingly straightforward: Despite a funding environment that remains relatively less than conducive for studio productions in Southeast Asia, cinema thrives on the development of digital technologies that “has brought a new generation of (independent, art house) filmmakers and new voices from a part of the world to the international film scene that previously were not heard” (3). Indeed, increased international visibility of Southeast Asian Cinema would not be possible without digital filmmaking techniques that enable independent cinema to flourish.
Even as the book postulates a simple and causal relationship between the emancipation of film production through digital media and the increased number of Southeast Asian independent films, the definitions of what it means to be an independent filmmaker or what a Southeast Asia Independent Cinema entails remains less reductive than initially implied. While Baumgärtel highlights certain similarities these independent films share, the diverse points of view from film bloggers, university professors, Ph.D students, film critics, and interviews with these filmmakers make it difficult to sustain a fixed sense of what it takes to be a Southeast Asian independent cinema. Crucial to the development of a “Southeast Asian Independent Cinema” is how digital filmmaking has not influenced other regions of the world as significantly as it has in Southeast Asia. Thus, this new digital medium has allowed filmmakers to decide “what stories they tell and how they approach their themes formally” (9). This notion is illuminating because it emphasizes the potentiality for more nations to join this phenomenon that is “Southeast Asian Independent Cinema” or perhaps, even more contentiously, the idea that Southeast Asian Independent Cinema is more about an approach to filmmaking than a faithfulness to geographical spaces.
The essays highlight Southeast Asian Independent Cinema’s as not being merely about making film at low production costs, or producing more films through digital means, but also involving the unrealized and democratic potential of this phenomenon to reach beyond conventional, or preconceived notions of what is expected or accepted of cinema in different Southeast Asian nations. John A. Lent’s opening essay “Southeast Asian Independent Cinema: Independent of what?” and Baumgärtel’s “Imagined Communities, Imagined Worlds” question the stability of independent cinema as filmmakers work from within the system while transforming and transiting towards mainstream cinema (22). Alfian Sa’at’s piece “Hinterland, Heartland, Home: Affective Topography in Singapore Films” expounds the potential for Singapore films to express against “official” narratives from within mainstream conventions, thus contesting for new ways to be heard, while Ben Slater highlights the “reforgotten” artists, characters, and people who are brought to the fore through recent Singapore films, thus “steal[ing] a[nother] moment” for the silenced and left out (58). Other essays by Natalie Bohler, Intan Paramaditha, and Tito Imanda, address the possibility of having distinctive aesthetics and forms in Thai independent films, the impact of censorship on the new generation of Indonesian filmmakers in terms of their approach to the subject of sexuality and religion’s influence on independent cinema vice versa. David Hanan’s essay on observational documentary investigates current affairs in Indonesia and the influence of low-budget filmmaking through the example of Aryo Danusiri’s Luckas’ Moment.
The five documentary accounts delve into the processes of independent filmmaking and their relations to digital media. Whether it is the “Four Manifestos” by Khaun de la Cruz, which sheds light on his motivations and attitudes towards this new media, or “Why Ciplak ended up being Made” which charts the entire process of independent filmmaking, these documents provide an accessible database for the reader to respond freely and interactively. In the same way, Tan Pin Pin’s personal recount of how she took Singapore GaGa to the big screen does not instruct us on how to be an independent filmmaker but merely demonstrates one possible way of working from within the system. The section ends with the previously unprinted “I Sinema Manifesto” —left self-explanatory for the reader to deal with as s/he pleases—reiterates the aims of this book to give voice to the otherwise neglected.
In the final segment, interviews with various independent filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Eric Khoo, Lav Diaz, and Yasmin Ahmad add to the symphony of voices in this collection. Some of them reject or redefine what being independent means to them, while others regard the term independent as a misnomer altogether. Perhaps fitting that these interviews appear at the end of the book for they deconstruct a stable sense of what “independent” should mean just as the reader begins to form a framework of what Southeast Asian independent cinema means.
It then comes as no surprise that the book is left open-ended without any conclusive remarks from the editor. The point is not to close the discussion, but to create open spaces for the notions of Southeast Asian Independent Cinema to be re-evaluated and redefined constantly. Rather than to create boundaries that force fit the heterogeneity of independent cinema into strict homogeneity, the discourse surrounding a Southeast Asian Independent Cinema is left to resonate and transform from here on.
Southeast Asian Independent Cinema: Essays Documents, Interviews. Ed. Tilman Baumgärtel. Singapore: NUS Press, 2012.
Sim Jiaying is a PhD student of Film Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.