A Day Out at Sea (and Land) with State of Motion 2018:Sejarah-Ku

Back again as part of Singapore Art Week 2018, State of Motion—the flagship event of the Asian Film Archive—is led by curator Kamiliah Bahdar and creative producer Thong Kay Wee this edition. 

Focusing on the exploration of film as a hotbed of cultural paradigm shift in the decade leading up to the independence of Singapore, the programme is titled Sejarah-ku (Malay for ‘my history’), and comprises a selection of seminal Malay films produced predominantly by the now-defunct Shaw Malay Film Productions Ltd, artistic responses to these films commissioned by the AFA, and a series of tours that allows participants to interact with these works though an experience firmly anchored in the context of the films and the filmmaking.

Here, SINdie was granted a sneak preview of the Sejarah-ku tour and what it has to offer. And when you are done, read up on the curatorial process with an interview with both Kamiliah and Kay Wee on what it takes to make 'my history; into our history.

Installation 'Wayang Terbiar' by Izzad Radzali, inspired by Seniman Bujang Lapok

Set at the beginning of Jalan Ampas that leads to the legendary studios that housed Shaw Malay Film Productions Ltd, a mini theatre diorama featuring scenes from Seniman Bujang Lapok, the artist's favourite P. Ramlee film, sits by a palm tree with an idle charm. An enduring Malay-language film classic,  this comedy is the source of many pop cultural references in the Malayophone. A response based on the artist's sentiment that the twin histories of P. Ramlee and Jalan Ampas are fading too fast and too soon, this work lingers by the mouth of the road like a quaint little shrine.

'Tutup' by Wu Jun Han, inspired by Mogok
A response to the boldly titled Mogok (literally 'Strike' in Malay), where workers of a battery factory embark on an imaginary strike, the audio immerses the audience as the ear-witness to a dialogue that blurs the line between a real and an imagined strike. Interestingly enough, Jalan Ampas Studios’ entrance was both the film location as well as the site of an actual dispute between Shaw Brothers and PERSAMA (Persatuan Artiste Malaya, a film workers union).

'0.25 seconds before an image is void' by Tan Peiling, inspired by Ibu Mertua ku

The average time it takes for a human to blink, 0.25 seconds before an image is void takes visual cues from the architectural design of the round windows dotted around Shaw Villa. An expression of both the intrinsic desire to see and the pain when each image is perceived to completely white out, the work is inspired by the idea of blindness in the film, where seeing has become so undesirable that in an act to heal, the male protagonist chooses to blind himself instead. 

'Cinta Tuah Jebat' by Noor Effendy Ibrahim & akulah BIMBO SAKTI, a performance inspired by the films 'Hang Tuah' and 'Hang Jebat'
An examination of the final fight between Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat from Phani Majumdar’s Hang Tuah and Hussain Haniff’s Hang Jebat through an audio recording and live performance, the work amplifies the tension between the two as they duel while speaking of loyalty, betrayal, love, revenge, rage, and desire. Unabashed in its physicality, the carnality of the work makes for a powerful evocation of the senses with the with the actual film location Pulau Sekudu within sight.

text: jacqueline lee / jeremy sing / alfonse chiu
image: alfonse chiu / asian film archive

Still from 'Seniman Bujang Lapok' 
Are these 10 films screened among the most iconic or popular Malay films? How were they selected?

Kamiliah: For this edition of State of Motion, we are exploring how the films of the golden era of Malay cinema in the 1950s and 1960s are documents of social history. Utilising mainly the films made by the Shaw Malay Film Productions, we aimed for a broad representation of themes and genres, with a few iconic films as denominators: there is comedy with Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961), social drama with Mogok (1957) and melodrama with Ibu Mertua Ku (1962).

Still from 'Ibu Mertua Ku' 

State of Motion 2018 presents seven films from Shaw Malay Film Productions and three films from Cathay-Keris Studio. In this selection, there were some films that were considered special during the 1950s to 1960s. For example, Shaw Malay Film Productions’ Hang Tuah (1956) was the first Malay-language film in colour, and Cathay-Keris’s Noor Islam (1960) was touted as the first Malayan-produced film in which Islam was used as its main theme. Selamat Tinggal Kekasehku (1955) was also believed to be one of the earliest Malayan films featuring an interracial romance alongside Sri Menanti (1958). Generally, there are 3 films from Shaw Malay Film Productions that we paired with 3 other films from Cathay-Keris: these pairings dealt with the same subjects in their films and showed either similar or different treatment. That comparison was interesting for us as it presented a glimpse of views and attitudes then.

Still from 'Hang Tuah' 

Still from 'Noor Islam' 

What were the biggest hurdles in getting this selection of films together?

Kay Wee: One of the biggest hurdles about the films from the 1950s and 1960s was the lack of consolidated and authoritative information available on the history of the films. We had to cross–reference multiple sources and records to arrive at a complete picture – and even then, we could not be entirely certain about some parts of the information.

Furthermore, many of the original film reels from that era are now considered lost or damaged beyond repair, so it was a challenge to track down the best available copies of the films that we selected. Many times, the best quality was still sub-par, but that was the only way we would get to screen the film. AFA is constantly searching for any surviving original elements so that we can begin to archive and restore these films. Unfortunately, we might already have lost many of these films to the ravages of time due to a lack of proper preservation care. This is what makes the work of archives such as AFA so crucial in our day and age.

Creative Producer of 'State of Motion: Sejarah-Ku' Thong Kay Wee narrating on the go!

Are you playing the digital version or the film versions of these films? Which ones have been restored by AFA?

Kay Wee: All the films will be digital or digitised versions taken from various sources and copies. None of the films here have been restored yet by AFA, as the original elements for these films are still considered lost or damaged. We are constantly searching for any surviving original elements so that we can begin to archive and restore them. Unfortunately, we might already have lost many of these films to the ravages of time due to a lack of proper preservation care. This is what makes the work of archives such as AFA so crucial in our day and age. AFA has continuously strived towards preserving and promoting the rich film heritage of Singapore and Asia. State of Motion, an annual flagship film and visual arts series of programmes, is part of AFA’s efforts to showcase the rich film heritage of Singapore and Asia, and to cultivate an appreciation of history, film and the arts among a wider audience.

Tell us a bit more about the offshore element of the tour this year.

Kamiliah: This edition’s guided film location tours will take participants from the National Library Building to various film locations used by the Shaw Malay Film Productions in the 1950s to 1960s, where newly-commissioned artworks inspired by both the film and the history of their film locations await. For the first time in three years of State of Motion, we will be organising an offshore tour. The tour will begin with an introduction and film presentation in Pulau Ubin, before participants watch a live performance inspired by the films Hang Tuah (1956) and Hang Jebat (1961). The specially commissioned performance is titled ‘Cinta Tuah Jebat (The Love of Tuah and Jebat)’, by artist Noor Effendy from akulah BIMBO SAKTI. Participants will then take a ferry ride around Pulau Sekudu, where the films were filmed, before heading back to Singapore mainland.

  Still from 'Hang Jebat' 

'Cinta Tuah Jebat'

What's interesting about the art works presented this year? What are the highlights in your opinion?

Kamiliah: Diversity has always been something that we aim to present at State of Motion. This year, audiences can expect a range of works that include sculptures, photographic installations, sound and performance art.

A prominent work will be an installation at the National Library Building’s Plaza where our main exhibition will be located. Artist Khairulddin Wahab will be constructing a large-scale wooden sculpture, that draws inspiration from the traditional wooden houses often seen in Malay-language films of the 1950s and 1960s, and that have now come to represent a nostalgic attachment to the cultural history of that era. Comprised of paintings within a sculpture, the artwork serves as a monument to all the films produced during the golden years of Malay cinema.

Curator of 'State of Motion: Sejarah-ku', Kamiliah Bahdar

Artist Tan Peiling will also be installing a structure at the former Shaw Villa along Upper East Coast Road where the iconic P. Ramlee film Ibu Mertua ku (1962) was shot. Using the architectural design of the round windows dotted around Shaw Villa as a visual reference, the artist created a structure with circular openings for the viewer to look through. Within it is a 35mm slide showing a series of images of Shaw Villa as taken from the film Ibu Mertua Ku, and left exposed for 0.25 seconds before a complete white out. That fraction of a second is the average time it takes for a human to blink, expressing both an innate desire to see and the pain endured when witnessing each image progress towards a complete white out. This responds to the idea of blindness in the film, where seeing has become so undesirable that in an act to heal, the male protagonist Kassim chose to blind himself.

'0.25 seconds before an image is void' by Tan Peiling

How did the Malay community’s anxieties and concerns shape the films then and possibly have shaped modern Singaporean film? Just how significant were the Malay films in Singapore’s history?

Kamiliah: While researching on the project, the team came across a quote by P Ramlee, in a book titled ‘P Ramlee Yang Saya Kenal’ [The P Ramlee That I Know] by Yusnor Ef, which sums up the whole project. He said, “Society should follow developments in films, because the people making films are creatives who can shape society; for what appears in films will be emulated by society…” (1962). State of Motion 2018 illustrates how films can be used as documents of social history, revealing the responses and aspirations to modernity that were circulating during the last decade of pre-independence Singapore. The selected films reflect the history and social issues of the time and encourage audiences to consider the relevance of these ideas now.

What sort of work did the artists have to undergo in preparation? Did they have to go through a Shaw Malay films crash course or a deep-dive into P Ramlee or Jalan Ampas?

Kay Wee: Each of the artists were approached by curator Kamiliah Bahdar as their art practice resonated with the theme of the project. The artists had to watch the films and study the research materials on the histories of the film locations that were provided by film researcher Toh Hun Ping. The artists, the curator, the film researcher and the producers were in a constant discussion over a period of more than 2 months to make sure every aspect of the project was well attended to.

We leave you with these parting shots of the State of Motion: Sejarah-Ku tour.

8 Jalan Ampas, site of the studio of Shaw Malay Film Productions Ltd.

Interior of 8 Jalan Ampas

Parting shots

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