The Forest is Alive: Screening the Forest (Forest Experimenta #1)

Cinema beholds the forest with equal parts fear and wonder. No longer contented as a passive backdrop, the forest comes alive in Asia’s cinema as a vivid, active facilitator of theme and theory. A sprawling, intense green fills the screen, while the incessant buzz of crickets soon engulfs the air. A bit further, the burbling of water in a stream can be heard. What lies within?

“Screening the Forest”, presented by the Asian Film Archive and curated by Dr. Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn, brings together films from the region that indulge in nature as the site of creative expression. Fable and fact, recollection and imagination, past and future all intermingle in dynamic ways. If the first day’s collection of short films, named Forest Experimenta #1, is anything to go by, the programme presents a vision quite different from any hopes of a wistful, carefree frolic in the woods amidst cheerful birdsong. One short film, set deep in the Thai forest, deals with memory, loss and trauma, refusing to shy away from the controversial side of its country’s history. Another film presents the violence of history and raises the question—is erasing history perhaps an even more violent act?

Yet, in danger of getting carried away by these human concerns that the films raise, we should leave a little room to consider the part that the cinematic forest plays in all of them. As curator, Dr. Chulphongsathorn, put it in his short lecture before the screening, the forest is a “privileged site” where anthropocentrism is “questioned, terminated even.” We should allow a “vision of a world that is not human” to shine through.

At the same time, one cannot help but recognise that the lens through which we explore the forest onscreen is ultimately human and man-made. This tension—between stubbornly human concerns and the sprawling natural landscape it is set against—is one that brings us  deeper into the Asian cinematic forest.

Legend and fantasy seep into images of quotidian village life in Truong Minh Quy’s A Raw Video (2012/Vietnam). The forest is cast as a site of both personal recollection and local mythology—perhaps, how truly different are the two?

Boo Junfeng’s two-channel video projection, Mirror (2013/Singapore), commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum, was shown for the first time on a single screen in a theatre. On one side, a soldier from the present-day Armed Forces cautiously walks about the forest of Bukit Brown, while on the other, a member of the Malayan Communist Party paces along the same place. This translation to a new canvas draws particular attention to its form—do the two scenes running alongside mirror or contradict each other? Why have two channels? As director Boo suggests during the Q&A after the screening, the solid black line (that runs boldly down the middle of the two) points towards a certain violence that the construction of the new highway through the cemetery evoked. The forest awakens to its ghosts, reviving timeless questions for the present. 

The forest sometimes reveals, but at other times, it also conceals, covering the crime it witnesses. Bodies become part of the forest and human lives vanish without a trace. Pimpaka Towira’s haunting short film, The Purple Kingdom (2016/Thailand), confronts this side of the forest, bringing up the issue of enforced disappearances in Thailand. Real dreamscapes reported by the family members of victims are turned into cinematic realities, while the emptiness and loss experienced are realized fully and richly onscreen.

Sohrab Hura’s Pati (2010/India) laments a different kind of loss through its collection of photographs, videos and narrations. The forest here is painfully absent; we only see rocky, cracked ground. That is, until we learn that this place was a lush green forest 40-50 years ago. The absent forest is somehow made present here, through Hura’s lingering photographic gaze.

Forest Experimenta #1 brings a delightful, novel way of looking at film, bringing into focus the dynamic, abundant forest that previously only ever lurked in cinema’s background



An initiative by the Asian Film Archive, REFRAME is a series that aims to bring together diverse audiences and the film community at large through an innovative range of programmes, encouraging dialogue and examining topics surrounding cinema and the moving image.

By asking the hard questions and re-looking at trends and issues critically, the series will construct meaningful frameworks that bring forth multi-perspective viewpoints and an increased appreciation of film and culture.

Presented by: Asian Film Archive
Venue Support: National Museum of Singapore
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