Chu Kiu-wai: "There are always signs of hope for building towards a more sustainable and hospitable world."


Currently an Assistant Professor in Green Humanities, and a faculty member of the Chinese programme at the Nanyang Technological University, Dr. Chu Kiu-wai is a scholar whose interdisciplinary research spans visual art, cinema, and ecocriticism in contemporary creative culture. Educated in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, Dr. Chu’s text has appeared in publications such as Transnational Ecocinema; Ecomedia: Key Issues; Cli-fi: A Companion; Chinese Environmental Humanities; Asian Cinema (journal) amongst many others. 

Dr. Chu is also the guest curator and convenor of Reframe: The (In)Hospitable World, a film programme under the Reframe initiative by the Asian Film Archive (AFA), which seeks to encourage diverse views and discussions around topics found in contemporary film culture. In The (In)Hospitable World, the ecological and environmental crises framing the geological epoch now termed as the Anthropocene come to the fore in a complex entanglement with the cinematic apparatus, which both documents and is simultaneously complicit the destruction of the natural world.

Here, Dr. Chu speaks to SINdie about how he programmes, his ongoing researches, and the power of films in speaking truth to extant problems of the world.

Do you mind elaborating on the relationship between the act of filmmaking and humanity’s impact on the natural environment?


Yes, it does take some effort to reconcile the idea of cinema being an anthropogenic aesthetic practice while at the same time also a medium in communicating environmental messages. It is a bit like how I am now talking to you about global warming and the environmental crises in the Anthropocene, while sitting in an air-conditioned room consuming meat products. I believe how films are made and the messages presented by them have not always been correlated, but they should now be. There is much room for filmmaking to be more resource-conscious and aims towards carbon neutral forms of practices. Having said that, I believe we are seeing a paradigm shift, though slowly and unsteadily, towards sustainability and better environmental awareness in the film scene. 


How did you yourself enter this field of inquiry; what prompted the interest, academic or otherwise, in ecocriticism?


I see ecocriticism as an all-encompassing field of study in literature, film, art and culture that focuses on human beings’ relationships with the environment as well as the more-than-human world (which includes animals, plants, bacteria and viruses, and other non-living matters).


Having grown up and lived in several big cities in the world (from Hong Kong, London, Zurich, Sydney to Singapore), my daily encounters in the excessively urbanised environments; and the countless movies I saw as a film studies major, I believe it is the growing sense of loss, nostalgia and solastalgia (the feeling of homesickness without leaving one’s home) that I see in both reality and in films that intrigue me to examine the relationships between humans and the environment. The earlier works of Jia Zhangke and the Sixth Generation filmmakers of China in particular have informed me to write my Master thesis on the new environmental aesthetics we see in the ubiquitous urban ruins, abandoned demolition and construction sites in contemporary China. It has continued to trigger me in conducting research in eco-politics and aesthetics of natural and urban environments in broader Asian contexts. Over the past few years, my newly acquired communication skills with my feline companion have also shaped my research and teaching interests in a significant way. 


So, in short, cities, cinema, and my cat are the three things in life that have kept me pondering questions related to the environment and the world beyond our human society.


How did this programme, The (In)Hospitable World, come about?


I was first approached by AFA back in January 2020 to guest-curate this programme on Asian ecocinema. Having recently read American film scholar Jennifer Fay’s fascinating book The Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, which focuses on the anthropogenic form and content of classical Hollywood Cinema since the early 20th century, I was led to contemplate how Asian cinema too reflects ecological inhospitalities in culturally specific contexts.


The original programme was planned for April, but the outbreak of COVID-19 made it necessary to postpone it to October. The pandemic condition prompted us to expand our scope from showcasing films that address ecological and environmental issues, to also include films that explore our connections with the world in pandemic times. “The inhospitable world” has become an all the more relevant and timely topic because of that.


What was your programming process like?


I have selected films ranging from a 1927 classical silent film set in Siam about human beings’ tensions with the animal world; a 1970 Hong Kong pandemic film adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Plague; to an artfully crafted Armenian documentary that focuses on five female de-miners as they clear the unexploded landmines from the quiet, scenic green mountains, to name but a few titles out of the 10 feature length films and four shorts.


I wish to present a spectrum of films to make the point that films from different parts of Asia, of different periods, genres, aesthetics and subject matters, address a common that: in the time of the Anthropocene, our world is becoming increasingly inhospitable, be it for reasons of natural disasters, human-induced pollutions, excessive urbanisation; climate change hence threats to the ecosystem and biodiversity, or outbreaks of wars and pandemics, affecting not just humans but all living species on this planet. For nearly a century, cinema has revealed to us how environmental inhospitality has been a persistent situation and that human activities, and social and economic progresses might have actually worsened the situation. For instance, if we compare the two films Chang:  A Drama of Wilderness (1927) with Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019), we could perhaps see how human beings’ attitude towards monkeys have changed over the years – the world has not become any more hospitable to the animals nor to human species of the underprivileged class.


I am also very excited to be supplementing the film screenings with an online symposium on the same subject. I am glad to have the support and participation of world-leading film scholars, film festival directors and talented emerging filmmakers to create these inter-disciplinary dialogues that could hopefully bring the range of environmental topics to greater/wider public’s awareness. I think it is a blessing in disguise that the pandemic is forcing AFA and myself to venture out to take the symposium online and live-stream it on social media platforms, which offers us a chance to connect with a broader audience in the world. 


How would you describe your programming philosophy—I find the entanglement between film exhibitions and filmmaking to be particularly intriguing, mainly due to the tacit complicity with the oft violent/extractive methods involved in cinema… 


Harvard literary scholar Karen Thornber uses the term “ecoambiguity” to highlight the ambiguous and often conflicting attitudes and behaviours human beings have long possessed towards the environment. Cinema appears to be a very effective medium to reveal these contradictions and ambiguities. For instance, being a film that was shot in a pre-conservationist era about human beings taming and defeating the hostile jungle beasts in order to build themselves a safer home, we certainly would not expect Chang: A Drama of Wilderness to have followed the “no animals were harmed in the making of the picture” rule. However, a century later today, the ethics of shooting living animals (with a camera I mean) is still a huge and debatable topic. So in a way, the unethical productions in the past could still be contributing positively towards raising our ecocritical awareness.


Ethical issues also apply to the drama that focuses on human subjects, such as the real-life victims and survivors of Typhoon Haiyan seen in Brillante Mendoza’s docudrama Taklub (a.k.a. Trap, 2015); or the asylum seekers in the Christmas Island detention centre featured in Gabrielle Brady’s documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018). How do filmmakers draw the line between reality and fiction, and how could they avoid sensationalising the disaster survivors’ experience which may re-victimise or re-traumatise them? Those are also tough questions to be answered. 


The titles you have selected are situated in a variety of territories across Asia; did you discover certain resonances and affinities in their central struggles and/or ways of addressing the effects of the Anthropocene?


Yes, one important point I wish to highlight is the structural environmental injustice suffered by the underprivileged and marginalised communities in developing countries who are exposed to serious environmental devastations and harms in the world. And they have very limited physical and social mobilities, as we can see in the disaster survivors in Taklub or the peasants living along the Mekong River Delta region in Mekong 2030, who are losing their homeland due to dam constructions. These people are placed in vulnerable positions and cinema is offering them voices that would otherwise be unheard.


Through these films I am also introduced to some professions which very few people might be aware of, such as the female de-miners in Armenia who risk their lives in order to earn money for their families (in Silva Khnkanosian’s Nothing to be Afraid of); the monkey repellers in Delhi in Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo!, and the Chinese workers building monumental sculptures while inhaling dusted air caused by their work (in Wang Yuyan’s short film All movements should kill the wind), all of which reflect the various kinds of environmental inhospitabilities experienced by both human and nonhuman beings.


Similarly, did you find certain striking similarities or differences in the ways that the natural environment is viewed in indigenous, or failing which, localised cosmologies?


There are indeed a lot of films that highlight the natural environment’s ability to inspire and enchant our otherwise disenchanted world brought about by rapid urbanisation and modernisation over the past century. I have however deliberately tried to avoid films that appear to place nature and culture; natural and urban spaces; or the western and the indigenous in absolute binaries, as contemporary ecocritics (such as Shepherd Krech III; Greg Garrard; and Joni Adamson) have reminded us, the belief that indigenous communities living in perfect harmony with nature, the “ecological native” stereotypes, may in a great extent be a kind of myth-making and risk further intensifying the boundary between nature and culture, thus misguiding people to perceive the natural environment as somewhere out there that has nothing to do with our everyday life. Instead, I hope the films in “The (In)hospitable World” could enable us to see our not always visible connections and relations with those inhabiting and sharing the same planet with us.


Having said that, we cannot deny indigenous communities worldwide often possess more in-depth knowledge of their environment, far more than general urbanites like ourselves. So there is still a lot that we could learn from their beliefs and practices. 


I also find it pertinent to raise this point: many of titles, though situated in Asia, had heavy Western involvements in their productions as commissioners, producers, partners etc. Why do you think this is so? 


I tend to see this in a positive light. I think it reflects the Western society’s growing awareness towards the environmental injustice experienced in Asia and elsewhere outside of the West. In addition to that, transnational co-productions, when done right, often instil more diverse perspectives that facilitate observations from a certain distance, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. That is what I see in the emerging filmmakers such as, to name but a few, Lim Lungyin (Ohong Village), Wang Bo and Pang Lu (Many Undulating Things), and Wang Yuyan (All Movements Should Kill the Wind), all of them shooting their subjects in Asia while the aesthetics and thematic issues of their works somehow reflect their cosmopolitan backgrounds and inspirations they might have obtained from their education and training in the Western world. I feel that seeing something through the slightly detached lenses could somehow help one to develop a more objective and all-rounded perspective towards an issue.


… and do you feel that there is thus a danger in the shifting of the gaze and culpability away from what is commonly termed the Global North?


On the contrary, I think filmmakers these days are fully aware of the environmental injustice experienced in the so-called Global South, and are trying hard to rectify the problem by shifting the focus to the marginalised, subaltern humans and nonhuman subjects situated in less habitable and hospitable regions in the world.


Though the culprits or the people responsible of causing the problems are not always visible in the films, from Chang: A Drama of Wilderness (1927) to Mekong 2030 (2020),  I think we would agree the greed of human beings in general, as well as the boundless global capitalist expansion particularly of the more developed world, are often foreshadowed in the background. The Global North is constantly being reminded that they are a major part of the problem, and should therefore bear the responsibilities and help those in need in other parts of the world.


What do you hope for the audience to take away from this programme?


I hope that people can realise that ecology and environmental issues are not strictly issues to be solved by the scientists and the policy makers. Environmental education actually has a lot to do with ethics and social values, and cinema plays a very significant role in delivering these messages to the wider public.


It is my humble wish that this programme could add a bit more noise to the ongoing wake-up call to the human specieswhich is yet to be picked upthat our world is in deep trouble. However, I am deliberately bracketing the “in” in the title of the series “The (In)Hospitable World” as I wish to emphasise that despite being an increasingly inhospitable and hostile world we have created for each others, there is always a silver lining we could find in even the worst of situations. The films in this series are not downright about how hopeless our world has become, but the fact that there are always signs of hope for building towards a more sustainable and hospitable world. 


Reframe: The (In)Hospitable World runs from 9 October to 22 November 2020 at the Oldham Theatre. More information can be found here.

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