Phoebe Pua: "Southeast Asian filmmakers are telling us stories about ourselves that we may not always feel comfortable talking about openly."

Presently a final-year doctoral candidate at the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, film scholar Phoebe Pua's research traverses the terrains of film and feminist theories in the context of contemporary Southeast Asia where her dissertation focuses on the representational politics of the image of the ‘Third World woman’ as seen in regional cinema directed by women. Demonstrating how these films reinterpret the historically controversial figure of female victimhood, Phoebe's thesis further proposes that they have created a new vision of Southeast Asian feminist futurity.

Phoebe is also the co-programmer of Turf Wars, a three-part screening series about the tropics in Southeast Asian cinema, developed as a programme of the NUS Museum exhibition tropics, a many (con)sequence, curated by Siddharta Perez. Drawing into sharp relief the tensions and contestations enmeshed within the territorial geo-politics of Southeast Asia, Turf Wars ruminates on the nature of the land, its histories, and its stories through conversations between works of various filmic forms.

Here, Phoebe shares more with SINdie about her research developing this series, her programming process, and anecdotes from the archives.

The image has always been an instrument of imperial interests—do you mind elaborating on your research for Turf Wars, and how coloniality has shaped the imaginations of the tropics?

That is a broad question so let me answer by way of an example.

As we know from historians, photographing the tropics was one of the ways that imperialist parties brought home the ‘unspoiled’ curiosities of colonised lands and peoples. There exists a 1-minute silent recording titled Coolie Boys Diving for Coins taken by Joseph Rosenthal, the British war and travel cameraman, as his boat exited the Singapore harbour in 1900. It was apparently common practice then for foreign visitors to toss coins into the water so that they could watch and photograph local boys retrieving them. 120 years later, this image of ‘natives’ playing in the water is now one of most recognisable visual tropes of the tropics. We see this replicated in ethnographic documentaries, travel photography, and even in the image-making practices coming out of the tropics. Next time you see a tourism campaign from any country in Southeast Asia, keep an eye out; I am sure you will find a shot of local children playing in the water.

Even as we find ourselves in a temporally post-colonial era, the reality is that the colonial apparition is very much still looming in contemporary discourse, particularly in Southeast Asia. How would you characterise or situate this colonial after-image in the regional moving image culture?

I don’t know if I would. Each country has their own history of colonialism which means that artists and filmmakers tended to explore these histories differently, and at their own paces. As much as it is productive to pay attention to transnational affinities—and it can be extremely productive—I think it might be prescriptive to talk about the region’s ‘moving image culture’ in collective terms.

I will say, however, that most of the contemporary works I have encountered exhibit a self-critical awareness about being postcolonial. This, to me, demonstrates the influence of postcolonial studies on younger creatives and scholars working in and on Southeast Asia. In a way, I personally find it less interesting to study how contemporary artists and filmmakers are framing Southeast Asia in relation to Western epistemology; I am looking more earnestly at how they are narrating subterranean intra-national frictions such as those between the rural and the urban (and the periurban).

Similarly, the advent of cinema in the region can also be closely traced to colonial efforts—could you share more on how this is reflected in the films of the colonial or the early post-colonial era?

To be honest, I think the effects of colonialism, and later cultural imperialism, are reflected less in the films themselves and more in the context of the films’ production, distribution, and exhibition. May Adadol Ingawanij reminds us often that Southeast Asia’s film history began with itinerant movie exhibitions. She and many other film historians have written extensively about film’s utility as imperialist vehicles by looking at things we may not think of immediately—among others, the urban development of cinema infrastructure and overseas investment in early film studios. Beyond approaching the film as a self-contained text, it is also necessary to remember that films are, at their core, cultural products.

From your works, do you observe any counter-strategies that were adopted to resist the colonial baggage and its continuation in the current neoliberal world order?

The entire Turf Wars program is a celebration of such counter-strategies!

Say, in Tulapop Saenjaroen’s A Room with a Coconut View, the tourist’s point of view is completely dismantled; there are no onscreen actors, the dialogue takes place between automated voices, and there is no visual continuity between one scene and the next. He creates a bizarre world that alienates the tourist but is simultaneously amusing to the audience. Another counter-strategy comes from Stephanie Syjuco’s Body Double (Platoon), when she pulls apart the American Vietnam War movie, Platoon, actually shot in the Philippines, as a rejection of colonial presence in her ‘home’.

However, not every film from Southeast Asia is made as a response to “colonial baggage”. Some, like Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Invalid Throne, are more concerned with ‘speaking back’ to official histories, state narratives, and other hegemonic voices. Many films by and about women explicitly address questions of sexual difference—incidentally, this is what my doctoral project is about. Of course, this is not to say that colonial and patriarchal exactions are independent of one another—-we know otherwise—-but I would say that there are counter-strategies in these films such as the amplified use of diegetic and non-diegetic silence that connects them to a wider world of feminist cinema. Amanda Nell Eu’s It’s Easier to Raise Cattle and Nan Achnas’s Whispering Sands are two such examples.

How did your involvement in the Turf Wars programme come about?

My involvement began in 2018 when I first saw the film Seni by Kent Chan during an Asian Film Archive screening. While it was still a work in progress then,Kent showed it to a public audience anyway and spoke very openly about his vision and uncertainties; I admired that conviction. Later on in early 2019, the NUS Museum was going to premiere the final cut of Seni along with a physical exhibition. Sidd Perez, a brilliant curator whom I had met at other events, asked if I wanted to be on a panel to talk about how the tropical imaginary in cinema. I was excited to do it because I could finally share historical material that I had come across in my research on Malaya but had no suitable place in my dissertation. After that, at the end of the year, the NUS Museum decided to run a screening series centred on the tropics and Mary Ann Lim, who works on outreach and programming, called me up and we worked on Turf Wars through 2020.

What drove the programming decisions for Turf Wars?

A lot of thematic obsessions plus administrative considerations, I would say.

I was personally interested in screening films from Southeast Asia not only because it is my area of research, but more importantly, because I think Southeast Asian filmmakers are telling us stories about ourselves that we may not always feel comfortable talking about openly. When I look back at our brainstorming session notes, I see that all the films we were eyeing since the beginning dealt with tensions of ownership, belonging, and home in some form.

At the same time, we did not want to have a program that was irredeemably sombre. There is always levity in Southeast Asian cinema and even the most serious films have flashes of comedy. We wanted to represent that wit and keep Turf Wars as accessible as possible. So we decided to open with Liew Seng Tat’s hit comedy Men Who Save the World, which has proven to be a good decision because friends are telling me they plan to watch it with their families!

There is, however, one thing I wish we could do differently. A lot of films I wanted to screen had not previously been given a rating by the local media authority and the application process would have introduced additional uncertainty to an already uncertain period of planning. This consequently limited the number of films we could include outside of the region’s more well-represented national cinemas. If I could do the program again without these administrative concerns, some of the films I would include are A Potter’s Song (2013, dir. Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing) about a community of Burmese potters; The Inseminator (2014, dir. Bùi Kim Quy) which is banned in Vietnam; and East Timor’s first production Beatriz’s War (2013, dir. Luigi Acquisto and Bety Reis). 

How was the working process like between yourself and your co-programmer?

It was fun for me, I don’t know if Mary Ann would say the same. We worked on Turf Wars for almost a year, with help of Kang You-Jin, Simone Tam, and Tan Wei Xin who are interns and trainees at the NUS Museum. The original plan was to launch in March 2020 as a four-part weekly event, but with the COVID-19 situation we had to move online and rethink many elements of the program, which I know threw a wrench into the logistics on the backend that Mary Ann had to sort out.

I was, and still am, really grateful to have had a partner every step of the way. I remember when we got the news that Whispering Sands had finally been converted to high-definition and Nan, whom I am a huge fan of, wrote back confirming the Q&A. I was ecstatic and having someone to share that moment with made it even better.

Turf Wars is a three-part screening series, with both offline and online components. For more information, visit this link.
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