A Moving Journey: Film, Archiving and Curatorship

Originally published in BiblioAsia, Vol 11 Issue 1, Apr-Jun 2015 [Link]

By: Karen Chan
Executive Director, Asian Film Archive


(Source: National Library Board Singapore)

In 2005 I was introduced to a soft-spoken, idealistic and tenacious young man who had single-handedly established the Asian Film Archive (AFA) in Singapore. What drew me to Tan Bee Thiam’s project was his vision: to set up a Pan-Asian institution that aspired to provide a repository for all Asian films – many of which had yet to be archived in their own countries. Partly curious as to how this not-for-profit, independent organisation would survive, and partly enthused by the prospect of contributing towards the maintenance, preservation, restoration and curation of archival films, I set aside my practical and less than adventurous nature and took the plunge – joining the AFA as Archivist in 2006, assuming the role of Acting Director in 2010 and subsequently taking over the reins as Executive Director in 2014. As the AFA celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, I take a look back on a journey that has been both challenging and exhilarating by turns.

From a professional viewpoint, getting the fledgling AFA organised and functioning took a staggering amount of work. Today, Southeast Asian countries have their own national archives while a few host an audiovisual archive department as a unit within the larger entity, such as in the case of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and Arkib Negara Malaysia (National Archives of Malaysia). However, organisational film archiving in Southeast Asia was in its infancy as little as 10 years ago when only Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand had their own dedicated film archives. This was the state of the film archiving landscape in the region when the AFA first began. Over the years, Cambodia and the Philippines have established their own film archives.

Film Archives in Southeast Asia
The first film archive to be set up in Southeast Asia was the Sinematek Indonesia (Indonesian Cinematheque), established in 1975 under the late Misbach Yusa Biran (a 1997 South East Asia-Pacific Audiovisual Archive Association Lifetime Achievement Awardee and 2010 Fellow recipient). But in spite of his pioneering archiving work, by 2010, the Sinematek was, in Misbach’s words, “at its sunset”.

On the other side of the Southeast Asian divide, the Vietnam Film Institute (VFI), one of the region’s older film archives formed in 1979, was tasked to archive Vietnam’s cinematic and audiovisual heritage as well as function as its distribution and research arm. The VFI has been much more successful in its endeavours and through its links with INA (Institut National de L’audiovisuel, France), is planning to start a digitised library in Hanoi.

The Film Archive (Public Organisation) Thailand began as the Thai Film Archives in 1984 under Dome Sukavong. For years it remained a neglected unit within the Department of Fine Arts before becoming a public organisation in 2009. The archive has survived to celebrate its 30th anniversary in a new building with better facilities. Laos’ film industry was side-lined by its long period of civil war. The National Film Archive and Video Center (Lao Cinema Department) established in 1991 was charged with preserving the country’s audiovisual heritage. With UNESCO’s assistance, the department has successfully developed a database of the country’s film archives.
Cambodia came into the archiving scene in 2006 with the opening of the Bophana Center, founded by the acclaimed Cambodian film director, Rithy Panh. Offering free access to its collection of film, television, photography and sound archives, researchers and local film enthusiasts finally had access to a resource for Cambodian audiovisual materials. Unfortunately, the archive’s limited annual budget makes it a constant challenge for the staff to expand its services.

The archiving situation in the Philippines is a complex one given that the film preservation function is encapsulated within the archiving of audiovisual materials. Instead of a centralised body overseeing the archival of films, the work was split between three government institutions – the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the University of the Philippines Film Institute. It was only in 2011 that the FDCP formed a National Film Archive of the Philippines. Critics have long disparaged the government’s inaction in the area of film archiving, likening it to “a blind man in the creative industry”. Digna H. Santiago, a film marketing professor from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila noted that the government “does not have the foresight of preserving films because they view the industry as one that only provides temporary entertainment.”

Given the extremely challenging film archiving scenarios in these various countries, it was clear that an Asia-wide organisation such as the AFA would be relevant and necessary. Within the first year of the AFA’s Reel Emergency Project’s open call for the deposit of films for preservation, hundreds of films and their related materials such as photographs and publicity kits, from Singapore and countries from all over Asia were submitted.

AFA’s Ethos and Practices
When the AFA first started, its two-man team grappled with the ethos and practices that would drive the archive, besides spending countless hours building up the collection. Janna Jones’ observations about a moving image archive succinctly captures the complexity of the organisational practices involved in film archiving: there is a certain “dialectic of creation and destruction, control and chaos… logic and ingenuity, order and disruption” that define the “discovery, interpretation, re-presentation, and accessing” of the visual experience of cinema, she says.

An archive is a space managed by rational and disciplined logic but yet decisions made in those early years were based on both intuition and logic, by marrying the personal with the professional. The AFA’s survival depended on how it would manage the balancing act of creating a sustainable archive that could serve its stakeholders effectively while at the same time bringing together accessible and meaningful programmes for its users.
Developing a set of acquisition, selection and preservation policies was imperative. These policies were drafted using reference points from the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Code of Ethics; Ray Edmondson’s Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles (Paris, UNESCO, 2004); and The UNESCO Recommendation on the Preservation of Moving Images (1985). It would be beyond the scope of this article to delve into a discussion on the principles and philosophies of film archiving. However, I will articulate some of the main points underlying the AFA’s preservation policies.

While its name dictates Asia as its collection ambit, the AFA has focused its preservation efforts in the last nine years on the geographical region of Southeast Asia. As mentioned earlier, until recently, Southeast Asia had very few dedicated film archives with the means and the budgets to archive the numerous films produced in the region. Nevertheless, concentrating on Southeast Asia did not limit the films that the AFA acquired for its collection – it currently archives titles from wider Asia, such as China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India and Iran.

Although archives are generally associated with the antiquated, the AFA’s collection is relatively young by archival standards, with 70 percent of its films dating back to an average of 25 years. The main reason is because the AFA makes a conscious effort to acquire the works of living filmmakers. The selection criteria are determined by a list of priorities, taking into account the condition of the films’ formats and the “Asian-ness” and significance of the films on the cultural landscapes of both its country of origin and internationally. In addition, prioritised films that are independently produced and are not preserved in the home country of the filmmaker or by any other archive, receive particular attention. These guidelines are detailed on the AFA’s website and the mechanics of how films can be submitted for assessment and preservation are elaborated in the website’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section.

With the advent of the digital age, archivists are scrambling to care for their analogue systems, digitising and migrating analogue materials while keeping up with technological advances in order to preserve new digital material. Apart from the practical concerns of know-how and time, there is the very real issue of funding to support on-going digital preservation. The estimated cost (in 2007) of preserving film archival master material per title annually was USD1,059 while the digital preservation of the same material was estimated at USD12,514. Factor in inflation and the growing numbers of digital films produced every year, and the figure becomes mind-boggling.

The exponentially burgeoning budgets required for digital preservation bring to fore several important issues – acquisition, access and advocacy. Archives can no longer make do with an ad hoc policy to “acquire everything, just in case”. The AFA has in place a carefully articulated selection policy that is tied to access issues. An archivist has to look backwards and forwards in time, acquiring filmic material and assessing if someone in the future may find the material significant and useful. The AFA will likely not acquire a film if the filmmaker stipulates that it is not meant for public access, unless the motivations for the restricted access conditions are reasonable – for example, a film cannot be released till after its film festival premiere or a film cannot be viewed due to the deteriorating condition of the sole surviving film copy till an access copy has been made. As Sam Kula, former director of the National Film, Television and Sound division of the National Archives of Canada, had stated so articulately, “In archives, the only thing that really matters is the quality of the collections; all the rest is housekeeping.”

The Importance of Archiving
To raise the funds needed to run a film archive, modern archivists must advocate for their cause while ensuring that potential donors understand why the archive’s work is important and its impact on heritage and artistic preservation. Regardless of the worthiness of the film archive’s intentions, the public will not support preservation without seeing its results. Archivists need to make their work visible in order to raise the public’s awareness of what exactly archives do. Only then can archives elicit continued support and generate new revenues. Over the years, the AFA has done its best to connect with the public and its stakeholders by promoting and showcasing its programmes in order to garner support and goodwill. This was particularly important during those early years when the AFA was an independent not-for-profit organisation and depended solely on public funding.
Aside from the variety of talks, workshops and film screenings for educators, students, the film community and the general public, the AFA has organised different events to create awareness on film preservation. The Save Our Film campaign in 2010 was a collaboration with final-year students from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information that was aimed at raising awareness among youths aged 15 to 35 on Singapore’s rich local film heritage and the importance of keeping it alive for future generations. The campaign featured a series of nationwide guerrilla-style publicity efforts such as mock DVDs and posters at supporting stores and cinemas that promoted early Singapore titles with a twist; video projections on walls and ceilings at public spaces; and a roving showcase featuring recordings from local film community personalities. Another more recent effort in 2014, to raise the profile of AFA’s preservation efforts was its successful inscription of 91 Cathay-Keris Malay Classics into the UNESCO Memory of the World Asia-Pacific Register.

Nonetheless, advocating film preservation is an uphill task especially when there are so many equally worthy public causes competing for funds. In an effort to take on a more pro-active curatorial role and shed the passivity that archives are usually associated with, film archives all over the world are using technology to restore older titles in their collection and make these films more accessible to the public. Through such restoration projects, the archive is able to more effectively advocate for its work through the films it chooses to restore and the strategic activities it can organise in connection with the restored films. However, film restoration is a highly expensive investment; the restoration of a single film could cost upwards of SGD100,000, depending on its condition. Although the AFA has embarked on the restoration of a number of important films and has accompanying programmes lined up, its other functions, specifically, preservation and access, remain a priority. After all, without preservation, there would be no films to restore: the restoration process is only a means to achieve the larger and overarching goal of film preservation.

Part of AFA’s advocacy efforts is to create greater awareness of its work in the region, and what better way to do that than by spreading the word through the regional archiving community. A year after the AFA’s formation, it applied for membership to the South East Asia-Pacific Audiovisual Archives Association (SEAPAVAA). This is an association of organisations and individuals involved in the development of audiovisual archiving in Southeast Asia, Australasia (Australia and New Zealand), and the Pacific Islands (Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia). Currently over 38 countries are members of SEAPAVAA.
Shortly after, in 2007, the AFA became the first Singapore-based organisation to become an affiliate of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Being a member of these associations has helped to develop relationships between archivists and the wider film communities, allowing for an exchange of information, experiences and networking opportunities. Annual conferences have provided further avenues for the AFA to share its work as well as learn from the many professionals who attend these conferences.

The AFA has come a long way from when it started 10 years ago by the visionary Tan Bee Thiam. Having built a reputation and gained traction with the regional film community, AFA’s mission statement – “Save, Share, Explore the Art of Asian Cinema” -will continue to guide its future work and direction. The editors of Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums and the Digital Marketplace succinctly define film curatorship as “the art of interpreting the aesthetics, history, and technology of cinema through the selective collection, preservation, and documentation of films and their exhibition in archival presentations.” On this occasion of the AFA’s 10th anniversary, this quote eloquently encapsulates what the words “Save, Share, and Explore” in AFA’s mission statement hopes to achieve.

About the Writer