Films, Our Evanescent Books of Life

by Kezia Phua

I was immediately curiously drawn when I first saw AFA’s name on the list of organisations we could choose from for our English Language Elective Programme (ELEP) work attachment. However, I wasn’t so sure about the choice I was making; after all, my exposure to film was limited to scarce viewings of the top grossing movies and select anime titles. Initially, I was lured into the programme by the promise of gaining a deeper appreciation for the English Language— but after two weeks, I left with a newfound fascination for something completely different.

The first topic that I was left to ponder over concerned the very philosophy behind archiving. As I learnt under the guidance of Ping (AFA’s Archive Officer), archiving films involves storing, preserving, and organising them in a way that makes them accessible to the community and users like academics. Beyond acting as cultural memorabilia, I realised that films are animated windows into a space and time past, for a generation of researchers who would find it difficult to position themselves in a world unlike theirs. In today’s digital age, I was severely mistaken to believe that the digitisation of films meant that they had a much longer, even perennial lifespan. Rather, they’re just as likely to be lost. Besides, digitising films is not without its own slew of problems. In recognising the ephemerality of such socio-culturally significant works, I saw how crucial it is that archives like AFA exist to safeguard them.

Over the two weeks, one of my tasks was to catalogue films and write suitable synopses of them, where I would apply my knowledge of English linguistics. The second film that I watched was a short film directed by Kristen Tan, titled Dahdi, or Granny. Through the titular grandmother’s treatment of a dishevelled foreign child, it examines the transcendental human instinct for compassion, one that makes us figures with a capacity to form intimate bonds. As a film inspired by Singapore’s treatment of the Rohingya refugees in 2012, it prompted me to consider the morality of the decision to turn them away then. On the path to constructing a more empathetic and socially conscious society, how could the government have dealt with this situation differently?

Image still from Dahdi (2014, dir. Kirsten Tan)

While films like these spurred difficult conversations about social affairs, I was also hit by a train of raw, heart-rending emotions in others like Farewell Summer by Wilson Tan, a short film that illustrates a young boy’s initially distant relationship with his ill grandmother. When I watched his grandmother delve into a classic lecture on treasuring time in one scene, I was comforted by the reminder of my own grandparents who, although distant from me, make sure to express their love by offering well-meaning advice of their own. Ultimately, when the boy’s grandmother passed away, I was given a painful nudge about how mine would one day leave too, and that there is limited time left to reciprocate their love.

Watching these films evoked a spectrum of emotions, from nostalgia to sorrow, and the experience went way beyond my expectations of learning purely about English.

That’s not to say that my appreciation for English linguistics was not enhanced in any way. In class, we were taught to analyse the elements of objective writing, and how diction could be used to create or avoid it. I found this information particularly useful while writing the synopses. For example, I avoided using comment adverbs and evaluative lexis to ensure that I was writing from an appropriate distance. I was also tasked with cataloguing handbills by providing brief and distinctive descriptions of them, which required me to exercise my knowledge of specificity. By identifying and keeping these objectives in mind, I deliberately chose and structured my words in a way which I thought was most suitable for what I was writing. Through this work attachment, I understood how linguistics could be applied even in places where it seems unlikely to be relevant, such as AFA’s organisational work.

All that aside, I had the opportunity to do some really cool stuff, like clean a film reel. I had never seen an actual film strip in my life, much less touch or inspect one up close. Being able to look at thousands of micro-sized stills that come together to tell a story was incredible, and frankly, quite overwhelming. I was amazed to learn how much visual and auditory information could be stored in the films.

In the past, my answer to the age-old “books or films” debate would have been a definite “books!” However, after watching and reflecting on so many films during my time here, it has certainly changed. In the infinite cinematic possibilities, the visual and auditory expeditions, and all the messages that were conveyed with words few and far between, an appreciation for filmmakers and their works burgeoned.

Film, as I discovered, is an art in its own right. Like a mirror, it reflects society with its different conditions, along with its quotidian or momentous happenings, and the people who act out various realities. And AFA, like a camera, captures these fleeting images, storing them away in someplace safe to be treasured for generations to come.

A big thank you to AFA for helping me to realise that!

About the Writer