Liminal Thoughts in a Permanent Place

by Lily

During my first week of internship at the Asian Film Archive, Mr Matthew Yang, Archive Officer, taught me how to clean 35mm film reels and shared the basic standards and practices when handling analogue material. After unwinding the reel on the film table, he handed me a magnifying glass to inspect the image.

Under the glass, the picture was vivid and clear. A man walking. A garden. Blue sky. A cat. I wound the film back, snug and tight around the core. It looked like a block of shiny black liquorice.  Mr Matthew handed me tape to seal the film leader to the reel. He said, “This is a special film tape. It’s supposed to last a long time, but I probably won’t be around to find out.” His laugh diffused awkwardly in the office, where a faint scent of vinegar permanently lingered in the air…

My Tasks as an AFA Intern

From the months of August to November 2022, as part of my Industry Based Learning module at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, I was a Collections Intern at the Asian Film Archive. I was tasked with:

  • Cataloguing films
  • Sorting, filing, and cataloguing related materials
  • Cleaning and rehousing AFA’s poster collection
  • Cleaning 35mm film reels
  • Digitising deeds and books
  • … a lot of other administrative work to support the Collections Team

Much of my work at AFA involved related materials, film-related ephemera such as handbills, photographs, and newspaper clippings. These documents flesh out the film’s history and place it in its socio-historical context. There was a seemingly endless deluge of related materials and the tasks that came with them never-ending. I encountered a few curiosities, for example:

A Projectionist’s Journal from 1964
Scanning the journal

This journal contained entries about what was screened, on which day, and at which theatre in Singapore. It also included a detailed rundown of violent or lewd scenes in a film, which had to be cut from the reels. I gasped when one of my favourite films, Sundays and Cybèle (1962, dir. Serge Bourguignon), made an appearance. I scanned the pages with a document scanner. 

A Shaw Theaters Brochure for a Japanese Pink Film

In the past, movie information was disseminated through flyers or brochures. I found it fascinating that material such as this brochure for a Japanese softcore film Tokyo Emanuelle, produced by Nikkatsu, was distributed so freely in Singapore. Imagine anyone could saunter into Shaw Theatres and pick up a brochure for a Pink Film!

There appears to me a stark contrast between our relationship with cinema in the past and today. The way films were presented took time and care, such as crafting lobby cards and designing brochures. These artefacts tell the story of the film’s historical background, the people involved with making them, and the people who collect them—making these materials an integral part of film history.

Poster for 黄河之滨 (On the Bank of the Yellow River) (1984, dir. 李前宽 (Li Qian Kuan)、肖桂云 (Xiao Gui Yun)) sealed in a sleeve and stored in an archival-grade box.

I also consolidated AFA’s poster collection. There were approximately 400 posters of different sizes and materials. Most of them were mottled due to age or gummy with decaying adhesives. These had to be cleaned using paper restoration tools. I mended any tears and slipped them (delicately) into archival-grade sleeves.

I had the opportunity to observe the daily operations of a film archive. Like the mountain of related materials I dealt with, there is a dizzying amount of work archivists do. From data migration, writing deeds, liaising with filmmakers, and handling the film assets—these are the multiple facets of film archiving. It was an eye-opening experience to witness the behind-the-scenes at AFA.

An AFA internship also comes with perks! I had the chance to watch Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, part of AFA’s Radical Whispers: Asian Documentaries and Shorts at Oldham Theatre. I loved the 16mm look of it. It was a very beautiful and hypnotic film.

Still from A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021, dir. Payal Kapadia)
The collections team hard at work

From Arts Management to the Archives

Entering the complex realm of Audio-Visual Archiving from an Arts Management background, I was slightly stumped. I hold a deep interest in cinema, but my studies focus on the administrative and management side of the arts. Archiving is always targeted at the long term. In the performing arts, the response, or “feedback” is immediate and tangible, like the audience’s applause after a performance or the profits of selling an artwork. 

I did notice overlaps between these two fields. An arts manager is akin to a bridge between the artist and stakeholders. The artist creates the art, and the arts manager assists in delivering it to appropriate channels (Chong, 2002). Audiovisual archiving is to both preserve and provide access to the art (the moving image) (Edmondson, 2016). Thus, the stakeholders involve people now and in the future. I feel that archives exist on a continuum—they are both in the past and future at the same time.

Interning for a scant 4 months in a memory institution felt liminal. Being an intern is transitory, but the work I did at AFA would (hopefully) last a long time. It motivated me and gave purpose to my work knowing that it had some historical importance and played a part in preserving the culture and heritage of Asian cinema. The work AFA does to preserve the invaluable film heritage of Asia takes time and dedication. I am grateful to have been a part of it, no matter how small.

End Credits

Our exchange and dialogue with the Arts in Singapore are usually in the form of big, consumer events that come and go (George, 2020). Even though nothing lasts forever, audiovisual archiving confronts what happens after. No one wants to think about what happens when they are gone, but everyone wants to be remembered. I hope more people take part in persevering their own cultural legacy.

When people down the line flip through the posters I worked on, I wonder what they will think. But I probably won’t be around to find out.

I would like to thank Mr Chew, Ms Ping, Mr Benjamin, and Mr Matthew for their time and patience. I would also like to thank Ms Karen and Ms Christina for their kind assistance in internship matters. It was nice meeting Ms Diane, Ms Michelle, Mr Rahim, Mr Viknesh, Ms Natalie Khoo, Mr Koon Yen, and Ms Natalie Ng in a professional capacity. I hope to see everyone again soon! Thank you for reading!


Chong, D. (2002). Arts Management. Routledge. 

Edmondson, R. (2016). Audio Visual Archiving: Philosophy And Principles (3rd ed.). UNESCO.

George, C. (2020, March 21). Directing artistic and intellectual energies in Singapore: ‘Passion made possible’?. Academia SG.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer