My time at the Asian Film Archive

Contributed by Tiffany Tan from Catholic Junior College who was on a two-week work attachment to the Asian Film Archive.

While I really enjoy binging Netflix series and movies, I wouldn’t really consider myself to be a movie buff because the truth is that I know absolutely nothing about filmmaking. Nevertheless, I was inclined to choose Asian Film Archive (AFA) to be one of my choices for my work attachment because well, the word “film” caught my attention.

I’ve always been fond of the arts despite the lack of exposure to it growing up in Singapore, and to my fellow millennials, here’s a possibly unpopular opinion—it is important to preserve our culture and heritage even as we progress. By preserving and restoring our films made, we are at the same time preserving our history or as one would say, “remembering our roots”. I guess the reason why we preserve films is almost liken to the reason why we take photographs—to remember and to preserve a memory in an almost tangible way.

When films come to the archive, they arrive in reels stored in cans. Unfortunately, films stored in poor conditions begin to deteriorate, catalysed by the gases released by the films. When that happens, you are greeted by an acrid smell (nasty!) like vinegar but much stronger upon opening the tin. This makes the preservation work much harder but in other cases where the films are properly kept in optimal conditions, they are cleaned and ready to be stored.

This is something I probably would’ve never thought I’d get to do.

For most of my time at AFA, I watched numerous films (much to my friends’ envy) dating back to postwar Singapore, to contemporary short films in recent years. In the process, I learnt how to catalogue the films I have watched. By definition, “catalogue” would be to classify things of the same type in a systematic order, which sounds simple enough but I soon realised cataloguing films was not just keying in the title of the film and its production year coupled with several names of the cast. I learnt that a good synopsis and crucial keywords of the film was the crux of cataloguing a film. I suppose a good synopsis relates to the following: a succinct write-up that encapsulates the main plot hinting at a twist that entails at the end of the film without giving it away explicitly. Aside from the trailer, at least for myself, a good synopsis is probably the determining factor of whether someone would watch the film or not. Keywords, on the other hand, are as self-explanatory as it is. They are quite like hashtags (#) in the sense they help you find a film you don’t know the title of but remember significant scenes or dialogue. With that, now I’m sure to remember that someone had conscientiously listed out every single keyword in relation to the film the next time I search for a film.

Another thing about watching a film is that subtitles are really important, especially if it is in another language (I’m sure K-drama fans can relate). I used to think that subtitles were merely the script transcribed and typed out. But beyond that, and particularly to the much older films from the Cathay-Keris Malay Classics Collection which I had the chance to watch, subtitling also meant translating from one language to another, patiently listening to lines that are sung, and time-coding precisely each line that is said! I think from the perspective of an archive (and to any filmmaker) aimed to promote appreciation and cultural value for Asian films, the more a film is exposed to people, the better it is, and subtitles definitely aids in exposing a film to a wider audience since now more people can understand the film.

On the last week of my attachment, I had the chance to visit a warehouse where reels of films were on their way to disposal. We ran through every box to make sure copies of the films were already archived before the remaining duplicates were disposed of.

We found reels of rushes of a film that was probably never released, having minimal to no information of it at all.

I remember thinking it was like a thrift shop but for films—you never know what you may find. I learnt that the negatives are the most important film element because with it, you can produce both the positives and the inter-negatives!

Film Spaghetti! To my surprise, this is actually a real terminology.

Film itself is an art form and being a literature student, I realised that film is a lot like theatre plays, but unconfined by the physical constraints and limitations of a single stage and the manipulation of a few lights and sounds. The plot and nature of the films are shaped by its surroundings, by political and world events as well as the writers and directors of the film. Films have the power to challenge conventional norms with much subtlety, with some often left to the own interpretation of the audience, waiting to uncover the deeper and more intricate meanings these films may hold. I myself was pleasantly surprised at how I enjoyed some of the older films, particularly Mat Sentol’s Mat Magic and Blood Stains In the Valley Of Love in the Nanyang Trilogy.

Lastly, I suppose the archivists get this a lot, but I must say that their job is undisputedly one of the coolest ones around. I mean, who has the liberty to say they watch films for a living? In my short time spent at AFA, I don’t suppose I now know everything about film archiving or preservation or restoration, but it is heartening to say it’s true that I learnt something new every day. I’ve grown a newfound respect and admiration for film and filmmaking, and let’s just say I’m in awe at how many people are involved in creating just one film—from the making of it, to the post-production to the preservation of it. I would say to expect a paradigm shift in our education system from an emphasis on Math and Science to the Arts in the near future is difficult, almost idealistic and near impossible, but I believe that does not mean we stop trying and neglect it altogether. It is naive to think that the job of preserving a part of our heritage lies solely in the hands of a few mavericks and this leaves me thinking: ten years down the road, am I going to work for passion or pay?

About the Writer