by Darlene Machell de Leon Espena
Often we look at the vastness of the seas and almost immediately feel dwarfed by an invisible border. Located where our stories end and our dreams begin, this border cannot be crossed with our own feet, but exists only in echoes and shadows in our minds. We fix our gaze on the geographies of separateness, the topography of isolation, and the material and figurative disjunctures of absolute spaces. We allow ourselves to be bound in cognition and limited by borders, both imagined and real.
Indeed, the cartography of Southeast Asia is an act of charting borders: foregrounding the archipelagic feature of the region, distinguishing the sea from the land, reinforcing national boundaries, pinning down centres of capital and power, suggesting that these dots and lines are predetermined and uncontested truth. As Frances Stonor Saunders wrote:
“All borders – the lines and symbols on a map, the frameworks of walls and fences on the ground, and the often complex enmeshment by which we organise our lives – are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are’ and we cross them in search of who we might become. They are philosophies of space, credibility contests, latitudes of neurosis, signatures to the social contract, soothing contaminants, scars.” 1
But what happens when we reframe our understanding of borders not as lines that divide and define but as spaces of connections, moments of encounter, and, indeed, sites of production? What stories do we uncover when we shift our perspective to consider the archipelagic dynamism of Southeast Asia in terms of how it facilitates flows and mobilities? What narratives do we capture when we make the effort not just to cross the border (and get to a destination), but in fact, to linger in it and revel in the state of in-betweenness, liminality and obscurity?
Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND curated by Patrick Campos is a critical step towards reframing how we envisage Southeast Asia as a region by compelling us to question the national (and subnational) borders that are, partly, left as vestiges of Eurocentric and colonial constructions. Ten films and four shorts, meticulously chosen, are metaphorically located off-centre, that is to say, away from the historical centres of filmmaking, the centres of power, resources, and authority, and extort us to probe into questions that lie at the very core of what constitutes the nation, our region, our homeland. We are confronted with the vast array of narratives about border living, including the struggles of the minorities, those marginalised and the people who fall in a state of limbo, or in-betweenness. We are forced to look at the sea not as a natural border but as a dynamic route, a vibrant passage that simultaneously reinforces and obscures the imagined borders of nation states, where questions about identity, belonging, collective memory and intranational violence can be interrogated.
Reframing the Nation: Whose land is this?
The foremost contribution of Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND lies in its valiant effort to put the nation as a construct to a litmus test. By deliberately putting films “produced in and about subnational places beyond the historical centres of filmmaking in the celluloid century such as Manila, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Saigon,”2 the audience is taken through an extraordinary journey to the margins, the borders where the nation obfuscates. Almost four decades after Benedict Anderson asserted the idea that nations are imagined political communities, socially constructed and limited with “finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations,”3 the films trigger us to really reflect on what it means to be a part of a nation, and by extension, what it means to be Southeast Asian.
The stories of undocumented and stateless people like Mong Thongdee in Flying Dream (2018) and Toteng in House Without a Ground (2019) cast a light on the harrowing consequences of national borders and citizenship. We see their effort to survive and dream despite not having access to basic rights, to travel or to get an education, as afforded to those deemed “legal” by the state. They exist but have no identity, no form of identification, no way of attesting their verified self to the powers that be. Where do they belong? Who owns the ground they sleep on? Who is responsible for those who fall in between the chasm of nation-states?
Offering another vantage point, The Dream of Eleuteria (2011) focuses on one family’s hopes for a better future, all hinged on the daughter Terya’s impending marriage to a German man through a mail-order bride service. At the beginning of the film, we rarely see her face but her body language indicates apprehension and despair. As she makes the journey to the boat that will take her away from the little fishing village, we get acquainted with a number of characters that make up an informal network of accomplices who made the arrangements possible for Terya. They, together with the villagers, try to convince Terya that this is an opportunity that she cannot miss. In the end, Terya changes her mind and decides for herself. Evident on her face is submission and determination to ensure a good life, a good opportunity for her sister. She affirms, “I am happy. This is what I want.” Tracing the movements and expressions in the liminal time and space, of Terya at the very moment of movement, the film casts a critical eye on the complexities behind the rationale and processes of migration flows.
In Ways of the Sea (2010), we get a glimpse of the pursuit of Mindanaoans to break away from a life of destitution by crossing the seas to find a new life in Sabah in West Malaysia. Imagining paradise, they find themselves in another precarious reality as undocumented citizens, without any form of formal safety net or legal protection. However, as the film methodically peels the multiple layers of insecurity that each character faces, what develops in their journey is a kind of community spirit, a common bond borne out of their realisation that they are entering a foreign land and that all they have is each other. This sense of belonging, unbridled by national borders, grows while they navigate the daunting waters on a leaking boat. The stories of the stateless and undocumented do not quite follow the idealised narrative of national. Instead, they provide counter-narratives on how, where, and whose stories are captured in film, and in so doing, open up a critical discussion about the exclusions and ramifications of national constructions and bounded thinking. More importantly, we get to a profound understanding that this inclination to build a community, to form a collective affinity and sense of belonging is one that moves through spatial and historical displacements.
Reframing Identity: Whose culture is this?
What does diversity look like? How does one capture it on moving images, on film? When we speak of Southeast Asia, a key feature that appears is its cultural diversity. The region comprises many diverse cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities. As one looks inside the national space, this cultural diversity is also intricately submerged under the rhetoric of the homogeneity of the nation. As Wimal Dissanayake asserts, “cinema is used strategically to reinforce the myth of the unitary nation and to interpellate the textual subjects as willing members of the nation.”4 This necessitates, as Theodor Adorno suggests, “to take the culture industry as seriously as its unquestioned role demands, means to take it seriously critically, and not to cower in the face of its monopolistic character.”5 Indeed, cinema affords us the space to interrogate and examine critical questions concerning cultural diversity and historical discontinuities that mark the nation.
Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND achieves this precisely by taking us beyond the confines of reified intercultural harmony and cosmopolitanism to confront the politics of difference, of the structural configurations of heterogeneity and plurality of cultures in Southeast Asia. It goes beyond presenting mere depictions of the possibilities of diversity, but pushes the audience to posit questions about identity, cultural hybridity, and, yes, even authenticity. Saudade (2020) is a skillful rumination on the lives, rituals, and beliefs of the Kristang people, the descendants of Portuguese-Eurasians who settled in Singapore, Malacca and other parts of Malaysia. The voice-over says, “We lived closely with each other. Our cultures would intertwine and combine, and their beliefs became our beliefs. Their stories became our stories.” As a powerful ethnography, the film resuscitates the vibrance and life of Kristang tradition —a direct contrast to the fact that Kristang tradition and culture, including its language, is critically endangered. Fading against the backdrop of globalisation and modernisation, the community’s links to its past and its stories about ghosts and spirits turn into mere phantoms.
Letter to an Angel (1994) captures the lives of indigenous people, performing their rituals and practising their traditions. Filmed on the island of Sumba, the viewers are transported to the periphery of Indonesia. We are invited to observe ceremonies of forgiveness, animal purification, and burial rituals and in so doing, deepen our understanding of the everyday lives of indigenous communities. While Lewa seems to believe that “pictures show reality,” he realises that the depictions of people in his Bahasa Indonesia textbook do not resemble his community and family. Determined to capture the truth, Lewa uses a polaroid camera to take snapshots of the world around him, hoping to accumulate explanations and verifications of who he is.
This ethos resonates intimately with the subject of the films Story of Southern Islet (2020) and Stories from the North (2005). Shot in Kerat, a small bordertown between Thailand and Malaysia, the Story of Southern Islet deconstructs cultural diversity through the experiences of a woman named Yan as she tries everything possible to find a cure for her ailing husband. Her journey takes us through a series of Western doctors, local shamans, and spirit worship and all the while mobilises us to think about the complex relationship between cultures, religions, and beliefs. Like Lewa, Yan navigates through a labyrinth of affordances and in the process, asserts her agency and gives an account of herself, albeit nebulous. The Stories from the North is a chronicle of the mundane and banal. It is an assemblage of vignettes of children telling stories about ghosts, of a solitary musician drifting between silence and his music, farmers working in the fields at the height of harvest season, and other stories that form ethnographic articulations of the social off-centre.
Taken together, these films afford the audience, who may or may not be familiar with the cultures of minorities and indigenous people in the region, a unique glimpse into the multiplicity of stories, rituals, and traditions that make up the cultural and social tapestry of Southeast Asia. As Homi Bhabha remarks, “cultural differences mark the establishment of new forms of meaning and strategies of identification through processes of regulation where no discursive authority can be established without revealing the difference of itself.”6
Reframing the Past: Whose history is this?
The relationship between nation-state and history is complex and often laden with tropes of homogenisation and exclusion, of monological narratives and subversions. History is often implored as a means of locating the nation, as a means to ascribe significance and contours to an otherwise obscure and amorphous nation. Put differently, one could look at the work of history as an active process of narrativisation imbued with the politics of subject-formation. With the rise of postcolonial studies, and indeed, the emergence of new interpretations of history where the former colonies supposedly “writes back” and provide a poignant critique of Eurocentric and colonial thinking.
Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND problematises contested memories that do not easily fit in the neat narrative of the nation. Throughout the programme, we are exposed to stories off centre, stories that showcase the fissures within and around the nation. The Island Funeral (2015) epitomises the long and winding road young people had to navigate to discover the unpleasant ramifications of a longstanding conflict in Patani, where there is a secessionist movement aiming to establish a separate Islamic state. Starting off in Bangkok, Laila, together with her brother and their friend, navigates unfamiliar roads towards the south. Set against the backdrop of Thailand’s political and social strife, they confront their own apprehensions, prejudices, and eventually stumble upon an isolated island once home to “people of many faiths, coming from different places,” depicting an image of people from different cultures living alongside one another. “Is this island still Thailand?” asks Laila. Her aunt replied, “It is, and it is not. But does it really matter?” These reflections are integral in probing into the possibilities and perils of national allegories and the violences of border-making.
Forbidden Memory (2016) shines light on the volatile relationship between the centre and the periphery, tracing the memories of violence and coercion experienced by the Muslims in Mindanao during Martial Law. Similarly, its intention is to expose the breaks or gaps in the unity of the nation-state. The film is an important artefact that sheds light on the Malisbong massacre (also known as Palimbang massacre) and the violence and oppression that was sanctioned by Ferdinand Marcos at the height of his power during Martial Law. This quest to remember, to piece together the fragments of collective memory, to form a “truthful” rendition of a distant and obscured past. The witnesses are framed speaking out their truths in public, incited by the camera to deliberately navigate the contours of their memory, perhaps compelling the viewers into self-reflection. One character recalls when a high-ranked political official ordered to kill all the men held at a mosque and instructed her not to give them any food. She laments on why they were being treated that way. “What have we done to deserve this?”
Another character recounted how they were handed the oath of allegiance to the Philippines written on a piece of paper. They were asked to raise their hands and recite the oath. They were told to be good citizens and to consider themselves lucky to live. To survive, they obliged, but questions still lingered. The walls are still covered in blood. According to one character, “Remembering is such a sorrowful act,” but one simply does not forget either. The victims continue to ask why they had to experience such suffering, trying their best to describe the hell they went through, and when words fail: tears. There is an acknowledgement that nobody deserves what they experienced, but one hopes that the story serves its purpose.
In The Future Cries Beneath our Soil (2018), we encounter the ghosts of the past lurking in the lives of ordinary people. It focuses on the vestiges left by the Vietnam War (or American War for the Vietnamese) not just in the body and mind, but in the materiality of the unexploded bombs buried on the ground. The film takes us to Quảng Trị province, where the Vietnamese Demilitarised Zone used to be, where people continue to face issues with the remaining explosives left by the war. The selection of film location was a key feature of the film. In 1954, Vietnam was divided between communist-controlled North Vietnam and the American-supported Republic of Vietnam. Amidst the war, a new border was drawn across Quảng Trị province. Considered as a key strategic area for the war, American soldiers were stationed in the province. Frequent clashes occurred between North Vietnamese forces and South Vietnamese soldiers. As in the film, the remnants of these battles remain visible even in the landscape. We see the deep craters created by the impact of bombs that dropped from American planes. We see the efforts of ordinary people trying to make a living off the unexploded materials as they brave the danger and painstakingly collect the metals so they can sell them for a fee.
There is a skillful slowless, a kind of unhurried narration that happens as the characters, almost suspended in time, recall their harrowing memories of the war, filled with guilt, regret, and trepidation. In this slowness, time expands and extends, evoking a feeling of going back in time or the past imprisoned in the present, unable to fade away. Only then do we come to the realisation that the end of the war did not mean the end of misery. The memories of the war continue to form a plethora of contested ideas about the meaning and legacy of the war. Challenging the official state discourse that the war, known in Vietnam as the War of National Salvation Against the Americans, was “the story of a glorious victory by a united Vietnamese people against an imperialist oppressor.”7 Instead, it offers an accounting of the fates of ordinary people who continue to be haunted by the spectre of the war. Veering away from the discourse of glorification, national sacrifice, and eventual triumph, what we see, instead, are neither dead heroes nor celebrated soldiers but ordinary men and women singing songs about love and the revolution, smoking and drinking, continuing to live, to survive, to laugh.
What is important to bear in mind is that while the privileged narrative of the nation has a tendency to suppress local narratives, counter-memories that call into question the hegemony of the state and its endorsed discourses of the past are important as well. These stories confront the national narrative and demand insurrection of thought. They are crucial to shaping the future. They serve as an act of remembering the past, our past, especially those that happen at the margins, away from the traditional centres of power.
Towards a New Imagi(ni)ng of the Region
Heralding that Southeast Asia is a work-in-progress, Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND advances the significance of cultural productions in reframing and co-producing our perspectives, our spatial and temporal imaginations about the region. The Ballad of Cinema Lovers (2017) traces the beginnings of Purbalingga Film Festival to the collective desire and interest of young filmmakers and dedicated individuals like Bowo Leksono. Filmmaking becomes an embodiment of freedom of expression, a collective and communal effort to depict reality through their lens. In Melody of Change (2019), we see the efforts from the ground to employ traditional music as a restorative medium to unite the village, resulting in a glorious harmony and remarkable rhythm. Both films are a testament to the capacity of cultural materials to feed our imagination of what the region could be beyond the self-reflexivity of the nation.
Ultimately, Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND opens a path to imagine the future. As The City of Mirrors (2016) ventures into the realm of speculative fiction and fantasy, collapsing reality and reverie, we too are taken to an imagined future, where the past lingers in the form of memories. The narratives and the myths we tell ourselves are always in flux, in constant dialogue with our search of who we are.
In cinema, thoughts of the past and the imperatives of the present are imbricated with a desire to open up a representational arena where the cultural and ideological unity of the nation can be scrutinised and the tapestry of cultural diversity accentuated. Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND both reflects and intervenes in our critical examination of what constitutes Southeast Asia. What this programme offers are not peripheral stories or stories from the margin. These are, in fact, stories that reveal the dynamism, diversity, and complexity of Southeast Asia. While the concept of the region is both material and figurative, imagined and real, Reframe: INLAND, ISLAND is an acknowledegment that Southeast Asia as a region is a work-in-progress. Southeast Asia is in the process of becoming.
About the Writer
Darlene Machell Espena is an Assistant Professor of Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University (SMU), where she has taught courses on International Relations on Film, Film in Southeast Asia, Cultural History of the Cold War in Asia, and Big Questions. She earned her PhD in History (2017) and MSc. in Asian Studies (2012) from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Her research includes cinema, dance, and politics in postcolonial Southeast Asia, cultural history of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, and cultural discourses on education in Singapore. Before joining SMU in August 2018, she was a Research Fellow at Singapore’s National Institute of Education (NIE). She has held teaching positions at De La Salle University and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Her current book project is entitled “Heralding the Nation: Cinema and Politics in Postcolonial Southeast Asia, 1945-1967.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.
- Frances Stonor Saunders, “Where on Earth are you?,” London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 3 (3 March 2016), https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n05/frances-stonor-saunders/where-on-earth-are-you.
- Patrick Campos, “Inland, Island: Curatorial Notes.”
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1983, 7.
- Wimal Dissanayake, “Nationhood, History, and Cinema: Reflections on the Asian Scene,” Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indianapolis University Press, 1994, xvi.
- Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered”, London: Routledge, 1991, 88.
- Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration, London: Routledge, 1990, 312.
- Jennifer Dickey, “Remembering the American War in Vietnam,” in Konrad H. Jarausch, et al, The Cold War: Historiography, Memory, Representation. Berlin/München/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2017. Accessed April 22, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central, 178-179.