Each time I am tasked with recanning a dented or rusty film canister, I steal a few extra seconds to read the different labels that have been applied onto its surface. Apart from an accessioning label that typically includes information about a film’s title and accession number – a film can may also have stickers from a film processing laboratory, a courier service or handwritten labels that were made by its filmmaker or by projectionists. I study the endearing shape of someone else’s ‘K’s and ‘G’s; I lift the corner of an old label that is slightly torn and precariously protruding outwards. Before my stillness can be misconstrued as laziness, I apply a new label onto a new film can and place the spooled film inside.
My time as a collections intern at the Asian Film Archive has been filled with these glimpses into the palimpsestic texture of the archive. Every digital or physical manifestation of a film title has passed through the hands of many stakeholders, from its filmmaker to the archival officer responsible for preserving its legacy. I feel fortunate to even be a tiny part of this lineage that has long preceded me. In my first month alone, for instance, I was tasked with scanning and cataloguing movie handbills hailing from the 1950s to the 1970s. Every handbill adhered to the visual language of its time while containing the occasional anachronistic handwritten note in ballpoint pen, detailing the movie’s year of release or the name of the leading actress. Perhaps my favourite detail to frequently appear is a stamped message in blue advertising the movie’s different showtimes.
I also had the opportunity to learn how to clean and inspect a roll of film – a task which was initially daunting to me. Worried that one simple misstep might somehow spiral into me damaging a piece of film history, I would cautiously unwind the film’s leader and take a moment to mentally calculate how the two plates of the film inspection table would spin. My fears dissipated, however, when the first picture frame revealed itself. What a surreal feeling to be able to touch an image. The set of film reels which I was cleaning was Marc X. Grigoroff’s Salawati (2008). Initially apparent was a peculiar red hue that would appear and disappear throughout every film spool, dotting the picture frames in a vague pattern. When the plates of the film inspection table spun faster, this red hue would wax and wane in a mesmerising fashion. Upon consulting Ping, an archive officer at AFA, this occurrence was identified as a possible form of film deterioration. However, the coincidentally ordered manner in which it would appear, coupled with its interesting intermingling with the shades of blue in a frame, left us wondering if it could have been an artistic choice. Ultimately, our theories can only be confirmed by someone with an advanced knowledge of film format print production, or by comparing it with another set of prints.
As I approached the head leader of the second reel in a set of five, a snap was heard. The remaining portion of film – fortunately consisting only of the film’s head leader – had stuck together, and the resulting tension had caused it to break away from the reel. I looked through the unspooled remains with Ping and Ben (AFA’s archive officers), before they assured me that the fractured pieces could be discarded after a new head leader was attached to the film. I remember Ping remarking that she would sometimes turn pieces of discarded film into bookmarks, which struck me as an endearing manner of holding on to and transforming the legacy of something that was once deemed irreparable.
And so I kept a small strip of film intended for discarding and did the same.
Familiarising myself with the archive’s collection was not only achieved through my encounters with physical materials, but through cataloguing film titles and the act of endlessly scrolling through the consolidated accession registers. As I assisted with the task of cleaning up data in the migration to a new collections management system, I would come across several intriguing film titles that appeared to me to be either kooky, poetic, distinctly local or all of the above. Some, of course, are recognisable classics by local filmmakers like Jack Neo, while others are short films made by promising film or animation students. Admittedly a tedious task to update title by title, the management system nonetheless provided a comprehensive documentation of the archive’s assets. This is where my work of cataloguing films came in. After watching recently acquired films, I had to create a catalogue entry consisting of the film’s title, director and cast information, as well as craft a brief synopsis of its plot. It was through this process that I was also able to enjoy films from local and regional filmmakers, some of which have even become new personal favourites.
Discovering unfamiliar and often forgotten films grew to become a natural part of the internship. As I assisted in two different projects: research into the history of animation in Southeast Asia and the Singapore Video Competition, which was organised by the People’s Association and Singapore Cine and Video Club annually from 1983 to 1996, I spent a month delving into the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library’s collection and sleuthing around the internet for academic sources or digitised newspaper articles that would provide relevant information.
While the animation industry of every Southeast Asian country has its own unique trajectory, the region faced a set of common challenges. The public’s mass preference for Disney or anime inspired visuals, as well as the high demand for outsourced labour from big international corporations, initially impeded every country’s aim of creating an original visual identity that reflected their own culture and heritage. It was therefore heartening to view animated shorts from every decade as it reflected the growth that occurred — and will continue to occur — in each country’s animation industry. From early cartoons in the 1950s that were evidently inspired by Disney to innovative animated shorts by young contemporary filmmakers actively experimenting with the form, this research project was an undertaking made enjoyable by the endlessly creative and ever-changing nature of the medium.
It was serendipitous that the archive is hosting the annual Reciprocal programme in July 2023. One of the screenings features 10 animated shorts from the collection of the AFA and this year’s partnering institution, the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands. In this particular programme, Singaporean and Dutch animated stories are paired together, displaying a similar spirit of innovation and experimentation that permeates every short film despite the vast differences in subject matter or cultural background. Huang Junxiang and Jerrold Chong’s A Piece of Meat (2019) was a film I was particularly excited to watch, after having seen it mentioned numerous times in different articles throughout my research. With paper cutouts of stock imagery appearing as characters against a collaged Singaporean landscape, this short film is a biting commentary on an uncaring, consumerist society. Despite its highly experimental form, the use of food or inanimate objects as characters and a lack of dialogue, the film manages to astutely illustrate the unpalatable problems rooted in reality such as class disparity and exploitation. In this instance, animation’s capacity to create a wholly original visual landscape is fully utilised in order to tell a story that is more impactful. The same can also be said of Evert de Beijer’s Get Real! (2010), which is set in a reality that looks as if it existed in the ballpoint pen doodles of a teenage boy. With an irreverent sense of humour and a bold lack of restraint, the film provides an unconventional commentary on topics that might otherwise be deemed as crude.
While I gravitated towards animated shorts that took on a playful and witty approach to the medium, one might also take delight in shorts such as Tan Wei Keong’s Between Us Two (2017) or Gerrit van Dijk’s I move, so I am (1997), which are more poetic and contemplative. Innovations to the form are subtle but equally impactful, allowing audiences to rest on quiet moments of storytelling. Between Us Two, by being pared down in its colour palette, becomes a meditative experience as audiences listen in on an intimate conversation between a recently wedded son and his dead mother. I move, so I am, as the title suggests, portrays a pencil sketched man achieving wholeness as he seamlessly draws himself into existence. Once again, a preference for simplicity in style and storytelling methods is displayed here, which compels audiences to pay closer attention to the ever-shifting silhouette of a man as it morphs seamlessly into various other shapes and objects.
Watching Dijk’s work, I imagined that the film could work as a poetic summation of all the animated films I’ve encountered throughout this research project. Despite the aforementioned challenges faced when attempting to carve out a unique visual identity, animators from the Southeast Asian region have continued to grow, improve and move. This growth might not have been linear, but what mattered more was observing its constant movement. Just like drawing oneself into slow existence and never letting the pencil rest as every transformation occurs, the animated films of Singapore and the region have exhibited an exciting trajectory. The Reciprocal programme, in general, serves as a good introduction into this world of weird and wonderful new visual realities.
The latter research project was a continuation of Senior Archivist Chew Tee Pao’s efforts to locate and subsequently digitise short films that were made at the Singapore Video Competitions. Compiled into a collection of VHS tapes that is currently housed in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, the prizewinners from the Singapore Video Competition 1985, 1986 and 1988 were recently screened at the special programme of AFA’s Singapore Shorts 2022. While there were a handful of digitised newspaper clippings from the 1980s that provided information about the winning entries and their respective filmmakers, it was a challenge for me to find a digital or physical copy of these films. My research branched out into many interesting diversions – which included a series of music videos directed by Eric Khoo for local indie rock band the Oddfellows and a Training and Communication Video Awards competition organised by the National Productivity Board in 1988 – that all eventually petered out. This, however, made every successful discovery of a VHS tape in the reference library even more exciting. Apart from the novelty of learning how to use a VHS player, I enjoyed witnessing a Singapore from the 1980s complete with video transitions that, although considered innovative then, would be endlessly mocked on the internet today. From documentaries on local attractions to a funny home video about cats, each short film found was imbued with an earnest appreciation of its subject matter and the craft of filmmaking. A newspaper article reporting on the video competition emphasised how costly filmmaking was in the 1980s, attesting to how passionate the participants were at honing their skills.
After a few weeks of running into dead ends, I was feeling increasingly dejected and ready to throw in the towel. That is until I came across a short film entitled Simple Pleasure by Michael E. T. Yap. A documentary about a local kite making enthusiast who had won first prize in the 1983 kite festival, this short film featured interludes of a metres-long dragon kite twisting and turning against an endless blue sky. A hobbyist acknowledging the passion and skill of another, Yap felt no need for pretension, resulting in a sincere form of admiration and curiosity that permeated shots of a hand weaving the wings of the kite or men pushing the enormous kite into the air. This film certainly must have left the same lasting impression on its audience then, as it won first prize in the 1984 Singapore Amateur Movie Competition. Alone in the dimly lit viewing room of the reference library I tried to imagine the number of people who may have had the pleasure of viewing this film, as well as those who have not. Knowing that the latter number far surpasses the former did not feel like such an unfortunate calamity. Maybe I was still feeling elated about finding this title despite the brevity of its item description in the library catalogue. Maybe these numerical figures were just abstract concepts that I could not grasp at the moment.
Or, maybe the fact that these amateur films – which might have spent many years sitting idly on the shelf of the reference library or in someone’s personal library – can still be made available to a new generation through the efforts of digitization and film programming was enough of an affirmation. This was just the beginning; the palimpsestic texture of Yap’s film (and other amateur movies) will only continue to grow as it is eventually digitised and preserved so that others may study and enjoy it.
At times like this I am reminded that, contrary to popular assumptions, an archive is not merely a dusty repository filled with the forgotten relics of the past. It is dynamic, constantly evolving and harnessing its power to affect the present and the future. New interpretations, new discoveries and new considerations should continue to be written over accounts of the past, so that history can more accurately reflect the nuances of the human experience. Maybe that is why I will always enjoy looking at the old film canisters or tape containers stored in the repository or on the shelves of the AFA office. Despite their unassuming nature, it is so tempting to peel back each label and to read every marking, in order to see how different moments in an object’s history intersect and mingle with each other.
I would like to thank the collections team — Tee Pao, Ben and Ping — for their guidance and patience. My time in the archive has been filled with endless discovery and pleasant surprises. If you too wish to catch a glimpse of this magic, attend AFA’s Reciprocal programme which runs through the month of July 2023.