by Zulkhairi Zulkiflee
Our visions begin with our desires– Audre Lorde
In the film What We May Be (2020), we follow a father with a recalcitrant past who contends with the forces that defy his return. This is made known as soon as the film begins: two uniformed men briskly deliver boxes to an office building. At the lobby, the receptionist relays that the main protagonist, Ali, will not be allowed to go further due to “security reasons”. Later, Ali is suddenly not required to work anymore. We watch his difficulty too easily. While the two men don the same uniform, their differences are highlighted through this instance of power and access.
For Ali, Invisible “forces” persist; specters haunt. In a twist of events, Ali is offered drugs by his colleague. He resists, “Wong, I don’t do this already ah, Wong.” The push and pull is dehumanizing. The odds against Ali stack up and never end. We watch as Ali drags his son to a welfare home in a bid to rescue him from his errant wife. It ends in a dramatic tussle where the son refuses and tosses his father to the ground. Through the film, Ali is given little recourse. He is not allowed to desire.
At this juncture, it is worth thinking about the utility of film and its capacity to imagine. What are we bearing witness to? How can difficult stories be told and whose imaginary perspectives are being presented? Scholar Eve Tuck introduces the desire-based framework as a way to think beyond damage-centric research, or in this case, narratives or representations as witnessed through Ali’s portrayal . Here, such instances tend to translate into pathologizing narratives that limit characters from being more than their problems. As an ‘antidote’, Tuck proposes desire as a way to calibrate problems by considering a complexity that humanises people and their resistance to defeat. When characters are inflected with desire, their portrayal considers wisdom and hope beyond tragedy. What does Ali desire amidst his pain? Should we be allowed to see the fullness of both?
In the animation The Visit (2021), a girl narrates her experience of visiting her father in prison. Here, bodies are rendered abstract and constructed with a cartoon-like naivete. No sweat or grime; bodies do not clash. She meanders past gates and security checks with ease. We imagine invisible hands carefully narrating her positions. She is desired for. We continue to listen to affective callings recounting memories that connect father and daughter. Somehow, we are not privy to the details of her father’s imprisonment, but Lee Yi Ting, as introduced to us by an invisible voice, finally meets her father in the visiting room. She greets in Mandarin: “Pa, Happy Birthday.” He is indifferent. This runs through the entire animation where Yi Ting pines for a father’s care and a father-daughter relationship that is largely asymmetrical. But she is cared for. In one scene, Yi Ting breaks into a panic fit and exclaims, “Pa, can you see me?!”, when the monitor that mediates their communication experiences a disruption. While her father may not see her, Yi Ting’s visions are accessible to us. Her well-intentioned vision desires for/of her father; her memories shuttling him across various dimensions, freeing his otherwise trapped circumstance.
In some sense, The Visit adopts a kind of desiring as captured by the protagonist. She pushes and bargains based on past and present without fatalistic tendencies, humanizing herself and her father beyond his reality as a convict. She is allowed to hope. Her non-linear flashbacks displace the narrative often written for convicts like her father — or as grimly seen through the portrayal of Ali. Yi Ting grants her father a kind of desirous liminality.
Invoking the simple yet potent line by Audre Lorde, visions indeed begin with desires. Visions (or the lack thereof) in the above two films, illustrate the power to grant freedom as illustrated by Yi Ting for her father, but inversely, limits powerfully too — as seen in Ali’s situation. Here, I argue that there is a personal stake in one’s visions and how it is connected to one’s desires. Yet, such stake tends to be limited to self-serving implications. How can this be extended?
In I Took A Nap and I Miss You (2021), a mother and her two daughters candidly navigate different junctures of their lives. This “drama-comedy-mockumentary” begins with nine-year old Stacy as she brings us around her house. She introduces us to Nicky, an entity who older sister Gigi believes is Stacy’s imaginary (boy)friend. The forty-three-year-old mother, Liz, chimes in, conflicted about whether she should interfere with her daughter’s peculiar behavior. In one scene, Liz negotiates her response with the camera after a petty tussle between her two daughters. “Do I get angry? What if I’m not angry? Do I pretend to get angry? Do I laugh it off? Liz considers the stakes involved that could impact her daughters’ future. When Liz considers her reaction and self-regulates, we see her enacting a probable future based on her chosen responses, and how they are connected to her daughters’ becoming.
Shortly after, we see Liz and Gigi finally interfering in Stacy’s imaginary vision, that is Nicky. When they try to convince her otherwise, the child contends and reasons, “In your world, Nicky is not [real]. He is in mine.” For Stacy, Nicky becomes a symbolic figure and most likely, an extension of her father. Unlike Liz, she conjures a desirous entity instead of projecting it entirely into the future. While Liz is trying to ‘move on’ and come to terms with the reality of her husband’s passing, Stacy resists by enacting an ideal present for herself through a kind of strange suspension. In a self-deterministic gesture, the child shifts away from the tragedy of death into a liminal space of hope.
Tuck offers a note that desire traverses beyond binaries. She invokes the process of “thirding” as an “other than” in contrast to the polarity of options . For Stacy, she suspends the linearity of time by carrying a past with her into the present and essentially, for a future. She does not leave her father yet, he is not present or absent — but imagined.
We also see this in Yi Ting’s situation where she shuttles back and forth through time. For her, the elasticity of memory is imbued with a sense of hope(lessness) as she tailors a personal perspective that is her truth of the matter. While she is most likely aware of their estranged relationship, she chooses to rise above it. Hence, desire for her does not mean accepting or refusing the ideal, but a matter of making the best of an (un)happy ending.
If the above two films encapsulate the many essences of desire, the fundamental element of human complexity is sorely missing in Ali. What We May Be circulates around tragedy and succumbs to the uneasy spectacle of pain. I argue for this fictitious character and his autonomy to become. Firstly, if given the space to articulate his perspectives through time, how would he make sense of his predicament through recollection and revision? How would he narrate or arrange this beyond a limited framing? Finally, how would he also resist, contend, self-determine and hope in full range?
Secondly, just as crucial, who will provide Ali the same well-intentioned care that Yi Ting extends to her father, granting him a desirous liminality from pathologizing tendencies? Also, to whose stake is Ali connected to which place him in their desires and visions? Here, I would like to add that a desire-based framework similarly involves a sense of creative empathy. By this, creativity means enabling one to imagine beyond prescribed ways of understanding, while empathy suggests understanding with another. As such, the stake involved in desiring cannot remain in self-serving ways, but must be extended beyond oneself.
The visions of filmmakers have to intersect with the characters they intend to foreground, fictitious or otherwise, and it must be inflected with such creative empathy. Perhaps, it would then be most generative when filmmakers actively imagine with their characters.
 Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409-428.
 Tuck , E. (2009), 419.
About the Writer
Zulkhairi Zulkiflee is an artist-curator committed to a practice centered on Malayness and its social ontology.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.