Over the past couple of years, the Visual Documentary Project (VDP) has gone from strength to strength. Originally set up as a small project in 2012 to create a bridge between academia and filmmakers based in Southeast Asia, the VDP has developed into platform that is invigorating discussions on how documentaries can help us to rethink the ways issues are framed within the region. Since 2015, CSEAS has not only screened documentaries submitted to the project, but become a hub helping to raise the profile of young and upcoming filmmakers trained and practicing in Southeast Asia. The project has submitted documentaries to the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival providing past selections for viewing to the general public, hosted talks by international renowned documentary filmmakers such as Rithy Panh, and increasingly linked up with film institutions and universities in the region to share the fruits of this unique endeavor.
Fig.1 Directors at the Tokyo Women’s Plaza, Tokyo, December 17, 2016.
In December 2016, CSEAS held its 5th Visual Documentary Project screenings in Kyoto and Tokyo in collaboration with the Japan Foundation Asia Center under the theme of politics in everyday life. Scholars have long engaged in the ways that people construe, perceive, and participate in politics in Southeast Asia. This year we wanted to know how Southeast Asians represent political issues of interest to them. What kinds of everyday interactions shape the very ideas of politics people aspire to? What political dreams do they have? We frequently see public demonstrations in Southeast Asian countries on our televisions screens and newspapers, but these are often fleeting and cursory. How then do documentary filmmakers engage with current issues and what can we learn from them on a deeper level?
The project received an unprecedented 75 documentaries from around the region. Topics in the documentaries ranged from human rights violations; urban protests; war and memory; human trafficking; propaganda in education; satire and its limits; political critique of regimes; and the illegal dispossession of land. All of these issues stretch across Southeast Asian societies, ranging from the intimacy of the home and everyday politics of human relations, to how states have reacted to people’s demands for greater political representation. What stood out this year was 32 submissions from Myanmar, all of exceptionally high quality which made selection a challenge.
Since democratic reform in the late 2000s, change has been swift in this Southeast Asian nation with an ethnically diverse population of just over 50 million. This change has led to not just a political “opening,” but we are now witnessing a new milieu in which people have urgent stories to tell. What was a trickle of submissions in the first year of this project, has now substantially increased. This caught everyone by surprise, but reaffirms our convictions in offering Audience watching Mr. Zero (2016, Dir. Nutcha Tantivitayapitak) in Chiang Mai, Thailand REPORT Visual Documentary Project 2016 Mario Lopez Associate Professor, CSEAS a platform for Southeast Asians to present political issues on their own terms.
This year’s selection was from Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand and all engaged the political from an intimate through to a public level. Women of the Forest: The Hidden Burden of Climate Change (2015, Dir. Inshallah Montero), focuses on The Punan and Kayan indigenous peoples living in the forests of Sarawak, Western Malaysia (North Borneo). Over the past 20 years, they have become the victims of environmental degradation brought about by massive logging induced by the development of large-scale palm oil plantations. This film is a unique collaboration with Sunitha Bisan (see this issue) who trained in gender and development studies, and is a graduate from the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Bangkok, Thailand. Sunitha’s work on gender and sustainable development focusing on community based gender education, advocacy and knowledge bridging was a fundamental guide for Inshallah who was left to fend for herself in the community she lived and filmed in. The interaction between film and academia can be a compelling format to raise attention toward how climate change, flooding, droughts, crop failures can have very explicit gendered impacts. Women of the Forest allows us to consider the impact of ecosystem functions and their impacts on communities when they are damaged. It also brings into relief how communities can be seen in terms of class, economic background, resilience and fragility, and sexual and reproductive health. Bringing these issues to the screen lets us visually engage in body politics, and who has rights to bodies and this is made starkly clear through the focus on the influx of logging companies, migrant worker men and the pressures they place on women in the community. What is clear is that as human-induced climate change reorders the environment, women are very much on the front-line.
Vein (2015, Dirs. Htet Aung San, Phyo Zayar Kyaw, Ko Jet), shot in the Kachin state, focuses on the lives of migrant workers on mining sites searching for jade. Along with Myanmar’s ongoing transition to democracy, its abundant natural resources have become a source of economic hope and tension. With no clear figures on how many corporations and illegal mines are active in the region, jade is a tense source of income for both the Kachin Independence Army and Burmese state forces. As Myanmar has opened up, we also see its veins exposed and this visceral documentary presents the viewer with the sense of a “gold rush” and a stark portrayal of the everyday risks miners face. Opening with a landslide, we are confronted with raw phone footage of workers being dug up after being buried by a landslide while attempting to dig for their livelihoods. The documentary tracks a number of persons and presents their narratives within the broader context of natural resources exploitation and ensuring human tragedy. Attempting to capture the precariousness of work at the mines, the directors—at some risk to themselves— take long panoramic shots up cliff faces on the verge of collapse; track the flickering torches of workers scrambling over mined rock dumped into midnight quarries dwarfed by colossal dump trucks; and train the viewer’s senses on the cascading rocks that threaten life. Jade has recently caught the attention of other Burmese directors (Taiwan based director Midi Z [2016, City of Jade]) but this documentary is unrivalled in bringing home the brutal reality of migrant workers living on the edges of the nation state.
Fig.2 Scene from Vein (2015, Dirs. Htet Aung San, Phyo Zayar Kyaw, Ko Jet)
Mother and Son (2016, Dir. Thwe Myo Nyunt, YFS see this issue) presents the sensitive story of Thet Win Aung (1971–2006), a young man who became involved in pro-democracy demonstrations in 1998. He was arrested, sentenced to 52 years, and died in confinement. It relates the sacrifices made by a generation and the burden placed upon those that survived them. The mother, Mya Mya Win relates her experiences and reflects upon their personal anguish bringing home the very heavy costs of political activism. The uniqueness of the documentary rests in the detached narrative; viewers are transported into the room as the mother speaks of her son, sharing photos and memories, while her husband, Win Maung sits silently in the background. Viewers are asked to meditate on the meaning of death for political convictions. Interspersed with film footage from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) archive from the 1988 protests, the documentary moves backward and forwards from 1988 to the present weaving a narrative that joins us to the past. In one scene we are confronted with the former Burma Socialist Programme Party Chairman General Ne Win, defiantly stating the Burmese army will show no mercy if riots continue. The documentary finishes in 2015 at the height of student protests against the 2015 national education bill and ties into another submission selected from Myanmar, 60 Days.
60 Days (2016, Dirs. Htut Ye Kyaw, Sett Paing Aung, Pyay Maw Thein), deals with the recent 2015 student protests that arose after the transition to democracy from Thein Sein’s government. Enacted in September 2014, the Burmese national education bill led to protests from students who felt it would infringe on their academic freedoms. Even though amendments were made to the bill, students intensified their protests dissatisfied with the government’s stance. This led to harsh police crackdowns which were denounced in the West and cursorily covered by the media. The crackdowns were impetus for students to galvanize and organize themselves and enhanced their cause within Myanmar. Viewers are presented with actual footage of the activist students organizing and planning for their march and follow Ko Zayyar Lwin, then student president of the Yangon University, Economic Student Union narrating their reasons for protesting. 60 Days offers a balanced take on what was at stake with in-depth discussions with representatives from the National Network Education Reform (NNER), Myanmar’s Teacher Federation, and Dr. Yin Yin New, Chief Education Advisor to the President of the Republic. This documentary is a labor of love that captures the tensions that existed at the time between students and the government. The final scene captures a tense standoff with armed forces leading to the arrest of students (who were all subsequently released) and reminds us of the excessive crackdowns of 1988. The political message in this documentary and the others from Myanmar are a clear indication that a new milieu prevails with documentary filmmakers at the vanguard of witnessing and capturing changes in country.
A final mention must go to Mr. Zero (2016, Dir. Nutcha Tantivitayapitak). Originally scheduled for screening at CSEAS, due to political uncertainty in Thailand the screening of this documentary had to be delayed. Mr. Zero is a poetic, calm meditation on the conflict between human rationality and the unreasonable reign of power. With a close focus on Aneeya’s personality, the documentary hovers on the border of reality and fiction. What happens when a person’s life and thoughts become bodily subjected to political pressures? In subtle fashion, Mr. Zero directly tackles this year’s theme: how to document politics in the midst of a person’s life. The documentary shot through Aneeya’s everyday life provides us with an intimate portrayal of an elder intellectual who poses as and narrates through the voice of John Lennon. Aneeya talks interspersing his own private life through every day scenery and juxtaposing his life with his inner self (through John Lennon). However, the episodes he narrates are harsh. In 1973, he was involved in the democracy movement, and has since been arrested many times, during which time he was tortured/treated by electrocution, which he describes in graphic detail. In a longer unedited version of the documentary, Aneeya reenacts this with the camera hovering directly over his head.
Fig.3 Scene from Mother and Son (2016, Dir. Thwe Myo Nyunt)
Multiple hands reach into his nose and mouth, trying to force it open in a scene of intimate bodily violence. This can read as a metaphor of futility against power, but also resistance against it. Part way through the film, discussing the possibilities of democracy at a bar, the documentary slips into self-censorship. A goldfish and the sound of water slowed down, provide a metaphor on the limits of speech and a suggestive icon of oppression. Through this disconcerting documentary, the camera traces Aneeya not just in voice, but in body: at one point he submerges his head in a water cistern and starts to sing, “the more I look at the world, the greater its complexity . . . it is like a play,” his muffled yet projected voice reflecting the tension implicit in what can be said and where. Mr. Zero provides us with the opportunity to think about the multiple layers from larger Thai modern history to individual life history.
Through its links and deeper ties with film schools, institutes and universities in the region, CSEAS will continue to promote dynamic documentary filmmaking in the region, raise the profile of young filmmakers, and continue to develop productive interfaces between academia and visual documentary in Southeast Asia.