Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Salaya Doc 2015 reviews: Asean documentary competition

The winning Best Asean Documentary, 03-Flats.

Mention Singapore's Housing and Development Board, and I guarantee my eyes are going to glaze over, but I gave the documentary 03-Flats a chance, and it surprised me with its compelling view of the public-housing apartment blocks, which beforehand I had mainly seen as cramped, drab spaces that the majority of Singaporeans call home.

Directed by Lee Yuan Bin of Singapore's indie-film 13 Little Pictures collective, 03-Flats examines the history of the HDB developments, which stand as a legacy of founding prime minister Lee Kwan Yew. Archival propaganda newsreel footage is mixed with intimate profiles of three single ladies who have transformed their apartments into homes. They are a grandmother (and her plants), a colorful middle-aged lady (and her cat) and a young artist who has transformed her apartment into an art studio. Aside from a look at the lives of the three women, there is also a sense of community in these towering edifices. My view of Singapore will be different if I visit again. Where I once just saw row upon row of blank buildings, I will now see neighborhoods.

Jurors were also impressed by 03-FLATS – they actually like it all caps, but I just kind of naturally resist that. Nonetheless, it was named Best Asean Documentary of the fifth Salaya International Documentary Film Festival, which wrapped up last Saturday at the Thai Film Archive.

A special mention winner, Lady of the Lake.
Special mention awards went to entries from Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia, edging out docs from the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

One of the special mentions, Yangon Film School student Zaw Naing Oo’s Lady of the Lake paid a lively visit to the spirit-worshipping "cult of the nat" in Pyun Su village, on the banks of Moe Yun Gyi Lake. A documentary short, it has tranquil scenes of fishing and everyday life on the lake interspersed with wild ceremonies in which worshippers appear to be in a trance, and chomp down on a wriggling raw fish.

Cambodia’s The Storm Makers was a warts-and-all examination of human trafficking as experienced by a young woman who was kept as a slave when she worked as a maid in Malaysia. A legacy and constant reminder of the ordeal is an infant son, born from when the woman was raped by another man while trying to escape her brutal employer. Her painful views are contrasted with the profile of a garrulous, opportunistic gentleman who runs a notorious recruiting agency in Phnom Penh. There's also a one-legged woman who hobbles from farmhouse to farmhouse, looking for more recruits. Directed by Guillaume Suon and produced by Rithy Panh, the film’s name comes from the effect the recruiters have on villages, bringing with them dark clouds of despair. It's yet another important entry from Cambodia, which has a keen indie film community keeping an eye on the quickly modernizing country and its population of poor workers who are all-too-easily exploited.

The Storm Makers won a special mention.
The Indonesian winner, Die Before Blossom, directed by Ariani Djalal, examined the increasing focus on Islam in public schools, and the effect it has on girls from two middle-class families. Technical problems during the screening I attended sapped my energy and distracted me from the important point of it all. Are they still teaching math and science in Indonesian schools, or is it all just religion? At one point, a teacher is telling the Muslim children about certain prayers they should recite for good luck on standardized tests, when one of the non-Muslim kids in the class pops up to say, "it's okay, we have our own prayers." The jury was impressed enough to give it a special mention.

“The film carries a feeling of desperation,” the jury statement said. “The silent voice and empty eyes of one of the two main characters are more than enough to display the deadly toxins of a society that cannot nurture the life of its own youth.”

I liked the succinctness of the Thai entry, Echoes from the Hill, by film students Jirudtikal Prasonchoom and Pasit Tanadechanurat, which provided a glimpse into the culture of the “Pgaz K’Nyau” or “simple humans” in a Karen village in the mountains of the North. They believe in tree spirits, and have developed a sustainable way of life that they say is in harmony with nature. But their culture is under threat by Thai government plans to build the Mae Khan Dam and a national park. Beautiful nature scenes are padded with a bit of public-hearing footage, in which the film's main subject, this cool village elder, is present and testifies, so it's all on record about the harm that will come.

A late-to-confirm entry from the Philippines, Nick and Chai, was simply heartbreaking. Directed by Rowena Sanchez and Charena Escala, it visited an achingly young couple who lost all four of their children to 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda. While haunted by the deaths of the children, Nick and Chai put their energy and college-trained agricultural skills into grassroots organizing that helps their community rebuild.

Die Before Blossom, a special mention winner.

Salaya Doc 5's competition was rounded out by Madam Phung’s Last Journey by Nguyen Thi Tham, which is a ride around Vietnam with a travelling carnival troupe run by ageing drag queens. I've covered it before at the Luang Prabang fest. I thought it was pretty great.

Apart from the competition, Salaya Doc had the opening film The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to 2012's The Act of Killing. Here, Oppenheimer and his "anonymous" crew continue their examination of the mass killing of leftists, activists and other opponents of military rule in Indonesia in the 1960s. While The Act of Killing rubbed me the wrong way with its focus on the perpetrators of the genocide, allowing them to re-enact the killings in often grandiose and self-aggrandizing fashion, The Look of Silence had me nodding in agreement with its focus strictly on the victims as seen through the eyes of an Indonesian optician, who travels from town to town, confronting the people responsible for his brother’s death. At each visit, a pattern emerges, with the interviewees at first denying having any knowledge of the killings, but the guy keeps gently questioning, trying different lenses as it were, and then there's that look that comes across their face as if to say "Okay, you got me," and they realize they can no longer lie.

The Look of Silence was thematically bolstered during the run of the festival by the films of Indo-Dutch auteur Leonard Retel Helmrich, who was the director in focus and conducted masterclasses in his smooth, flowing, up-close-and-personal "Single Shot Cinema" technique. Indeed, Oppenheimer has acknowledged Helmrich as a big influence. And it's apparent, not only stylistically, but hugely from the Indonesian angle. Among the films shown was Helmrich's series of documentaries covering 12 years of the lives of a widowed grandmother and her family during times of political upheaval in the Suharto regime. I saw Promised Paradise, in which a street-performing puppeteer friend of Helmrich's goes searching for answers about how such terrorist acts as 9/11 and the series of bombings in Bali and Jakarta are justified by Islam. It gave me another view of Islam to ponder along with Die Before Blossom.

A big favorite of the fest was Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema, in which various filmmakers and artists talk about the profound influence of directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the Taiwan New Cinema movement of the 1980s. Chinlin Hsieh, a programmer at the International Film Festival Rotterdam who also served as a juror on Salaya Doc 5, used her influence to gain access to various figures, from dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to film critic Tony Rayns.

Also interviewed was Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, at his jungle home in Chiang Mai. He admitted being lulled to sleep by the languid pace of some of the films, and he hoped his films have the same magical effect. "It's like being transported," I think he said, like Scotty from the Enterprise.

A favorite segment of mine was Chinlin's interview with Tsai Ming-liang, which captures the Taiwanese-Malaysian auteur in his Sphinx-like majesty. With the camera set firmly, just as it would be in one of his movies, Tsai just sits there quietly and really, does not need to say a thing. I chatted Chinlin up afterward, and she said she filmed Tsai for an hour but could not get him to admit he was influenced by the New Cinema movement, so that three-minute scene was what she came up with, and it's perfect.

Later, I saw 03-Flats and I thought I recognized the influence of Taiwanese cinema, which I think is especially apparent in the typically slow-paced Singaporean and Malaysian indie films. But maybe that was just my imagination running wild.

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