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Film buff leads tour of SE Asian indie cinema

Film buff Tilman Baumgärtel reaches an epiphany during his interview with Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang when he asks, “I sometimes wonder if there isn’t secretly a new type of cinema evolving … that is not bound by national traditions anymore, but seems to be directed towards some transnational, cosmopolitan group of people that share certain traits, interests and attitudes. Do you agree?”

“You are absolutely right,” the genre-twisting director replies. “I don’t believe for a second that the human race is divided by passports, skin colours, languages or religions.”

The conversation is included in the third section of Baumgärtel’s journey through a decade of experimental film making in Southeast Asia, which is comprised of interviews with directors. His journey Southeast Asian Independent Cinema – its a travel book, in my opinion – is divided into three parts: essays, documents and interviews. Baumgärtel lists himself as the “editor”, but he’s at his best when he’s a tour guide, pointing the way to films and directors who are well known in small circles he’s determined to expand.

The interview with Pen-ek is a fine place to start, as is the interview with Philippine director Lav Diaz titled Digital is liberation theology, whose films last up to 11 hours and argues that “we Filipinos, are not governed by the concept of time”. It’s a witty interview in which Diaz pokes fun at dictators and their wives – “Before the South Americans had this idea of magic realism, we already had Imelda Marcos!” – and notes that a new “kind of cinema” is emerging “where we destroy the concept of the audience”.

The book describes how the advent of digital technology allowed directors to make films cheaply, freeing them from film industries as well as conventional narrative structures. Before the advent of digital technology, films from Southeast Asia had, for the most part, been ignored internationally. Over the past decade, however, they have drawn international acclaim because more and more film makers in the region could afford to make the films they wanted to make, like Susuk – Malaysian director Amir Muhammad’s “lesbian vampire movie”, which is also a black comedy about ambition.

The book skips, however, the handful of directors – including Cambodia’s Rithy Pahn – who had been making films since the 90s. “I left out people like Tran Anh Hung from Vietnam, Garin Nugroho from Indonesia and Kidlat Tahimik from the Philippines for the same reason, as they started to make films earlier and had to deal with the problems that working with actual film [rather than digital film] entail,” Baumgärtel explains.

His book is at its best in the interviews with directors, especially when they detail the often accidental process that led to their films.  The section “Documents” is also enlightening. “Forget celebrities. Fuck the star system. Work only with those who are willing to work with you, and those who are dedicated to the craft. Avoid pretentious hangers-on with hidden agendas. Use a lie detector if needed,” A Manifesto for a Filmless Philippines reads.

It also includes an essay about the making of the film Ciplak, a comedy about a Malaysian student in London who pays for his education by selling pirated DVDs from Kuala Lumpur. “I wrote in scenes based in England, hoping that maybe I might be able to get my friends in England to shoot the scenes and FedEx them over,” its director Khairil M Bahar explains.

Ciplak will be shown at Meta House on Friday night, following the book launch at 7pm.

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