Subscribe Search

Search form

Film buff leads tour of SE Asian indie cinema

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.


  • Kak Channthy, Cambodian Space Project frontwoman, killed in crash at 38 [Updated]

    Updated 5:05pm, Tuesday, March 20, 2018 Kak Channthy, frontwoman of popular The Cambodian Space Project, was killed Tuesday morning in a traffic accident in Phnom Penh. She was 38. Channthy, the internationally recognised singer-songwriter also known as “Srey Thy”, was reportedly travelling in a tuk-tuk on the city's

  • Australians protest Asean summit visit by PM Hun Sen

    Hundreds of protesters gathered in Sydney’s Hyde Park on Friday to protest against Cambodian strongman Hun Sen, who claimed to have been gifted millions of dollars by the Australian government ahead of a special Asean summit this weekend. An estimated 300 protesters, the majority of

  • One Australian, one Cambodian killed in explosion at military base

    Updated: 5:20pm, Friday 16 March 2018 An Australian tourist and a Cambodian soldier were killed in an explosion on Thursday afternoon at an army base in Cambodia’s Kampong Speu province. The Australian, whom the government initially identified as a technical demining expert in his 40s, and

  • Peeling back layers of prehistory in Battambang

    When the man passed away, he had not yet reached 50. He belonged to a tribe that had settled near the Sangker River in Battambang province, likely cultivating the fields and raising animals. On the side, they hunted for boars, and even turtles, one of which