Swimming Upstream – Countdown

Continuing his countdown to the 2018 Freedom Film Fest, Fikri Jermadi considers Andrea Flavia William’s poetic documentary.

I didn’t quite know what to expect as the screen went dark, and the first thing I hear is that of a heart beating loudly. Truth be told, I didn’t know much about anything at all when it comes to ‘Countdown’, Andrea Flavia William’s attempt at shedding light on an issue not well known beyond its own borders. The short documentary covers the issue of those put on death row in Singapore, of people given possibly the harshest punishment a state could mete out to a human being.

To be more precise, ‘Countdown’ looks at those who live on, beyond the carrying out of the death sentence. It tells the story more from the perspective of those who are gravely affected by the situation. Of course, for the subject in question, it literally is a matter of life and death. However, much less attention has been paid to their loved ones, who live in a limbo oscillating between those two options. The end point, at least in a legal sense, has been set, but how to approach that? How to deal with the process? A part of the documentary highlighted how family members are notified of the execution a mere four days before it is done, a countdown within a countdown.

What would you do with that? Throughout the film, we are given brief excerpts of audio interviews conducted with those affected. “Quite a few families have said that when the death sentence is given,” said Kirsten Han, founder of We Believe in Second Chances, “it is not just a sentence for a family.” The organisation campaigns hard for the abolishing of such sentences, referring on its website to research indicating that the implementation of capital punishment has not led to a particular lowering of crime rates in relevant areas.

Despite not knowing much of the situation in Singapore itself, I myself have given this issue plenty of thought a number of years ago. Then, Indonesia was caught in something of a political storm when it decided to carry out death sentences determined for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. They were part the Bali Nine, a group of Australian nationals who were caught attempting to smuggle drugs out of Indonesia. It was something of a cause célèbre, leading to governments around the world (including Australia) calling for presidential clemency, a pardon that Joko Widodo could have granted to save their lives.

On the ground, the issue as I understand it caused people to be split along very different lines. Some thought it was just, others considered it ill-fitting that human beings and governments are in such a position, determining whether someone lives or dies. In the media, all sorts of perspectives were offered, including those of friends and relatives of the Bali Nine. Soon after that, however, such debates died down, leading me to speculate whether such furore was caused only because Australian nationals were the ones at stake here. After all, locals are people too. I mention all this because my mind kept racing back to that timeframe. We don’t hear very much of how friends and family members are gravely affected in such a way. In that regard, ‘Countdown’ has offered us a chance to reflect upon those who live through this ordeal and beyond.

The entire documentary, however, played out in a more experimental fashion. At first, being bereft of talking heads, I had figured that we’re in for a bunch of reenactments à la Errol Morris, whose ‘Thin Blue Line’ remain the quintessential peak of the genre. After a while, as the lightbulb swung low in front of a glum-looking person, I thought that we’re veering into the territory of ‘Senna’ by Asif Kapadia, where we hear the voices of people interviewed on screen, as we are treated to archive footage of the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna.

The reality lies somewhere between the two. There is indeed a voice over that serves as the backbone of the documentary, as the interviewees drive the story forward. However, what’s intriguing is that Andrea has chosen to also include interpretive performance as a part of the appeal. What you see on screen, therefore, is not necessarily the family members themselves, but person, on screen, portraying the appropriate emotions called for in that scene. I couldn’t figure out who the performer is (her name is not listed in the credits), but many of the scenes were beautifully performed and presented. I feel that almost any part of the film could have been screenshot and presented as a poetic representation of the film.

Therein lies this term again: poetic. Perhaps I am a bit of an old fogey when it comes to this, but this new approach is one that provides food for thought. As much as it was an effective little piece, running a touch under six minutes, I wondered how much better it could have been should it have been aligned with a more conventional approach. Without presenting the faces of those directly affected on screen, it removed a little bit my ability to directly connect and emotionally engage with them; one suspects that this, allowing us to detect the facial expressions more directly, would have meant a greater level of empathy, perhaps.

Then again, I could be wrong. In total, only two people were interviewed for this, but Andrea made that relatively small number seem big, as the visual accompaniment to excerpts of interview meant that you were also engaged with what’s presented on screen. This is an indirect form of meaning making, whereby you are forced to interpret the images yourselves (even though there is a great degree of clarity and fidelity provided through the audio and images themselves); at times, I felt like I was watching my friend’s interpretive dance performance back in university. Given that this is actually a production of Nanyang Technological University, I wonder whether the girl we see on screen is not someone from the dance department or something like that.

The above, however, is me nitpicking over the few bits that possibly could have been more aligned to my own set of expectations. Therein lies the tricky question: how do you make known and relevant an issue that is less considered by the masses? You grab people’s attention by presenting something that runs against the grain. In that regard, ‘Countdown’ is the little that can, an important effort that swims upstream in changing people’s perceptions about a literal matter of life, death, or worse, both. Let’s hope that this text will help to spark a bigger discussion that could lead to more constructive outcomes for all concerned.

‘Countdown’will be screened on 2nd October 2018 at the 2018 Freedom Film Fest. The festival takes place at PJ Live Arts in Petaling Jaya, running from 29th September 2018 to 6thOctober 2018. Click here for a list of films selected for this year’s edition.

Featured image credit: VideoBlocks

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