Of COVID, Governance and Centenaries – 2020 in South East Asia Open Doors Roundtable (part one)

Fikri Jermadi checks in with a 2020 Locarno Film Festival discussion with filmmakers from Southeast Asia.

The 2020 edition of the Locarno Film Festival shifted online, allowing us to watch works we would not have been able to view otherwise. The same applies to discussion sessions, one of which, entitled ‘2020 in South East Asia: perspectives from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines’, caught our attention for obvious reasons. Moderated by Paolo Bertolin on , it featured six film professionals from the countries above, all of whom had much to say on how the year has affected their respective cinemas.

The COVID Context
There can be no other starting point than to begin with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s not a lot of film productions,” said Antoinette Jadaone, a film director from the Philippines. “They are mostly television commercials or series. Most film productions are stopped and waiting for the right time to resume, when it’s safe for us to resume our storytelling. So far, it’s mainly script development and post-production.”

It is a similar picture in Indonesia, according to Mouly Surya, the director of ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’. “In terms of productions, commercial productions are going on,” said Mouly Surya. “Feature films started last month, as I heard, but with strict protocols.”

“Right now, cinemas are still closed,” she continued. “There is a lot of films that has not been released. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Cinemas were supposed to open a couple of weeks ago, but the rise in cases meant they postponed the opening.”

In Myanmar, there is also a backlog of films awaiting such exhibition. “Last year, there were 97 feature films shown in cinemas,” said Thu Thu Shein, a producer from Myanmar. “There are more than 200 films awaiting their release.”

A part of this is due to the local coronavirus context, with different countries adopting different approaches. The lack of a hard lockdown in places like Jakarta, for instance, meant that official numbers are still relatively high. “People still go outside, wearing masks and social distancing and such, but it’s not really ‘lockdown’ lockdown,” Mouly explained. “Personally, I was locking myself up for two to three months, but when I go out, it’s like nothing happened.”

Having said that, the local socio-economic context must also be borne in mind. “In Indonesia, most of us live on daily wages,” she continued. “The fear of the pandemic, they just have to get through that, because otherwise they get hungry if they don’t get to work. The government could not afford to lock down the country and the economy.”

However, the picture in Malaysia is very different. “The Ministry of Health of Malaysia has been absolutely fantastic: daily briefings, press conferences, and a lot of transparency about numbers,” said film producer Nandita Solomon. “They did a very severe lockdown from March until June, and they were very, very strict.”

“We Malaysians can be quite naughty when we want to be,” she continued, possibly mindful of reports of people jumping into rivers to avoid being arrested for breaching the lockdown, “but something like this, we take it as, ‘OK, there is a problem, and we all need to work together to reduce it.”

This could be seen in Myanmar as well, whose practically non-existent cases of local transmissions and low official numbers have been underreported. “We are very lucky because in April, we have a long holiday, so our government managed to lock down for two weeks,” said Thu Thu. “Until today, we have a 21-day quarantine for those who come back from abroad.”

As such, it is a different context for filmmakers in the country. “Last week, it was announced that if we want to shoot a film, we need to apply for permission,” she said. “The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Health and Sports are setting regulations. So far, only one film has started to shoot, with a maximum of 50 people on set.”

Antoinette noted the above with envy. “In the Philippines, cases are still growing by the day,” she said. “We have been in lockdown for over four months. A lot of our television and film production workers also lost their jobs, because our biggest media company, ABS-CBN, was closed down by the government.” She’s referring to the renewal of the company’s broadcasting rights in the country, a move linked by many to President Rodrigo Duterte’s clampdown on media freedom in the country.

That’s not to say that the appreciation of film has died down. “Most film productions are shown through YouTube or Facebook,” she continued. This is true; on YouTube alone, channels like TBA Studios have been streaming films like Mikhail Red’s ‘Neomanila’, and will screen ‘Heneral Luna’, one of the country’s most expensive films, later this month. “It’s really great that our storytellers have been really creative.”

This is something the government itself is expanding on. “We’re also launching an online streaming app called Cine Lokal, with the biggest cinema chain in the country,” said Liza Diño, the chairperson of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (PDCP), explaining how this allows for greater monetisation of content. “The whole initiative was to give back to independent productions to be screened in cinemas.”

Top Down Approach
Addressing the employment bleeding above, Liza also explained how the FDCP has attempted to mitigate it. “We released around 28 million pesos for 5,000 film workers, but that’s not enough,” she admitted. “We have so many film workers, and there’s no assurance that, even if the economy opens up, we can ensure the employment of our workers.”

The idea of governments providing such incentives is not particularly alien, with Nandita outlining the Malaysian approach by way of funds made available through different agencies. “Suddenly even agencies I’ve not heard of before have a fund.”

“They just introduced grants for films, specifically arthouse films, under RM1 million,” she continued. “They’ve increased the financing for short films. The FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia] license, which previously you can only obtain if you have a company with a lot of capital, they’re making that into a tiered system, so that different people have different opportunities.”

Often understood as a requirement for mainstream feature film productions, the FINAS license situation is tied to a controversy in the country, when Saifuddin Abdullah, the Communications and Multimedia Minister, said that even those producing social media videos will need such a license.

Some of that farce could be put down to official unfamiliarity with context. “We had a change of government, two weeks before this happened,” Nandita explained. “It’s not the kind of change that happened through elections. So now that things are opened up again, what they wanted to do, they wanted to kick-start the economy, and created a lot of funds.”

That is a logic I can get on board with. However, my take on the situation is a little more skeptical, as I believe the government also wished to suppress forms of grassroots opposition to its rule. The provision of such grants and funds, especially to those hit the hardest by the pandemic, helps to paint them in good light.

How long that lasts, however, is a different story, as the stability of such contexts remain up in the air. “Is it going to be here in six months?” Nandita mused aloud. We don’t know. What we do know is that they want the grants and funds to go out as soon as possible, and they want to see something in six months.”

Good though the intention may be, quantity does not necessarily equate to quality. “The last time we had a lot of funds like this would be around 2010 to 2012,” she said. “Back then, RM200 million was parked with a bank to give out loans. The films released got up to 80 a year, but the quality was bad.”

She was talking about the Bank Simpanan Nasional-managed programme, something she herself capitalised on for the production of Dain Said’s ‘Bunohan’. That is generally agreed on as a fine critical film in its own right, relative to, say, ‘Magika’, an Edry Abdul Halim film which also benefited from that same source.

In the Philippines, programmes have been implemented to ensure that some form of filmmaking would continue in the country, particularly by way of incentivisation. “For cash rebates, we were able to support two projects shot in the Philippines and awarded with this incentive,” Liza explained. “For the international co-production fund, a fund for Filipino producers engaging with international co-production partnerships, we were able to choose two films as well, to be launched soon.”

Though evidence above suggests strong support from governments for filmmakers, that has to be contextualised by how local authorities view such industries. The Myanmar context, for instance, makes clear how it is to be positioned both within and outside the country. “We are placed under the Ministry of Information, not the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture,” said Thu Thu. “For censorship, the script is submitted before the shoot, and the film is submitted to for censorship after filming.”

“There are 13 representatives from different ministries, so, for instance, the Ministry of Health and Sports can object to smoking scenes,” she continued. Much of this process is based on outdated regulations. “They are applying film law from 1996, so that needs updating.”

Centenaries of Cinema
Such authorities remain important in not only the making and exhibition of contemporary cinema, but also in the preservation and celebration of their histories. This is especially important, given how a number of Southeast Asian cinemas are marking the 100-year mark in 2020.

In that regard, some have stolen the march on others, with the Phillippines getting a head start. “We’ve actually been celebrating since 2017, because there was this debate on when we should start,” said Liza. “Should it be with the first Malayan production, or the first Filipino film? It’s a three-year-long celebration.”

For her, the effort put in by the authorities is one she is proud of. “The official government announcement is that it would be from 12th September 2019 to 11th September 2020,” she explained. “I’m so happy we have maximised the celebration in a different aspect of Filipino cinema in a different way.”

That spirit has also allowed for greater efforts of preservation, which includes reworking the structure for archiving and cataloguing techniques, amongst others. “In the Philippine Film Archive, there’s already a lot of effort put into preservation,” Liza continued. “We have a scanner in our archive, so we’re able to digitise the reels we have.”

Maung Okkar, a Burmese filmmaker and film activist, hoped for similar scenes to unfold in his country. “I wish a minister or someone in an important role like that can do this,” he said. “I’d like to do a celebration like this, because the very first documentary started shooting in 1919. 1920 is the first screening of the very first Myanmar fiction film.”

The same applies to efforts relating to film preservation, noting a great lack in his context. “We found in Japan the film, ‘The Daughter of Japan’,” he said, referring to the 1935 film by Nyi Pu. “We can do digital restoration with the help of the Japanese embassy in Myanmar, and it’s the first digital restoration project in the country. Unfortunately, there’s no proper funding and support to do it in Myanmar.”

A part of this is the crowded local calendar to navigate. “This year is the 100-year anniversary of Yangon University. At the same time, there is also a general election at the end of the year,” he noted, making efforts such as his own all the more challenging. “For film activists, doing film preservation is really, really hard for us.”

Read part two here. The Roundtable is a public event hosted by Open Doors, the initiative organised in a joint collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Featured image credit: The Cinema Soloist

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