Of Streamers, Female Filmmakers and the Future – 2020 in South East Asia Open Doors Roundtable (part two)

Fikri Jermadi concludes his reflection and summary of a 2020 Locarno Film Festival discussion with Southeast Asian filmmakers.

Shooting on the Streamers
In the Q&A segment of the roundtable discussion, the panelists were asked about the impact of over-the-top (OTT) media streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and more. This is especially in the COVID-19 context, with the public generally asked to confine themselves to their homes.

While this has been good for their business, Malaysian producer Nandita Solomon cautions against utopians notions. “It’s good, but it’s changing attitudes, because now it’s, ‘Ooh, I can just watch it on Netflix’,” she said. “How it will impact the cinema, we’ll just have to see.”

This is a stark contrast to her high expectations when they first entered the region. “What Netflix does out of the United States, they do challenging stuff. But then, what they’re doing here is more of the same as what the main broadcasters are doing. They just can’t figure out Southeast Asia.”

Personally, I’d go a step further to suggest a more insidious form of Orientalism at play here. It may not be deliberate, but Netflix’s approach of pandering its audiences means that the majority of the films sanctioned by Netflix in Southeast Asia have largely played it safe, sticking to generic entries in categories such as horror and action.

The latter has proven to be particularly successful, with films like ‘The Night Comes for Us,’, ‘Furie’ and ‘Maria’. At the same time, it also helps to box our films further within pre-existing stereotypes. As an aside, a panelist here, Indonesian director Mouly Surya, is slated to direct one such film, with ‘Trigger Warning’ lining up Jessica Alba as its star.

That lack of originality is applicable to other streamers as well. “For the others, it’s a case of, ‘Everyone loves Korean content, so let’s do more Korean-type content’,” added Nandita. “Viu did a remake of a Korean show. In fact, Viu in Malaysia has been doing more interesting and edgier programming.” For me, such examples of interesting content could be found in ‘The Bridge’ (a local adaptation of a Scandi noir series) and ‘Devoted’ by Tony Pietra Arjuna.

For Mouly, there is a similar interest in Korean culture in Indonesia. “We used to have Hooq, and they used to be very active in our industry; in fact, they co-produced my film, ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’,” she said of the Singaporean streamer. “But when Hooq went into bankruptcy, we also have Netflix, Viu, Vidio and Bioskop Online, a pay-per-view service where people pay around 5,000 rupiah per film.”

Hooq’s demise is a cause for concern Nandita related to the others. “iFlix have that financial instability, and people were not sure whether they would get paid.” In July, Lacuna Pictures, the production company behind ‘Daulat’, noted that as of the first of that month, they had not received any payment from the company for streaming their film. “Hooq filed for bankruptcy, while GoPlay was quite aggressive initially, but they’ve been more quiet recently. MUBI is in Malaysia now, which is quite interesting, but they have a tiny slot in Europe.”

In the Philippines, however, the sunshine seems a little brighter than most. “We have the likes of Amazon Prime and iFlix,” said Antoinette Jadaone, whose film ‘Love You To The Stars and Back’ is on both services, “but we’re lucky that we have a local streaming platform, iWant, which is exclusive to Philippine content. Our auteur directors, we can watch their films through iWant, which is connected to ABS-CBN. For us filmmakers, we’re happy that Filipinos can watch old films side by side with the new ones.”

A similar, more small-scale operation could be found in Myanmar. Thu Thu Shein, a film producer who is also involved with the Wathann Film Festival, explained how they have used this opportunity to migrate their content online. “We at the Wathann Film Festival started our own YouTube channel,” she said. “We show our short films and documentary films from previous years.”

In spite of the troubles, Mouly believes that the downsides can be worth it. “With those options, I think it’s really good because the audience gets better access,” she said. Indonesia, after all, is huge; it’s so vast and widespread that it’s only recently they’ve managed to officially count the number of islands they have (answer: 17,508). “With the islands and everything, access is a specific problem in our country.”

Further restricting this access is the fact that her films wouldn’t be well-received on broadcast television. “Streaming services are more open to the kind of content I make,” she admitted. “I make films with sex scenes and uncomfortable scenes, and they don’t want to show these on television.” After all, this is a country that censored Shizuka’s swimsuit in the children cartoon show, ‘Doraemon’. There are no prizes for guessing what they would do to scenes of beheadings during sex.

Women on Top?
With the majority of panel members being women, it is inevitable that the discussion would soon turn towards the life of a female filmmaker in the region. Interestingly, it seems that while there remains an imbalance to be addressed, the numbers may be more encouraging than many may think.

Explaining the Malaysian context, Nandita described the mini-lineage of women producers in the industry. “Historically, Malaysia has a lot of women who are powerhouse producers,” she started. “At Astro Shaw, there is Raja Jastina Arshad. Before that, it was Najwa Abu Bakar [an executive producer of ‘Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts’]. We also have Gayatri Su-Lin Pillai.”

She does, however, note the lack of directors. “In the past, we had the likes of Erma Fatima and Shuhaimi Baba,” she said. “Now, we have Amanda Nell Eu, Bebbra Mailin and documentarians Lina Teoh and Lydia Lubon, but it’s not enough.” I’d add the name of Eyra Rahman, a consistent director for more mainstream films, but I take Nandita’s point and would nonetheless agree with it.

Again, the grass seems greener on the Philippine side of the fence. “We have a lot of female filmmakers,” said Antoinette. “I’m really fortunate to be standing on the shoulders of women filmmakers who came before us. These women filmmakers carved their name in the industry; from being so few, now I would say there really is a lot of filmmakers today in our industry.”

She puts this down to the perception of their skill in certain genres. “I think generally, it used to be because romantic comedies were all the rage in the Philippines,” she said, “so women directors would be tasked to direct these comedies.”

Coming from the Burmese context, Thu Thu explained much of the same. “Women have a sensibility of communicating and understanding stories,” she said. “That’s why we have more women documentary filmmakers.” I am reminded of the Burmese film ‘SHE’, a documentary by Kyal Yi Lin Six I reviewed a few years ago.

Not that this should be a surprise. For Maung Okkar, the Burmese filmmaker and activist, this is not a context without precedent. “In my research, I read that the very first woman filmmaker made her first film in 1957,” he said, noting their important role in history. “I wish more women filmmakers can have more of a future in Myanmar cinema.”

All the same, quantity should not be equated with quality. Mouly mentioned that she is aware of her privilege. “Not everyone has the same access, and that has limited the point-of-view of female filmmakers in Indonesian cinema,” she said. “We have a lot of female filmmakers, but they all have a similar background.”

She herself was unaware of the gender trappings of the job. “I was very oblivious to this gender thing, because I just wanted to be a director,” she explained. “When I made my first film, I was dragged into this box of ‘female filmmaker’, and everyone asked me to define what it means to be this.”

For Nandita, much of that comes from the projection through these very films. “The stories are all masculine and male-centric,” she said, detailing her discomfort with the stories on screen. “Women are some kind of prop, there to be married, raped or hold the guy up. The roles for female actors is just as a love interest or subservient wife.”

She is concerned about the potential impact on future generations, especially now she is teaching at a university in Malaysia. “The female students are less,” she noted of their numbers. “It’s less than 20%, and they are overshadowed by the guys.” Having taught at the same university myself, I must admit that my group had a higher percentage of female students; perhaps this is something dependent on the intake and institution, but once again, I take her point all the same.

Films for the World
In addition to projecting to their own citizens, films also have the power to promote an idea and image abroad. The final question centered on what the panelists would like their national cinemas to say about their respective countries, as well as the kind of improvements they would wish for in their own contexts.

For Liza Diño, the chairperson of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (PDCP), there is a need for the filmmakers to come together. “What the pandemic has highlighted is the unfortunate fact that in our industry, it is still fragmented and made up of informal sectors,” she said. Perhaps she is referring to her removal from the executive committee of the Metro Manila Film Festival mere weeks before this roundtable session. “Each sector has their own silo mentality, while other countries have ideas about how to institute structural reforms.”

Beyond its own borders, she also believes there is a certain label applied to Filipino films overseas. “Philippine films are being boxed in one kind of films shown in film festivals,” she said. This harks back to the point I mentioned earlier; scan through the list of such films selected for international festivals, and more often than not there is a (perhaps subconscious) bias towards films that highlight issues related to poverty or oppression (for instance).

Without dismissing the critical and creative qualities of such films, what this does is to further entrench the image of countries like the Philippines in a quagmire; those lacking the ‘positive’ cultural capital of the nation may find such portrayals to maintain negative stereotypes of the people and its society.

For Antoinette, this means that such audiences miss out on a great degree of variety. “Philippine cinema for me is a diverse-flavours industry,” she said. “As we celebrate 100 years of Philippine cinema, I feel so fortunate we have this rich history of film before us. I guess we have, I think, over 10,000 films that we’ve produced since 1919, and these films tell stories of Filipinos from before until today.”

A similar variety could be found in Indonesia as well, with Mouly describing it as a ‘diamond in the rough’. “How rough it is, that depends on your perspective,” she laughed. “We have 300 different languages. It can even have a very different look from different regions.”

Of course, there is the diversity, and then there is the architecture through which such ideas are translated on screen. “The system is kind of a plus and a minus, because as a film director and producer, you can bring your film directly,” she added. “Because of that, it’s a free country, and it’s chaotic as well.”

Indonesia’s size also means that oftentimes, these productions aim to capitalise on the big numbers. “There is a certain need to fill up and do something as quickly as possible, meaning most films are done on the first draft,” said Mouly. “I hope in the future films can develop more over time, so that they can become more mature when they arrive in the cinema.”

Such maturity is one that, for Nandita, is still lacking in mainstream Malaysian cinema. “The honest to talk about conditions as Malaysians, that happens in independent cinema,” she said. “There’s still a lot of challenges for independents to make those stories.”

There is a hesitation in her delivery here, one that is not uncommon for those familiar with the contexts she’s referring to. “I’m scared to have that vision myself, actually,” she said, smiling somewhat ruefully, before noting her own reaction: “That’s how much we self-censor here.”

Read part one 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. 

We also reviewed Malaysian films at Locarno 2020, and touched on Southeast Asian films in three different parts.

Featured image credit: Public Domain Pictures

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