SOUTHEAST ASIAN INDEPENDENT CINEMA | BOOK REVIEW

Edited by Tilman Baumgartel

Published by NUS Press (Singapore, 2012), 273 pages.


“Defining independent film can be elusive.” This is the conclusion to John Lent’s article on the volume, edited by Tilman Baumgartel entitled Southeast Asian Independent Cinema. However, it may be a good advice to read the collection of articles in this volume despite the ambiguous conclusion.  The difficulties in defining independent film are often inseparable from the diverse character of the wave of independent film movement that swept across Southeast Asian countries in the last decade. Unfortunately, there is still a dearth of studies on the independent film movement despite the recognition of some independent films from this region in the international film festival circuit.  Not surprisingly, this volume has a noble aim “to document the new development that is a genuine outcome of the democratization and liberalization of film production brought about by digital technologies.”

In order to achieve the above objective, Baumgartel gathers together various materials on independent filmmaking in Southeast Asia:  academic essays, newspaper, manifestos, production note and interviews.  The great credit of this volume, of course, should go to Baumgartel since he not only edited this volume, but also wrote two essays and one newspaper article in addition to interviewing eight active independent filmmakers.  By doing so, he wishes to provide more “objective” views of the conditions and debates surrounding independent filmmaking in Southeast Asia.

This volume is opened by John Lent’s article which seeks to define the meaning of “independent film” in Southeast Asian context.  Acknowledging the inherent complexity of Southeast Asian region, Lent defines the independent film by locating it in opposition against three things: (1) government regulation and censorship; (2) big mainstream film studio; and (3) traditional methods/ filmmaking styles.  While this neat definition of independent cinema might have practical benefit, this definition seems fit with the characteristics of any independent film across the world.  Hence, it does not offer historical insights into the conditions of independent cinema in Southeast Asia.

It might be worthwhile to look directly at the idea of independent film through the perspectives of indie filmmakers, according to their own terms.  The late Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad referred the term “independent” in the context of independent film as “a strange term.”  For her, being independent filmmaker is “a tough thing.” In contrast, Thai filmmaker Apitchapong is quite at ease with the label of independent filmmaker since he distances himself from the big studio and does several of his works during the filmmaking process independently. Likewise, Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo defines independent film by positioning himself afar from studio-based mode of production.  Although some views of independent filmmakers above are less conceptualized, we can capture the spirit of independence. However, the term “independent” seems a straightjacket concept and label which indie filmmakers themselves are not always comfortable with.

While this volume is intended to provide a general picture of independent cinema in Southeast Asia, there are still many issues left unexplored such as:  the role of micro cinema, independent film festival, the emergence of regional movement within national cinema, digital aesthetic and the like.  In addition, while in this volume Baumgartel has conducted interview with many representative indie film directors, he almost neglected indie film producers, activist-cum-indie filmmakers and indie film critics.

Putting aside some weaknesses, this volume should be welcomed by those who are teaching or studying Southeast Asian cinema in colleges and universities as well as a wide range group of readers. Moreover, this is a well-documented volume of the conditions of Southeast Asian independent cinema, which still merits for further researches in the future.

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