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Welcome to the Institute of Southeast Asian Film Studies

April 1, 2009

I never wanted to have a blog.

Blogs seemed like yet another internet timewaster to me, in the same league as social networks sites, RSS feeds, trackers and Twitter. And to start a blog in 2009, is really tired – especially for somebody like me who has written on all things internet for more than a decade and used to think of himself as ahead of his time, not as the last one to pick up on internet fads.

When working on a book on the independent cinema of Southeast Asia, it occurred to me that a site that trusses the material on Southeast Asian cinema (that is few and far between on the internet) could actually be quite useful. That is about the scope of this endavour: to collect links to the few articles that come out on cinema from Southeast Asia.

Before I moved to the Philippines in 2004, the only film from this part of the world that I had ever seen was Bobby Suarez´ grindhouse martial arts movie Cleopatra Wong, and I had no idea that this was a movie from Singapore/Philippines, just something vaguely Asian. But then again, where did this catholic convent come from? (I have since written a lengthy paper where I argue that Suarez´ films from the 1970s are an early attempt at filmic globalization.)

The Philippine mainstream movies that I watched on the plane to Manila (Jologs and Lastikman) did not exactly wet my appetite for more of the same, and I think in my first year in the Philippines I saw only one other local film. At that time cheap digital cameras had just become available in the region, and soon young film makers, that would have never been able to make a regular, studio-financed film, started to make low-budget independent films. Some of these films started to make the international film festival circuit, a very few did even well in the local cinemas. (See an article I wrote in my first enthusiasm about all this here.) I got hooked. After writing about the internet, and in particular about from the mid-90s onwards, I found myself entangled in yet another digital revolution.

As I started to teach at the Film Institute of the University of the Philippines, I had access to one of the best collections of Philippine movies anywhere.  (Only a handful of classic Philippine films are available on regular DVD, most of them without subtitles, so I was very lucky to be able to see all these old films. And to have students at my disposal who I could make translate films from Tagalog as a retribution for lateness and other tardiness, he he…)

I took a class on Philippine film history with my friend and colleague Rolando Tolentino, and gradually started to learn about the amazingly rich and multi-faceted film history of my host country. At the same time, I travelled a lot and made it a point to pick up as many DVDs and VCDs (an obscure video disk format only in use in Asia) as I could fit in my backpack in countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia or Cambodia. Other film scholars and movie buffs that I got to know during these travels and at various film conferences supported my research by providing me with copies of hard-t0-get films from their own collections. And I started to write on the subject, both for academic and for popular publications.

I never wanted to have a blog. But now I wish I would have started it four years ago to document this learning process, and write about the films I saw, the festivals and conferences I attended, the conversations I had with film critics and colleagues. As I am about to leave the Philippines and relocate to Cambodia, I finally decided to get started.

I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to learn about (and to actually see!) these movies. The films from Southeast Asia are internationally more or less unknown, but I ended up being quite fascinated by how these films negotiate the local and the global: homegrown dramatic and narrative traditions on the one hand, and the suppossedly international language of cinema on the other hand. In that sense, they might be among the most important cinematic comments on a post-colonial and globalized present, and that does not only go for the contemporary independent films, but also from the movies of the 1950s and 1960s that often engage in much more direct way with the effects of colonialism than one would expect from movies that aimed first and foremost to entertain. There are huge difference in terms of film culture between the different countries of the region. But to me they all seem to share the desire to come to terms with the contradiction of trying to develop a national cinema in a post-national world.

I hope with this blog I can somehow pay back my debt of gratitute for having access to the slightly esoteric world of Southeast Asian cinema, and provide a useful service to people interested in cinema from the region. Amen.

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