The O.P.E.N. Films

Ng Yi-Sheng

May 17, 2015

In my last post, I didn’t say anything about the film program in The O.P.E.N.. It’s a whole film festival unto itself, showing at the Projector, that wonderful little arthouse cinema that just opened last year on the upper levels of Golden Mile Tower. (They have regular screenings too – check out their offeringshere.)

It’s a pretty international program – the films are set in Chile, Iran, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Portugal, Germany, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Belgium, Netherlands, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Macao. A few individual films even span more than one country.

What unites pretty much all of them, however, are themes of political violence. This isn’t a feel-good festival, folks. No rom-coms or animated shorts or gay coming-of-age dramas here: just straight-up oppression.

Sometimes the politics is happening up front and centre: Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youth is about the birth of the militant Red Army Faction, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing centres on the Indonesian genocide of suspected Communists.

Sometimes it’s happening more in the background, as Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This Is Not a Film, about Panahi’s attempts to continue filmmaking while under house arrest. Sometimes it’s about the long shadow of historical violence, as in Isabelle Tollenaere’s Battles and Alexei German Jr’s Under Electric Clouds, which look at the scars of war on Europe.

And sometimes it’s more about how mankind is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upwards - Myroslav Slaboshpytsky’s The Tribe, set in a deaf boarding school where students set up their own violent criminal gangs. (I’m really keen to watch this one: it’s filmed entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language with no soundtrack or subtitles – in fact, the director’s banned anyone from showing with subtitles, even after his death. This silent world of hand gestures instead of verbalization is the point itself.)

So yeah, it looks like it’s gonna be a pretty cool festival. I do want to offer a touch of criticism, though. 

You see, aside from the makers of This Is Not a Film and the Pablo Larraín Trilogy, all the directors of the films in this festival are white folks from Europe. Sure, it’s nice that Eastern Europe is heavily represented, and that their eyes are often being cast on overlooked historical events in Indonesia and Macau, but what we’re being treated to is an explicitly white European perspective on the world.

But maybe that tends to happen in arts festivals anyway? It’s Europe, more than North America, that’s become the arbiter of avant-garde cultural taste, with artists touring from one former European Cultural Capital to another, their reputations growing until they end up in some postcolonial wannabe-creative-city like Singapore or Macau or Dubai.

(Seriously, that is how Ong Keng Sen sang the praises of Chilean theatre production The Imagination of the Future to us – it’s made it big across Europe, and now we’re finally playing it at the OPEN in Singapore. We ain’t a first-tier city for the arts just yet.)

On the other hand, the Singapore International Film Festival (and other similar gigs like the Southeast Asian Film Festival) has traditionally tended to focus on Asia, bringing directors from the region together for common dialogue and exchange. And as I’ve stated before, the OPEN is patently about internationalism, not nationalism.

And on the other other hand (yes, we’re a freakish three-handed creature now, live with it), the O.P.E.N. is about the future, not the past. And if our dear curators are assuming Europe – not Asia, Latin America or Africa – is gonna remain the centre of the cultural world for another century, then we need a bit of post-colonial counseling now, don’t we?

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  • 2015