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Malaysian and Singaporean Cinema in Paris

March 6, 2010

Recently, one of the professors from my dept who went to a Parisian exhibition on Singaporean and Malaysian cinema over the winter brought back a copy for me a rather interesting booklet detailing the history of Malaysian and Singaporean cinema that was on exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (he became interested in the direction of new media, including digital techniques of film-making, in SEA, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, after our conversations wrt a paper I wrote last year for his class) . I only managed to visit the center very briefly when I happened to be in Paris during my month-long European residency last summer as it was not far from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art but I hope to be able to go and enjoy more of it the next time (maybe the coming summer, since I need to practice my spoken French).

The booklet is in French and showcases an array of films by independent cinéastes from Malaysian and Singapore, and details (including the films listed) you can find here. They featured film-makers as far back as P Ramlee. As the contents of the booklet are not on the website and I quite like the introduction by Jérémy Segay, who is advisor to this exhibition, I will translate this brief introduction for those of you whom I know would be interested. Even as I find the introduction interesting, I also in some way find it problematic, especially in the way it over-simplifies the complicated history and demography of this part of the Malay Archipelago (in its first short para), while eliding the voiceless/subaltern ethnic groups who did not negotiate themselves too well into the consciousness of the region’s popular culture (even though there were some short films and documentaries made of them). Also, it is interesting that the Malaysian and Singaporean cinema are seen together, but no Malaysia and any other South East Asian country it is purported to share some other forms of history with, i.e. Indonesia. One could say that there is no common history between Indonesian and Malaysian/Singaporean cinema.

I would be curious to know what some of my friends back in Malaysia who are staunch proponents of the Malaysian-Indonesian cultural web/bridge/network/connection would have to say about this, or should we say that there split is a matter more related to  demography, language and particularism, rather than history?

—————begin translation———————————————————————-
Title: The different faces of Cinema in Malaysia and Singapore
Malaysia and Singapore share a common historical and national history, and has similar diversity in their populations (and also in the languages and religions): Malays, Chinese and Indians. The reality of these territories are badly known in France and the same can be said for their cinema. Many think that the Singaporean cinematic production is limited to the works of Eric Khoo and that the cinema has never seen the appearance of the digital camera. Since the end of the 1960s, Singapore was the center of production for much of Malaysian cinema. These films, first directed by Indian and Filipino film-makers, before the locals took their place behind the camera, were mostly made for the two studios, Shaw and Cathay. These two houses are well-known for their Chinese-oriented productions in Hong Kong but often forgotten are the fact that these two were originally Singaporeans and had built their fortune through their network of cinemas throughout Peninsular Malaysia.

After the collapse of the studio system and the independence of Singapore, the Malay production moved to Kuala Lumpur and took on board some figures of importance to the cinema, who endured [from the late 1960s] all through the years of 1980-1990. During that period, the Malay film-makers such as U-Wei Bin Haji Saari and Mansor Puteh debut their first work and a little later, Yasmin Ahmad (1958-2009), who is a film-maker who occupied a unique position as someone whose humanistic work and inspirational personal life is viewed with endearment and critically in her country. At Singapore, the cinema literally disappeared for a long time, before its rebirth around the ’90s with a Chinese face with the debut of films by Eric Khoo or of Jack Neo, the local king and comedian. At the turn of the 2000, encouraged notably by public support of the production that compensated for the narrowness of the local market, the number of local films produced does not cease to increase, and other film-makers are able to emerge inspite of stringent censorship.

In Malaysia, the appearance of digitization had a major impact in allowing at once a wave of of young film-makers to produce personal works freed of commercial constraints. One particularity of this generation is their collective approach to cinema; it is not rare for one film-maker to produce and show the films of another. These films, usually in Chinese dialects, if they are shown during international festivals, brings about a confident local distribution. But the lines seems to move, some people trying their hands in the cinematic genre, the others preparing the films in Malaysia.

The series proposed allow the exploration of the cinema of that region, in their history, diversity and richness.
—————————end translation————————————————————

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