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Messages from Festival Curator

The Idiot – Final Part

I once felt like an idiot standing next to the famed Sri Lankan film academic, Wimal Dissanayake. We were at an Asian film conference in Hawaii, and I had noticed that most of the texts on Asian film were written by non-Asians. This was one of the key points made by Edward Said, in his classic book, Orientalism (1978), where he observed that much of the knowledge of Asia was often captured, catalogued, and consumed by non-Asians who then assumed the authoritative voice on the subject. In practice, as per Edward Said’s observation, Western experts would then quote other Western experts on the subject (instead of the Asian expert), to reinforce that dominance. That moment in Hawaii made me feel ashamed. Wimal didn’t say anything to my rhetorical question but of course, how could he? He had published over 30 books on Asian film. What answer could he give? 


Over the years, it made me think that TIME gave us an opportunity, but it is also often a trap. The opportunity of time is to effect change. The trap is that we don’t realise that we are repeating past mistakes. Hence that famous cliché – “History repeats itself.” Time traps us because memory is limited. Time itself is endless but memories are short. The propagandists know this well. This was why the cinema of the New Order used film to propagate official history. Knowing how short memory is, the Suharto regime insisted on screening Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (Treachery of September 30 Movement, 1984), each year on September 30, to repeat the official line of the New Order’s legitimacy. But the opportunity of time is that, just as good things can be forgotten, so can bad things.


This aspect of short memory makes me think about my philosophical approach when looking after JAFF’s programme. For the last 17 years, I used a key discipline from my training as a social worker – self-determination. To practice this principle, I had to consciously apply non-intervention whenever I look at each year’s programme. Over the years, I’ve often told the programmers to have the belief in their own selection. Even if I didn’t like a film that was selected or if something I like didn’t get in, I had to tell myself that the festival is for the JAFF people. Ultimately, the result of JAFF is the successful work by the local people themselves. For years, I’ve watched many festivals with foreign advisors who forced their will over the local voice. This is nothing more than a modern cultural aspect of post-colonialism. I didn’t want that to happen with JAFF, as JAFF’s Founder, Garin Nugroho, and I, have fought many battles to establish a local voice. It’s perhaps a key reason why JAFF chose to be an Asian, instead of an international film festival. The Asian voice had to be supported and promoted because it wasn’t very loud before. Plus, it was important to us that the Asian local voice got louder.


Furthermore, if JAFF is successful, then the new model of a non-interfering foreign programmer could be established and promoted. JAFF could set a useful example. A friend of mine who used to run a film festival, once hired a famous foreign programmer to contribute to her Asian programme. She had many years of conflict with him. Not being Asian herself, she didn’t mind it too much, perhaps she had less of a historical baggage of being bossed around. But such memories are perhaps just my memories. There are less of the new folk who have any intimation about the struggle in establishing the space to find your own voice. In the confidence of the new, that free space is taken for granted as theirs already. There is therefore no need for it to be hard-won, and no emotion in the satisfaction of having it.


But what of film selection itself? What kind of compass do we use to establish taste? Do we see what films have been selected and awarded at the big festivals? Or do we follow the song of the little road? One path is easier to walk than the other. Then again, there is always the middle path. Between both worlds, neither here nor there, the idiot savant walks. He smiles. He listens. He laughs. His blind eye is open…

Philip Cheah

Philip Cheah

Festival Curator