Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha begins her film Reassemblage (1982) with a voice-over saying that she doesn’t “intend to speak about, just speak nearby.” Against the backdrop of rural Senegal, Minh-ha seeks to engage us to interrogate our values when we are presented with a different panorama of life. Through her voice-over, Minh-ha gives the audience another possible way of seeing filmmaking. First, as an act of criticism. And secondly, as a means to challenge the long-established mode of representation.
In the ethnographic filmmaking tradition, the use of voice-over is very common, mostly intended as a narrative explanation that the directors capture through their gaze. However, in Reassemblage, Minh-ha was more likely to ask questions. Once she said: “I’m filming on (sic) Senegal, but what’s in Senegal? I feel less and less the need to express myself.”
Through these, Minh-ha signals the need to not make the Other an object of interpretation. Instead, she lets cinema be a medium—and postcolonialism as an underpinning philosophy—to connect the audience and film’s subject as an empowering and generative source of creativity.
Reassemblage (1982) by Trinh T. Minh-ha
Compare this, to say, what the Lumière brothers did in the late 20th century, when they sent François-Constant Girel (Lumière’s operator) to film exotic views in French Indochina.¹
Today, we understand exoticism to be problematic. Filmmakers who exoticise have a tendency to deny intrinsic values found in people, objects, or places being depicted. The exoticising gaze is used as an aesthetic perception that renders people, objects, and places to be domesticated within a framework of the otherness, surrounded by layers of mystification.
We saw this in the pre-70s travelogue documentaries made by the West, commonly referred to as “educational films”. These were usually narrated with generalising comments which make this region ‘exotic’ , using words like “unusual,” “interesting,” “ancient,” “oriental splendour,” and “weird”.
In one travelogue, an American narrator did not even hesitate to claim Southeast Asia region as “America’s own backyard”, neglecting the fact that the “crisis,” “famine,” or “starvation” happening here were caused by their long colonisation in the region. There is even scene in a Malayan rubber plantation, where a visual of bare-bodied natives spraying pest-repelling sulphur (without any safety equipment) is juxtaposed with the sight of their manager walking by, lovey-dovey with his wife, having a good time on the site.
Films like these, with a focus on celebrating and maintaining the economic colonial system, create a language of cultural imperialism.
By continuing to encode certain ideologies into their films, the West creates a pattern of consumption that ensures the public decodes and internalises messages as intended. This was also used as a mechanism of global positioning, as a means of pinpointing the place of the East in order to situate the West in the world.
A filmmaker has the technological ability to represent social realities through visual, sound and narrative. As such, one must be aware that a film is a site of cultural interpretation in which its meaning is neither singular nor self-generated, but results from the act of meaning-making by its makers, audiences, and interpreters.
It is not a question of whether these visuals (later converted as linguistic codes) provide an existential dilemma to both the viewers and the producers of the film, but rather to problematise a sense of our own understanding of what we know of these narratives, why do we know about, and how do we share them.
Behind This Screen, Lies Myths
The West’s dominant ways of thinking—to define cultures, states, or particular communities based on their views—have long been based on the marginalisation of the East, which to quote Edward Said “provides imperial benefits for the West”. These endeavours have taken root since colonial times, when our raw commodities were exploited, ports became the breeding ground of wealth-hoarders, and a map-making spree resulted—with borders frantically and constantly drawn and redrawn—to justify the West’s so-called raison d’être.
In some respects, it was part of the European (and US) arms race that their governments expanded their overseas territories. These largely artificial imperial borders were kept, strengthened through school education, and in essence, form the national borders and boundaries we have today.
The Europeans often precede their conquest with campaigns that perpetuate the perception of the backwardness of the people to be colonised, describing the local population as lacking the innate ability to develop their countries and territories. And thus, portraying the Other to be politically, ethnically, materially, and culturally inferior to the coloniser²—through the creation and reproduction of images by the means of anthropology, ethnography, travel writing, paintings, advertisements, and cinema.³
Cinema has an important position in the reproduction of West-centric ideological discourse towards non-Western subjects. Within their ideological dimension, films present several new forms created by design rather than reflecting any situation. These forms are suggested by the selected and combined scenes through representations, and as Ryan and Kellner (1997, p.18) said, prepare the audience for suggestions, perceptions, and tendencies by indicating a certain point of view.
In filming, the director recreates meaning by depicting the split parts through film. The eye looking behind the camera creates a mechanism that divides reality between the object and themselves. And thus, as Benjamin⁴ emphasises, moves away from its reality, hence becoming ideological.
In order to evaluate what is being represented—or defined—as reality, it is important to not just dismantle the contents themselves, but also the technologies used to produce them.
In Southeast Asia, it didn’t take too long for film technology to be brought to the colonised regions. In 1897, only less than two years after the Lumière brothers screened their first short films to their audiences in Paris, foreign travelling exhibitors brought film to Southeast Asia as an entertainment novelty, and screenings were organised in cosmopolitan cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Bangkok, and throughout Java (Tofighian 2013, p. 13). By the 1930s, local entrepreneurs, diasporic populations, and foreigners were setting up cinema halls, film production companies, and studios in British Burma and Malaya, Dutch East Indies, Vietnam, and Thailand, while Filipino film industry thrived from its close colonial connections with United States and Hollywood (Khoo 2020, p. 15).
Image of the interior of the East Java Bioscope in Surabaya, c. 1913. Weekblad voor Indië, 7-12-1913
When a film arrived in a Southeast Asian country, it usually was exported to the neighbouring countries soon after. This explains why the regional film trade was still much larger than the film trade with the United States and Europe, according to statistical reports in the 1920s (Tofighian 2013, p. 138), though the vast majority of films originated from Europe and North America.
These circulations and movements “across borders and between cultures,” as Clifford emphasises it, have been shaped by three global forces, namely: the continuing legacies of empire, the effects of unprecedented world wars, and the global consequences of industrial capitalism’s disruptive restructuring activity. In this context, film served as the main choice for its multisensory powers, alongside other communicative media—such as visual art, music, and literature. Through film, assumptions of power were reinforced: how the people in the East were put on display for the Western audience, or how the spectacular cinematic image of the West was deliberately shown to be more superior than the East.
Through the signified and the signifier, the differences between the “lower” and “upper” cultures were realised: the cultures of the East subjected to the gaze of the West.
To Tell a Story (And to Be Believed) Is to Possess the World
Although film can’t be characterised as essentially Western technology, we can’t deny its impact on more than a century of knowledge production, and thus, understanding. However, if we wish to comprehend film’s material realities, one must take into account its interaction under power relations—either between film and its audience, investor, regulation, those who are being portrayed, and so on—as a result of technological possibilities, financial power, global domination, and the proliferation of West-centred myths.
Film was introduced to Southeast Asian countries at various different paces in the early 20th century, mainly through colonial contact. Wherever a film was screened in the early days, it received an overwhelming and enthusiastic reception. Later, domestic film production grew across the region. Global events such as the Second World War and the Cold War impacted the number and type of films produced and consumed domestically, and such social, economic and political realignments exerted control over the industry and the societies out of which these films emerged.
In the years that followed, in Indonesia for instance, the penetration of Hollywood films into the region increased when the Left movement was overthrown through coup and genocide in the mid-60s. Those times marked the formal end to European colonial rule and the beginning of significant US interest and presence across the region. Local regimes, rulers, and governments recognised the significance of film as a source of propaganda, and state interest in filmmaking correspondingly increased.
There were some overlaps across the region, but each had their unique cycles of highs and lows, as governments changed or became more entrenched in power, technologies advanced, and the region opened up to become more integrated with the global capitalist system, facilitating flows and mobilities of people, objects, images, data, and cultures across and beyond Southeast Asia.
Apart from analysing the thematic and stylistic implications of such influences, it’s also important to highlight both the relationship between film and the state, especially in a region where its history is largely shaped by a history of conflict and violence.
Most countries in Southeast Asia have experienced colonialism in some form. Some, like Indonesia and Vietnam, have had bloody colonial pasts and won independence by force. Others, such as Malaysia and Singapore, have had relatively peaceful colonial pasts. In both cases, however, the influence of this past plays an important part in their national cinemas, especially in terms of subject matter. Nations that have been successful in resisting colonisation, like Thailand, are free from the sort of colonial “myth-making” in the subject matter of their films.
In the Philippines, the studio system oligopoly has effectively streamlined production and solidified the key genres and themes that still characterise their cinema today. In Laos, as critics have noted, local productions continue to suffer from “outdated technology, government censorship, hackneyed screenwriting, and mediocre acting” (Min Zin 2004; Aung Zaw 2004; Clark 2006; Yeni 2006). Similar to Laos, Cambodia is struggling to build a film industry at a time when “there is no Cambodian film industry to speak of” (Rithy Panh, cited in Nette 2008). Unlike Laos however, Cambodia had a vibrant filmmaking scene in the 1960s, a golden age when more than 300 Cambodian films were made and cinemas screened Western, Indian, Khmer, and Hong Kong films which drew huge crowds aplenty—before the Khmer Rouge virtually decimated the film industry.
Varying in degree, the situation is essentially the same across most parts of the region, where Hollywood’s monopoly of the film market, through neoliberal policies after the Second World War, enabled the dominant ideology to instill the way of thinking of the masses outside the West. The success of Hollywood has been achieved with the implementation of deregulation and liberalisation policies in other countries, as the national film markets have become open to the screening and distribution of international films.
With Hollywood competition dominating so utterly, and rampant piracy and censorship, most local filmmakers are deemed to make compromises to conform to the market logic – by producing formulaic local films. In this context, auto-ethnography becomes almost inevitable.
According to Frey⁵, auto-ethnography in cinema is considered as a cunning strategy through which filmmakers can self-consciously “auto-exoticise,” thereby giving audiences what they expect (reassuring them with stereotypical images of the nation) whilst simultaneously addressing issues locals are interested in.
Cultural production is not independent from power, and almost everyone who produces, except the dominant power, must produce content that reflects the “voice of its master” to be able to hold on to this market. In this respect, cinema, which is a part of the cultural industry, develops under the supervision of the Western economic regulations and political attitudes (Adorno 2011: 110). Therefore, it becomes inevitable that the contents organised under the influence of the dominant media become ordinary and accepted by a large-scale audience. The orientalist stories about the non-Western world are approved by major audiences worldwide and provide direction for how future media products to be produced.
Stereotyping and auto-ethnography in standard Hollywood cinema features immutable representations of societies of the Other. For example, images of Asian people being very agile in fight scenes are celebrated, from Mulan (1998) to Shang-Chi (2021) and hundreds of its predecessors starring martial arts actors like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, Donnie Yen, and so on. This kind of representation was replicated by, for example, The Raid (2011), and has been quite successful in putting Indonesia (and its actors) on the world map for cinema.
In addition, there is also a stereotype that Asian people have great intelligence based on memorisation or are intrinsically mystical. Through a certain pattern processed together with overly common themes, the West is spreading ideological discourse while aiming for profit maximisation.
Meanwhile, at film festivals—where Hollywood is not dominant—the tendency to repeat this same pattern still exists as long as it is being gatekept by film elites.
Until the 1970s, film festivals were the venues for cinema of European countries that wanted to protect themselves from the US influence. Afterward, they transformed due to the changing political atmosphere. Film festivals moved away from national industries, while individual creativity was rewarded, and unfamiliar cinema cultures were included in festival programmes (Valck, 2007, p.71).
Nonetheless, the effects of funding on film creativity, especially after the 1980s, mean that non-Western cultures continue to be reflected through certain patterns. Thus, the dominance of the West in cinema remains.
While film festivals label themselves as guardians of diversity in the world of independent cinema, they are also at the same time eradicating that diversity by cultivating (and exploiting) the politics of funding agencies, competition selection, spotlight for certain filmmakers, and also through the intertwined long history of representation and/or repression of cinema and filmmakers from the non-Western world. By following certain rules to protect the interests of funders, filmmakers operate under the illusion that they are independent when they strive for the ideal, though they merely comply with long-standing provisions.
It is quite naive to cling to the belief that we can divert from this tradition, which would mean to undo the noose of cultural imperialism, and denounce the historic oppression at every turn. However, as the work of directors like Kidlat Tahimik and Amir Muhammad have shown us, there’ll always be a chance to reimagine another narrative. To fight for what we may not see yet. To find another way of seeing us. Another history that we can think of throughout our fractured past.
¹Panivong Norindr, ‘“La Trace Lumière”: Early Cinema and Colonial Propaganda in French Indochina’, in André Gaudreault, Catherine Russell, and Pierre Véronneau (eds.), The Cinema, A New Technology for the 20th Century (Lausanne: Payot, 2004), 331.
²Guha, Ranajit. Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1997.
³Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York and London: Routledge, 1995); Rony; Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (London and New York: Routledge, 1991); Jeanette Roan, Envisioning Asia: On Location, Travel, and the Cinematic Geography of U.S. Orientalism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).
⁴Benjamin, W. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (J. A. Underwood, Trans.). Penguin Books.
⁵Frey, Mattias, Extreme Cinema: The Transgressive Rhetoric of Today’s Art Film Culture, New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press, 2016.
About the author(s)
Dwiki Aprinaldi (b.1997) is a copywriter, essayist, and film critic based in Indonesia. He received awards from the Center of Film Development, Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture for the Best Writing in Film Article category and Best Movie Reviews, respectively in 2019 and 2020. In 2022, he published his first book Gender, Muslim, & Sinema which examines the interplay between heteronormativity, Muslim identities, and post-New Order Indonesian cinema. Dwiki can be reached via email@example.com.