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Nurturing National Cinema

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What constitutes national cinema and how does it develop? These were among the questions that were raised during a seminar “Film as Culture vs. Film as Industry”, organised by The Substation Moving Images on November 25 as part of A Season of Australian Cinema. The speakers: Dr Vincent O’Donnell, professor of Arts and Culture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and chair of Australia’s Independent Media Foundation, and Dr Kenneth Paul Tan, chair of the Asian Film Archive’s Board of Directors.

Dr O’ Donnell began the conversation by attempting to define the idea of “national” cinema. According to him, national cinema is actually an interpretation of universal human experience seen through a unique national prism.

Yet how meaningful is it to apply this definition to Singapore films? With globalisation and the dissipation of anything truly “unique” about one’s national values and culture, as well as the interest of filmmakers to expand their reach to a broader transnational audience, can a made-in-Singapore film be truly Singaporean?

Members of the audience raised their concerns that a number of Singaporean films seem to have limited themselves to exploring and portraying only a tiny portion of Singapore life, and they had become repetitive through their continued dissection of similar themes. Some films’ bleak rendition of heartland life and the oft-mentioned disgruntlement with a materialistic, obedient society were running themes that, it seems, are becoming indistinct rehashes of each other.

Dr Kenneth Paul Tan also pointed out that Singapore cinema today lacks a sense of history, almost as if we’ve forgotten that Singapore had a thriving film industry back in the 1940s-1960s, with Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris films. There seems to be a Singaporean infatuation with inventing “newness”, which hinders us from acknowledging our rich cinema history and utilising the cultural references they established.

Apart from its weaknesses as a nascent genre, the development and direction of Singapore national cinema was the subject of a passionate debate. The questions at the forefront of the dialogue were, unsurprisingly, related to the role of funding and censorship in shaping the film industry.

The Australian experience, as recounted by Dr O’ Donnell, saw heavy government funding of the film industry. The sharing of risks, he said, is of fundamental value to filmmakers because cinema is an expensive, capital-intensive industry — a burden too heavy to bear for most talented individuals with a passion for film.

Yet, it’s no secret that funding is a double-edged sword, with censorship often brandished against the cause it attempts to aid. By contributing to a film’s budget, the authorities could gain a foothold into the direction of the film. How would the local film industry solve the necessity of funding without relinquishing independence and artistic licence?

The answer appears to be a very vague one at the moment, one that perhaps involves patience and the passing of time. If Australia’s slow yet steady liberalisation is any model to follow, Singapore too may one day enjoy the same level of freedom of expression in cinema and the arts. In the 1970s, censorship in Australia was extensive and heavily regulated, with even books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover banned from the shelves.

Today, though, according to Dr O’Donnell, Australia funds independent and “experimental” film with little censorship. While censorship ratings exist, as they do in almost every other country in the world, there is little or no agenda-setting by the authorities in cinema.

The nurturing of national cinema appears to be an endeavour fraught with challenges and perhaps even compromises, yet it is not an impossible task, as illustrated by Australia’s progressive and burgeoning film scene.

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1 Comment

  1. 29 November 2006 at 3:14 pm

    Might still be too early to say that Singaporean films are becoming indistinct hashes of one another. “Singapore Dreaming” and Jack Neo films may hog the limelight, but don’t ignore new stuff like “The High Cost of Living” and “S-11”. They may not be very good, but they’re evidence that S’pore filmmakers are starting to vary their material.

    I think the film industry here is still in the process of creating its sense of being a “national cinema” (if such a thing exists still). Yes, Kenneth Paul Tan is right in saying that in chronological terms there was a thriving film industry her in the 30s and 40s. However that history is not meaningful for two reasons. Firstly the studios were all gone by the 70’s. Secondly, Singapore’s split from Malaysia meant the formation of a Singapore national identity distinct from the Malayan/Malaysian one. Together, both effectively severed any meaningful historical link between Singapore film and Malayan film. So harking back to the days of P Ramlee etc is nice but really doesn’t make much sense.

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