Of the decision to keep old films cool
Regardless of how tough a reel of film seems when you tug on the ends, film itself is one of those curious chemical things that decay quickly into a smelly heap unless you keep it in a cool, dry place. We all know how hot Singapore is, and if you’ve earned the ire of family members discovering your precious reels sharing space with the beef in the fridge like I have, you’d know that archiving films to outlast the lifespan of the common filmmaker seems to be a bleak concept indeed.
Last Tuesday, January 16, 2007, the Asian Film Archive (AFA) and the National Library Board signed a Memorandum of Understanding to preserve and share local film content alongside culturally significant films from the region, complete with a 24-hour climate-controlled, state-of-the-art film vault courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore. The archive will be open to all who are interested in perusing for knowledge or inspiration, while screener copies of archived work will be accessible at the library@esplanade.
Talk about something that’s been a long time coming — though I was harshly reminded that there really hadn’t been an impetus to archive films, whether those deemed “culturally significant” or otherwise. After all, prior to last decade, Singapore filmmakers hadn’t been making movies deemed worthy enough by any authority to be stashed safely for future generations. Predictable, perhaps, for a young country whose obsession was economic progress in a tumultuous time when film was a frivolous luxury.
But now the first steps have been taken. The signing of the MOU was followed by a screening of AFA volunteer Rajendra Gour’s Sunshine Singapore (1968-72), and Labour of Love: The Housewife (1974). The latter had won the first recorded award by any Singaporean film in an international festival: the bronze medla in the 50th American International Film festival.
Both were decent films by any measure, but tragically discoloured and fuzzy — if only to show us the grievous consequences of film ravaged by heat, humidity and time. Gour added that a third film, one that was accepted into the 1965 Commonwealth Film Festival, had to be thrown away when his wife complained that it left a stinging rank odour in his home.
The films were inspirational in that it’s quite an experience to catch a glimpse of auld Singapore, when HDB flats were still newfangled and NS men still marched in a homogenous green jumpsuit — images that are lost quickly in the whole rapidly-changing-wholesomeness that is Singapore.
Labour of Love, in particular, told the story of a devoted housewife reflecting upon her role in her family in pure protofeminist context. It felt oddly anachronistic, yet still entirely genuine in its delivery. And genuine it is indeed in contrast to dozens of current local productions, for there weren’t filmmaking gimmicks like MTV-esque cuts, nor a propensity to dress all male characters young and old in white singlets (and really, what the bejeezus is with that in local films?). It told a simple story that was undoubtedly close to the filmmaker’s heart, and albeit showing some age, told it well.
Local filmmakers have much to gain from the NLB-AFA archive and library. Having a supportive institution harbouring your finished masterpieces will ensure that rotting celluloid is now a thing of the past.
Yet I frankly doubt that preserving film is the greatest concern facing most filmmakers of this generation when you compare it to the constant struggle to come up with a solid enough story (and oftentimes failing miserably.) Filmmakers now, like every other self-respecting storyteller, can make the literal trip to the library and commit themselves to much-needed research. And why not? It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker in Singapore.