Celebrating the Diversity of Southeast Asia – An Interview with Anucha Boonyawatana and Mouly Surya
South East Asian filmmakers Anucha Boonyawatana, Yeo Siew Hua and Mouly Surya received commissions to direct short films – Not a Time to Celebrate, Incantation, and Something Old, New, Borrowed, Blue respectively – for the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), which saw their world premiere on the Opening Night of the festival.
This is the first commission series for Southeast Asian filmmakers in the history of SGIFF, which aims to further its support to growing the regional film scene. The trio was tasked with each interpreting the topic of ‘celebration’ into a short film format.
Sinema had the pleasure to speak with Anucha Boonyawatana and Mouly Surya about their short films and their challenges as Southeast Asian Filmmakers:
Anucha Boonyawatana is a Thai independent filmmaker whose film, Down the River, toured the international film festival circuit and won her the Young Thai Artist Award. Yet due to disfavour of films about the gay community at that time in Thailand, her proposals to companies for follow-up films were turned down. This led to Anucha setting up G Village Co-Creation Hub, a production company she set up with friends, subsequently leading to her feature films The Blue Hour and Malila: The Farewell Flower.
Anucha’s short film Not a Time to Celebrate captures the first few minutes of a film crew after the conclusion of a shoot. Through its snarky and self-referential dialogue, the short film candidly details the cocktail of emotions filmmakers experience – both the excitement and anxiety of their finished product.
Why did you choose the topic of a filmmaker celebrating the end of a shoot to tackle the theme?
Anucha: I think that when it comes to celebration, the most important event as a filmmaker is when you wrap a movie. I chose this moment as the main subject because I wanted to record the independent film scene in Southeast Asia while showing that the many problems filmmakers still face.
These problems are very common in Southeast Asia, whether it is in censorship or profit from box office success. Especially for independent films, it’s going to be really limited because very few cinemas want to show your movies.
You also have to face competitors from around the world when you submit the film to festivals to gain international recognition and attention. This also depends a lot on whether the festival is interested in Southeast Asia cinema at the moment, and with which country they are interested in. It’s not just dependent on your own artistic merits, but on many other factors that you cannot control.
So I think this is the harsh reality that filmmakers have to endure, and to conclude a shoot is something to be celebrated
In Not a Time to Celebrate, you talked about how SEA films are no longer welcomed in international film festival circuits. What do you think can be changed?
Anucha: When we talk about the big film festivals like Cannes or Venice, they only have very few positions for ASEAN films. Mostly, they tend to focus on films from China, Japan and Korea. Meanwhile for SEA films, there is usually only room for one or two titles to enter; it’s very difficult. There are a lot of talented SEA filmmakers and directors but they have to find their way to get recognised.
What are the different challenges between making short films and feature length films?
Anucha: I think it’s relaxing for short films. I think short films opens opportunities for you to explore the things that you may not be confident enough to explore in your own feature films. For example, I made a comedy with Not a Time to Celebrate when I do not usually make comedies. This made it so that the process was very experimental for me, and to see if I can make a comedy or not. I wanted to make a film that is not strictly artistic and something relaxing with my own crew – my producer doubled as an actor in this short film too.
I settled on making a comedy because I feel that sometimes we have to laugh at the process of filmmaking. If you cannot deal with it as a filmmaker, you cannot be in the industry. Positive thinking or comedy can help out a lot. It’s also something that the audience can see as a black comedy.
How much of the dialogue of the film was based on your own experiences on set?
Anucha: I think almost 80%; we talk just like the characters in the short film. I believe it’s the same for other filmmakers as well.
We will hear from our producers about what our colleagues in the industry are currently filming – that if they are competing with you, what their film’s story is about, and so on. I began to realise that, yes, it’s important, but it’s not that important; it’s not everything. If you make a good film, you screen it to an audience, and maybe get enough attention, the film can take a life of its own and travel on its own. We don’t have to aim to be featured in film festivals.
Having previously been involved in SGIFF in 2017, have you seen a change in terms of SEA filmmaking since then?
Anucha: It’s hard to tell. It’s always been like this: some years there are many strong titles from SEA but not as many in other years or that festivals just don’t recognise them. It depends on a lot.
It sounds like filmmakers have to deal with factors that they cannot control when it comes to their success. Do you think it’s depressing to continue to make films knowing that your films might not be received well?
Anucha: You have to be ready for this reality. As a filmmaker, when you make five or ten films, you cannot expect that all of them will be well-received by the viewer. You can do your best but you’ll still never know for sure.
What would you say to those who want to make films but are uncertain about the process or don’t know how to start?
Anucha: You have to make a film first and show it to the public to see their response. That is the most important part because that is how you find out what is your own signature and your strengths. This is what I do with my own films as well; studying them to understand which parts responded well with audiences and which parts I can consider my signature.
Hailing from Jakarta, Mouly Surya is an Indonesian filmmaker that has received critical acclaim throughout the world. Her debut feature, Fiksi, was screened from Busan to Bangkok, while winning a slew of awards in the 2008 Indonesian Film Festival, including Best Film. Her latest film, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, was selected at the 2007 edition of the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, while winning a record of 10 awards at Indonesia’s Citra Awards 2018.
With Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue, Mouly offers a beautiful snippet of a wedding, dazzling with its array of colours and outfits. The ceremony rumbles in the background as the audience listens in on an intimate conservation between the bride and her mother about what to expect out of married life.
With Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue, why did you choose the topic of a wedding to tackle the theme?
I had several ideas before that – one of them was a funeral. It was not that I had an issue with it but I settled on the topic of a wedding because I thought it was interesting that women in a traditional Indonesian wedding – in a marriage ceremony – are not actually involved; you basically don’t need to be there.
Yes, it’s your consent but in terms of the ritual itself, you are not actually a character. Your name is said and you get married. It’s basically your father giving you to another man. I thought that it was all very interesting and I wanted to give it a layer. I know that marriages are not as simple as the rituals and I think you can get that from the short film’s dialogue as well with how a marriage is formed. It’s a lot to put into four minutes.
What are the different challenges between making short films and feature length films?
The challenge of a feature length film definitely comes from its long and gruelling process; it takes a lot out of you to make a feature length. It’s not so much for short films. But it was not a familiar process for me, especially when short films are not something that I am quite familiar with – the last one I did was when I was still in school.
In a way, I think the real challenge is to put in big ideas into a short period of time. Try to make it simple, try to make it make sense in those few minutes. That’s what I was trying to do with Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue. I don’t have the 100 minutes I usually have to say what I wanted to say. But I wanted to give the agenda, and hoping that that agenda stays in people’s minds for them to think about women and their weddings.
Was it difficult finding the location for the short film?
Actually no. Very early in the film’s production process, we already decided that we wanted to shoot in a village in Bogor, a city near Jakarta. The challenge was to find a spot in the house because the village was really big and it was quite an exercise to hunt for a suitable location there. We were trying to find houses that were on a hill.
We needed to find somewhere that was logistically accessible; somewhere not too deep into the village otherwise the big vehicles with our equipment and crew can’t make it there. That’s the thing about Indonesia: there are a lot of interesting places like that but they might not be easily accessible.
In Anucha’s short film Not a Time to Celebrate, she talked about how SEA films are no longer welcomed at international film festival circuits. What do you think can be changed?
I can only speak on my own experience. Because from an Indonesian point of view, we have our own local market, a very big local market so that doesn’t really apply to us. We have the audience, we have the theatres and we have the local appeal to see Indonesian films. Yes, it’s true that if you can get exposure in an established festival it works to your commercial appeal – that’s what I felt with my third film Marlina The Murder in Four Acts. It really depends on the film.
I think to change things is to have more films get to the festivals; you have to keep making good films to get their attention. It’s not a rarity for American or French films to reach festivals like Cannes but it’s a rarity for SEA films. So I think with even more stronger films it would not be a rarity anymore, and it will definitely lead to better prospects.
That’s the thing I’m really envious about Indonesia, with its strong local scene, but..
But we have our own problems as well. Because then we will only be stuck making films for local audiences. And a lot of filmmakers don’t care about this trend. In terms of any business, you have to be on par with everyone else as well. So I think that’s the challenge for Indonesian films.
A lot of your movies tackle gender issues. What do you think is film’s role in the progress regarding these issues?
Lately, big companies like Disney with their big films like Frozen, where the prince is not actually saving the princess. There is no “damsel in distress” and there are no guys being the hero. Children might watch these films and it might lead to change in society in the future.
I think some cultures have room for progressive change. It really depends on the culture, religion, and the belief system of each country. So it’s all kind of complicated in a way. When films reach the right people, it will inspire them. I mean I was inspired. I was born and raised in Jakarta, and I was raised in a society where I was a second class citizen – I am not supposed to sit this way or I am not supposed to do things this way because I am a woman. Nevertheless, my family was very supportive of my education and films that I saw inspired me that perhaps it’s possible women to do it as well.
What is next for you after this short film?
I’ve been working on finishing my feature length adaptation of the book A Road With No End by Mochtar Lubis. He is quite a big name in Indonesia and this is one of his earlier works set in 1946 so it’s actually a post-WW2 drama.
While these short films’ screenings are over, do keep a look out for future screenings and of their upcoming works. In the meantime, SGIFF continues on until 1 December, with a slew of exciting films – find out more at the festival’s official website.