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Giving Voices to the Silenced, Southeast Asian Filmmakers Are Steadfast in Their Pursuit for Authenticity

23 April 2020

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Giving Voices to the Silenced, Southeast Asian Filmmakers Are Steadfast in Their Pursuit for Authenticity

My experience with Southeast Asian films is limited and like most, I tend to turn to Western media first. Ironically enough, I used to think that Southeast Asian films were not relatable or accessible. They’re either tacky and sugar-coated to get the approval of as many people as possible, or just out of touch with the reality of Southeast Asian life. 

But these are precisely the obstacles that Southeast Asian filmmakers have been toiling against to get their authentic voices heard. Despite a history of governmental sanctions to the audiences’ general disregard for local movies in favour of Hollywood giants, Southeast Asian filmmakers have been making waves and breaking the formulaic mould that used to constrain their art. Filmmaking is a battleground, and these filmmakers are winning slowly but surely. 

(Sotho on set of The Last Reel / Image credit: Hanuman Films)

Kulikar Sotho of Cambodia is just one of the many from the country who are challenging the local film scene of recent decades. With a history of political strife and violence, many are uncomfortable with facing the realities that have made the Cambodian identity today, according to Sotho. I felt this profoundly watching her debut film The Last Reel ដុំហ្វីលចុងក្រោយ (2014) which deals with trying to connect the younger generation to their history. 

The Last Reel is deeply personal, and I felt it, even as an outsider. Sotho is bold in disclosing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era and the terrible effects of the genocide that continues to resonate in Cambodia even today. 

In the 60s and 70s, Cambodian cinema was in its “golden age”, with many local films screened internationally. But the political strife in Cambodia contributed to the demise of its film industry. It’s almost poetic how it’s precisely their terrible history that gives Cambodian filmmakers the vigour to rejuvenate their local cinema. 

(Still from The Missing Picture by Rithy Panh / Image credit: Les Acacias) 

Sotho cites Rithy Panh as the “godfather” of Cambodian filmmaking, also contributing to the country’s growing acclaim. With Rice People អ្នកស្រែ, Panh unmasks the realities of lives in a post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. This was actually the country’s first entry for an Academy Award. He’s gone on to showcase even more genuine Cambodian experiences since then, with The Missing Picture (2013) winning him the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. 

(Still from The Long Walk by Mattie Do / Image credit: Lao Art Media)

Southeast Asian filmmakers have also had to contend with censorship and limited infrastructure for their work. Laos has had a history with producing only movies that portrayed life through rose-coloured glasses. But Lao cinema now boasts names such as Mattie Do, who is moving away from government-approved films to a confident stride towards the horror genre

The governments in Southeast Asia have a disdain for works that portray them or lives in their country in a negative light. But is this not what art is supposed to do? It’s honest and brutal, reflecting the human realities, both good and bad. Vietnamese filmmakers have been defending this for some time now. 

(Still from Cyclo by Tran Anh Hung / Image credit: Canal+)

Following the footsteps of renowned filmmaker Trần Anh Hung, independent filmmaker Nguyễn Trinh Thi is inspired by Vietnam’s traumatic and difficult past. Her films undermine governmental agendas, and give voices to the country’s unheard and displaced. 

Her 2015 short Letters from Panduranga grapples with the sociopolitical implications of war and colonialism on the Cham people. She faced public dissent because of the Vietnamese government’s restriction over the media, yet Nguyễn has now become one of the pioneers of Vietnemese independent cinema with her unabashed approach to filmmaking. 

(Still from Letters from Panduranga by Nguyễn Trinh Thi / Image credit: Thi Nguyen)

The cultural and religious richness of Southeast Asia as a region makes a fertile ground for unique filmmaking. But this has also posed certain challenges; tackling taboo topics are often out of bounds in the media. That’s why Indonesian director Nia Dinata’s works are all the more compelling. Her works showcase voices that are often hushed in Indonesian society, such as those of migrant workers and the LGBTQ community. 

(Still from Arisan! by Nia Dinata / Image credit: Kalya Shira Film)

She did something unheard of at the time for her 2003 film Arisan!, showcasing the first film in their history to include romance between two men. Dinata garnered huge success with the film, winning six awards and the Festival Film Indonesia. But this didn’t come without troubles. Dinata became the target of hate, with many condemning her for “promoting homosexuality” in a predominantly Muslim society. 

Yet this, along with her constant struggle against censors, didn’t wear her down. Since then, she’s continued to produce works such that are unabashedly candid. Queer cinema in Indonesia, while still fighting against odds, certainly remains today. 

Perhaps the most eye-opening experience for me personally was watching Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History / Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2013). It drew me closer to my own heritage, something that I’ve always wanted and needed but didn’t know how to. The acclaimed Filipino filmmaker loosely adapted Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, putting a distinctly Filipino experience at the forefront.

(Still from Norte, the End of History by Lav Diaz / Image credit: Cinema Guild)

Diaz explores the pandemic of class injustices, where the poor remain poor and the rich rise to the top at the former’s expense. With its colossal 4-hour runtime (this actually short by Diaz’s standards, if you can believe it), the film is an immersive acquaintance with the country’s structural inequalities. It’s an eye-opening insight into a life that I’ve been detached from, yet my own. It’s informed my cultural psyche. 

The tenacity of Southeast Asian filmmakers to triumph over their obstacles is impressive, giving us a look into the single-mindedness that is needed for compelling filmmaking. It’s precisely these obstacles, the traumatic pasts that would have been forgotten or overlooked otherwise. They use their distinctive cultural experiences, daring to challenge the status quo of Southeast Asian media. Sotho puts it best: “We need to know where we came from to know who we are and therefore where to go.” With their resolve for unapologetic authenticity, Southeast Asian cinema is poised to continue its trajectory in international acclaim. 


As a film festival dedicated to Southeast Asian films, SeaShorts Film Festival explores these distinct Southeast Asian stories and experiences. This piece was inspired by this goal. This year’s edition of SeaShorts will see 30 titles compete for their share of honours including the SeaShorts Award and the Next New Wave Award when the event swings by Ipoh on 25 to 30 August. 

The festival’s call for entries ends on 30 April, so hurry and submit your stories here!

UPDATE: Originally slated to be held from 25 to 30 August, the SeaShorts Film Festival will be taking place on 12 to 20 September. The event continues to retain its online format, showcasing the entire run of cinema-adjacent programmes on http://seashorts.org.