Programmer Viknesh Kobinathan on Asian Film Archive, the Retrospective series, and Abbas Kiarostami8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
The Asian Film Archive’s (AFA) Retrospective programme is a regular series that serves as a comprehensive filmic immersion into bygone eras, aesthetics and people in Asia’s cinematographic history. Their second and currently ongoing installment is titled “Retrospective: Abbas Kiarostami” and features 34 of the late Iranian filmmaker’s masterpieces, including 18 feature films, four short features and 12 shorts, in a programme spanning from 10 July – 28 August 2021.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Viknesh Kobinathan, a programmer at the AFA, about the Retrospective programme and how he envisions its impact on the community moving forward.
Planning for the Retrospective series went into works in 2018, a year before the Oldham Theatre even opened its doors at Canning Rise. The only of its kind in Singapore at the moment, Viknesh and his team observed a lack of a consistent retrospective programme, that offered viewers a journey through the archival films of less prominent and lesser-known filmmakers.
The onset of the pandemic did little to dampen their spirits — in fact, it further proved to the team that they could bring their audiences the moment of cheer and catharsis they needed through film. Earlier this year, the AFA finally kicked off its inaugural installment of this programme featuring eight of Wong Kar Wai’s films, and it was met with a warm and enthusiastic response from audiences.
But there’s more to Retrospective than just a touch-and-go blast-from-the-past experience. Viknesh and his team are selective in their curatorial process, handpicking films that will offer audiences an array of perspectives different from their own and hopefully stretching the limits to their tastes in film. And this doesn’t go to, say, only for seasoned film enthusiasts — the team picks out films catering to audiences at every stage of familiarity to film. For “Retrospective: Abbas Kiarostami” in particular, the team has even developed a guide to help audiences find the right film to watch based on their tastes and experience with Kiarostami’s filmography.
Viknesh recalls the many conversations surrounding the restoration and presentation of Kiarostami’s earlier works that started since his untimely death in 2016. The AFA followed the restoration process of his films closely, and when the first large-scale retrospective was presented by IFC Center in New York, it spurred Viknesh and his team to bring the same experience to Singaporean audiences. This programme is the first time a Kiarostami retrospective of this scale has been presented in Asia, consisting almost entirely of new digital restorations of the films, that had originally been shot on analog film. It is also the single largest programme ever screened by the AFA, making it a feat for a team that has never had to face this level of coordination and efficiency.
As for Kiarostami, Viknesh confesses that it’s the late director’s artistry that he wants to spotlight for local audiences. “[Kiarostami possesses] a uniquely poetic and philosophical voice, he has consistently pushed the boundaries of cinema with his bold experimentations between fiction and reality that is still unparalleled today.” Highly regarded for his minimalistic storytelling that often tackles existential questions, Kiarostami’s oeuvre is not well known to Singaporeans.
But the reception of Retrospective has been overwhelmingly encouraging. When the AFA kicked off the series with “Retrospective: Wong Kar Wai” this March, presenting the Hong Kong director’s films to a public being discouraged to go out unless absolutely necessary, Viknesh and his team were delighted to find that many Singaporeans did, in fact, deem the arts a necessity. Tickets sold out, and the programme was met with highly encouraging feedback from audiences. Even more thrilling was the regular stream of new faces the Oldham Theatre continued to receive at their doors, indicating to the team that there is, more than we would expect, a demand for the arts on the island better known for its propensity for numbers and finance.
“My hope is that the films in this Retrospective can serve as an inspiration to those who make and appreciate art in Singapore, allowing them to witness the power and possibilities of imagination.”
For a tiny nation still searching for its national identity through a nascent artistic scene, Viknesh hopes that Kiarostami’s work can galvanise and ignite the imaginations of the aspiring artists among us, and spur them to keep creating. For most of his life, Kiarostami’s work was made in a conservative country where artistic creation was largely restricted and repressed. Viknesh points out the power in the fact that despite these challenges, the director fought to share his vision, producing radically original works that cleverly experimented with the liminalities of the personal and political.
As a director, Kiarostami’s work famously teeters between documentary and fiction. His plotlines are simple yet thought-provoking and reflexive as he handles each character with deep introspection, calling our own existential tenets to question. It’s his unique philosophical voice that earns him the title ‘the poet of cinema’. Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) follows a young schoolboy on a mission to return a friend’s homework when he realises he has mistakenly taken it home with him. The no-frills, straightforward plotline is a strikingly poignant meditation on human ethics and the responsibility we naturally feel to look out for one another. Such is the quiet yet riveting style of Kiarostami that captivates and inspires.
As for Viknesh, his personal favourite of Kiarostami’s work is Close-Up (1990), which he saw for the first time when his taste in film was still just taking shape. The film follows Hossain Sabzian (as himself), a cinephile who tricks a family into believing that he is the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and flatters them into believing that he was making them the stars of his ‘new film’ — an act that lands him in jail for fraud.
“I was dazzled by Kiarostami’s playful experimentations with fiction, and the humanity and compassion with which he captured his protagonist Hossain Sabzian — a man so passionately enchanted by the moving image, that it landed him in prison. I was moved to tears towards the end.”
The film made a monumental impact on Viknesh — fragments of its visuals and words continue to flash through his mind every now and then. For him, the film is a reminder of why he loves cinema as much as he does.
It’s a love that the AFA tries to spread through programmes like Retrospective. When the pandemic first unfolded last year, the Sunday Times featured an infographic with survey results finding artists the ‘least essential’ of workers. The article has since become a sensation, sparked a barrage of controversy, and incited strong emotions amongst art workers ranging from anger, to disappointment, to hurt. It has also become a cornerstone in the seemingly never-ending national conversation about the importance and economic sustainability of the arts.
The Retrospective programme widens local audiences’ tastes in film and art by giving them a chance to experience the enormous vault of Asian films that go unseen and forgotten by the mainstream media. By serving as a platform where people can discover, appreciate, explore and discuss Asian cinema, the AFA is also cultivating a loyal community of audiences who are passionate about film. “We have seen more new faces at the cinema, proving that the arts and films are valued by Singaporeans.” Oldham Theatre is slowly becoming the home of Singapore’s thriving group of film enthusiasts.
Given a chance to spotlight any director of his choice, Viknesh tells us he would choose Indian filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. A contemporary to celebrated director Satyajit Ray, Ghatak’s work is much less known. “He only completed eight fiction feature films in his lifetime, but his contributions to cinema are significant, especially with regards to how he depicted the harsh realities of post-partition India with raw intensity.”
“Retrospective: Abbas Kiarostami” kicks off tomorrow, 10 July, with a screening of The Traveler (1974). Get your tickets online here now! Check out their screening calendar for the rest of the programme, which will be running until 28 August!