Whose Terror Is It Anyway?
Feature by: Philip Cheah
Philip Cheah, the uncompromising festival director of the Singapore International Film Festival, is a long time champion of little known films from the Southeast Asian region. Here he introduces Whose Terror Is It Anyway?, the programme he curated for the Berlin's House of World Cultures, as part of Spaces and Shadows their examination of contemporary culture in Southeast Asia that took place from September to November of 2005.
Last year, the massive US spending on the war on terrorism pushed the global military expenditure above US$1 trillion, the sixth year that the figure has risen. In fact, the Stockholm Int'l Peace Research Institute, which tracks these figures observed that this is just six per cent below the Cold War high of 1987-88.
The film programme, Whose Terror Is It Anyway? attempts to understand the legacy of terrorism in South-east Asia. And that legacy is that the state has often been the main perpetrator of terrorism in this region. From the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the bloody student riots against the military dictatorship in Thailand, martial law under Ferdinand Marcos in Philippines, the mass executions when President Suharto took power in Indonesia to the present military regime in Myanmar; the region's history is rife with repression, oppression, and mass killings.
After Sept 11 2001, the issue of terrorism became a media sensation. It felt as if a new enemy was being created to replace the old one (which was the specter of communism). Day in and day out, we were told of the new terrorist nightmare by the media. We were told that there are terrorists in our midst waiting to strike. Arrests without trial were made throughout the region. Security and surveillance efforts were stepped up. New laws were signed into being. Since 2003, Singapore's intelligence agency could monitor your Internet use without any court order and in June this year, Indonesia revived a Suharto-era intelligence agency, used to suppress his opponents, and disbanded after his downfall in 1998 [The Regional Intelligence Coordinating Agency, or Bakorinda. - Ed].
But perhaps all this is part of our history. After all, Southeast Asia only became a regional entity as a result of map-making during World War II. Once again, the enemy (in this case, the Japanese army) forced us to group together. Since then, we have always been defined by our defence/strategic interests more than by our culture.
After the Vietnam War, Southeast Asia fell off the radar of the US' strategic map. After Sept 11, we are back on it. Increased military cooperation between the US and Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia. Malaysia and Singapore are in evidence. Even security officials from Vietnam and the US have made exchange trips.
Most of the filmmakers featured are well-known and are also award winners. They are filmmakers who have taken the road less travelled by commenting on the hidden horrors of their nation's history. Garin Nugroho, for example, was the first Indonesian filmmaker, who defied the New Order cinema of Suharto. His films portrayed the contemporary reality of Indonesia hidden away by the fašade of mainstream cinema. As a result, in the early 90s, his films were restricted from screening in his own country and shelved. The few copies which travelled the festival circuit allowed for another generation of filmmakers to walk his path and carry on. His film, The Poet, for example, is an actual eye-witness account of the mass executions Suharto conducted when he took power. The main actor, Ibrahim Kadir, was an actual survivor of the Suharto prisons and saw many of those who were executed. Ibrahim uses poems as a form of oral history that carried on his memories of those dark days.
Rithy Panh is similar in his tenacity to continue reminding us of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. Similarly, he has found witnesses for his films. In S21, we meet the killers, the actual prison wardens of the infamous Tuol Sleng camp where over 17,000 prisoners met their deaths through grisly torture and executions. In The Burnt Theatre, he shows us drama artistes who survived the death camps and who now try to heal their psychic wounds through art.
Lav Diaz from the Philippines burns the torch for Lino Brocka, one of the key figures of the new wave who gave Filipino cinema its conscience. The five-hour epic, Batang West Side shows the repressed memory of the Filipinos and how they are scarred by their nation's history, even when they migrate to the US. In his new 11-hour film, Evolution, Diaz shows us the legacy of the Marcos era through the eyes of the poor Filipino farming family. But he frames it within the period of the Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972 and the people's power revolution of 1986. Till today, the poverty levels remain formidable in the southern Philippines. Six of 10 of the poorest provinces are in Mindanao. Of these, four are located within the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the poorest region in the country and also a rebel zone.
Which brings us back to our beginning statement, that since the declaration of the war on terrorism, global military spending has skyrocketed to a dangerously high Cold War level.
But when will the war on poverty ever be declared?
[Read Shaheen Merali's interview with Philip Cheah about the Whose Terror Is It Anyway? programme: click]
Originally printed in the excellent Spaces and Shadows catalogue book published by the House of World Cultures. See links for information on how to purchse. Reprinted in Criticine with the kind permission of Philip Cheah.