Why and for whom do you write/work today?
Feature by: Alexis A. Tioseco
Khoo Gaik Cheng
I am a lecturer who does research, teaches and writes on independent filmmaking in Malaysia. I have taught Southeast Asian culture and literature and Indonesian language at university-level in British Columbia, Canada and now, in Canberra, Australia. In my current department, Gender, Sexuality and Culture, Southeast Asian Cinemas is only one of the courses I teach. Other courses I offer include The Politics of Dance/Musicals, Transforming Culture: Race, Nation and Gender (which uses food and sport to talk about Australian multiculturalism) and Feminist Film Theory and Feminist Theory. Since I will not be offering the Southeast Asian Film course until July, I can't really talk about how my students feel about it. However, what I have done with my research on independent filmmaking in Malaysia is to try and use some of the material for teaching purposes.
For example, last year I taught an introductory course on cultural studies where we discuss culture jamming. I showed a Malaysian independent digital documentary, 18? to my largely Australian students as an example of how graffiti is still a politically subversive act in a country like Malaysia where numerous laws restrict freedom of expression. Although teaching abroad to mostly non-Southeast Asians, I am always excited to expose Malaysian and Singaporean students to their own history and contemporary culture. I find it gratifying to see how much more they derive from the material than other students who do not have personal ties to the culture.
I have also given campus seminars and guest lectures about the Malaysian indie filmmaking scene for colleagues in other departments like English (postcolonial literature) and Asian Studies (on Malaysian politics and culture).
I continue to do research on Malaysia and Southeast Asia in general even when it seems that most universities in the west are turning away from issues in this region to focus on China and other economically-vibrant countries. This is because I believe that first, there is still a lot of academic research to be done on contemporary culture, media and film here. Second, I truly believe that Southeast Asian filmmaking, film activities and film activism/education are growing due to our realization about the power of visual media. Southeast Asian Studies departments need to keep up with this trend, and not just focus on economics, politics and development. Film Studies departments should also look beyond India, Chinese, Japanese and Korean cinemas when offering courses and positions on Asian cinema. Such exciting activities need to be documented and analysed for what they tell us about cinema in general and our own art, societies and cultures.
Moreover, it is apparent that interest in Southeast Asian cinemas is growing as the third annual conference (14-17 Dec, 2006, held in Kuala Lumpur) attracted about 50 submissions and had more than 80 international and local participants, our largest yet. But the most noteworthy point is the strong sense of solidarity and cooperation among the participants from the region as we traded strategies, ideas and learned from each other.
Lastly, I teach and write to all audiences but honestly speaking, my ideal audience or readership would firstly be other Malaysians, then Southeast Asians and those who are interested in Southeast Asia. Partly this is because I feel we know so little about our own culture/filmmaking practices, let alone be able to appreciate it. (In fact, we are always comparing our local offerings with those of giants like Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong).
At this early stage of introducing a Southeast Asian film curriculum in an interdisciplinary program, I anticipate that most Australian students will need background information regarding each country and its history of cinema before being able to fully appreciate the films. There will be discussions about the content and perhaps not as much on technique and film styles (though film students might be better able to engage with this aspect). Once this cultural foundation is laid, it will be easier to raise the level of discourse and to talk about film aesthetics, though with an understanding that both culture and film aesthetics are deeply interwoven.
Khoo Gaik Cheng is a Malaysian academic based at the Australian National University. Her full bio can be read here
Khoo Gaik Cheng
Tan Bee Thiam