Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
A love letter for a friend
From Tan Bee Thiam
As Morrissey puts it, this year, my life has been a succession of people saying goodbye. I had not expected you would be one of them.
The last time I met you was in Manila, end of last year. You invited me to a panel on Film Archiving Think Tank: Challenges and Ideas, as part of the Annual Southeast Asian Cinema Conference. It was at the same conference five years ago that we met in Singapore. Both of us just graduated and with no immediate plans. After the conference I went away to backpack in India. We kept in touch through email correspondence and online journals, sharing what we saw, our lives, families, dreams and hopes. We also shared ideas of what we thought should be done for our community. By the end of 2004 I put together a proposal for an Asian Film Archive and you put together one for Criticine. As Godard said, cinema is the goodwill for a meeting. We had many and these are my hazy memories of how our paths crossed over the years:
March, 2005: You invited my little short film to a festival you programmed, .MOV (founded by Khavn) and hosted me at your place when I was in Manila. We talked for a long while before you popped in a DVD, A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang. But we fell asleep soon after.
April, 2005: You came to Singapore again, this time round to attend your first Singapore International Film Festival. I hosted you at my place and we ran from screening to screening, watching films, meeting people and talking about films at the end of the night. Hou Hsiao Hsien was in town for his retrospective and we met him for an interview. I was your translator. I interviewed Lav who was in town to screen Evolution of A Filipino Family. Khavn, Rox Lee, Quark (I think), Yuhang and Chui Mui were also in town. I also interviewed Pin Pin after her world premiere of Singapore GaGa. We met Wenjie at Substation and he gave the Focas books to you.
June, 2005: Mike de Leon approached Erwin and you to ask if the Archive could help to preserve his materials. This marked the first of many other Filipino films you would highlight for the Archive to assist in their preservation.
September, 2005: You curated a programme of shorts that will become S-Express Philippines. It was the year that the Substation helped launch the Asian Film Archive through co-hosting the Forum on Asian Cinema and the Asian Film symposium. At the opening, we also launched the Singapore shorts Volume One DVD. I was so glad you were there to share that moment with me.
During that trip, one night, we went up the rooftop of Esplanade and talked about the future of Criticine and the Archive. What would it take to make those dreams happen? How could we balance that with our responsibilities to our families and loved ones? It was a heavy night. The hopes were heavy. We promised to lend each other an arm, a leg and a shoulder.
When you got back, you forwarded an article to me. You told me to read it when I was free. It was an interview with Jonas Mekas, the experimental filmmaker who started a film magazine – Film Culture and the Anthology Film Archives.
June, 2006: Your dad passed away. I lost my dad a few years before. You told me how you would secretly record your conversations with your dad when he was in the hospital. You reminded me we were supposed to make feature films about our fathers. But we got sidetracked and became fatherless children, working for orphan films.
July, 2006: We met in New Delhi for the Osian’s Cinefan International Film Festival. It was the first time you came to India. It was a bit surreal showing you around where I had been two years ago, the same places I was telling you about in my emails, where I walked for hours by myself, thinking about life. And it was at this festival that I met with Tsai Ming Liang.
September, 2006: You were in Singapore for the S-Express Philippines for Substation. I put together a program of medium length films for the same festival.
October, 2006: Paul brought us both to Hawaii for the international film festival. You were doing jury work for Netpac and I was doing the same for the international short film section. We were hosted by Anderson, Christian and gang at a nice hotel by the beach. Paul brought us out one night to a far-away beach, less touristy, and we hung out with Sharifah Armani and Elyna. Jajang and Nia were also there. As we were debating the films we would fight for, Jason and his girlfriend joined us at the fast food joint.
December, 2006: The conference on Southeast Asian Cinemas moved from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. This time round, it was a bigger congregation. Benjamin, Tuck Cheong and Chris were our hosts. I stayed with Amir who, with Raya, John, Edwin and Yuhang gave workshops on filmmaking. Martyn was there too. Of course Gaik, Hassan, Tito, John (Badalu), Dimas et al were there as well.
July 2007: We were back at the Osian’s Cinefan. This time round, Amir, Apichatpong, Mui and Tuck Cheong were there too. I gave a paper on archiving early cinemas in Asia as part of the conference that Nick put together. You spoke about film criticism.
September 2007: You were back in Singapore, your adopted home after Manila and Vancouver.
October 2007: I was in Manila again to judge the Southeast Asian section of Cinemanila International Film Festival and the jury awarded the prize to Mukhsin by Yasmin. It was here that I first met Nika, who charmed me instantly. She was so full of energy and there was an unmistakable glint of purpose in her gaze. She was someone who had found her calling and found love. I remembered one night when I swung by and you were with Lav, Raya and John.
December, 2007: I invited you to Singapore to speak on a panel on film criticism and programming in the Symposium on Southeast Asian Digital Cinema. Ben (Slater and Mckay), Khavn, Gertjan, Mui and Mirabelle were there too.
June, 2008: We also met in the later half of the year. So this was early. I was in Manila again to attend the SEAPAVAA conference. You had taken an even more active role in film archiving and joined Sofia, one of the co-organizers of SEAPAVAA that year. We met up twice. We spoke about Nika; we spoke about setting up a free film library space that would hold reference copies of the films in our collection and books about films; you spoke excitedly about how that could be a project to draw Nika to Manila and both of you could work on it. We also spoke about our dads. Raymond joined us later and we talked about how we would miss Osian's in 2008.
November, 2008: It was Manila’s turn to host the Southeast Asian Cinema conference, five years after it was first held in Singapore. You were the key person coordinating this, working with Bono, Kiri, Rolando, Tilman, and Merv. You chaired the panel with me and Clodualdo on film archiving, an area you had also become increasingly concerned with. There is so much to be done, yet people in power or who have the resources were clearly not investing enough to create fundamental changes to the state of archiving. You related what you felt were pertinent questions for the Philippines film archives. I related what I had seen in Jakarta and the region and also more positive examples of how even with very little resources, we could still make a difference. Later when I stayed at your place, you showed me an article you wrote, a love letter that would encapsulate your love for Nika and your wish for Filipino cinema. We spoke about our dream project – the film library. You said you had spoken to Nika and she was excited about it too. I remembered others at the week-long conference and evening gatherings: Kidlat, Lav, John, Khavn, Red, Raya, Tengal, Teddy, Bobby, Ben (Anderson and Slater), Philip, Tito and others.
And that was the last time we hung out. At your home.
We used to imagine that the film community is like a big family, one that cares, forgives and loves one another. It is. The outpouring of tributes since your passing has shown just that. I am sure many more of your friends, our friends, have very fond memories of you too. The friend who was there to talk about cinema and fight for it. In you, we’ll continue to find strength in this work that you have started for us.
Goodbye for now as we board our planes. We will meet again.
Tan Bee Thiam is the founder and Executive Director of the Asian Film Archive.
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