Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
This Is Not An Elegy
From Vinita Ramani Mohan
News of Alexis and Nika reached me on September 2nd some time around 12pm. It was a hot day and I was waiting to take a bus to some place to have lunch. I was starving. When the phone call from Asia Europe Foundation’s David Ocon came, I was excited. I’d been slowly trying to re-connect disparate threads in the arts community. I wanted to tell them, “I’m back!” I wanted to do it before they could ask me the proverbial question: “When are you leaving?” I’d somehow gotten the reputation for always leaving. Singapore had become a transit stop, not a home, and friends had become acquaintances. I’d always been thirsty for community, but I was always building transient ones.
David stopped my thoughts with a despondent re-telling of what he had heard and read in the news. I hadn’t seen him in well over a year, but I could see his face as he spoke. Melodramatic cinema has a way of portraying the reception of bad news – the whole world around you falls silent, as if someone suddenly threw a vast woollen blanket over you and shut it out so that it is just you and your internal universe. Everyone moves slowly, everything seems further away, incidental, inconsequential.
When I heard the news, noises just seemed to increase. The traffic was loud, the air dense and oppressive. I could not hear David clearly. I could hardly hear myself think. People arrived at the bus-stop. They glanced at me, they saw something was wrong and they looked a few seconds longer than they should have. Then they boarded their buses, and they got on with their lives. Nothing stopped.
I felt nothing. I waited. I got on a bus and my hands were shaking, I searched in my bag for my MP3 player. I had to hear something other than everyday sounds. I put on Arcade Fire’s Funeral – an album of songs the band had written following a year of unexpected deaths: parents, grandparents, friends. The song, Neighbourhood #2 (Laika) came on:
“Come on Alex, you can do it.
Come on Alex, there's nothin' to it.
If you want somethin' don't ask for nothin’,
if you want nothin' don't ask for somethin'!”
And then I cried.
On August 30th, we’d exchanged emails and we had planned to meet at the Asian Film Symposium in Singapore, from September 18th to 22nd. We were excited about meeting and curious to see where our lives had taken us. Different conversations were coming together. A week before, I’d spoken to Wenjie about the things I missed most about the Singapore International Film Festival, in the incarnation I remembered from four to five years ago. I missed the sense of community and I missed the friendships I’d built around the festival – like dancers in a carnival bonding for no other reason than the ecstatic pleasure of congregating and loving the same thing.
I missed coming in to work every day, my head full of images from the various films I’d taken home to watch the evening before. I missed the distinct scent, sensation and energy of those mornings – walking out with Philip Cheah to get a cup of coffee and talking about what I’d seen, or what I had read by a writer or critic on a film or a series of films I had watched. All that mattered then was to watch these films, to learn as much as I could, to write and read. The more difficult task of persuading others to care about some of what I’d seen aside, I felt I was in the right place at the right time.
I hadn’t seen Alexis in a while and was looking forward to experiencing that feeling again, only this time, with him. My conversation with Wenjie was in the back of my head and I knew Alexis and I had many stories to share, well beyond cinema. In an essay called ‘The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person’ written for Rogue magazine on his life and his loves last year (2008), Alexis wrote: “Because one of the greatest joys I believe one can feel is to share that which they find beautiful with someone who otherwise wouldn’t have noticed it, and to see it appreciated.”
I wasn’t merely looking forward to seeing Alexis again because I wanted to catch up on our old discussions about cinema. He’d have known I required no persuasion and of course, I didn’t need to tell him about cinema.
I was waiting for something more than that: I was waiting for a conversation about the trajectories our lives had taken and why it all still somehow connected back to the soul, to our souls and what moved us. That conversation was cut short. And so, as with Alexis’ letter to Nika, I write now, a letter to Alexis; a letter that I hope will express what I’d intended to share. I suspect Alexis would have hated elegies. He’d have preferred letters, essays and a sincere, passionate struggle to find the right words to express the most difficult of thoughts. It is what he loved in Nika and it is what he expected of me, of many of us for whom he created a space to inhabit as writers. So no elegy. No eulogy even. Just a letter.
Who came up with “Jack of all Trades, Master of None”? It’s a pathetic aphorism that tells us more about modern society’s need to create dutiful servants and acquiescent staffers to fill offices than it does about an individual’s ability to learn, to grow, to change.
It doesn’t take much digging to quickly realize that what our predecessors aspired to was diversity, plurality, difference. How else can you explain the fact that ancient civilizations would send out their young to learn astronomy, art, languages, physics, mathematics, philosophy, painting, building – all of it, all at once? Everything was linked, but distinct. Now, everything is fragmented, guards policing the borders of our minds, academic disciplines, arts, countries. But I digress.
This is just my elaborate and obtuse way of telling you I’m sorry if it appears as though I have abandoned cinema and writing about cinema. If I started out being passionate about it, I should’ve stuck to it and my disappearing act has probably left some members of the film community thinking, “Ah, she always was a fickle one...had her hand in too many things.” Or maybe not.
I know you won’t hold it against me, but I have this need to always provide context and rationalize my position to everyone I know. One day, I hope to outgrow it. But until I do, I want to tell you a story about the roads I’ve taken.
I have not abandoned cinema.
Cinema, like everything that came before it and led me to it, just led me to other things.
The directions I take, the things I do - it’s a bit like those Russian Dolls: I look at something, I spend time with it, I then open it and find something else inside: a variation on the theme, a distinct theme altogether, a new avenue that I couldn’t have arrived at without taking the road before it.
In high school, literature was all that kept me sane. It was the only discipline in which my penchant for using ‘big words’ was accepted. In every other class, I was made fun of for acting too smart. Literature led me to public speaking and debating (more words, more of the joy of working with them, articulating, weaving and disassembling ideas to put together new thoughts). I felt literature had been like a spiritual guide to me, protecting me and opening my eyes to the world, without asking anything in return.
So in university, it let me go off and explore everything else that was out there. It’s as though literature said, “I am in everything, so you can’t really depart from me.”
Literature led me to film studies, cultural studies and philosophy. Everything embedded in those disciplines began making me think of identity, of difference, of culture and social memory. Everything in those disciplines exposed me to how people were telling stories about themselves; how people remember, forget, understand and struggle to understand their place in the world. Cinema was filled with it; philosophy was filled with it. All of that led me to social justice and jurisprudence, because so many of the stories I read or watched onscreen articulated a struggle to comprehend injustices in the world. So for my Masters I studied just that. I studied about ethnic minorities and the law; about identity and plurality, social justice and culture. And so, it’s all come full circle. Cinema was a rotating, 360 degree doorway and it is always there, it is always about the stories people tell about the universes they inhabit.
And something in the Southeast Asian films I’d seen began triggering something in me; a desire perhaps, to enter that world beyond the screen. A desire to understand why it is that some filmmakers kept wrestling with their countries and why it is that their country’s struggle had somehow become their own – something they’d make films about, something they’d die feeling deeply. And I wanted to know what was beyond particular portrayals of Southeast Asian countries – why only particular kinds of stories were being told about particular cultures. Why, with the incredible plurality of stories, with versions of reality beyond our imagining, some film industries, some filmmakers compromised and told the version they knew would be saleable.
What was beyond the screen? What if I wanted to step out of the theatre and into that reality? What then?
And that is why, two years ago, a week after my wedding, which you attended, I left for Cambodia with my husband, to begin what was to become a long learning process on how to work with survivors of genocide. Everyone thought we were misguided. During the wedding, relatives and colleagues of my husband’s parents advised them to not allow us to go. “It’s dangerous,” they said. “It’s a lawless country. Most of these developing countries are.” We in Singapore have gotten used to rationalizing our existence, our very being and identity as a success by pointing to the political failures around us. “Yes we’re staid and controlled. But think of how much worse they have it,” people seemed to say in their own, indirect manner.
Others were flummoxed by our decision. Brows furrowed, they jokingly and a little worriedly asked, “Is this your idea of an extended honeymoon?” We smiled, we shook our heads and we tried to use the words that would make sense to people for whom the decision was senseless. You called yourself a film critic because that was all that made sense to the audience, to the public. We called ourselves ‘volunteer workers’ because that was all that made sense to our audience. Same difference.
And so we spent six months living in Cambodia and we began learning about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. We began learning about how people read and felt about an event in history that so many had written about, but which was still poorly understood because the stories of the people in the villages are not the stuff of history books. And that was it. In those six months, we began cultivating trusting relationships with the NGOs we worked with. Inside jokes and unspoken understanding. Somehow, we’d found points of cultural resonance, somehow there was a sense of connection. They liked us because we were from ‘Undiah’, which is how they said ‘India’ in Khmer. That we were Indians from Singapore only made it better – we were related to them from another time, and we were close to them geographically in the current context. Win-win.
In those months, Mahdev changed and I shifted with him. He’d somehow found another ‘home’ and he had finally found purpose, a situation where he could put his desires to become a public interest lawyer to use. He could finally be the lawyer he’d dreamt of being in university.
In the villages, the survivors would ask if the “maytiehvi from Undiah” (lawyer from India) would work with them, if he would petition the courts to do right by the survivors. And Mahdev could do nothing but answer questions, give out leaflets and go back to Phnom Penh. He felt how inadequate that was.
Meanwhile, I began gathering stories of survivors in the provinces and in the city and realized that their narratives, their world-view, their ritual universe and their idea of justice and peace, of forgetting and remembering, was not being reflected anywhere in the public domain. In the fight for funding, in the fight for recognition when the judges and jury are powerful western donors, if Cambodian NGOs did not speak the discourse of western human rights, reconciliation and of memory and remembrance as it had been written about by Holocaust scholars and survivors, they could not be heard.
Gaps. Everywhere, we saw yawning chasms. And everywhere we turned, we were the only Singaporeans in the social justice arena; I don’t say this to say we were heroes, or that we are champions and pioneers. Everywhere in Southeast Asia and beyond, there are countless Singaporeans doing charity work through church missions; others are engaged in developmental work and plenty of silent community workers keep at it, dedicatedly. But still, powerful discourses dominated. There were particular ways of thinking and for thinking in those ways, you could be sure to receive donor funds and support.
Parallels. You couldn’t use the word ‘critic’ anywhere, because to criticize is anathema to the spirit of community, you’d been told. We couldn’t employ particular discourses either, because there was no room for it as it was anathema to the spirit of charity. Charity was acceptable, activism and engagement using indigenous discourses were a little too new, a little too strange.
Support: no support for what you’d undertaken to do because you felt compelled and joyous when you worked for and with cinema in the Philippines. So you taught yourself. And that is where we found ourselves as well – doing work no one particularly cared for because it had no religious backing, no political sense and no strategic value. So we taught ourselves. And the more we did, the more we shared with friends, the more people wanted to come on board and help. The more the team grew, the more we realized we had to function cohesively. We’d existed so far as a couple doing our own work and that would always be the case. But we realized the work deserved more, if it was to become sustainable, meaningful; if it was to out-live us and our own dreams. So last year we set up Access to Justice Asia, an NGO dedicated to representing victims of mass crimes in Asia and we’re now neck-deep in our work in Cambodia, our sights set on other countries in our region.
Because we’d opened the door and stepped through; because the stories I’d seen in dark cinemas, the stories I’d afterwards written about and discussed with the filmmakers who’d written and directed these films – all these stories were now alive before me, moving every day, shifting in unexpected ways. As Judith Butler had written, the narratives were showing themselves to be what they actually were: ‘unnarrativizable.’ Always incomplete, always subject to take you by surprise.
And I think of Marcos, Suharto, I think of the Burmese military dictatorship; I think of Hun Sen and Arroyo. I think of the stories I’d heard and seen. I think of the filmmakers who would respond to these political realities cinematically. I think of the filmmakers who tried to tell other stories. And that is what I dreamt Access to Justice Asia would be about – the stories I’d seen in the films, the stories I have yet to hear and pay witness to.
Our organization Access to Justice Asia is aspiring to be your Criticine – elevating the discourse on Southeast Asia (cinema, social justice, writing). And that is why, in a not-entirely-unexpected turn, I’ve begun writing plays: because of those very same stories. Because of Wole Soyinka’s Yoruba ritual-filled universe in which he hangs dictators out to dry; because of his jail sentence. Because of Tawfiq El-Hakim’s portrait of Egypt as a magical place not rife with cultural contradictions, but cultural paradoxes; because of Tomson Highway’s plays of the indigenous Cree living in northern Canada, living to tell tales of tricksters and hybrid Indians beyond the tales of abuse and assimilation and genocide; because of stories.
Everything has changed, but you see, nothing has changed.
Literature led me to philosophy and cinema, which led me to justice and jurisprudence, which led me to social justice work, which has led me back to literature and....
And that is how the cycle will go and it will not stop and like the people of old, I’d like to think it’s all there, linked. And like the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, I’d like to think all of time and all of place is linked like a chain of mountains, and if you could step back far enough, you would see it all – connected. And so Alexis, if we had met on 18th September 2009 in Singapore, I would have asked you to bring me up to speed on what is happening in the Philippines; what is happening with your curatorial work and what you and Nika have planned for the future. But I would not have felt disconnected from that world, though I exist in it so infrequently these days.
Because it all connects and because, like you, I owe my debts too. I owe it to literature, to philosophy, to cinema, to social justice. Like you, I owe it to the countries that have invited me in, allowed me to learn.
But we can’t have this conversation.
So here is my picture of the world, the one which I inhabit. In my ritual universe, you had a great deal of work left to do: many dreams left to fulfill and many plans for the Philippines and beyond.
In my ritual universe, Shiva is seen by conventional scholars as the “God of Destruction.” That’s what you get with western dichotomies: destruction and creation. In my universe, he is the greatest of all gods because he represents dissolution. Without dissolution, nothing would begin again and continue, indefinitely.
In my ritual universe, you will both begin again. Alexis and Nika have passed, but only as Alexis and Nika. I know you’ll both return and I know you’ll continue the work you began, because you were not finished. And in that spirit, I know we all have an obligation, a debt we owe to you, to continue that work as well. So we will, in our own ways, with our own stories.
And to go back to Vonnegut: the Tralfamadorians believe that all time is like that chain of mountains. Everything is happening now, all at once. Here, at the east end of the chain, you were born and you were a child moving from the Philippines to Canada. Over there at the other end, you and Nika passed. Over here in the middle, you are both traveling, writing, filling your lives and ours with your thoughts, your ideas. You are both always eternally there.
In the world of the Tralfamadorians, you are not gone. Death is a moment taking place over there, but every other moment is as significant, as potent, as present as all the other moments. You are not over, nor is Nika. You both persist, exist. That is a universe I read about when I was 16 years old and I have always hung on to it because it made sense somehow. Always already there. Always persisting, always vibrant, always resonant.
So this is the story I wanted to tell you – a story of trajectories, spiraling away and spiraling back; a story of always persisting and always staying alive and open to change, to possibility. This is your story. It is Nika’s story...a story we all write and which never ends. And now we have to find a way to make your legacy persist too – because you see, death can come so quickly and so suddenly. What will happen with the work I do and what you had intended: all that unfinished work? How will I see it through when the people I look to and need are so few and far between and when they can be taken from me, try as I might to keep them alive and present?
Lav Diaz once read me Rilke’s Requiem for a Friend, many years ago. And I know he’ll have picked it up to read it for you. So I ask you this:
“If you’re still nearby, if somewhere in this darkness
there’s a place where your spirit
resonates with the shallow sound-waves
a solitary voice can stir at night
in the currents of a high-ceilinged room:
Then hear me: Help me. You see, we slip back,
without knowing it, from our advance,
into something we didn’t intend; where
we can become caught up, as in a dream,
and where we could die without waking.
No one went further. It can happen to any of us
who raise our blood to an extended work,
that we can’t hold it at that level,
and it falls of its own weight, worthless.
For somewhere an old enmity exists
between our life and the great works we do.
So that I may have insight into it and say it: help me.
Don’t come back. If you can bear it, stay
dead among the dead. The dead have their tasks.
Then help me in a way that won’t distract you,
as what is farthest sometimes helps me: within me.”
Love and Peace,
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