I remember feeling quite disappointed after reading an extensive article on what certain western film festivals look for in Indonesian cinema. Westerners are said to be keen on seeing exoticism and the portrayal of poverty in Indonesian films. Despite the disappointment, I am far from surprised. Indonesian feature films throughout the 21st century are self-sufficient with this tendency, making films that fit the skewed perspective on how westerners see the rest of the world. Knowing this gives me a sense of cynicism when looking at western film festivals.
This got me thinking: What is the key to this conundrum? How can we possibly change this unfortunate outlook? I may come across as a nationalist here, but as an Indonesian cinema studies student, I believe that our films have greater potential than this boxed perspective. This tendency could harm not only the filmmakers but also the audience. Limiting their gaze on Indonesian, and ultimately, Asian cinema. But then other questions came to mind. What exactly is Asian cinema? As a continent of 48 countries, more than 2,300 languages, and 4,5 billion inhabitants, could every unique story fit into a singular definition?
Luckily, as part of this year’s Minikino internship program for film festival writers, I had the opportunity to virtually meet Kelly Lui, the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival’s shorts and special programming director. Through her concise yet eye-opening presentation, I feel I can finally put all this thinking to rest. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter how westerners perceive Asianness and what the definition of Asian cinema possibly is. For Kelly, what is actually important and crucial is representing stories that make people see, hear, and feel stories they aren’t necessarily exposed to in their daily lives.
I got a whole new meaning to labeling films. As Kelly put out, stories are the main connector between us as people, no matter where we live, or how we identify culturally. The film, as a medium, should connect us rather than label us into preset categories. For example, in the context of Asia, someone from India or Pakistan may be unaware of the realities of those living in Southeast Asia. What is crucial is to showcase these stories and provide a platform where people from all walks of life can share unique stories and offer a new perspective of the world. “Showcase” is an essential keyword in her lecture because showcasing films from all over the world could bridge us through all kinds of borders, giving us the beautiful idea that we are much more the same than different. Or, in another way of looking at it, beautiful in our differences.
Aside from being involved in film programming, Kelly is also a member of Ouat Media, a Toronto-based film distribution company specializing in short films. She is also the co-founder of The Asian Canadian Living Archive (TACLA), a collective dedicated to archiving Asian-Canadian tales through an experimental and practice-based approach. Her involvement with both TACLA and Ouat Media demonstrates the immense passion and dedication she has for showcasing stories.
This becomes even more inspiring after she explains how she didn’t come from a film or an arts education. Kelly came from an Environmental Studies background with a focus on food studies. When I asked her how her past education influenced her career in film programming, she explained that film and environmental studies actually have a similar framework. As an Environmental major student, she learned about asking questions, taking notes, and observing her surroundings. This came in handy during her work, where she mainly focuses on establishing and maintaining relationships with people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Her response really struck me since she approaches her work from more of a human angle, concentrating on the importance of people and their stories rather than simply focusing on a “filmic” perspective some people with film backgrounds might have. This response also gave me valuable insight into how to be a good film programmer and, more broadly, how we should approach cinema as a whole. When we see a film from a more human perspective, cinema could be more of an inclusive and humbling space for everyone to navigate through.
To end on a more personal note, while listening to the lecture, one of her quotes that I underlined several times in my notebook was, “Asian identity is fluid.” This small yet substantial quote was quite wonderful for me to hear. As a young Asian person interested in filmmaking and being a film writer, I struggle to find my voice within this ecosystem. When I strive too hard to strike a balance between the two, what I’m really doing is trying to fit into labels. Through this lecture, Kelly helped me realize that I shouldn’t strive to fit myself into boxes that other people have created. What I aspire to do now is carve my own path for myself to follow. Focusing more on creating stories that define who I am rather than who I desperately want to be. Because from this lecture, I learned that what truly matters is the story, and only the story; after all, we are storytellers.