Part 1 of DIGITAL CINEMA IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Digital cinema has grown leaps and bounds in Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, since the start of the new millennium. Due to the unprecedented growth of digital cinema in these Southeast Asian countries, it has created emerging modes of production and circulation, distinct from the mainstream film industry’s Hollywood patterned modes of production and circulation.
This essay explores the political economy of digital cinema in Southeast Asia, and as Douglas M. Keller and Meenakshi Gigi Durham in Adventures in Media and Cultural Studies succinctly explains, “A political economy approach to media and culture centers more on the production and distribution of culture than on interpreting texts or studying audiences. The references to the terms “political” and “economy” call attention to the fact that the production and distribution of culture takes place within a specific economic and political system, constituted by relations between the state, the economy, social institutions and practices, culture, and organizations like media (Kellner and Durham, 2006) .” Thus, the essay aims to address several questions such as: How are digital films produced and distributed in Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand? What institutions support the production and circulation of digital cinema in the Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand? What are the venues for the dissemination and circulation of digital cinema in the Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand?
Hollywood has remained the dominant force in the production and distribution of cinema worldwide. Local film industries such as those in Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand follow Hollywood modes of production and distribution, practically fashioning themselves as “local hollywoods.” Digital cinema, part of the so-called “digital revolution,” has been hailed as the way to liberate filmmakers from the hegemonic grip of Hollywood and similar film industries. According to Jeffrey Shaw in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, “the hegemony of Hollywood’s movie-making modalities is increasingly being challenged by the radical new potentialities of the digital media technologies (Shaw, 2003).”
The term “independent” remains a highly debatable and fluid nomenclature in Southeast Asian films. As Malaysian scholar Gaik Cheng Khoo writes, “Outside of Amir Muhammad’s definition of ‘indie’ as ‘a film that is not accepted by the Malaysian Film Festival’, there is much debate still around the term (Khoo, 2004).” Customarily, the term refers to films produced and distributed outside of the major film studios. The implication is that the creative decisions rest on the filmmaker who is free from the pressures of the studios and its commercial interests to realize his/her artistic vision. Though the focus of the term is tilted towards production and distribution, it is not limited to it. There is the aspect of representation – is the film trying to say something different? Nowadays, there is also an expectation for independent films to have alternative representations, novel narratives, innovative storytelling, thereby veering away from Hollywood formulaic narratives and conventions. Thaiindie, a group of Thai independent filmmakers, articulates this on its website, "We're getting tired with the word 'indie', people want to make indie movies because they think they can escape from the rules, but when we all do that, we're following another set of rules anyway. For us, we want to make movies that we really feel strongly about, and in the style that we think is unique - not better or worse, but unique (www.thaiindie.com)."
Nowadays, the term “independent” is often equated with digital cinema since the digital technology has been embraced by independent filmmakers in Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as their new weapon of choice. Independent filmmakers turn to the most affordable filmmaking technology of our day – the digital video. Though some major film studios have also used the digital technology in the hope of lowering their production costs, the independent filmmakers are the more active and adventurous champions of the digital technology.
Paolo Villaluna of the Philippine Independent Filmmakers’ Multi-Purpose Cooperative (for short, Independent Filmmakers Cooperative or IFC for short), a group of Filipino independent digital filmmakers, elucidates, “The new technology undoubtedly took away the monopoly of filmmaking from only those who can afford them. Filmmakers saw this as an affordable opportunity to make films the way they want to (italics and bold by original writer), minus producers breathing down their backs, minus the cliché of casting big stars and minus the pressure of recouping a large return of investment (Villaluna, 2007).”
Independent filmmakers have used and still use various film formats such as the Super 8 and the 16 mm but the introduction of the digital technology gives independent filmmakers a cheaper alternative. As Brian McKernan boasts, “today’s digital technology has democratized this most powerful form of storytelling, making it affordable enough for practically anyone to use (McKernan, 2005).” Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus writes “Within a few years if their introduction in the 1990s, mini-DV revolutionized independent and multimedia production… (Ascher and Pincus, 1999).” Villaluna connects the digital technology to its predecessors, “More importantly, this technology mirrors the independence that the previous generation saw in classic tools like the Super 8 and 16 mm (Villaluna, 2007).” Fully cognizant of the importance of other filmmaking medium such as Super 8 and 16 mm to independent filmmakers, it is the contemporary nature of the digital technology that merits the focus of this essay.
Part 2 THE BEGINNINGS OF DIGITAL CINEMA IN SOUTHEAST ASIA will follow.
*Research for this article was funded by the SEASREP Foundation. Research conducted in 2005 to 2007.
**There are also nascent digital filmmaking communities in Indonesia, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries, but financial and time constraints limit this study to Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Ascher, Steven and Edward Pincus. The Filmmaker’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age. New York: Plume, 1999.
Keller, Douglas M. and Meenakshi Gigi Durham. Adventures in Media and Cultural Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Khoo, Gaik Cheng. “Just-do-it-yourself: Malaysian independent filmmaking.” Aliran Monthly Vol 24 (2004): Issue 9. Aliran Monthly. Accessed July 18, 2007. http://www.aliran.com/oldsite/monthly/2004b/9k.html
McKernan, Brian. Digital Cinema: The Revolution in Cinematography, Postproduction, and Distribution. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Millet, Raphael. Singapore Cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006.
Shaw, Jeffrey and Peter Weibel. Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.
Villaluna, Paolo. “Bagong Agos: New Currents. New Visions. Emerging Cinema.” Bagong Agos: The Current Wave of Philippine Digital Cinema. Manila: Independent Filmmakers Cooperative, 2007.