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The Center Cannot Hold: Filmmaking Against Anthropocentrism, Against Empire

By Rebecca Kwee

Prelude: The Otters Strike Back

I write this essay ten days after a family of otters attacked a man at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Beyond the unfortunate irony of a settler species threatening another permanent resident running an agency matching “courteous and easy going [migrant] domestic workers” to “expats”, this event marked a climax in a smattering of otter-related incidents during the pandemic—from colonising condominium swimming poolsto eating expensive pet koi. Nevertheless, the attack was prompted by a perceived threat to the adult otters’ six pups, when a runner intruded upon their path. But what happens when a society that touts smooth-coated otters as model citizens—emblematic of Singapore’s environmental restoration efforts and migratory heritage, adhering to healthy fertility rates of >2.0, cheeky yet photogenic enough to drive tourism campaigns—starts to realise that otters have wills of their own? The patronising, anthropocentric gaze regarding otters as similarly “courteous and easygoing” migrants serving a dominant narrative debases their agency, their value systems and way of life, their inherited wisdoms, and their blatant disregard for capitalistic and humanistic structures. As our planet collectively processes anxieties and traumas around climate change and habitat displacements, it is time to acknowledge the agency of the non-human world, and I saw such convictions powerfully conveyed throughout the films in the SGIFF Southeast Asian Short Film Programme.

Hierarchy of the Sense

Scene from Like Shadows Through Leaves

Scene from Like Shadows Through Leaves

Perhaps the first step away from anthropocentric filmmaking is a re-ordering of the senses, as perceived through a manmade audiovisual medium. Lucy Davis’ {if your bait can sing the wild one will come} Like Shadows Through Leaves successfully achieves this. In her meditation on the relationship between birds and the now-relocated residents of Tanglin Halt, Davis centers the soundscapes of the neighborhood. The film immerses us in a sonic realm of bird calls from some of the 105 species identified around the area, oral histories of the residents’ encounters with birds, sounds of humans mimicking birds, and recitations of Malay and English bird poems. Exploring Tanglin Halt through the sense of sound, we only come face-to-face with another human at the 17-minute mark of a 25-minute film: an elderly man mimics bird calls on his rocking chair, evoking both a desire to connect with nature and a sense of impending loss. Like Shadows Through Leaves forgoes enforcing distinctions between foreground and background when mixing different tracks: sounds of birds and humans, English and Malay blend together at similar volumes, accompanied by shots of old trees. As a result, we discover a Tanglin Halt consisting of symbiotic relationships., where birds are at equal footing with, and even exert power over, humans. Such equilibrium is unfortunately disrupted when one of the residents reveals that Tanglin Halt is about to be demolished and redeveloped. In this context, the lack of certain impending sounds—urban construction, road traffic—is also a statement, and the intentionally-curated soundscapes in the film become aspirational, an imagining of an authentic relationship with nature.

While Natasha Tontey’s Wa’anak Witu Watu celebrates images, the short film explores the senses beyond sight through indigenous Minahasan folklore and traditions in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here, touch and movement bridge humans to the more-than-human world: Tontey records footage of the Minahasan community touching and worshipping the sacred Pinawetengan stone, as well as engaging in various dance and combat rituals. Through an associative, non-linear narrative, Tontey takes us into the stone’s point of view, exploring the indigenous belief of stones as sentient beings and their importance in Minahasa culture. The stone has existed since pre-human history, and once reproduced with the first human according to Minahasan cosmology; it has protected and communicated with the Minahasa people for ages; and its commercial and extraction value is now at risk of superseding its socio-cultural value. Recentering the stone’s way of life implies recentering indigenous wisdoms over centuries of colonial and capitalist worldviews.

Scene from Wa’anak Witu Watu

Letting Binaries Be Bygones

As human and non-human perspectives begin to blur in these films, other binaries and boundaries similarly break down. In retelling a popular Minahasan myth in interdisciplinary form (dance, recorded footage, animation), Wa’anak Witu Watu boldly imagines a world without boundaries between human and stone, living and dead, the real and the virtual, rationality and folklore. Real world footage of dance rituals is replicated in 3D animation, and stones in the real world come to life in the animated world. Tontey critiques the way lines are drawn throughout Indonesia’s history: from animations of Dutch navigators expressing skepticism at animist beliefs, to shots of merchants trading precious gemstones in marketplaces, the dominant culture has devalued the spiritual aspects of nature while emphasising its transactional value. Gender binaries are called to question as well—for the Minahasa people, do stones have genders? This isn’t explicitly answered, but the animated sequences of a woman giving birth to a daughter through a stone seem to suggest that stones can take on both masculine and feminine qualities. For Tontey, blurring the lines is an act of centering the pluralism of indigenous beliefs in Indonesia, as opposed to a homogenous, Java-centric national identity and a simplistic indigenous versus coloniser divide.

Retrace by Trần Thị Hà Trang is another film that uses nature to subvert a binary worldview. In this short film, we follow a Kinh family as they process the aftermath of the patriarch’s death, from engaging in death rites to dreaming about the dead. Rainfall is the first thing we hear in the film, and it permeates the rest of the film, showering incessantly in the background until all the rites for the grandfather are completed. What is most memorable in Retrace is how elements of nature—specifically water, fire, animals, and trees—effortlessly cross the boundaries between the living and the dead, between reality and dreamscapes. A sacrificed ox and a colony of termites appear in both the real and dream worlds (the latter marked by black and white visuals). The sound of rainfall and the flickering fire persist in both worlds as well, though somewhat transformed—rainfall converts into a gushing river once in the dreamscape, while the candlelight that illuminates the real world scenes becomes a fire that ravages the grandson’s dream of his grandfather, symbolising a cleansing or transitory ritual of sorts. Lingering on beautifully-captured shots, Trần’s direction poetically captures the ritualistic, boundary-breaking, and magical role of nature in negotiating life and death.

Scene from Retrace

Counter-narratives & Counterspaces in Postcolonial Nusantara

But how can we make films that decenter the human gaze if cinema is inherently a mediated form, absorbed through human senses? Like Shadows Through Leaves, Wa’anak Witu Watu, and To Pick a Flower are films that center more-than-human or indigenous points of view, yet also intentionally insert the filmmaker’s voice—Davis’ artistic intent is evident in her curation of the various collaborative elements in Like Shadows Through Leaves, while Tontey frames her narrative with chapters and an apology at the end. To Pick a Flower by Shireen Seno takes this further, as Seno narrates an entire video essay ruminating on the relationship between humans and trees from her point of view. As Seno explores how archival photographs reveal the power structures between American colonisers, local labourers, and trees in the Philippines, we are often reminded of the fact that we are experiencing her subjective opinions and emotions throughout. The highlight of the short film is a segment where Seno gently recites the names of trees over old photographs of said trees—such as “mahogany”, “eucalyptus”, to name a few. Juxtaposed with prior photographs of chopped wood illustrating the commodification of nature under colonialism, these scenes restore agency to the trees themselves, firstly by viewing them whole in their full grandeur, secondly by remembering and honouring their names. It is this moving scene that convinces me that the existence of an opinionated narrator or distinctly human point of view does not necessarily mean the perpetuation of a colonial, anthropocentric mindset. Rather, there is no such thing as an objective, unmediated gaze, and the force required to overcome the inertia of neocolonial, dominant attitudes might be so great that perhaps a strong, oppositional point of view is needed. This is reminiscent of the idea of “counter-narratives” in Critical Race Theory, or “narratives that arise from the vantage point of those who have been historically marginalised.”

Scene from To Pick a Flower

Finally, I am rejuvenated by the creation of “counterspaces” through film—spaces of “collective resistance…that enable individuals from marginalised groups to engage in collective disruption of the dominant narrative.” Historically, the forests of both mainland and archipelago Southeast Asia have hosted such counterspaces, but with the continued threat of deforestation and environmental destruction, I noticed more SGIFF films reimagining new spaces for the marginalised this year. In Wa’anak Witu Watu, such a space exists in virtuality, which has not yet been entirely colonised—there, possibilities abound and indigenous ways of being find refuge, through the freedom that comes with animation and decentralised, collaborative tools. Similarly, Like Shadows Through Leaves weaves the resacralisation of nature into its aural counterspace, opposing the dominance of culture over nature. By unapologetically blending known and unknown sounds, Like Shadows Through Leaves embraces the unknowability that comes with communion with the more-than-human world—here, the unknowability is less an exoticisation of Nusantara, and more an inherent characteristic of sacred spaces. And as a fan of cinema, what could be more magical than encountering these reconstituted sacred spaces for the first time, and temporarily possessing ways of sensing and feeling outside of your own? The directors of the four aforementioned films have thus extended the solidarity-building lineage of cinema, going beyond the psychological—empathising with other humans, to the ecological–empathising with the natural world in general.

Scene from Wa’anak Witu Watu