A Different Cinema: Introducing SEA Short Films and the Youth Jury

By Sara Merican

How do we even begin to approach Southeast Asian films? A region known for its immense diversity, the films it has produced have similarly excited us with a buffet of culture, language, identities and histories. The Southeast Asian short films at the Festival are like threads from different nooks and crannies of the region, converging towards broad themes before diverging wildly in many directions, weaving together a collectively-defined fabric of Southeast Asia’s cinematic imagination.A region that remembers its history well, many films deal with memory and traumatic pasts. The traditional grand narratives of national history are both supported and challenged through its unorthodox cousin of personal history—the lives of local characters and places. Rising from its complex and difficult history with heavy social and political undertones, Southeast Asian cinema does not shy away from its scars and bruises. The 20 films spanning the Festival’s four Southeast Asian short film programmes carry a curious propensity towards depicting and surfacing journeys of pain, suffering and loss. Out of the scars and bruises, emerge urgent issues of poverty, vice, forced migration and tension between rural and urban identities.Despite sharing these common themes and topics, the short films offer us a dizzying range of settings and styles. From the expansive, sprawling slums to the confines of a modern flat, from fast-firing takes of a kaleidoscope of images to indulgent, ponderous scenes, we are confronted with Southeast Asian cinema’s unique and dynamic treatment of its sights and sounds.So where does the Youth Jury come in?Formally, the SGIFF’s Youth Jury Critics Programme “seeks to nurture a new generation of critical writers on cinema from the region”. This is a bold statement on the future. But to live for the future, this programme must also take part actively in the present— what do we (all 15 of us) hope to do now, and over the next week?We have all been there: Sitting in a restaurant and throwing opinions back and forth about a film you have just watched. You are trying to convince your friend that the film was amazing because he/she refuses to admit so. You waggle your hands, tug at your hair, as you frantically grasp at a swirling cloud of ideas/themes/scenes, trying your very best to articulate what the film meant to you. Your friend raises his/her eyebrows and you recognise the message immediately: “You have one last chance”. You open your mouth, waiting for wisdom to pour out. But alas, alas my dear friend— language fails you.And so this is where the 15 of us, similar war-weary defenders of independent film, who have also struggled with comparable histories of inarticulacy and incoherence, come in. We hope to help make sense of the films in the Festival’s “Southeast Asian Short Film Competition” and translate thoughts and arguments into the tangible written form. We will discuss some short films individually, and others collectively under a theme. We will also bring to you exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews with the filmmakers, themselves!We are here neither to give “stars” or “popcorn” ratings on films, nor a blow-by-blow account of a film. We are here to study and interpret films as well as evaluate their place within the context of Southeast Asian cinema. We are here as young film critics. Film criticism completes the film-watching process by enriching the practice of cinema ad contributing to its discourse. It stubbornly refuses to dismiss any film as frivolous entertainment (at least, without giving a serious argument for it) and in its own special way, even helps to legitimise the film itself.The Youth Jury is made up of a diverse bunch of young people finding their way in the world of film. Some are in the midst of their final-year university thesis; some have not yet applied to university. Some are filmmakers who decided to start writing about films on the side; some are literature students who chose to explore film. Some have already amassed an impressive vocabulary of film theory/history/what-have-you, while others only learnt to correctly spell “film criticism” yesterday (and goodness me, it was with the help of spell-check). But wherever we came from, we are moving together, all our little young beating hearts, towards one destination— a collection of critical perspectives on the Festival’s Southeast Asian short films.Join us as we journey through the cinematic exploration of minute fragments of Southeast Asian life and examine how they speak for their communities. Just like how different scenes in a film come together to produce a larger meaning, we urge you not to just look at each film, or even each programme as an end to itself, but instead, view them as little pieces belonging to a greater whole. Why are these stories important? What do these localised, specific characters and lives speak for? How does each national cinema look like?And we hope that as you explore, you will find your personal answer to this final question:What is Southeast Asian cinema, to you?