All That Remains is… ruin

By Syaza Agape

The notion of balancing historical accuracy and aesthetic narratives has always left me in a certain level of conflict. Akin to archeologists digging up ruins, adopting a level of detachment towards remnants gathered, the filmmaker follows suit. Or do they?

These days I find myself pondering on the sovereignty of the filmmaker–– their prerogative to recreate history through their desired lens, on their terms, with varied personal convictions. How does one then walk the very thin line between paying homage to the past, while balancing to engage between a fidelity to the past, while conforming to the norms of a dramatised adaptation. Similarly, I have a bittersweet recollection of my own days as a filmmaker. It was truly a time of catharsis; to be able to be reduced to a humble spectator to the array of short films at the 32nd Singapore International Film Festival. However, I realise my inclinations have not changed much: I am still drawn to filmic representations of historical events such as civil war and the global pandemic. This is due to my personal romanticisation of the past, something I can’t seem to run from.

There is a name for this process: Historiography. Often used by Historians, it directly translates to the actual writing (or rewriting) of history. This entanglement of the two– history and film, makes for articulated narratives grounded in shared national trauma. Filmmakers often adopt a certain sense of tenderness when confronting collective trauma faced by either themselves or the characters they create.

History itself is an intriguing concept to me– it is comparable to a trickling down effect which shapes our culture and society. In a similar fashion, I embark on examining three films which spoke to me, and my personal inclination towards films that attempt to rewrite history. In this, I am almost like an archaeologist in the midst of excavation, finding artefacts yet not knowing their stories, but moved by the desire to embrace them anyway.

Director Polen Ly weaves the premise of Side by Side against the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime. The documentary features the last elderly couple forcibly wed during the time of the Cambodian genocide. The exchange between the two is nonchalant, as the wife recalls that most of the other couples forced into marriage had either died or gotten divorced straight away.

In an ironic sense, we are repurposed to view the atrocities of Khmer Rogue as a somewhat setup for the meeting point of this elderly couple. The very foundation of their romance birthed out of a nationwide peril.

Fig 1. Captured parallels of the couples arrange wedding and present day: their marriage but a remnant of Khmer Rogue.

It is clear to me that Ly carefully orchestrates this sense of dual perspectives of the two– the wife revealing how she loves someone else but chooses to resign to the arranged marriage. The husband is representative of one who seeks hope in every given circumstance. He is in love with her, but unbeknownst to him, she does not share the same sentiment. It seems like commentary of how society processes these national wounds. In Side by Side, one party harbours regret for circumstances beyond her control, while another party chooses to make the best of circumstances.

Finding hope in an unprecedented time was what moved me in Side by Side. The heart of human relation within February 1st differs slightly. It is simple in its form, having both filmmakers presenting themselves as the central characters over snapshots and found footage of the ongoing coup d’état in Myanmar. The recording of events and memories using phone cameras shows a sense of gritty realism throughout the film. I do not have an ounce of detachment to the material presented as in this day and age, we reconcile factuality with found footage.

This cinéma vérité style works in tandem with representing the past (or present in this case). We see the worn out faces of Burmese folk, amidst the heated protests, all captured through a mere mobile phone. There is a strange sense of familiarity here, as most of us would have used the video function on our smartphones. It is deeply humbling to know that one simply possesses a powerful tool at the tip of their fingertips, capturing events which would then be used as historical evidence in the future.


Fig 2. A humble gesture of solidarity which unites Myanmar, with a hope to be at any other time but now.

I stand on the fence when trying to consider Mo Mo and Leila Macaire’s February 1st as a representation of the past. I grapple with this as the Myanmar coup d’état is still an ongoing phenomenon during the time I am writing this. Rather, it is safer to position it as a current work of historiography. My heart goes out to Myanmar, and I share a common hope that this will soon be a thing of yesteryear.

Side by Side and February 1st allowed me to sympathise with Cambodia’s and Myanmar’s national wounds on a deeper level. This would all come full circle when I am faced with A Man Trembles by Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen. The film is set in Singapore during 1998, amidst the Asian Financial Crisis and is comparatively a definite work of fiction, as opposed to the two films before which present themselves more as documentaries.

A Man Trembles embraces notions of filmmakers “rewriting history”. Chua and Lam package the adversities faced by those who lived through the crisis, in a very stoic yet detached fashion. The film follows a Man and his family on their last day on Earth in Sentosa Island, as a unique salvation awaits. The way out for him involves a bizarre solution, involving an appointment with an extra-terrestrial entity that will presumably transport the family away from Earth. Chua and Lam’s decision to provide an abstract way out for the family out of impending poverty could be seen as commentary for the Singaporean Dream. How we as a society would go through such lengths, just to achieve a small sliver of belonging and success in this world. This absurd introduction to extra-terrestrial life forms, is achieved through the repurposing of this historic event of the Asian Financial Crisis.


Fig 3. A modernistic way out for a family in crisis. Should they comply?

It is crucial to note the commonalities these three films share– each do not give specific names to characters. This could be so as to maintain a sort of an aesthetic distance from to these factual accounts we hear, how we never know their names, only stories. In a similar fashion, when one reads books of history, names from death tolls are almost never mentioned. We will all be reduced to stories some day.

A type of stoicism and calmness rings true in these characters we’ve encountered. They are each placed in a situation of crisis, yet they are facing it head on in real time, they are able to take it a step at a time. I interpret this as an expression of hope, that these historic traumas will be stories that future generations will hear about and can form their own empathetic world view on.

I am often fascinated and mostly drawn to filmic representations of real life events. As viewers, we are often positioned at a comforting distance from life altering events. This may or may not not be a problem for most. Like archaeologists digging up ruins, we are often presented with vast intricacies of information, often not sure what to do with them. I find myself stuck most times, trying to reconcile the two.

It is also imperative to give credit to the filmmakers who choose to set these said films within very rich, often painful, historical contexts. Thus leaving viewers in two camps: an informed viewer with a fresh perspective on the event, and the uninformed viewer whose curiosity might be stirred. I too, am on my own journey to make sense of the past, to keep it at a reasonable distance, yet also acknowledging it.


Fig 4. The tilted camera; a short stillness in time of crisis

I can conclude that filmmakers and archaeologists are not similar; The former often having greater latitude of interpreting the past and weaving it into something in the name of “artistic license”. The latter, however, is curtailed by academic norms of discipline. The fine line between misrepresentation of the past still exists, and filmmakers would battle this for as long as they choose to attempt to rewrite history.