… and resisting colonialism through love and art
I was an invited juror for the prestigious Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (YIDFF, 山形ドキュメンタリー映画祭)’s radical New Asian Currents (NAC) in Japan (4th – 12th October 2023). With its first run in 1989, this is one of the oldest documentary film festival in the world, and the most distinguished in Asia. Amongst its many accolades and achievements was how it had celebrated amongst others Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose film Memoria 2021 stars Tilda Swinton and bagged the Jury Prize at Cannes. Yamagata (3 hours from Tokyo) was designated UNESCO city of film. The New Asian Currents (NAC) category showcases short films that are bold, new expressions of ‘documentary’ on critical issues. There will also be a showcase for my films, during which I will show How to Thrive in 2050 (2021, commissioned for BBC Culture in Quarantine) and Chlorine Addiction (2000, which was at the NAC in 2001 too, as well as multiple international showcases including Transmediale 2001). 19 films were in competition in NAC 2023, from Myanmar to Estonia. The International Competition this year showcased 15 feature-length works, including by the iconic post-colonialist filmmaker-composer-theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha (1952), who is Distinguished Professor of the Graduate School in the departments of Gender & Women’s Studies and of Rhetoric at University of California, Berkeley. The jury for the International Competition include the amazing Taiwanese artist and global arts royalty Chen Chieh-jen (b 1960). This was my first visit of Japan since I completed my MA in Imaging Arts (Musashino Arts University, 2005) and Mixed Bathing World Festival Artist in Residency (sponsored by Japan Foundation, Beppu, 2009). Of course I could not speak Japanese anymore. After:
- 40hours of watching 19 films in the New Asian Currents of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival,
- learning about the deprivation of communities on the borderlines of Myanmar/India, and the dreams of those along the Estonia/Russian borders and more,
- 8 hours of all-night discussions with fellow jury members on the final day (knowing how my decisions can transform careers and lives, I’ve always taken great care when I’m on judging panels)
- then agreeing on the final awardees at 5am of announcement day,
… I was proud to go on stage to announce the winner, an anonymous Myanmar filmmaker. Their film Losing Ground depicts the resistance and resilience by people living under military junta through a highly-restrained yet/and therefore powerful setup. I cried, cursed and cheered. The filmmakers have had to stay anonymous and not attend the festival to protect their identity and lives. We dedicate the award to the courageous Myanmese filmmakers, as well as other cultural workers worldwide similarly entrapped in territories devastated by occupation and devastation. With the award, we are saying that we are in solidarity with all makers of art, painting, poetry and more — that we are in solidarity, and that we want to elevate and celebrate your visions. What I have had the fortune of experiencing and learning at YIDFF have confirmed my view of the powerful ways of the role of artists as creative change-makers.
Banner photo above: Speaking with Japan’s national broadcaster NHK about the significance of the award-winning film. Photograph by co-juror Lim Kah Wai.
Watch clip below: Jurors’ interview begin from 4’25”. Uploaded with permission from NHK.
Gallery below: Overview
Gallery: Instagram post of my reflections, @kaisyngtan 22/10/2023, on art and love as resistance to colonialism, as war on humans and human rights in Gaza escalate.
REFLECTION (22 October 2023)
As posted on @kaisyngtan on Instagram:
It’s been a curious week.
Amid genocide in broad daylight, and a persistent living nightmare for people under colonialism, I recall the haunting anti-war poem by Lebanese-French Maya Abdul-Malak @YIDFF, and her homage at her award speech to the people of Gaza.
No more violence, no more apartheid, no more lies, her film says, which are echoed in the works of @nausheenkhanfilms, @amiratharsoheili, Kim Kyung-man and Nidal Al Dibs too.
While in transit for 34 hours in Narita and Helsinki-Vantaa, news arrive of my 86-year old dad with stage 4 cancer back in hospital back home (sic), who keeps fighting. I think of the dead bird in Keflavik, the parrot with majestic wings in the cage in ‘Losing Ground’, and ‘Journey of a Bird’ by anonymous filmmakers in Myanmar.
Amid jetlag, I self-soothe with contemplations about the cine-essay of Chris Marker, and the beyond-colonial transcendental realism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and consider how their magic is manifest in the radiance of the films of @inscumgram @taymourboulos @mikorevereza @kaori_oda_image which casually and confidently collide the personal + political, ethereal + epic. Cinéma vérité has long run into reality TV, but the works of Luo Luo, Hsiao Mei-ling and Hong Da-ye clarify how, post-Covid, the camera insists on breaking social distancing, and instead getting even more intimate.
Afloat between the time zones of Japan/UK (and soon summer/daylight-saving time), I think of the liminal in the bold silent film ‘Night Walk’ (by @sohnkooyong), and communities living in borderlines in ‘Flickering Lights’ (Naga people in India/Myanmar) and ‘Raise Me a Memory’ (Seto people in Estonia/Russia by @varuntrikha_filmguy). Then, there are stories of those seeking self rule, like in ‘Above and Below the Ground’ (Kachin people in Myanmar).
Which brings us back to where we are.
Discussing Foucault’s notion of power with my masters students made me upset. But the words of bell hooks on the love, resistance and art lifted us up again. To resist we need love and the arts.
Thank you @yidff for the learnings + love. お世話になりました
I’ve donated half my YIDFF fees to @artists4palestineuk* & @upaconnect**. Please support if you can***.
*Artists for Palestine (charity since 2015) (set up since 2015)
**United Palestinian Appeal (established in 1978 in New York by Palestinian-American professionals, with focus on Health and Wellness, Community and Economic Development, Education and Outreach)
*** Sign open letter by artistic community
JURY’S COMMENTS (Kai Syng Tan and Lim Kah Wait, 12 October 2023)
It has been such a privilege to be jury members for New Asian Currents. We spent more 8 hours to make the decision. There was a lot of discussion, as well as coffee and pizza. That’s because we do NOT take our responsibility lightly, and because we know how career-and even life-changing the awards can potentially be for some of the filmmakers. They have shared their unique visions, and we can really see and feel the struggles and hopes of the filmmakers and what and whom they are filming. The genre of the documentary film expresses reality and opens up a unique space for us to question what we see, what realities there are, what the “truths” might be. In the age of divisive ideologies, transformative AI, fake news and more, our invitation is for filmmakers to go even further, to push the possibilities of the documentary format even further, which a radical film festival like Yamagata and an extraordinary category like New Asian Currents have been celebrating. We invite filmmakers to be even more courageous, to push more creative boundaries. Given our troubled moment, what kind of worlds do we want to create and indeed re-create? What would a “document” of a better reality look like? What hopeful visions can we reveal? We have only been able to award a few prizes, but as we know, every filmmaker who are here at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival has been a fighter and winner.
Ogawa Shinsuke Prize: Losing Ground MYANMAR / 2023 / 23 min Director: anonymous
The Ogawa Shinsuke Prize goes to a film that has been created in a precarious and unimaginably challenging situation, such that the filmmaker has to remain anonymous. Despite the trauma of imprisonment, what and how they are conveying is highly-controlled and precise. Their decision for a minimalistic aesthetic approach, were strategies out of necessity, but have worked well for the film. Skilful moves, such as the yelling by an entrapped character, followed by a shot of the exterior world, suggest that their pain isn’t just personal, but universal. The prize will hopefully make a significant impact to the filmmaker and others around them. We want to send a strong message to this as well as other filmmakers who are similarly trapped or imprisoned, physically or metaphorically, that we see you. We care, and we are in solidarity with each and everyone of you.
Award of Excellence A Lost Heart and Other Dreams of Beirut FRANCE / 2023 / 36 min Director: Maya Abdul-Malak
This film unveils the traumatic, violent histories of a country, through a cinematography that is seductive, intimate and emotional. What happens to those left behind the violence? Who is still alive? Are we all living ghosts?, you ask as the scenes un-fold. Through the sounds of sea waves crashing, and visuals of merry-makers, and cats battling for their territories, you are assured that life does go on, and that life can be beautiful and hopeful. What the film reveals is quiet and gentle, and all the more powerful. The film also points us to the troubles—and perhaps moments of healing—that is happening in different parts of the world as we speak, such as Palestine, Ukraine, and more. Every shot is specific and well-crafted, revealing the masterful nature of the filmmaker.
Award of Excellence Trip to Lost Days CHINA, SINGAPORE / 2022 / 73 min Director: Shen Ruilan
This is a bold, confident, ambitious and adventurous film by a young, talented filmmaker. The approach is dramatic, with artistic interventions that walk the tightrope of the boundary of fiction and non-fiction, opening up a pathway of a filmic vocabulary that pushes the possibilities of the genre of documentary. Through voice-over and imagery that evoke dreams and poetry, the film can also be read as a radical, sideways critique of the dominant political reality of the country that the filmmaker is working in.
JUROR STATEMENT (Kai Syng Tan, Summer 2023)
Having shown my film at the New Asian Currents more than two decades ago nearly the last century, I’m thrilled and humbled to be at the first physical YIDFF since Covid as a jury member.
In a time of Putin, Plutocracy, persistent persecution of minoritised people and push-backs, we need, more than ever, art to provoke reflection and re-imagination.
Amid the era of fake news, AI, streaming and media saturation, film — and especially documentary film — offers exciting possibilities.
As Apichatpong Weerasethakul reminds us recently, films can have a ‘shared sense of being’, sharing not just ‘suffering’ but ‘joy’.
He’s right. YIDFF was where the legendary filmmaker won a prize in 2001, and whom I also had the fortune to meet then.
Indeed, since 1989, YIDFF has played a vital role in the film and arts ecology, to host and nurture bold visions that dance the beautiful tight-rope between fact/fiction, truth/hope, traversing themes and genres from the mundane to mythical, messy to magical.
And what an array of work we have this year! There’s migration, music, Myanmar, mental health, musings on the Muslim identity, and more.
I’m currently working on three books exploring new definitions of ‘leadership’, with a focus on creativity, anti-oppression, futurity and hope. So I can’t tell you how honoured I am, to be amongst new, visionary leaders of tomorrow who can show us the future of not only documentary filmmaking, but humanity.
KAI SYNG TAN 2023
- Chlorine Addiction (44 minutes, 2000) : After 4 terrific years in London, Kai went home (sic). Kai felt sick. But as a responsible adult, she had a job. She taught in a film school, where there was a swimming pool. To make this working/living business palatable, Kai started swimming 1km everyday. This is the premise of the structure of Chlorine Addiction, which is one of Kai’s most popular works. The cine-essay has 10 chapters with a runtime of broadly 3 minutes each, which was the time she took to swim each of the 10X100-metre laps daily. The films encourage the audience to ‘re-map’ or re-order and edit them. They may be viewed independently, in any order, as short films or an installation in space, or from the ‘beginning’ to ‘end’ as a linear film. Using images and sounds gleaned from San Francisco, Singapore, Bangkok, Taiwan and elsewhere, the work contemplates the everyday, and rather strange, reality of Singapore and existence in general. Chlorine Addiction has been shown at Transmediale 2001 and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2001. An early version of a clip was collected by the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan. Kai also published a book which is distributed by Select Books, and produced an interactive DVD. The poetic + dynamic music was composed by Philip Tan.
- How to Thrive In 2050! (14 minutes, 2021): See details here, trailer here and the film here on BBC iPlayer (registration required) or Vimeo (free).
Kai Syng Tan PhD PFHEA: Kai (she/they) is a tentacular and hyperactive artist-academic-agitator. Her creative research seeks to catalyse conversation and action for a more equitable and creative future. Drawing upon her background as a neurodivergent migrant woman from a working-class background (where both parents left school by 16), Tan mobilises art, artistic processes and ‘artfulness’ to propose practices and paradigms centring creative neurodivergent leadership, inclusivity and anti-colonialism.
Kai is an experienced academic developer and teacher (PFHEA, National Teaching Award 2023 nomination after having taught in 200 universities worldwide), trans-disciplinary research innovator (being ‘the person who has done the most’ to re-imagine running as a creative arts and humanities discourse). She is also an award-winning creative practitioner (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement Culture Change Award; San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Film Award) and curator of festivals and events ranging from £0 to £4.8m (including the 75th Anniversary of the 5th Pan African Congress Celebrations to mark Black History Month that reached 18.2 million people worldwide, and the opening and closing ceremonies of Asia’s Paralympics praised as ‘game-changing’ by disability groups). Kai has delivered over >900 keynote lectures and commissions on an international level (e.g. Museum of Modern Art, Sydney Biennale). Kai has also founded and/or (co-)led 6 global research networks (totalling >500 members) to nurture and amplify the work of other marginalised artistic researchers.
Kai us Associate Professor on the MA in Arts and Cultural Leadership, University of Southampton. She is working on three books currently to explore ways to diversify, decolonise, neuro-queer, ‘futurise’ and re-imagine ‘leadership’ as a creative practice.
Full CV: https://kaisyngtan.com/artful/tag/cv/
Instagram, LinkedIn, ORCID, Skype: @kaisyngtan
Kai Syng Tan (PhD PFHEA she/they タン.カイシン) is a hyperactive artist-academic-advisor-agitator whose art catalyses new questions and action for change.
In film, she works as director (BBC Culture in Quarantine; San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award), producer (Annecy International Animation Festival Official Selection), video artist (New York Film Anthology, MoMA) and curator (Southeast Asian cine-essay showcase, Cinema South Festival, which included films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Garin Nugruho).
Kai’s films are in the public collections of Fukuoka Art Museum and Museum of London, and her work has an ‘eclectic style and cheeky attitude’ (Sydney Morning Herald) and ‘positive atmosphere’ (Guardian).
Kai is currently Associate Professor in Arts and Cultural Leadership, University of Southampton.