This essay analyzes three experimental short films made by Southeast Asian women filmmakers: Jai (Love, 2008), directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong of Thailand; Shotgun Tuding (2014), directed by Shireen Seno of the Philippines; and Eleven Men (2016), directed by Nguyễn Trinh Thi of Vietnam. Each deploys a critique of national historiography through specific formal strategies: constructing a recursive temporality (Jai), using anachronistic media (Shotgun Tuding), or privileging image over event (Eleven Men). These formal strategies create a gendered, reflexive view of the historiographic process through their frictions with official, national histories. At the same time the films nod to, and at times engage with, the transnational networks that brought them into being. The essay considers how the films and the filmmakers who made them negotiate local arts activism, transnational funding structures, and commitments to national histories. It argues that their textual and institutional parallels sketch the possibility of a regional, Southeast Asian imaginary for women's filmmaking.
Anocha Suwichakornpong, Nguyễn Trinh Thi, and Shireen Seno are among the most active, internationally known experimental filmmakers working in contemporary Southeast Asia. Hailing from Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines respectively, the three women are attuned to national political and film histories, while also connected to supranational networks of education, funding, exhibition, and distribution.1 Indeed, my own encounters with their works have been embedded in such transnational circuits. In 2017 I curated a program of short films by Southeast Asian women filmmakers, held in conjunction with the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.2 The program was part of a two-year, four-country research network on space and time in Southeast Asian cinemas, affiliated with the Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas (ASEAC) and funded through the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Various intellectual, art, activist, and financial networks, working across different scales, were involved in constituting a regional cinema imaginary—one with women filmmakers at its center.
This essay is intended as a written extension of these efforts, analyzing three short films from very different parts of Southeast Asia: Jai (Love, 2008), directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong; Shotgun Tuding (2014), directed by Shireen Seno; and Eleven Men (2016), directed by Nguyễn Trinh Thi. My argument works in two parts, examining how these films address questions of scale—as texts, and as nodes within networks of grassroots and industrial practices of film funding, production, and circulation. Across text and context, such networks form a regional imaginary. They necessitate a common set of skills among filmmakers, who must negotiate transnational, national, regional, and local commitments.
Alternative interpretations of official histories become one tactic for negotiating scale, enabling these filmmakers to trouble national narratives, while also engaging with their films' transnational paths of circulation. I argue that each of the three films here employs a nonlinear, gendered, historiographic mode of representation, thereby troubling teleological, objective models of history. As postcolonial studies scholars have argued, Eurocentric forms of historical representation rely on transparent mediation and teleological views of historical time.3 These short films offer a counterpoint. Through emphasizing the artifactuality of the medium and inserting the filmmaker into the text, they foreground the process of historical construction in a way that calls conventional historiographic modes into question. Rendered through a politics of looking, this cinematic critique centers women—particularly women filmmakers—as agents of alternative historiographic forms. As cinematic counter-histories, the films offer an alternative logic of historical time, one that is recursive and reflexive.
Across the films, questions of gender, authorship, and the politics of looking inform temporal aesthetic strategies, suggesting a shared Southeast Asian women's imaginary. This imaginary does not reflect some essential Southeast Asian identity; indeed, it may share much with women's filmmaking practice in other parts of the world.4 But, as the other aspect of my argument suggests, it is a contingent imaginary, produced in part through the structures of arts production, which work across multiple scales. Geographers describe scale as nested, tiered categories of analysis that work in a spectrum, ranging from micro to macro: from the body, to the neighborhood, to the region, the nation, and beyond.5 The concept is useful here because its emphasis on space can act as an alternative to teleological temporal models; scale suggests transnational or comparative spatial relations.6 For example, in his work on “polylocality” and Chinese cinema, Yingjin Zhang rethinks the national as “a spatial continuum stretching across scale from the local to the global.”7 He offers this definition as an alternative to temporal models that progress from pre-national, to national, to post-national. Using this spatial framework to differentiate his study from those based purely in histories and politics, Zhang considers Chinese cinema within a transnational film infrastructure of festivals, criticism, and industrial partnerships.
My work here builds upon this idea of scale, tracking its operations across institutional, textual, and historical levels. Institutionally, I consider how these Southeast Asian women filmmakers negotiate local, national, and transnational commitments, including supporting local artists, representing national histories, and participating in regional and international film networks. Navigating these multiple scales can produce particular scalar imaginaries. Arts criticism and events become venues for establishing relations of difference and affinity between, say, East Asian and Southeast Asian filmmakers, or among Asian women directors. Taken together, these three films by Southeast Asian women produce an imaginary embedded in both aesthetic and thematic convergences, as well as parallel institutional structures that cross scales via local arts activism, transnational festival funding structures, and regional festivals and activities.8 Analyzing shorts, rather than features, offers another intervention into scale. Though they are a neglected format in film studies, short films are commonly the primary mode of production in burgeoning cinema scenes, as they are feasible for filmmakers of limited means.9 Their micro duration counters the excesses that characterize historical epics. In Southeast Asia, experimental shorts dealing with national histories challenge the grand scale of their epic counterparts, offering an alternative temporal logic in both their content (disrupting teleology) and their form (brief duration).10
In what follows, I begin by laying out the theoretical landscape underpinning a regional, Southeast Asian women's film imaginary, focusing on how interventions into scale and temporality become means of historical analysis. I then move into analysis of the three short films, considering how each negotiates scale. Each film deploys its critique of national historiography through specific formal strategies: constructing a recursive temporality (Jai), using anachronistic media (Shotgun Tuding), and privileging image over event (Eleven Men). These formal strategies create a reflexive view of historiographic process through their frictions with official, national histories. At the same time, the films nod to, and at times engage with, the transnational structures that brought them into being.
SCALE AND TEMPORALITY IN SOUTHEAST ASIAN FILM FEMINISMS
While the three films share a common aesthetic approach to critiquing official historiographies, I am reluctant to impose an identity-based rationale on their juxtaposition. The label “Southeast Asian women filmmakers” merits some unpacking before I discuss the works themselves. I am not simply interested in how the three share common approaches to unsettling nationalist concepts of history and time; I am also curious about how, considered together, they might constitute a gendered form of regionalism. If their critiques of history indicate a shared aesthetic practice, in this section I am interested in contextualizing that practice within their respective broader institutional contexts, which work above and below the nation. For example, as I will discuss further, all three women are involved in running arts organizations that cultivate local, grassroots networks, often outside the auspices of censorship and state institutional funding, thus bypassing the national scale. At the same time, they are also connected to foreign arts and festival networks—cosmopolitan channels that work outside of global mass culture, whose transnational connections enable their localized work through access to funding, films, and equipment. Meanwhile, ideas of “region” are constituted through momentary sites of interconnection (such as film festivals and conferences) that combine local arts activism with regional and transnational funding and circulation channels. For example, all three filmmakers have screened their work or received funding from the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Such sites construct a category of “regional women's filmmaking,” positioning these filmmakers in taxonomies that classify their work according to gender and scale, for instance “Asian Women Artists” (Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan), “Social Memory in Southeast Asia” (Thompson Art Center, Bangkok), or “New Filipino Cinema” (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco). These institutional contexts for film funding and dissemination—museums, festivals, art galleries, criticism—forge connections across disparate bodies of work, uniting them within various scalar rubrics, where authors are seen as “Asian,” “Southeast Asian,” or “women,” and films become regional or national.
In keeping with the spirit of the films' reflexivity, I am interested in how juxtaposing such works here sketches the possibilities of a regional, gendered imaginary, formed through a network of transnational institutions. As C. J. W.-L. Wee has argued in relation to the Southeast and East Asian visual arts scene, art became one of the primary sites where the state-driven regionalism of the “New Asia” was “curated into ‘being’” through cultural institutions' intra-Asian networks.11 But such regional curation also works at more grassroots levels, through practices that cultivate what Mariam B. Lam has called “minor regionalisms.”12 In this way, counterposing versions of region are formed through parallel institutional networks—one a state-driven effort toward a privatized creative economy, the other a more ambivalent formation involving grassroots arts organizations (for example Los Otros in Manila, Purin Film Fund and Electric Eels in Bangkok, and Hanoi DocLab); local, regional, and transnational academic networks (for instance, the Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas); as well as other regional bodies. I call such networks ambivalent because they exist in varying degrees of distance from state and foreign funding bodies. The idea of “Southeast Asian film” is not merely an abstract, regional imaginary. It also describes a variety of institutionally supported, material networks, which operate within diverse economies—monetary, cultural, affective.
Like other, regional, alternative film formations in Northeast and South Asia, some of these networks embrace values that are not primarily monetary, even if financial sustainability is an ongoing concern. They can likewise create forums for discussion freed from the constraints of local censorship and regulation, while also bringing together participants familiar with such constraints due to experiences in their own countries. In this way, such networks offer an alternative to state-based, market-driven forms of regional connection. As the AHRC-funded research network mentioned above suggests, transnational academic networks have played a curatorial role as collective subjects in regional imagining, through the academic outputs of conferences and anthologies as well as through crossover programs with film festivals. As an example, the films under discussion here were curated through work with the Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas (ASEAC), a regional collective that began at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute in 2004 as an initiative involving not only academics, but also filmmakers, students, critics, archivists, and arts activists. Certainly, transnational networks for knowledge production pose potential problems; for instance, organizers based outside the region may fail to prioritize perspectives grounded in more localized experiences. But the material practices of organizing these events become one means of tempering these more troubling possibilities. In keeping with principles of feminist organizing, ASEAC, for example, works toward maintaining a collective, participatory, nonhierarchical structure, with open membership and responsibilities moving from person to person with each event. Initiatives like ASEAC project regional cinema as a “structure of feeling,” an emergent formation that is not fully systematized, but which exists through the affective bonds and commitments cultivated in collective, creative institutional labor.13
Of course, “Southeast Asia” is itself a highly contested means of conceptualizing scale. It references the violent histories of Cold War politics, as well as state reinforcement of cultural and economic ties through supranational bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But as the account above suggests, the term also evokes a contingent, affective feeling of region, fostered through institutional activism.14 As scholars have argued, regions are constituted through an interplay of spatial and temporal logics, offering networks of affiliation that work outside dominant narratives of either globalization or nationalism.15 The local and the national are often mired in rituals, symbols, and ideologies that reify them. But, as Gayatri Gopinath contends, the term “region” is usefully malleable, referring to both sub- and supranational formations. As Gopinath describes, region enables interconnections across the Global South and across subnational points of comparison, such as gender and sexuality.16
This malleability came to the fore when I asked the women filmmakers whose works I programmed to speak about whether they considered themselves “Southeast Asian filmmakers.” Their responses varied.17 Nguyễn noted that for much of her youth, she was on the “other side of the Cold War” and felt closer affinities with European countries in the Soviet bloc; the idea of “Southeast Asia” was compelling, but new. Seno and Suwichakornpong felt more certain about their affinities. The latter recalled that her regional identity had emerged when she began to see more films from Southeast Asia and recognized a common, ineffable “sensibility,” as well as a shared historical experience of authoritarianism. Nia Dinata, a participating Indonesian filmmaker whose work I did not have space to include in this essay, alluded to “similar stories” and parallels with Vietnam, pointing to a political history that leaned toward socialism with Sukarno, the country's first president. Laughing, she said, “Tonight I feel like a Southeast Asian filmmaker.” Dinata's exclamation speaks to the mutability of regional identity. She may have felt Southeast Asian for the duration of the screening event, but as she pointed out, her work is often categorized as “by a woman filmmaker”—the Southeast Asian dimension is circumstantial and fleeting. But this contingent status offers opportunities for flexible forms of intersectional affiliation, brought into being through collectively forged institutional structures, as well as through the curatorial work of film festivals and other outlets that parse what Seno and Suwichakornpong describe as a regional “sensibility.”
For the filmmakers whose work I analyze here, I would argue that “region” is most useful not as an ontology, but as a form—a common structure of art production, circulation, reception, and criticism that reflects the vexed, uneven modernities of the Global South, involving a particular dexterity with negotiating multiple scales. For example, Suwichakornpong, Seno, and Nguyễn are undoubtedly transnational filmmakers. They are highly mobile, attuned to transnational film and arts networks, yet not beholden to them. Though based in their respective countries, they have also spent much of their lives abroad. Their work mediates locality with a gaze that reflects these transnational routes: education in the UK, Canada, or United States, as well as fluency in cosmopolitan taste cultures, the English language, and avant-garde media forms.
But seeing their work only in this context obscures the filmmakers' participation in local and regional networks. Even as they travel these transnational routes, they are deeply committed to local film communities. Alongside other Thai filmmakers, Suwichakornpong helps run the production company Electric Eels Films and the film fund Purin Pictures, which focuses on Southeast Asian makers. Seno cofounded Los Otros, a film and video studio that produces films, brings artists to the Philippines, and curates and archives experimental works through The Kalampag Tracking Agency project. Since 2009 Nguyễn has run Hanoi Doclab, a center for documentary, experimental film, and video art. Working in an experimental form that precludes their participation in national, mainstream media industries, their practices as makers and as organizers become an ongoing process of negotiating scale, working across local, national, and transnational spheres. This scalar dexterity becomes a means of navigating shared institutional structures (film festivals and art galleries, funding sources, arts activist networks) that operate across local, national, and transnational settings. This multi-scalar institutional structure and the ability to navigate it becomes a key binding agent of this Southeast Asian film regionalism, a part of its spatial logic.
For these films, this contingent, regional structure intersects with gender, and this gendered regionalism informs their depictions of history and temporality. Connecting gender and region can, in itself, constitute an intervention into scalar imaginaries. As the anthropologist Arturo Escobar has argued, “The global is associated with space, capital, history and agency while the local, conversely, is linked to place, labor, and tradition—as well as women, minorities, the poor and … local cultures.”18 Gendered, regional imaginaries become one means of disrupting such frameworks, enabling a form of transnationalism that works outside the hegemony of globalism. So, in one sense, these filmmakers are a part of what Patricia White has called a transnational generation of women filmmakers, and their critiques of national historiography evince this cosmopolitan experience.19 As the analyses below propose, they also share a concern with representing historical time, suggesting a more focused subset of affinities based not only on gender, but also on a certain relationship to national historiography that reflects parallel political histories. The films are not simply interested in complicating the “nation” as an adjunct of the state, or as a territorial, affective form of belonging. They are interested in cinematic practices of national historiography. In their critiques of the homogenous time of the nation-state, cinema's role as a tool for inscribing history becomes crucial. Within these films, national history is recursive and indirect, and the medium used to document it is not transparent, but self-consciously opaque, calling attention to its means of production and questioning its capacity for mimesis.
In this way, the films align with postcolonial critiques of notions of “development” as universal in historical time. Such critiques point to how ideologies of “progress” privilege the growth of knowledge and scientific reason, providing a seemingly objective rationale for imperialism. This scholarship calls for alternative forms of history that move beyond progressive, linear structures.20 Dipesh Chakrabarty, for example, argues against the universalism of Eurocentric historical consciousness, which seeks to objectify the past and sever itself from it, and calls instead for attention to what he terms heterotemporalities, which acknowledge “the necessarily fragmentary histories of human belonging that never constitute a one or a whole.” For Chakrabarty, the task of creating “minority histories”—those of women and subaltern groups—is not simply about uncovering untold perspectives, but involves instigating debate about history's linear form.21
Thus, in addition to their shared scalar dexterity, a common skill set forged through the necessities of alternative film production in the Global South, these three films also share aesthetic and thematic concerns. They trouble linear historiographic form in productive ways, their similarities suggesting a contingent, regional structure. Across these analyses, I discuss how each film activates a politics of looking that connects author, performer, and an implied spectator, and is built into the film's form. Read in tandem, the three films provide a generative ground for cultivating feminist, regional film connections, and offer a self-reflexive account of filmmaking as a gendered, national history.
Born in Thailand in 1976, Anocha Suwichakornpong has had the cosmopolitan education that characterizes many international filmmakers who work in experimental and art cinema modes. She emerged as a filmmaker during a globalizing period of Thai cinema. After studying in the UK for her undergraduate and master's degrees, she attended Columbia University in New York for her MFA in film. Now based in Thailand, she has made several short films and two features. Yet while her background reflects the transnational routes of many contemporary art filmmakers, she describes her work in terms of national struggle.22
The fourteen-minute Jai is the final installment of the thirty-eight-minute anthology film Like. Real. Love (2008). Shot in the spare visual language of art cinema (long takes, nonprofessional actors), the short is a work of meta-cinema, depicting a film within a film. It portrays a young Bangkok director shooting on location at a factory. This diegetic feature film is based on a historical event, the 1976 Hara Factory protest, in which women workers organized to advocate for better labor conditions. Jai follows two characters: the director and a worker she has cast as an extra.
After premiering at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Jai played on its own at other festivals, winning special mention at Germany's International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, as well as an Asian New Force prize at the Independent Short Film and Video Awards in Hong Kong. Jai alludes to three forms of cinematic historiography: the art film within a film, the historical documentary this film alludes to, and Jai itself, a reflexive film that invites the spectator to critique the practice of filmmaking as history. The film critiques cinematic historiography through its portrayal of the female gaze, which here implicates both the viewer and the filmmaker, the creator of the cinematic apparatus itself. Through its self-reflexive portrayal of a fictional version of the author, the film reinscribes national history through a gendered gaze. What is striking about Jai as a film writing a gendered, fragmentary history is that the woman filmmaker's gaze is not revolutionary or redemptive. It is very clearly an elite, woman artist's look. This elite look is aligned with the camera, and it is held in contrast with the radical possibility of the woman worker's look. Suwichakornpong does not excise herself from this evaluation of elite art production, but instead writes herself into Jai's narrative through the director character, who goes by “Mai,” the filmmaker's own nickname. Writing herself into the work allows the film to emphasize how production bridges multiple scales.
The film that the fictional Mai is remaking is Jon Ungpakorn's The Women Workers of Hara Factory (Kamakorn Ying Hara, fig. 1), a 1976 landmark of Thai documentary and radical filmmaking. The period from 1973 to 1976 marked a brief time of creative freedom in Thailand, from the 1973 uprising among students and workers that ended the anti-communist military government to the 1976 student massacre that reinstated military rule.23 Following the 1973 protests, three hundred workers' strikes took place over two months.24 The Women Workers of Hara Factory was part of this brief respite from dictatorship. Through interviews with the women who worked there, Ungpakorn's film depicts the working conditions of the Hara jeans factory, where workers eked out a living in substandard conditions. Upon completion, it screened in factories, urging laborers to enact similar protests; its run, however, was brief. The October 1976 massacre that led to the reinstatement of the military regime took place only a few months after its completion.
Jai portrays a very different, contemporary filmmaking context, the same independent film scene that Suwichakornpong herself participates in. Despite these differences between Jai and its predecessor, however, the film was made in a similarly volatile political context. Thailand's 2005–6 political crisis had ended in a military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2008, the People's Alliance for Democracy (known as the Yellow Shirts) staged mass protests in Bangkok, calling for a return to elite rule. Jai was made in the context of these political crises, a period of unrest that mirrored the political storm surrounding the Hara jeans factory documentary decades earlier. Suwichakornpong describes the documentary as a part of her political, historical awakening: “I was inspired to make [Jai] because I watched a documentary that was made in the '70s. … I watched it in 2006, when we had a coup, and that was really a wake-up call for me in many senses.”
Jai reframes this political history, creating a geometry of looks that cross gender, class, and (more implicitly) scale, as filmmaker, subject, and spectator are linked across transnational, national, and local lines. This geometry includes Mai, the diegetic, cosmopolitan director; Goong, the factory-worker extra who breaks her filmically prescribed anonymity through her look into the lens; and an implied transnational spectator, the viewer of art films like Jai and its diegetic counterpart. From the moment that Jai introduces the factory-turned-film set, it activates a politics of looking that works around this geometry, becoming the crux of its own critique.
The film does not begin with this factory set. Importantly, it begins with a scene on a Bangkok overpass that ties the film within a film to international art-house cinemas, positioning its diegetic filmmakers as cosmopolitan urbanites. In erratic, handheld close-ups, three filmmakers walk and converse about the director's new project, which will be based on the 1975 Hara factory workers' strike. Known figures in the Thai art-film scene play the three characters. Mai discusses casting real-life star Siriyakorn Pukkavesa, known as Oom, to play the lead character Thongdee, a factory worker. Oom is an actress, model, magazine publisher, and presenter who became famous for her roles in soap operas.25 As Mai's companions question her casting, she alludes to the Danish film Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which French actress Catherine Deneuve and Icelandic pop star Björk play factory workers. This initial scene sets up the divide between the filmmaker and the factory workers she will portray. One is urban and cosmopolitan, literate in the European art cinema whose aesthetic influence has acted as an arbiter of world cinematic taste for decades. The others are rural, as we see when the film depicts one worker, Goong, in her countryside home.
When the film leaves its three urban filmmakers, it cuts to Mai's filmic production of the 1975 strike. The extras playing workers exit the factory en masse, walking toward the camera in a scene that conjures international, documentary film history—specifically the Lumière brothers' 1895 Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (fig. 2). Despite her stardom, Oom is embedded in the crowd. The one who stands out is Goong, the worker-turned-extra whose look into the lens breaks the filmic illusion. Noticing this un-corralled look's escape, Mai calls “Cut!” from her video monitor. An assistant covers Oom with an umbrella and gives her a bottle of water as the other extras return to their positions, underscoring the star's separation from the crowd.
The film thus depicts two kinds of difference: the authorized difference of the star, and the unsanctioned difference of an extra. The diegetic director becomes the arbiter of this distinction, endowing the star with exceptionality while willing the extra to become part of the anonymous crowd. Suwichakornpong herself, however, offers a contrast to this, dressing Goong in brighter clothes and allowing her look into the camera. Suwichakornpong's role as a cosmopolitan author is critical and ambivalent, while her fictional counterpart—Mai—is complicit. Suwichakornpong describes this ability to stand out within the crowd as the very reason for casting the young factory worker, Goong: “This woman, she stood out for me because somehow she seemed a bit shy, but at the same time, she was also a bit confrontational. … There was something about her that caught my attention, so [casting her] was really very instinctive.” Through Goong's insistent difference, her capacity to “stand out” and “catch attention,” Jai critiques its film within a film for its adherence to more conventional models of stardom and visuality.
Jai's final scene mirrors its introduction to the factory setting. The workers exit the building as they did in the beginning. This time, however, they are not being recorded for Mai's film within a film, but for Suwichakornpong's Jai. Goong once again disrupts the transparency of the medium, looking directly into the camera (fig. 3). The frame freezes and the soundtrack drops. The film ends with this silent, static image, which lasts for seven seconds before cutting to credits. The direct address evokes the film's historical antecedent, The Women Workers of Hara Factory. Here, however, rather than giving testimony, worker is flattened to image: silent, still, and, in a way, accusatory. This is not history as progress, but as repetition. The struggles of the past return, but not with the immediacy of the documentary form, where mediation is assumed to offer a window onto some kind of political reality. The effect is not to rouse the viewer into political action, as with 1970s documentary. Rather, Jai presents the workers' struggles as distant and removed from the spectator through the double mediation of the film within the film.
The film's subtle comparison between the historical documentary and its fictional, contemporary successor offers a commentary on the tenuous relation between transnational art film production and the working world such films convey. Through its geometry of looks, Jai implicates the diegetic author and the cosmopolitan spectator constructed in the text. The woman worker's gaze at the end is the one the diegetic director would erase—the viewers of art films like that being made in Jai are not always asked to confront the object's gaze in this way. In Jai, Suwichakornpong reinscribes this look into the film, creating a relay with The Women Workers of Hara Factory. Rather than positioning her own work as the development of this revolutionary agency, Goong's refusal to be a background figure critiques art-cinema modes of filmmaking and the world cinema infrastructures in which they are embedded. Here, history is fragmented, and cinema is opaque, offering not a window onto a historical event, but a view of the media object's construction. Jai is not just a call to unearth minor histories, but a critique of how such histories are told. As Chakrabarty argues, we must question the limits of history; Jai questions not just those limits, but cinema's role as the medium of this telling.
These fragmentary, reflexive histories are also a key part of Shireen Seno's Shotgun Tuding. Like Suwichakornpong, Seno is a transnational filmmaker. Her work cuts across two overlapping international spheres—the film festival circuit and the art world—reflecting her own transnational biography. Her parents migrated to Japan from the Philippines for work, and Seno was raised there. In Japan she attended international schools before leaving for the University of Toronto, where she graduated in 2005 with a double major in cinema studies and architectural studies. She began her work as a filmmaker through celluloid, learning filmmaking on Super 8 to create her first experimental short, Seeing Machines (2006). After reading about independent film coming out of Manila, she eventually moved to the Philippines. There she immersed herself in the film scene, working as a still photographer on the sets of filmmakers such as Lav Diaz and John Torres, who encouraged her to make her own work.26
Shotgun Tuding is Seno's humorous take on Filipino, US, and Italian Western genres. It tells the story of Tuding, a gunslinger who arrives in a rural area of the Philippines to find the man who impregnated her sister. The project began as part of a regional network of gender-based activism and art making. The Kuala Lumpur–based nonprofit organization WOMEN:girls commissioned the film. Alongside five other women filmmakers from around Southeast Asia, Seno was asked to make a film dealing with gender in celebration of 2014 International Women's Day.27 The film's institutional history thus locates it within a regional imaginary, and its portrayal of gender is in part a product of its history as a commissioned work tied to Southeast Asian gender activism. Shotgun Tuding went on to play in alternative film centers, festivals, and galleries in the Philippines and abroad. But it does more than simply adhere to its funding mandate to represent a strong female character. Like Jai, it is reflexive, involving a recursive historical form that ties the present to the past, while commenting on cinematic modes of documentation. This works in several ways: through the use of anachronistic media for recording, through the critical adaptation of generic tropes, and through the insertion of the author herself into the film.
Shotgun Tuding's scalar tactics emerge through this gendered, personal, reflexive presentation of transnational genre cinema as a national-historical form. Its engagement with film, history, and mediation mirrors Seno's other works, which are also set in the past and shot on outdated media. Seno's films portray an affective vision of national history that works at the level of the medium and personal memory. Their anachronistic elements upend the stability of media temporality—that is, that the event on-screen occurred in the past, to be re-presented in the present. In this way, they remake Roland Barthes's “photographic paradox,” a term describing the vacillation between present and past that the photograph evokes, where the spatial “here-now” overlaps with the temporal, photographic “reality” of “having-been-there.”28 Anachronistic media disrupts this temporality; when depicting a historical period, it suggests a false sense of having been there. It presents history not as a linear narrative, but as a fragmented assemblage of constructed images.
Several of Seno's works play with this temporal masquerade, seemingly offering a unified chronological relationship between image and medium. Set in the 1950s, her first feature film, Big Boy (2011), was shot on Super 8 film in Mindoro, her grandmother's province, capturing the rural entrepreneurialism of a family living in the postwar Philippines. Inspired by her own childhood, her second feature, Nervous Translation (2017), takes place in 1988. Set against the backdrop of the post–martial law era, it was shot on VHS and Hi8 video. In these works, the medium itself acts as a carrier for memory, while also calling memory's veracity into question. They are new films, made with obsolete media, set during the time of their respective mediums' height. This anachronistic construction underscores their artificiality, while simultaneously lending a false, affective verisimilitude to the images, which have an artifactual, elegiac quality. They seem not to simply represent the period they portray, but to be artifacts of that time. Rather than depicting a smooth, teleological transition from past to present, they trouble the notion of the media artifact as access to the past.
Shotgun Tuding was shot on Super 16mm film stock, its color palette and emulsion scratches evoking the 1960s Westerns that inspired it. Like Jai, it also critiques cinema as a form of historical representation, this time trading the art film for the genre of the Western. Seno's appropriation of the Western is significant. In his book on Asian Westerns, Stephen Teo notes that the Philippines has had the most prolific output of Westerns in Southeast Asia.29 In addition, the localization of foreign genres in popular cinema has been a key point of discussion in Philippine film studies.30
Like the “having been there” temporality summoned and disrupted through the use of anachronistic media, the adaptation of the Western also evokes a particular kind of temporal evolution, alluding to a lineage from (foreign) original to (domestic) adaptation. But this trajectory is circuitous. As Nick Deocampo argues, Philippine genre films have used multiple strategies in their adaptation of foreign forms, including indigenization, parody, and resistance.31 The paths from source to successor are rarely direct, and I would argue that the use of anachronistic media—16mm film stock, outmoded formal strategies—only heightens how oblique these paths can become. Through masquerading as a media object temporally unified across content and medium, such works evoke nostalgia. At the same time however, the disingenuousness of their artifactuality undercuts that nostalgia, highlighting their status as false relics. This paradox informs their relationship with history, which becomes not a relation of simple mediation or re-creation, but a meditation on the process of historical reconstruction itself.
In Shotgun Tuding, the process of historical reconstruction is scaled to the level of the personal, as it is tied to the experience of Seno's own family, thereby foregrounding her role as its author. The film tells the story of her grandfather and her great aunt. As Seno describes, she grew up bonding with her laconic father and grandfather through watching American Westerns with them. She dubs the film a “pancit Western,” inserting the iconic Filipino noodle dish into the “spaghetti Western” model of Italian director Sergio Leone. Here, the path from origin to adaptation becomes especially circuitous, making its way from US to Italian to Filipino renditions.
The film's gender politics construct a circuitous familial history as well, framing the figure of the aunt, rather than the reproductive parent, as the active agent behind this lineage. While the story is based on Seno's grandfather, the film focuses on the author's great-aunt, a woman who exists outside the legacy of the “Seno” name, but whose own first name provides the title of the film. This focus unsettles the notion of straightforward, patrilineal heritage as a naturally occurring given. In her quest to procure Seno's grandfather and force him to marry her sister, Tuding actively constructs this lineage, not through marriage and reproduction, but through travel and the threat of violence. Her androgynous costume evokes cinematic gunslingers—pants, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and a long rifle slung across her back (fig. 4). The androgynous great-aunt, rather than the masculine grandfather, becomes the origin ancestor. Like the trajectory from source text to adaptation, the lineage portrayed is oblique, forgoing straightforward, teleological chronologies. Grafted onto a story that evokes national narratives, this account works within the logic of personal memory. Such logic eschews the linearity of historical and familial chronicles, offering a meandering variation of ancestral origins.
This logic becomes clear in an early sequence, where humor predicated on the similarity between Seno's surname and the Tagalog homonym sino questions the idea of the surname as a definitive marker of identity. Tuding approaches an elderly man who seems to be hard of hearing, telling him she is searching for Ireneo Seno (the fictional version of the filmmaker's own grandfather). A misunderstanding ensues, as the man mistakes Tuding's inquiry about Seno for sino, the Tagalog word for “who.” He appears to ask, “Honey Bee sino?” (Honey Bee who?) using the English for “Honey Bee,” then removes a bottle of honey from his bag with the brand name “Seno” printed on it, pointing to the name of both the character of Ireneo and his eventual granddaughter, the film's author (fig. 5). “Seno” becomes sino, a question word that signifies an ambiguous vacuum, rather than a marker of identity.
Through its portrayal of guns, the film maps its localized patriarchal order onto the historical structure of empire. While it gets playful mileage out of the generic references to gun-toting, traveling Western heroes, it also problematizes any easy veneration of this kind of violence. In addition to mocking the masculinities that guns evoke, the film links such weapons to the history of US colonization in the Philippines. Ruffian Mad Dog Macaso finds Tuding and Ireneo, whom he suspects of stealing his horse. He brandishes a pistol, displaying his command of both firearms and English, pronouncing over the gun's barrel, “1911. Invented by the Americans to pacify the Muslims.” The character may be a comic archetype, but here he appropriates the colonial threat of subjugation and violence to his own ends. The contexts of empire also emerge in a conversation between Tuding and Ireneo, who describes his own history of being a soldier during World War II. He recalls seeing an unclothed Japanese soldier bathing in a river and his hesitation to shoot an unarmed man, despite his perfect vantage point. Whether he pulled the trigger is left ambiguous. When Tuding asks, he responds with silence, plucking a nearby flower and placing it in the barrel of her rifle. The image conjures antiwar protests of the 1960s, evoking the Cold War geopolitics that underscore Philippine-US relations.
Shotgun Tuding's recursive telling of history appropriates the Western to convey an authorial origin story that is as much about the relations between Filipinos and foreign occupiers as it is about the relations between women and men. Both Tuding and Ireneo navigate a patriarchal order put in place by histories of empire. Tuding uses violence to force Ireneo to “do his duty” toward her pregnant sister, while Ireneo's past as a World War II soldier ties him to a conflict in which the Philippines was caught between two occupying forces, the United States and Japan. The gun and the camera are parallel instruments of violence and visuality in Shotgun Tuding, and this connection troubles the film's status as an altogether affectionate homage to the Western genre. The devices are aspects of colonialism's interwoven hard and soft power, its mobilizations of both force and entertainment. The tools are makers of history, appropriated here by women—“Shotgun” Tuding and the filmmaker who both descended from her and created her, thereby rescaling national history through her own fragmented, oblique ancestral lineage.
But as the film suggests, both the gun and the camera are imperfect tools for the task of history. They are remnants of colonialism and violence, and the histories they write often serve those ends. In its reflexive appropriation of the Western, Shotgun Tuding drafts another possibility, training its lens on the process of historical construction. Like Jai, the film implicates the author in this process; the filmmaker becomes not the heroic writer of a recuperative, superior history, but a witness to historiography's failings. The alternate view she offers is a history of filmic historiography, a reflexive chronicle that evades the demands of national historical narratives.
IMAGE OVER EVENT:
Like Jai and Shotgun Tuding, the recursive history offered up by Nguyễn Trinh Thi's Eleven Men also exists in tension with official histories. In this case, the dialogue is more direct, thanks to the use of archival footage. Nguyễn was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 1973. She was educated in both Vietnam and the United States, studying Russian and English at Hanoi Foreign Studies College before obtaining graduate degrees at the University of Iowa in journalism (1999) and the University of California at San Diego in international affairs (2005). Nguyễn's films are often reflexive commentaries that combine fiction and documentary footage.
Eleven Men is an essay film composed of found footage. Nguyễn juxtaposes scenes from three decades of films, all featuring the actress Như Quỳnh (fig. 6). As Như Quỳnh's face ages across Vietnamese film history, a voice-over narration performed by Nguyễn herself reworks Franz Kafka's 1919 short story “Eleven Sons.” The film is the second in Nguyễn's two-film series Vietnamese Classics Re-Cut, which began when the Vietnamese Film Institute released a series of DVDs of classical socialist films. For both works, Nguyễn edited together pieces of the footage, reworking the artifacts of official history to focus on image and subjective observation rather than narrative progression. Such reconstructive tactics evoke critiques of normative historical narrative, which privilege the event, and reject what Sande Cohen describes as “the successivity of events, no matter how ambiguous, gathered together as proper names (French Revolution), which at once serve as periodization and event-markers.”32 I would argue that Nguyễn's Vietnamese Classics Re-Cut suggests an alternative logic of time by critically engaging with the archive of official history. She herself describes the series as a reinterpretation of history: “Vietnam has been a Communist country for very long time, and we only have one kind of official history, written by the Communist party. So, I am always very interested in a different kind of history, and I try to do different work. … It's a way to re-interpret history.”
Eleven Men follows a similar engagement with history, this time working the author into the text through Nguyễn's voice-over narration. Eschewing the event as the primary marker of historical time, Eleven Men does not emphasize scenes of action—the sweeping panoramas of war, landscape, or statecraft that usually comprise narrative depictions of national history. Instead it consists primarily of portraits, its emphasis on close-ups re-scaling the markers of history to the features of the human face.33 Coming from the author herself, Nguyễn's voice-over ties the images to her perspective, constructing a new, unofficial temporality structured around the duration of the film itself. Rather than framing the film within a far-reaching, national narrative that extends beyond pro-filmic boundaries, the voice-over tethers the images to the progression of the voice. Eleven Men constructs its logics of temporality around its unseen narrator's voice, which guides the film's episodic construction.
As with Jai, stardom plays an important role in Eleven Men, through actress Như Quỳnh. While the author is heard and unseen, Như becomes her on-screen proxy. The author's performed voice-over animates the star of the source films, unsettling the politics of looking that typically guide classical filmmaking. Born in 1954, Như starred in many socialist films of the 1970s, earning the title “People's Artist,” an honor conferred on artists working in Communist states. She went on to star in three French coproductions, Indochine (1992), Cyclo (1995), and Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000). In certain ways, her works reflect a national narrative. As Nguyễn describes, she watched the actress's career evolve across the decades, and became intrigued by Như's performances in these nationalist films and how they differed from her biography. Because the actress came from a family of famous actors from the colonial period, her origins were quite bourgeois, a contrast to the “hero mother” figures that she often portrayed in the socialist dramas. Nguyễn became interested in how the image, when freed from the constraints of narrative, might betray this extra-filmic identity. Như's aging face, shown in close-up over the course of decades, rescales historical time to a woman's face (fig. 7). Like the short-film format, this use of the close-up becomes an intervention into scale, trading the vastness of the historical narrative for the intimacy of the authorial voice and the human body.
While Như's face provides the common thread linking Eleven Men's constituent films, the short does not focus on it alone. Rather, it also offers a portrait of the actress's “eleven men” through close-ups of several of her male costars. Nguyễn's text stays very close to the Kafka story, but while the Kafka text describes sons, her adaptation transforms this paternal voice to that of lover.34 Through Nguyễn's voice-over narration, both Như and Nguyễn, actress and author, possess the men portrayed, while also bypassing conventional ties between motherhood and nation. Eleven Men's audio narration sutures the reconstruction's clips, the author's voice “rescuing” the films from their narratives.
For each of the eleven men described, the film begins with a black screen, and the voice-over is our first introduction to him, aural words preceding visual image. Every man receives a detailed description, with the contours of his face and personality almost scientifically observed by the film's all-seeing narrator. She becomes the authority, her words deconstructing each image. And because Như acts as Nguyễn's on-screen proxy, she lends this authority to her, as well, reworking her relations with the men she looks at. For example, in the film's opening, Nguyễn's voice begins to describe the first of her eleven men—“The first is outwardly very plain …”—and proceeds to become the agent driving the images. The film then cuts to a close-up of a young man in uniform, looking off-camera (fig. 8). The voice-over continues: “… but serious and clever.” The young man urges his offscreen companion not to be sad, and the film cuts to a close-up of a very young Như, who gazes at him and makes him promise to return.
While Như's delivery is plaintive, the narrator's voice, constructed as Như's inner monologue, creates a more critical counterpoint. As the camera pans across a train filled with joyous, waving soldiers, the voice-over continues: “Yet, although I love him as I love all my men, I do not rate him very highly.” It cuts back to the close-up of the young lover, as the director's voice observes, “His mental processes seem to me to be too simple.” Eleven Men continues with this contrapuntal juxtaposition of the original context and the voice-over's calm, all-knowing reinterpretation of its source materials. Eschewing narrative progression, it moves through subjective observations, their numbered advancement (“The first man”; “My second man”) creating an inventory rather than a cause-and-effect narrative. Temporal progression is instead signposted through close-ups of Như's face, which ages two decades over a twenty-eight-minute run. Her body becomes a clock, tracking historical change. History is not objective and distanced, but subjective and corporeal. As with Jai and Shotgun Tuding, the film enacts a slippage between star and author. Here that slippage is mediated through the author's voice, which lends agency to Nguyễn as the builder of this catalog and foregrounds the process of historical construction.
Eleven Men's significance lies in its engagement with official history, which offers an alternative logic of time and authorship. Nguyễn likens her filmmaking practice to “gleaning,” seeing herself as being in conversation with the original work: “For me, when I do a found footage film, I have kind of mixed purposes, not just being critical. I'm also very interested in the potentials and possibilities of the material. I would like to think of myself as a gleaner, trying to preserve or save something, some kinds of possibilities that might be existing in the material, but which might be kind of unobvious or buried.”
For Eleven Men, the buried potential in this archive of images lies in its portraits of men, portraits Nguyễn excavates and moves into Như's line of vision. The film is a riposte to the gendered gaze of the classical cinematic form. Through the voice of the author, it is also a reflection on how that gaze is constructed and how its form remains constant over time. The collection of films that constitutes Eleven Men offers a vision of Vietnamese film history spanning two decades. But this vision of national history is rescaled to the human face, rather than the event. The film becomes a reply not just to cinema's gendered gaze, but to the way that this gaze's ubiquity has limited perspectives on national history.
ALTERNATIVE CINEMA HISTORIOGRAPHIES
Why might it matter that these three filmmakers are women, or that we consider them “Southeast Asian”? In one sense, this article builds from long-standing cinema and media studies efforts to move beyond binary East-West frameworks in order to examine other forms of collectivity occurring at the “peripheries” of global filmmaking.35 This is a crucial move. Here, I aim to build from it by acknowledging periphery-periphery contacts, as well as the ways those contacts are sometimes enabled through transnational infrastructures that overlap with geopolitical “centers.” I am interested in acknowledging the multiple scales involved in any filmmaking project as a means of recognizing the possible forms of agency within those structures. For filmmakers, their abilities to negotiate multiple scales—their scalar dexterity—becomes one form of agency. Transnational infrastructures for funding and/or dissemination are just one aspect of Jai, Shotgun Tuding, and Eleven Men; the films also stem from the filmmakers' commitments to local production scenes and national histories.
Scales themselves are not given, but produced, often within the institutional contexts of festivals, museums, criticism, and other forms of cultural organization. This article and the curatorial project that instigated it participate in the ongoing production of one such scale: a gendered, Southeast Asian, regionalist imaginary. As Patricia White observes, “Festival, scholarly, professional, and audience networks of women's cinema within Asia and its diasporas are not yet fully recognized within the economic and cultural approaches to Asian cinema that have energized the field of cinema studies in recent decades.”36 In part, this article is an effort to acknowledge one small part of those networks, a matrix of contingent, regional connections that works as both an institutional and a textual formation.
Inspired by the films themselves, I have also endeavored to take a reflexive view of the curatorial process that brings this scale into being. Acts of curation—festivals, anthologies, syllabi, screening series—can surface textual parallels across bodies of work. Taken together, the films discussed here portray parallel experiments with the depiction of national historiography, shared across multiple national settings. Critics of postcolonial temporality most often discuss history as an academic discipline, rather than history as represented through film. But they call for methods that move outside narration in order to represent the limits of history, and these calls resonate with alternative filmmaking. For women filmmakers engaging with national history, practices of self-reflexivity are particularly attuned to models of historical time based on nonlinear, fragmentary heterotemporalities. The national past becomes not an objective fact captured in archives, or an affective, collective memory, but a processual act of construction. This kind of reflexivity is not necessarily critical. But as the analysis above argues, for women filmmakers, taking a reflexive stance toward historical representation allows them to claim mastery over both the fictions of more mainstream historical narratives, as well as the process of representing history itself. These films' reflexive histories reject the more linear, mainstream narratives that have historically excluded them, their shared aesthetic strategies sketching the possibilities of a regional imaginary for women's filmmaking.