The coronavirus pandemic might have brought production to a standstill across Southeast Asia earlier this year, but the continued growth of regional VOD platforms and an uptick in public funding is poised to boost the independent film industry and bring fresh voices into the fold, particularly among female filmmakers.
Those were some of the takeaways of a panel discussion hosted Tuesday as part of the Locarno Film Festival’s Open Doors program dedicated to filmmaking in Southeast Asia. Moderated by Open Doors artistic consultant Paolo Bertolin, the panel included Malaysian producer Nandita Solomon; Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya; Antoinette Jadaone, a director from the Philippines; producer Thuthu Shein of Myanmar; Mary Liza Diño Seguerra, chairwoman of the Film Development Council of Philippines; and Maung Okkar, project manager of the Save Myanmar Film initiative.
Efforts to cope with the ongoing coronavirus crisis were at the forefront of the conversation, with local governments and film industries grappling with how to respond. “Everything was halted because of the pandemic,” said Diño Seguerra, whose organization has offered financial support to some 5,000 film industry workers affected by the shutdown.
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“We have so many film workers in the country that still need support. Because of the lockdown and the uncertainty that’s happening right now, with the growing [number of] cases, there’s no assurance that even if the economy opens, and even with the resumption of production, that we can ensure the [well-being] of our workers.”
In Malaysia, which has largely managed to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check, the economy began gradually reopening in June. More encouraging for local filmmakers, said Solomon, has been the move by a government that swept to power in March to boost investment in the film industry as part of broader efforts to kickstart the economy.
For producers applying for Malaysia’s 30% cash rebate, the minimum spend for local productions has been lowered, while a host of grants have been introduced to stimulate the production sector. “The strategy, and the long-term planning, is always [unclear],” said Solomon. “What we do know is that they want the grants to go out as fast as possible. They want [the results] to show in six months.”
Still, cinemas across much of the region remain closed, and the panelists expressed a common frustration over the uncertainty. “Everything is still so vague,” said Surya. “We don’t know what is going to happen.”
One heartening development is the continued growth of regional VOD platforms, which reported massive gains in subscriber numbers and consumption, as viewers across the region were forced to stay home during the lockdown. That’s opened up a host of new opportunities for filmmakers across Southeast Asia.
“These local streaming platforms, they accept edgier stories,” said Jadaone. “Producers of films that are not straight to platform may not be too welcoming to produce such kinds of films. But because [Filipino VOD platform] iWant is really a believer in giving this space for emerging storytellers and filmmakers, we’re really fortunate.”
Surya agreed. “For us filmmakers, especially like me…television was never an option for me to sell my films,” she said. “I make films with sex scenes, with uncomfortable scenes that they don’t want to show on television. Streaming services are more open to this kind of content.”
That fact should open doors for more women to enter the film industry in Southeast Asia, where they’re already well-represented. Shein said she’s seen a growing number of female filmmakers emerge in Myanmar in the past decade. Jadaone pointed to a rich tradition of women in the Philippine industry dating back to the 1970s and ‘80s. “I’m really fortunate to be standing on the shoulders of the women directors that came before us,” she said. “Now is a good time to be a women filmmaker.”
“In Malaysia, a lot of women are the powerhouse producers,” added Solomon, though she noted that they constituted a smaller share of the industry among directors, DoPs, editors, and other positions. She also stressed that the robust presence of female producers didn’t necessarily guarantee that women’s voices were being equally represented on screen.
“The stories are all male-centric, very masculine, and oftentimes—especially in mainstream cinema—the women are some kind of prop,” she said. “The roles for female actors—it’s just love interest, or subservient wife. These are things I see as a real problem in our industry. I hope that the younger generation will change things.”
Surya added that it wasn’t sufficient to judge the local industry’s progress based on gender alone. “When I made my first film, suddenly I was dragged into this box as a female director, and everyone tried to ask me to define the question of what it is to become a female director,” she said. “And then I became aware of how privileged I have been that I get to this position, because I was educated, and because I have access…to the industry.”
She continued: “That kind of limited the point of view of women’s cinema in Indonesia. We have a lot of female directors, but I think most of them have similar backgrounds. I think that diversity is what it’s needed in the future in our cinema.”