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The Past, Present and Future from the Perspective of a Film Programmer : An Interview with Philip Cheah


Thinking about the Changes in the Film Industry and the Next Generation

Matsumoto: Since 1987, when you were involved in the beginning of SIFF, it's been nearly thirty years and you have been involved in many different things in cinema. What are the largest changes that you've witnessed over the years?

Cheah: I think as I have been saying, the biggest change is the generational. Our generation is now leaving the big positions and the younger generation of programmers is appearing in the last five years. But the odd thing to me is that we are now in a stage where we are reinventing the wheel; in other words, the new generation has to learn everything again [from scratch] because history is a very difficult lesson to teach. All the time when I talk to my friends who are teaching in film schools, they tell me the same thing, "Film students don't like to watch films." It is a very strange thing. Why would you study film if you don't like watching films? That's a scary thing because, what about the film programmers? Do they not like watching films?
I honestly don't know what to do because we are also now in a world where you have too much information: mass media choices, viewing platforms, and so on. You just have too much of everything and there is no time to develop deep interest in the little things because you are trying to run with everyone and everyone is in such a hurry to get everything. I don't know what the solution is to that.

Matsumoto: I agree what you say about film school students; there are so many who want their own films to be seen, but they're not eager to watch other people's films.
For me, I [personally] found it difficult to covey with words to, say a friend, how wonderful this or that film is. So what I did was gather a few people, watch a film together, and then talk about it afterwards. I think my work today is an extension of that.

Cheah: That is the way to go. It is a really good way to do it.

Matsumoto: You said you learned on the job. How do you think young generations who do want to become programmers can excel in the field? Are you interested in nurturing the younger generation of aspiring programmers?

Cheah: I have been doing that with some of the festivals that I work with. For example, I helped to co-found the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival in Indonesia. I have been working with the programmers there, and basically my method is nonintrusive. So, I would recommend films, but let them choose and just watch. I won't say anything unless I think that they're making a seriously crazy decision. But even then, I would just ask them to rethink it. My way is more Zen. So, I don't like to tell people what to do. I just like to help them to learn, to encourage their own thinking.

Matsumoto: It is true that there is no one single way of programming. Every person can only experience it through their own discovery of the films and encounters with the films. You could even say that every film is recreated inside every individual. So, it is up to the individual to make a choice, not the film.

Cheah: I have this image of film selection as a programmer. I am one of the survivors of the Titanic and managed to get on a lifeboat. And I see all these films around me floating in the water. Which one do I save?

Matsumoto: I know that you have done hundreds and hundreds of programs in your life. What is the strongest impression in your memory?

Cheah: I remember that in the early years when we first started showing retrospectives of Southeast Asian directors, I would stand in front of the theater with the director and worry whether we would have an audience. Every time we'd do these retrospectives of Southeast Asian director, I'd get nervous. It took us maybe six years before I started to be less anxious, when people developed the taste for it, and they just came. But developing taste really takes a lot of time.

Matsumoto: I have also organized many programs where audiences didn't come. On one occasion, I had one audience. He was modest and expressed leaving, but I convinced him to stay saying, "Somebody might come in, maybe they're late." But it was only him until the end.

A photo of Mr.Masamichi Matsumoto during interview

The Future of Asia / The Future of Film

Matsumoto: This a very broad and generic question, but could you share with us your thoughts on the future of Asian cinema or future of cinema.

Cheah: The future of Asia is very bright, but it's also very scary because I think a lot of Asians still don't realize their identity. For example, a lot of Asian filmmakers and distributors don't realize that the market is in Asia and they're still willing to keep going for the markets in the West, which they don't own. And, because they don't own the markets, they can't set their own prices: they can't make it affordable to their own people. So it is still a very unbalanced world. And the Asians, they claim they are an Asian director but the first chance that they get to be selected by a Western festival, they run for it. It makes me think, "What's happened to your sense of self-worth? Why don't you just give the Asian festivals, which are reputable already, a chance?"
In the 1980s, there were not many Asian festivals around. But today, there are a lot of great Asian festivals. So, isn't it time that we know where we stand?

A photo of Mr.Philip Cheah and Mr.Masamichi Matsumoto during interview

Cheah: Going back to the previous topic, I really understand how you feel about having a small audience.

Matsumoto: At the end of September 2016, I had a conversation with a certain Japanese film director. I had never talked with him before but he said that he had frequently come to see films at my place in the 1980s. And it made me very happy. I think it was one of the most rewarding experiences in recent times to hear that.

Cheah: Wow! Those are the things that keep us going.

Matsumoto: It really is what motivates us.

The Japan Foundation Asia Center
October 30, 2016

Interviewer : Masamichi Matsumoto

A photo of Mr.Masamichi Matsumoto during interview

Masamichi Matsumoto has been the director of Athénée Français Cultural Center since 1979, where he screens over 200 films from across the world every year. Since 1998, he has served as the co-director of The Film School of Tokyo. As a member of the board of directors of the Japan Community Cinema Center, he has promoted, since 2009, the establishment of a system to secure screening locations that are jointly cooperated by the public and private sectors.

Editor: Kaoruko Zaitoku (The Japan Foundation Asia Center)
Photo: Yuko Murata, Amiko Takimoto (The Japan Foundation Asia Center)