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Realtime >> Friday July 18, 2008
Thinking outside the box

Dutch film expert Gertjan Zuilhof talks about the changing nature of today's cinematic experience and the West's fascination with Asian horror stories


Hopping around our region in search of good movies, the Dutch film expert Gertjan Zuilhof took time off to talk to us about the cultural importance of Southeast Asian horror films, the saturation of the boom concept known as film festivals, and about the day when citizens of the world will be able to watch a new movie like they now watch a solar eclipse: simultaneously across the planet, in awe, on giant public screens atop buildings fed by signals beamed from somewhere far, perhaps outside Earth.

Such fancies may seem far-fetched, but Zuilhof's progressive notion of movies and how we're exposed to them represents the crucial soul-searching of cinematic art in this crunch period of digital paradigm-shifting. Zuilhof is a Southeast Asian film enthusiast and programmer - meaning a scout and film selector - for International Film Festival Rotterdam, a respected European cine-fest well known for its support of independent films as well as its startling (or strange) innovations.

In 2007, Zuilhof introduced the high-concept "Happy Endings: When Festivals Are Over", as part of the Rotterdam festival. It was an attempt to challenge the notion of a traditional film festivals by incorporating a DVD bazaar where audiences can buy DVDs directly from little-known filmmakers; a script reading (modelled after poetry readings); something called Seatless Cinema; a live punk band performing during the screening of a silent movie on ghetto-punk; and, most curiously, a football tournament inside a movie theatre.

Earlier this year, Zuilhof invited filmmakers from around Southeast Asia to Rotterdam to create pieces of installation art, in a bid to associate cinema with other forms of visual experimentation. And next year, Rotterdam will tease the conscience of film festival purists further with a plan to create a Haunted House as an appendage to movie screenings. Zuilhof was in Bangkok last week to approach some Thai film directors about contributing to his enigmatic scheme.

"The Haunted House will be part of the screening programme of ghost movies from Southeast Asia," says Zuilhof. "In this house there will be several rooms, and I'll invite a filmmaker to create a theme for each room that has something to do with ghosts. It could be a video installation, or it could be something else. It could be scary, like a haunted house or amusement park, or it could be inspiring in other ways."

It is understandable if some viewers look down on horror films as gaudy B-movies, especially in Thailand, where the heavy commercialisation of the genre has diluted its merit as a form of narrative tradition. Zuilhof believes, like many Thai scholars on the subject do, that ghost stories represent the legacy of a traditional storytelling pertinent to the belief and social structure of the land that produces them. In short, to watch ghosts movies is to try to understand the human behind them.

"To me the specific quality of Southeast Asian horrors is the fact that the people who make them and the people who watch them actually believe in ghosts - not necessarily the ghosts on the screen, but the ghosts in their daily lives, or from childhood experiences, or from a story they've been told," says Zuilhof, who tours the region every year looking for new movies.

"This is a huge different from the European and American audiences, who see horror films for their stories, but it's not in the culture and actually traditionally forbidden by the religion. The Christian Church, for example, doesn't allow you to believe in anything else besides Jesus Christ and God - maybe in angels and saints. The devil is not a ghost in the same sense as an Asian ghost - the idea that your dead ancestors are still present. It's a very important idea, and it's totally absent in the West."

In Indonesia over 100 films are made every year, and more than half of them feature ghosts of diverse pedigrees and inclinations. Thai filmmakers produce around 40 titles each year, and ghost stories rank competitively with comedies as the most reliable, and most lucrative, enterprises. Meanwhile, the Filipinos render their ghosts, like they render everything else on screen, more sensational, sweatier, sultrier, this despite their professed Catholicism.

Zuilhof believes that the inherent belief in living spirits - we could also say superstition - impregnates Asian films with a spiritual authority that is geographically and culturally specific. This is why the Hollywood fad of remaking Asian ghost stories - The Eye from Hong Kong, Shutter from Thailand, One Missed Call from Japan - is equivalent to borrowing someone's clothes but not his soul; those remakes failed to sustain the creepy flavour of the original, Oriental DNA. "The Hollywood remakes always change the ending, and the ghost is either conquered or gone, and there's a hope at the end," he says. "But if you believe in ghosts, they don't go away, and at best you can only live in peace with them.

"The excitement of Asian people when they watch ghost films, I believe, is connected to their inner beliefs. For Western audiences, it's all about action and violence. It's all about getting scared."

The changing nature of cinema

Zuilhof's Haunted House project in Rotterdam is a continuation of his belief in the evolution of movie festivals - and of movies themselves - in an age when the long-beloved concept of "going to the movies" is being challenged by new technology that enhances a more personalised experience. Cinema has become even more dominant in our lives, he says, but cinema as we know it may not endure forever.

Some say this is a radical prophecy, but like all provocative prophecies it has grounds. In 2007, when he staged the Happy Endings programme, Zuilhof provoked much discussion and garnered suspicion for his "pessimism" over the changing nature of cinema and how the audience has access to it.

Then there's the question of the role of a movie festival, an event that's traditionally conceived as an open platform to celebrate the power and magic of cinema (see side story on the Bangkok International Film Festival). In the age of iPod Movies and Xbox and downloadable DVDs and wi-fi cinema and sophisticated home theatre systems, will the practice of screening films in 35mm print in a dark theatre soon become outdated?

"I believe that the old things - what we have now - will stay, up to a certain point, then economic factors will decide everything," says Zuilhof.

"The speed with which movies come out and travel through the world has increased significantly, and for a film festival, a yearly event, to wait to get those new films is to lag behind the speed that audiences can be exposed to the movies. Movie festivals might have to change, or risk disappearing. That's why I gave the tagline to the Happy Endings section, 'When Festivals Are Over'."

Tying cinema to other visual arts is one possibility, like Zuilhof did in Rotterdam this year. The futsal matches were more of a publicity stunt, a successful one, though their context as a real-time live performance is a counterpoint to the inherently past-tense nature of movies. Big festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice have incorporated sideboard programmes that involve filmmakers in workshops or campuses, and more and more they screen films from digital sources (mostly computer servers) in addition to 35mm film prints.

But the relationship between an audience and a movie is getting excitingly complex with the way movies are conceived, exposed, marketed, with the prime catalyst being the unstoppable force of the digital media. The world has become a giant screen, says Zuilhof, with mobile phones, portable DVD players and outdoor LCD panels.

"It has happened, this idea that people can have access to moving images at their command, it's not a prediction," he says. "In some cities people watch an episode of, say, the series Lost while travelling on a subway. And actually, it's interesting to note that some of the most creative screenplays at the moment are the TV series like Lost, The Wire or 24. [While it could be said that] the golden days of arthouse cinema was in the 1960s to 1970s, and not right now.

"I don't know the future of the movie theatres. When Hollywood made Spider-Man, they made the movie first, then they made the DVD and computer game. But there are already movies made from computer games. So who knows, with Spider-Man 5, they might make the game and DVD first, and then the movie - or it could be an Xbox game/movie in one package. As soon as [filmmakers and investors] find that it's possible to make more money by presenting movies in other formats, then the cinema as we know it will be facing a tough time."

And to push it further, Zuilhof wondered why the next Star Wars couldn't be screened simultaneously across the globe in a grandiose world premiere event where people could gather around public screens to watch it, like they watch a natural phenomenon in the sky?

Or maybe not. Zuilhof acknowledges that people had predicted the end of celluloid 20 years ago. "But it's still here, not so much, but still here. We'll have to wait and see," he says. " The old things will remain, but for how much longer?"

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