Words and photographs by Chew Tee Pao
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Asian Film Archive
2015 marks Tee Pao’s sixth year working at the Asian Film Archive (AFA), a film heritage organisation founded to preserve, in a permanent collection, culturally and historically important works by Asian independent filmmakers. As a film archivist, he works on a strategic level with the AFA team in planning the institution’s key preservation, outreach and advocacy programmes. Read on to find out what eventually led Tee Pao to be an archivist and why preserving films is important.
Cast of Black Gold with director Yi Sui.
From the Asian Film Archive, courtesy of Joo Lan Berry
I didn’t set out to be a film preservationist.
My passion for film came about when I started going to the cinema at a young age. Initially, it was the stories in films that fascinated me, and I even dreamt of becoming a movie director. Right after my graduation in 2009, I joined AFA as an intern, with very little clue and expectation about film preservation. Here I am, six years on and still going strong. I like to think that I’ve found a clearer sense of purpose and meaning in what Cinema means to me through film preservation.
My work in film preservation entails battling the effects of film deterioration. I protect the film originals and provide public access to them through duplicated copies. By investing in saving films and storing them properly, these films have a chance to continue existing in as close to their original form as possible so that future generations can study or enjoy them. To the average person, this may seem uninspiring, given how easily film and television contents are being consumed today, and how “digitising” everything makes them more “readily” accessible to the public. But that’s a debate for another day.
To put it in an intimate way, I like to think of films as our family pictures.
To archive a film is to preserve and document its historical, cultural and artistic values, and in so doing, provide access to a nation’s social memory and cultural heritage. A film made in the 1940s or 1990s offers us glimpses of life at that moment, allowing us to reflect on our present and the future.
In 1997 (I was 7 then), at a coffee shop where I lived, I chanced upon a film set shooting a movie scene from one of the highest-grossing local films of all time—Money No Enough. It was an exciting first experience for me to witness a movie-making instance that it got me curious about the industry. Ten years later, I revisited the film and felt a surreal connection with it, as if I was a child again, watching that very scene play out before me. That was a pivotal moment for me. Today, the coffee shop no longer looks the way it did, and I’ve since moved out of that neighbourhood. Nonetheless, there is much in the film that reminds me of the fond memories of my childhood environment.
AFA archivist Tee Pao cleaning and assessing 35mm film
To put it in an intimate way, I like to think of films as our family pictures. We keep our family photo albums because we want to remember certain events that have passed, and the subjects and places that meant something for us at that point in time. Like our family pictures, films bring generations of a family together.
A few years ago, the daughter of the late Singaporean film director Yi Sui tried to locate a film made by her father in the early 1960s, entitled Black Gold. She had hopes of securing the memory of her father and a piece of their familial and cultural heritage through his cinematic work. She managed to locate another of her father’s film Lion City, which is the first Cathay-Keris produced Singapore-made Chinese film. The film has since been reunited with the family. Coincidentally, Yi Sui’s granddaughter, a film school graduate, could become acquainted with 1960s Singapore because of her grandfather’s cinematic work. Today, Black Gold remains lost. However, until Yi Sui’s daughter initiated her search, the film was virtually unknown and non-existent to most.
To archive a film is to preserve and document its historical, cultural and artistic values, and in so doing, provide access to a nation’s social memory and cultural heritage.
There are many other such films that remain languishing in the stores and cupboards of their owners. A film archive can help protect this cinematic heritage and contribute to the sustainability of the film industry. That’s why we preserve film.