An interview with new CSI Faculty member, Elizabeth Wijaya

September 16, 2019 by Denise Ing

Prof. Elizabeth Wijaya recently joined the Department of Visual Studies at UTM as an Assistant Professor of East Asian Cinema. In her graduate appointment at the Cinema Studies Institute, she is teaching CIN3008HF - Cinematic Time, Political Time: The Geopolitics of Memory, History, and Forgetting. We asked her to tell us a bit about herself.

What is your background in cinema? What are your areas of specialization, and what drew you to those areas?

My areas of specialization are in contemporary Southeast and East Asian cinema, political cinema, film-philosophy and eco-cinema.

I received my PhD in Comparative Literature from Cornell University in 2018 where I worked with Tim Murray, Naoki Sakai, Arnika Fuhrmann and Cathy Caruth. I'm working on my dissertation to book project, provisionally titled Luminous Flesh: The Visible and Invisible Worlds of Trans-Chinese Cinema where I write about post–2000 films and moving-image works by filmmakers of Chinese descent in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. During my doctoral training, I was affiliated with the Southeast Asian Program and East Asian Program and this shaped my desire to investigate the contours of regionality and work between Southeast and East Asian cinema. Theoretically, I'm very much influenced by French philosophy, particularly Derrida, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. I've co-edited a Special Issue of Parallax "Survival of the Death Sentence" around Derrida's 1999–2001 seminar on the death penalty, where I contributed an article "To See Die, Again" on visibility and the logic of the death penalty through Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing.

From 2018–2019, I was President's Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) under the mentorship of Jason McGrath and Lorenzo Fabbri. During the postdoctoral period, I wrote a chapter "Three ecologies of cinema, migration, and the sea: Anchorage Prohibited and Luzon" that is forthcoming this year in a volume Ecology and Chinese-Language Cinema, co-edited by Sheldon Lu and Gong Haomin.

Before I started the PhD, I had some experience in film directing and producing and co-founded E&W Films where my partner, Weijie, is currently the lead producer and I work in strategy and development. When I was doing my BA and MA in Singapore, I wrote almost exclusively on continental philosophy, European and Anglophone literature even though I was involved in independent film productions in Singapore. It was through the cold, dark days of Ithaca, the imprint of A Brighter Summer Day, and the persuasion of Tim Murray, my dissertation chair, that I started researching and writing about Asian films. Through E&W Films and volunteering for the Singapore International Film Festival, I grew more acquainted with the exciting developments in Southeast and East Asian cinema.

What are your top three favourite films of all time? Why?

I think A Brighter Summer Day, Landscape in the Mist and Gertrud come to mind as in retrospect, through each of them, something in me or my life changed.

I first watched Carl Dreyer's Gertrud in 2004 as an undergraduate taking the Philosophy and Film elective class at the National University of Singapore (NUS). The assigned film was The Passion of Joan of Arc but I was hooked and wanted to watch more. The directors and films the class exposed me to was transformative as up till then, my interests were mostly in literature, theatre, and philosophy. Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore in the 80s and 90s, I was not exposed to films that weren't commercially available or recommended by pirated VCD sellers. My early film memories were Hong Kong cinema reruns like Wong Kar Wai on TV and of course, occasional outings to watch Hollywood films. It was when I was an undergraduate student and started taking film electives and joined NUS' student film club, nuSTUDIOS Film Production that I even discovered Singapore film history and took part in short film productions. My first short film co-directed with my partner was selected for the 30th Asian American Film Festival in New York but neither of us went as it was far away and expensive. Gertrud is such an austere, renunciative film, and I think the emo-side of my younger self identified with the reclusive ending but my memories of it are also mixed with the thrills and messiness of learning about unexpected cinematic worlds.

Theo Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist is also very close to my heart and I think it has one of the saddest scenes of all time. I first watched it when I was a TA for an Introduction to Film Class while doing my MA at NUS and I had a visceral reaction to it. For me, it cemented an interest in techniques of the unseen or invisibilized in cinema.

I first watched A Brighter Summer Day at the National Museum of Singapore at a March 2011, retrospective, In His Time: The Films of Edward Yang. I was preparing my PhD application then and watching the film was a life-changing experience as it seeded the desire to visit Taiwan, work on Taiwan cinema and study the Taiwan New Wave.

More recently, I've been very impressed by Kamila Andini's The Seen and the Unseen and Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time it Gets Dark, and I teach the latter in my class, Cinematic Time, Political Time. 

Tell us about your courses in 2019/20.

This Fall, I'm teaching an interdisciplinary graduate seminar, CIN3008HF - Cinematic Time, Political Time: The Geopolitics of Memory, History, Forgetting. We raise questions on how the "cinematic' may be related to the "political" within a geopolitical frame through investigating theories of time, duration and the inheritance of memory/forgetting. Films by Anocha Suwichakornpong, Kavich Neang, Rithy Panh, Lau Kek Huat, Daniel Hui and Stanley Kwan, among others, are paired with works drawn from philosophy, anthropology, history, film and critical theory in order to encourage students to think comparatively, across regional and disciplinary boundaries.

In the Winter, I'll be teaching EAS207H5S - East Asian Cinema, an undergraduate lecture course at UTM. If I can work out the logistics, there'll be a VR component to the course as I'll love to show Chiang Wei Liang's HTC Vive Original short film "Only the Mountain Remains," that had its international premiere at this year's Venice International Film Festival's VR section and was also co-produced by my partner. Through the support of the Department of Visual Studies and the Cinema Studies Institute, I am inviting Davy Chou, the French-Cambodian filmmaker, to visit my class and will hold workshops and screenings in February 2020 as part of a weeklong filmmaker-in-residence program (check Events for updates and details). Davy Chou directed the documentary Golden Slumbers, feature film, Diamond Island and co-founded a Cambodian-based film collective, Anti-Archive. We are learning about Anti-Archive in my current graduate seminar. His visit next year is part of my hope to have sustained conversations on the bold works that are reconfiguring the boundaries of Asian cinema within my courses and the community.

Which is your favourite film festival?

The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) holds a special place in my heart. My co-directed debut feature film, I Have Loved, premiered at the 24th edition in 2011. Since 2014, Wahyuni Hadi has been the Executive Director of SGIFF and my partner, Weijie, works as a Senior Programme Manager and initiated key film mentorship programmes: the Southeast Asian Film Lab, the Youth Jury & Critics Programme, and Southeast Asian Producer’s Network.

Though I've been away in North America, I always try to return during the festival dates and volunteer when I can. This year, I took on a small task as external reviewer for submissions over the summer where I watched 55 films in a month. The number is small compared to the hundreds the real programmers watch each year but the rhythm is so different from my academic work, where I could be writing about a film for years before the published work even sees the light of day. During the 30th edition this year-end, I'll complete my 3rd year of volunteering as Jury Hospitality Coordinator, which has given me a chance to experience the behind-the-scenes of a film festival.

In Ithaca, where I did my PhD, I gained an appreciation for the importance of regional festivals through the Fingerlakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) run by the inimitable Patty Zimmermann, a professor at Ithaca College, whom I have tremendous awe and respect for. Next year, I'll be curating a Southeast Asian short film program for FLEFF. I think it's no coincidence that both SGIFF and FLEFF are helmed by visionary women.

This year, I've experienced TIFF for the first time and the vibrancy of the festival has warmed up my transition to Toronto. I'm looking forward to more years of TIFF!

What films are you looking forward to seeing in the future?

Next year, I have high hopes for Taste by Le Bao, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria and Kamila Andini's Yuni.

What are your plans for the immediate future? 

It's early days yet but my appointment includes seed funding for an Asian short film collection housed at UTM Library. I'm tremendously excited about working with the library to start and grow this collection as I think it could be a valuable resource for research and teaching.

I also hope to continue curating small film programmes. This summer, I curated a series "Migratory Times" for the Asian Film Archive's Reframe series and invited guests speakers to introduce the five Chinese-languages films from the 40s and 80s filmed in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. It was a lot of fun. I think I'm attracted to film festivals, film classes and film events as they bring bodies of people together and this is always an opportunity for meaningful encounters and conversations to happen.