With the absence of a dedicated cinémathèque in Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ film program has long been a treasured fixture in the city’s repertory screening landscape. Initiated by the late, great Robert Herbert, who for 18 years acted as both curator and projectionist, the program has built a large, committed audience, who turn up in droves for well-known classics and lesser-known rarities, presented in their original celluloid glory.
Since 2018, the film program has been overseen by Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd, whose strong curatorial vision and deep knowledge of film has been amply demonstrated by her first run of film series for the Gallery. From her first program, the globe-spanning Cinema ’68 season, through to the trailblazing Chinese actress-focused Starburst, the Russian cinema-centred Cosmic Futures, and the current Neon Gods retrospective of Chinese-language cinema, her curation has lead a particularly potent concentration of cinematic inspiration to emanate out of the Gallery’s Domain Theatre in recent times.
I spoke to Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd about her most recent series Neon Gods, which celebrates the work of filmmakers including Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang and Ang Lee.
The film series is running in conjunction with the exhibition Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is themed around the ancient concept of tian ren he yi (天人合一), or the harmony between heaven, nature and humanity. How do you see the film series either exploring or departing from this theme?
That’s a good question. When I was discussing the concept of tian ren he yi with Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art’s curator, I was struck that films from Taiwan in the 1970s and 80s were examining universes that were radically out of sync. Characters were alienated from each other, drifting in spaces of urban anomie. And as I did more research for the series, I began to notice that the stories were not only about alienation, but that their modes of storytelling were also disjunctive.
So, I was struck that in these films there’s not usually a singular narrator, a singular point of view, but the story is decentered, even ‘epic’. This sometimes happens with curation, I think it can be a process of serendipity. I was reading Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement”, and he was talking about the style of epic narration. Epic in the sense of Homer’s “Iliad” or old folk stories, and it struck me that that form of narration where many universes and many beings orbit each other was actually quite pertinent to the kind of films that I was seeing emerging in my research. These films are labyrinthine, they’re intergenerational, and nature and the supernatural are often agential presences.
I guess it’s also the fact that cinema is largely a 20th century medium, which differs from the works in the exhibition which date from the Neolithic period to the 19th century. The world view presented is very different.
Absolutely. And the filmmakers, the majority of films in the season are from that first and second generation of so-called New Taiwanese Cinema, and of course that moment in Taiwan is one of radical rupture. Chiang Kai-shek has just died, martial law is about to be abolished in 1987, but there’s the persistence of tradition as well as new forms of social experience in rapidly changing cities. And I think that the energy of these films actually derives from filmmakers grappling with those collisions.
That was definitely evident in the first film of the series, Tsai Ming-liang’s Rebels of the Neon God.
I really liked the anecdote Linda Jaivin gave in her introduction to Rebels of the Neon God, about seeing Edward Yang wearing a T-shirt that read “Fassbinder, Bresson, Yang”…
And he hadn’t even made a film yet? There’s obviously something very special at that historical moment. Not all state-run government film institutions can decide “We want to counter the import of Hong Kong action films and start to forge our own cinematic identity”, and Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien both happen to begin filmmaking. It’s a very interesting historical moment in cinema.
We’re fortunate that it did happen. I thought Mou Tun-fei’s The End of the Track (1970) was an incredible discovery in the series, especially since it predates New Taiwanese Cinema, while expressing a lot of shared concerns and a shared Italian neorealist influence. How did you go about finding that film?
That film was the result of an extensive period of deep-dive research, particularly looking at some of the new restorations being done by the Taiwan Film Institute. So I watched a lot of film through the 60s and 70s, particularly kung fu, high romance. I also discovered this interesting moment of Hoklo language cinema, local dialect filmmaking that was Taiwan’s lost commercial cinema. Some of those films are starting to be digitised, and they are super interesting. But Mou Tun-fei’s film came like a bolt from the blue after seeing these genre pieces. His film, as you mentioned, is far more intimate, it’s telling a local story with non-professional actors, shot on location and with the kind of observational realist style that we tend to associate with filmmakers a decade later. I worked particularly on the 60s and 70s decades of research with another Taiwanese-born programmer, Benson Wu, who was quite influential in providing some historical background and context for these films.
The series concludes with a more recent film, Huang Hui-chen’s Small Talk from 2016, in which the director interviews her ‘badass lesbian Taoist princess’ mother. It’s the only documentary in the series, as well as the only film directed by a woman. What is it about this film that made it an essential part of the series?
I came to this film quite late. I realise that it already played at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival in Sydney. I was struck by its intimacy. I think it’s rare to find a filmmaker who also appears on screen and who thematises her relationship with her mother. I mean, Chantal Akerman would be an obvious example of someone who has done this before. Small Talk explores themes which are present in some of the earlier films but are unable to be fully expressed, namely gender diversity, queer desire. And, as with all of the programs I’ve put together at the Gallery, showcasing gender diverse voices is a real priority. In my research for earlier films, I came across Sylvia Chang and more recent people like Singing Chen and Zero Chou, but unfortunately there were issues of print availability and space in the program, which meant that I couldn’t include everything I wanted to. It was important to finish with Huang’s film.
I highly value the role that the Art Gallery’s film program plays in Sydney’s film culture, it fills a really important gap in presenting a wide variety of culturally important films in their original celluloid format. Do you think that it’s something that will continue in years to come, and how do you see the film program evolving?
Well thank you, it’s actually the film program’s 20-year anniversary next year, which is quite amazing. I think it has been a bastion in a city where film culture has ebbed and flowed, and that is all the work of my predecessor, Robert Herbert, for fighting for the program over the years, and for cultivating that audience.
As you might know, the Gallery is on the cusp of a major expansion, it’s building a second building, and moving image is going to play a much bigger part across both buildings in the future. There’s an expanded role not only for the Domain Theatre – so black box, single-channel works – but for exploring the moving image in all of its iterations. Looking forward, we’re about to embark on a project that reflects both on the philosophy of the film program as it exists, and how we can evolve to ensure that we have the robust infrastructures in place necessary to accommodate the myriad forms that the moving image will take in the future.
Our audiences are continuously growing. What’s really heartening is that Sydney’s film culture is nourished, not only by spaces of exhibition, or spaces of film production, but also by online spaces like 4:3, spaces for film criticism. And I see groups following in your collective’s footsteps, in forging a new socially engaged culture of engaging with the moving image. I’m thinking here in Sydney of the Film in Revolt group, and in Melbourne a new one called Rough Cut. Seeing those platforms emerge gives me great hope that the film program will evolve in exciting dialogue with other people interested in film in the city.
Yes, I also have hope for the future! Do you feel a responsibility in your curation of the program to provide access to films that aren’t otherwise available, or that are difficult for audiences to see?
Absolutely. I think a lot about the theatrical versus film streaming question. There’s a cultural conversation about how online platforms increase access. On the one hand, that is definitely true, but I think that some streaming services have also heralded a diminishment of access to film history. If you compare what was available at the video store to what’s available on Stan, I don’t think that they can compare.
So, I think that spaces that are dedicated to showcasing historic as well as contemporary moving image works in a collective environment are important now and will continue to be important in the future. And, as you mentioned, our dedication to showing film in its original format is a new experience for a lot of younger audience members. It’s been interesting to watch, even in the past few years, the historical pendulum swing back toward celluloid. It’s now a marketable part of event culture. Our dedication to sourcing 35mm film prints means that we’ve developed an audience who is receptive and appreciative of seeing difficult to access films from around the globe.
Thank you for your time!
The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Neon Gods film series continues until Sunday 5 May, 2019.