As Kopimotion’s last article has shown, race is a trigger topic in Singapore’s media landscape. As a concept that structures our thoughts and policies, race entrenches ways of categorising and dominating people through the enforcement of difference. This fixation on classifying people also becomes the dominant mode of thought within which we develop our own views of people. We come to think of our Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other (CMIO) model not as a socially engineered set of boxes, but a natural fact of life. Consequently, religion, which finds itself in the cache of cultural traits that racial groups carry, loses its potential for fostering unity, becoming instead a marker for difference.

Working within and against the boundaries of race and religion, Religious Procession by Dave Lim stretches the limits of the documentary film in its attempt to interrogate the idea of difference. Once Religious Procession begins, one notices its bold use of the split screen form. Religious Procession plays out on two adjacent screens, with scenes from a Taoist ritual and a Hindu Thaipusam march playing off opposite sides of the line.

This choice of form forces the audience into a different way of viewing, one that emphasises cultural synergies in spite of a split down the screen-world’s centre. This form elongates the film’s aspect ratio; it demands an expansion of the audience’s eye; it compels a horizontal reading of the screen that alternates between two worlds, producing a third through the display and disruption of synergy. Form imitates content in Religious Procession as both screen and filmmaker grapple with the task of bridging cleaved identities.

The twin cinema

Religious Procession doesn’t use the split screen in the same way as a typical narrative film would. Instead, Religious Procession finds more in common with poetry. This film can be described as a series of cinematic rhymes that produce meanings through their mergers and clashes against each other.

Twin cinema is a poetic form indigenous to Singapore that produces meaning through the production and dissolution of difference. As the Southeast Asian Poetic Forms Blog tells us,

the modern twin cinema is often characterised by a dialogue between two opposing or agreeing voices in the vertical columns that reaches an uncertain harmony when read horizontally across.

The twin cinema poem features two columns of text; each column is a standalone poem, but a new meaning arises when one reads against the friction of the blank space keeping the columns apart. Once separated into different poetic realms, these two texts are braided together by the act of intentional boundary-breaking reading. Twin cinema thus produces meaning in a twofold process: it establishes difference before bringing these distinct categories back into jigsawed harmony, fitted together despite a split that cannot be fully sutured.

Religious Procession‘s adoption of the twin cinema format seems to aspire towards a similar cultural aim. By juxtaposing scenes of Taoist and Hindu rituals alongside each other, the film depicts its filmmaker’s attempt at fitting two cultural worlds into an uneasy union despite a society that insists upon difference. Even though similarities flash across both screens, these twins are separated from each other, separated at birth. As such, Religious Procession traces these twins’ origins back to their common ancestry by forcing the viewer into action. Like in the poetic form, the twin cinema of Religious Procession highlights the agency of the audience; one must intentionally read across fissures of difference to produce unity in spite of separation.

Visual poetry

Film cannot access words in as straightforward a manner as poetry. While words produce direct meaning, film can only provoke resonances through image and sound. Lim works around this by creating visual rhymes. His images strike up resonances with their counterparts on the other side of the partition, producing a cinematic twin cinema poem that bridges two cultural silos. The resultant film reminds us of a stage in twin cinema’s poetic development in which

Each individual line of a column contained imagery that could correlate or contrast to the opposing line of the other column [Southeast Asian Poetic Forms].

Religious Procession is an exercise in thematic and visual symmetry. The film unfolds in six parts, and the two screens generally depict parallel developments in the Taoist and Hindu processions that highlight their similarities. The film opens with two adjacent shots of preliminary offerings to the gods. On one side, joss sticks sit amidst waves lapping at the shore; on the other, fruits and grains are spread out on banana leaves. Both religions are concerned with appeasing, feasting and sacrifice. As beginning images, these shots encapsulate the logic of the film; they teach the audience that watching Religious Procession is an exercise in looking beyond the cosmetics of the ritual to recognise a common sense of piety uniting these worlds.

This cinematic action of braiding two into one continues throughout the film. In Part 3, we watch participants from both sides move off from their holding sites to their theatres of action. In Part 4, we take a trip backwards in time as the film cuts to old documentaries of Thaipusam and Taoist rituals. While the film has largely been operating on a horizontal level, or a synchronic axis, charting out religious affinities within a single pocket of time, Lim now moves towards a series of visual rhymes along a vertical or diachronic axis, charting out similarities across time. In Part 4, we see a modern-day Taoist medium cut his tongue with an axe, and then cut to an olden-day Taoist medium making quick slices across his tongue with sword. In this segment, Lim folds the present back into the past, perhaps to rediscover an older sense of unity that our time no longer possesses.

Lim’s knack for visual poetry peaks in dual shots that rhyme both thematically and visually. In these moments, the film’s call for understanding becomes especially clear. Take, for instance, this sequence of two kavadi carriers, mirroring each other like reflections along the border. One side happens in daylight while the other side happens at night; one is set against an HDB estate and the other against festive night lighting. Notably, one devotee is Indian and another is Chinese. These similar but contrasting images produce a pair that clashes as much as it rhymes. One might see them as complementary images, like yin and yang making up a unified whole.

Similarly, another dual shot highlights the shared physical gestures that unite Hinduism and Taoism. On the left, Hindu devotees carry pots of milk on their heads, while Taoist devotees carry flower buckets on theirs. The twin cinema becomes a twin mirror; it shows us that these two sides aren’t so different after all.

At the limits of documentary

In the documentary genre, what we have is not true objectivity, but an aesthetic of objectivity. Films that we think are objective have simply succeeded in disguising themselves well. While each half of Religious Procession‘s twin cinema might stand alone as a self-contained insight into a ritual event, they come together in a way that also makes Lim’s ideological aim particularly apparent. It is clear that Lim is invested in interrogating the validity of racial, religious and cultural difference. This impulse shows up in his rhymes, in the disruption of boundaries – we see multiple Chinese kavadi carriers – and in his interview of a Chinese kavadi carrier at the two-third mark of the film, who says

You can realise one thing. Everyone of us – don’t talk about only the Taoism – talk about, er, all types of races, they need to kneel down.

Why they need to kneel down? From the point, why?

Oh, it’s a respect. Same thing lor. But, to me I realise lah, all the religion is the same. It’s just how you use and how you approach.

One might say that Lim’s insistence upon the message of his film betrays the documentary genre’s appeal to objectivity. Nonetheless, in an age where difference seems to be a key factor in the formation of often antagonistic identities, Lim’s commitment to the bridging of divisions is a timely intervention into a society that has forgotten its similarities. Under Lim’s direction, Religious Procession questions the purpose of the documentary genre. He refashions it into an agent that both describes and prescribes, leading his audience through a journey of intentional reading that discovers reasons for celebration within and between structures keeping Singapore afloat. Religion Procession is an urgent documentary for a society that needs to look beyond cosmetic differences.

Religious Procession will be playing at the Oldham Theatre on Sunday, 17 August, as part of the Singapore Shorts series.

Trailer:

About the Filmmaker: Dave Lim is a visual artist with a photojournalistic background. He graduated with a Bachelor of the Arts in Urban Studies. He is interested in the temporal landscapes that human create and participate in. He has been awarded the Singapore Young Photographer Award in 2018 and has participated in a residency at the School of Visual Arts, New York City.

About the Writer: Ben is interested in how films and society relate to each other. He was quite excited to write about Religious Procession because it’s his first attempt at critically thinking through a documentary film. Ben’s other interests include horror, comedy, psychoanalysis and spicy food.

Credits: Pictures courtesy of Dave Lim.

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One thought on “Visual Poetry: The Twin Cinema of Race and Ritual in “Religious Procession” (2019)

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