"This is how one pictures the angel of history. Her face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, she sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of her feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in her wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them."
This is how an angel perceives the past, a single catastrophe piling a mountain of wreckage at her feet. But we are told that it is a logical chain of events. Linear time, cause and effect, leading us progressively to a better modernity. A storm is blowing in from Paradise, dragging the angel away from the wreckage of History, dragging the angel into a Utopian futurity. Hurled into a beautiful Paradise. Some time in the future.
Even an angel is helpless, what more mortals like us?
There is a certain beauty in Tan Pin Pin's new documentary, Invisible City. Underlying this beauty is a grief of absence. We are shown beautiful and rare colour footage of a forgotten era of Singapore. At the same time, this footage cannot be contextualised. There is an absence in the beautiful reels of another Singapore. The documentarian struggles to provide a narrative, some form of context, but he cannot. Because he cannot remember. The screen is blank as he tries his best to dredge his memory, desperately trying to fill that absence. But there is only incoherence. And that scene transcends into a presence of absence.
There is footage of archaeologists at work. Excavating bits and pieces of forgotten Singapore. There is a montage of "I was here" graffiti at one of the excavation sites. But again there is an underlying grief of absence. The same lack of context. The archaeologists are digging and dispassionately cataloguing the relics. Reading and recording each sliver of information in the relics. But again there is silence, absence. And you can feel this in the documentary.
There is another narrative by Han Sanyuan, a former Chinese school activist. His recollections of Singapore history has the greatest coherence. He provides the context and has the photographic evidence of an alternative perspective of Singapore's past. But when he presents this in a forum, only the older in the audience has that look of comprehension, that gleam of understanding. The younger look bemused. He laments eventually that no one was interested. That his narrative is at best quaint when set against the dominant Singapore Historical narrative. So even for one who has the context, who remembers best, eventually there is an absence. And this absence is in the present. Now.
Preceding the scene of Han at the forum is a silent slow footage of the modern Singapore skyline. Some may see progress. Others may sense absence.
There is a narrative of a former anti-Japanese guerilla recounting his story to a Japanese journalist. He sings an anti-Japanese war song, tells of the atrocities committed by the Japanese occupation army, of how he meets his wife. And eventually, the article that is published highlights only absence. His story is re-contextualised. That old cliché, to forgive and forget, takes on a new dimension, a new layer of meaning. Can we forgive without forgetting?
The most memorable scene is that with an old, half-blind and bed-ridden British photographer.
"My only regret is not leaving Singapore to go back England when I had the chance ... Singapore is not a place to grow old in ..."
It is a stunning moment in the documentary delivered in such an ordinary manner. Her work is evidence enough of her passion for Singapore; a series of rare photographs of Singapore architecture most of which are gone. And the Singaporean in me intuitively wants very much to apologise to her and to all those Others cast into the wreckage of Singapore's history. But how can we seek forgiveness when we are complicit in this forgetting? How can we seek forgiveness when we ourselves are victims of this relentless Storm dragging us into Paradise Singapore 2020? How can we seek forgiveness when we left at the first chance? To forgive is to remember.
The angel of History would like to stay, to awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise. Dragging her into the future. Turning her gaze away from the past.
The director has taken a camera and gazed into the wreckage of our past that Singapore has deemed unnecessary to remember. Resisting the storm of Paradise, of progress, of modernity. To awaken the dead. To make whole what has been smashed. To present absence for us to remember.
You step out of the Arts House after the movie and you desperately try to remember the Empress Place hawker center where your father used to bring you for a treat of delicious satay. Where you had your first date sipping teh tarik and gazing at the bright lights of Boat Quay. And there is a storm blowing in from the site for this year's National Day. Another History-orgy of the great strides made by Singapore from third to first. From past to present to future.
And you wonder whether you can grow old in this Singapore.
Quote of the Day -
"As Nietzsche observed long ago, the moderns suffer from the illness of historicism. They want to keep everything, date everything, because they think they have definitely broken from the past ... maniacal destruction is counterbalanced by an equally maniacal conservation." -- Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern