A Time to Swim (Canada/Malaysia, 2017) [CAAMFest 2018]

In Ashley Duong’s feature-length documentary A Time to Swim, lines of identity politics are crossed. Though the documentary film failed to depict the complexity and material dimension of the conflict crossing between forces of indigeneity and developmental capitalism, it shifted its focus by uncovering sediments of personal history of the indigenous people of Sarawak. Duong follows the identitarian issues that haunt the indigenous people of Sarawak, in particular, the generational conflict between the old and new Kelabit people, the clash of forces of modernity and indigeneity, and the withering of the geopolitical borders in a globalized world.

The film’s alliance with the political project of Malaysian environmental activist Mutang Urud for his people in Sarawak can be seen in Duong’s struggle to sketch a temperamental filmic diorama, blending images of community and nature. The documentary film latches on the power of impressionistic imagery of the community, with an attempt both to swim through its criss-crossing internal lines of conflict and to conceive its domain from a certain ethnographic distance, typical of documentaries that does not risk in intruding their subjects’ spaces. The camera observes and records the day in the life of indigenous peoples of Sarawak, lifting from each scene a character of interest, a speaking voice, a negotiation, an observation, giving life to the indigenous peoples’ sense of community. Instead of foregrounding these conflicts in a wider context of the national and the global, Duong focused instead on the micropolitical space of the home.

The images of the home are constantly interrogated in the film. The home is the site of Duong’s political inquiry of identity, wherein she tries to examine the web of relations that constitute the Kelabit people and the forces of history and territorial displacement that continually shapes Mutang and his people. From the opening scenes, we are first introduced to a home from the outside: Mutang Urud’ residence in Montreal, Canada, where he stayed in exile for more than 20 years to evade political arrest by Malaysian authorities during the height of his environmental protests. Duong’s Canada-as-home is briefly depicted in the film but it constitutes a large role in grounding the subjectivity of Mutang and his family as outsiders. The geopolitical distance between Mutang’s life in Canada and Mutang’s life in Sarawak is one of the identitarian conflicts explored in film.

For Mutang, the home serves as a border between the inside and the outside. This notion of inside/outside dichotomy is important in film’s identity politics. After being exiled for 20 years, Mutang travelled back to the jungle of Sarawak to reintegrate with the community members of the Kelabit People and to contribute to their present condition. Mutang is greeted with hesitation. Time has passed since he led his people to defend their territory against encroachment of logging companies. The Kelabit people are now trying to assimilate with the larger modernity of Indonesia. Some of its members are now residing in larger cities away from indigenous life, while those the people who have remained in the ancestral domain are dwindling in obsolescence in the face of capitalist modernity and commodity culture.

Aside the encroaching modernity, the Elders have also already taken over Mutang’s leadership during his exile abroad. They have already formed a vague alliance with developmental forces pillaging their village. The filmmakers conceive this as an opportunity to create narrative tension, instead of finding a socio-political ground to interrogate further how larger ideological forces co-opt these people into believing the capitalism is the best way out of their poverty.

Like many outsider films on indigenous peoples, the film’s narrative is structured like concentric circles, with the indigene at the centre. This schema works for Duong and her team as a way to structure their documentary as an outside-going-in with an insider Mutang as their guide into the community. The linguistic access is a necessary step into integration. What Duong achieved cinematically, aside from forming alliance with its subject, is a systematic access to the indigenous political space that appears undisruptive. The filmmaker seems to show us a seamless transition between Canada and Sarawak without the necessary personal and social struggle on the side of the filmmakers. This gesture of transparency constructs a romanticized image of the community. What the documentary lacks is the much needed self-reflexivity of the medium that would break the glassy armour of pretension in order to show us the true material conditions of the people in Sarawak beyond the identity politics that shrouded the film.

This issue of transparency is also the reason why it seems to misconstrue the idea of outside/inside as only an issue of personal geopolitics, and not an issue of class struggle. For Duong, the inside/outside is what constitutes the geographical and cultural distance between Canada & Sarawak, Malaysia, which is crystallized in the identitarian concept of the home. Duong refigures and reshapes this concept of the home as a multiplicity, interrogating the role of home to the constitution of being: Is home a place of permanency? Does the home signify the origin of one’s being or does it constitute the destination of the finality of being?

Mutang’s figure reactivates a politics of identity wherein the distance of the home is measured by the duration of stay. There is a hint of sentimentality in the way Duong frames this issue. She dwells too much on these sentimental problems on patriarchal ancestry while forgetting to ground these issues in a bigger power structure of Malaysian culture. Instead of creating a dialectical opposition between capitalism and the proletarian struggle of the people in Sarawak, Duong seems to be more interested in creating a petty opposition between the Mutang and the elders and between the elders and the younger generation. Duong is more interested in the personal than the political.

The film may have an ambitious subject matter: the necessity of indigenous resistance in the age of globalized capital, but it dwells too much on the spaces of identity and the personal, losing a bigger chunk of the socio-historical narrative that truly underscores it subject.

A Tme to Swim is showing at CAAMFest 2018 on May 12.