Slippery, fluid, and constantly evolving.
These were the answers provided to the question of ‘What is authenticity?’ at the Asia Pacific Screen Forum on Friday.
A panel comprising Fijian writer/director Vilsoni Hereniko, Indonesian filmmaker Kamila Andini, and Australian producer/director Ana Tiwary joined moderator Pearl Tan for an exploration of how to navigate the demands of production to deliver authentic stories.
When it came to defining the term, all three panelists were in agreement about its non-fixed nature.
For Hereniko, who made Fiji’s first feature film The Land Has Eyes in 2004 and was a cultural consultant for Disney’s Moana, it was important to differentiate between physical and emotional representation.
“Authenticity is a very slippery term to figure out,” he said.
“However, I can say with confidence that, for me, it’s an accurate representation of the world in which the story is set, such as the physical details and the look and feel of the period.
“One thing that is trickier to achieve is emotional authenticity, which is not often talked about because we are mainly thinking of the physical accuracy.”
Now based in Hawaii, Hereniko related an example of an animated short film he was working on about the origins of the coconut tree, set in the context of a love story.
While he was pressured to make the project in English, a section where one of the characters is flirting with a woman was kept in his native tongue.
Hereniko said although using English would be “quite truthful” to his status as a diasporic person, he wanted people from his country of origin to appreciate the subtext and nuances of the situation within the film.
“It’s so difficult for me to find actors because I’m basically the only one who speaks the language fluently where I am,” he said.
“I stood my ground and made this section in my own language and I’m so glad I did because it gives it an authenticity I would never get with getting an ethnic actor that was not from my culture.
“The fortunate thing was that I raised all the money myself, which meant I didn’t have a producer telling me what I could and couldn’t do.”
Balancing authenticity with what is required to get a film project off the ground remains an ongoing challenge for filmmakers in various countries, according to Tiwary.
The producer/director and founder of indiVisual Films has been a passionate advocate for culturally diverse stories throughout her career, which has included directing more than 25 documentaries for various broadcasters and producing the first Asian Australian rom-com, Rhapsody of Love.
She said there was a tendency for multicultural filmmakers to second guess themselves in the face of pressure to have their project appeal to Western countries.
“[Multicultural filmmakers] will have an idea that is really authentic and true to themselves but by the time they put it down on paper, they’re already starting to think about how a white panel will judge this story, as well as whether it will appeal to them and whether they will emotionally connect,” she said.
“Maybe it won’t, and then do they insert a white character who will then help lead the white audiences into this world?
“That means you are watering down your story and it’s not as authentic anymore, because you are a minority group trying to appeal to a dominant white lens, and trying to achieve that is really hard and you lose a lot of the emotional truths along the way.”
Tiwary said she was constantly looking at her work to see whether she was making compromises and how she could “stick to this and still convince people to fund something I want to make”.
“When I want to tell these sort of stories, I know there is an audience there for them, but it’s almost like the system that I want to take the film through – whether it’s funding or finding distributors – means that it has to shift to try and appeal to everyone, and in that process, you can lose authenticity,” she said.
It’s an experience Andini can relate to through her two feature films, The Mirror Never Lies, which portrays the life of the Bajo Tribe in Indonesian ocean, and The Seen and Unseen, a cinematic universe of dualism based on Balinese philosophy Sekala Niskala.
She said negotiating non-verbal elements of Southeast Asian culture with cinema’s need for descriptive details was a key challenge of the films she had made.
“Our connection with the universe is something we can not describe, but with film, you have to be very clear about things.
“It was hard in the beginning to make people understand what I wanted to make so I ended up making it on a very low budget and having people see, visually, the story I want to tell.”
She said the experience had taught her the importance of the relationship between the content of the film and cinematic language.
“In a way, we might not be able to make people understand the content, but the cinema language can be universal in a way,” she said.
“How we deliver the film is something that can be accepted as filmmaking.
“That’s why I love Asian and Southeast Asian cinema.”
The Asia Pacific Screen Forum runs from November 11-16.