We take it for granted that time is an objective, linear, and constant presence in our lives. After all, it seems difficult to imagine a life that exists outside of time. Yet, as proven by Matthew McConaughey’s reaction in Interstellar upon his character’s return to the spacecraft, he discovers that decades have passed on Earth in the hour he was on another planet: Time, by itself, might extend beyond our conventional understanding of time as a linear 24 hours, 7 days a week. Adopting a more nuanced understanding of it might offer different ways of experiencing life. After all, given how time dictates the way we live and experience life, a little more thought into this phenomenon might prove insightful.
Figure 1 Matthew McConaughey’s realisation of how much time has passed (Courtesy of Filmgrab)
The most basic understanding of time that we possess is that of a geographical one: time zones. Looking at the 7pm Singaporean skies at sunset, we are often in awe of the beauties this equatorial sky offers. But for those of us who have experienced the same ‘sunset’ in the Philippines, which shares the same time zone as us, it might be surprising to see the same skies at 6pm instead. This recalls the arbitrary nature of time zones in itself. After all, the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), a Eurocentric construct of time, became the universal measurement of time only in the 20th century.
This arbitrary nature becomes complicated by the realisation that Singaporean time has changed a total of seven times in our short history. Each time has been because of a political motivation. During the Japanese Occupation, our time zone was changed forward to GMT+9 to match the Tokyo Standard Time. Following the war, we returned to our pre-war time of GMT+7.5. These changes challenge a superficial understanding of time as defined by geography, but one influenced and determined by political purposes. Imagine, then, how unique New Year’s Eve in Singapore was on 31 December 1981, when New Year’s Day occurred at 11.30pm that night, as Singapore, once again, changed our time zone from GMT+7.5 to GMT+8. This was an effort by the Ministry of Trade and Industry to synchronise our time to Malaysian time and to “avoid inconvenience to businessmen and travellers”, which introduces the possibility of time as influenced by economic purposes too.
Figure 2 Singapore’s time change following World War 2 (Courtesy of NLB)
Instead of looking at GMT as an objective experience of time, it is best to remind ourselves that it is merely a means of marking and measuring time. For those of us who have unpunctual friends, we know that not everyone experiences time the same way. After all, what is ‘on the way’ could be on the train for me, while for my friend, it is just him getting out of bed. Time is experienced subjectively. This subverts the notion of an objective experience of time, just as how GMT is merely a form of ‘clock-time’, a means of using the clock to measure time.
Some have attempted to explain this subjective experience of time, or rather, justify chronic lateness. In the Philippines, the state of constant late coming is so commonplace that it has been dubbed the possibly offensive ‘Filipino time’. According to Filipino sociology and political science professor Dr Louie Benedict Ignacio, it is entirely likely that such unpunctuality might have been adopted due to the chronic lateness displayed by the Spanish during the colonial era of the Philippines. Late coming becomes emblematic of status, linking notions of time with privilege and aristocracy. What is more telling of your importance than making everyone else wait for your arrival?
Time as evidence of social status demonstrates colonialism’s impact on our experiences of time. It is also worth re-examining the myth that colonisers brought civilisation to their colonised peoples by structuring time. For instance, the Kulin peoples originating in the southeastern Australia (where Melbourne is today) recognised seven different seasons: Kangaroo-Apple season in December, Dry season around January to February, Eel season around March, Wombat season around April to August, Orchid season in September, Tadpole season in October, and Grass-flowering season around November. Such temporal delineation reveals an intuitive experience of time based on the Kulin people’s direct interactions with nature. It is erroneous to assume that the aboriginal people were uncivilised until the arrival of the British who introduced clock-time, calendars and the four seasons.
Figure 3 The Kulin Nation of Southastern Australia (Courtesy of History of Wurundjeri Walk)
Through the geographical demarcations of GMT, political demands of following Japanese time, economic hopes of matching times with key economies, social aspects of status and privilege, and colonial influences of marking time, we can see that time is not as intuitive or universal a concept as we would like it to be. By revealing how subjective the very nature of our lives is through the subjective nature of time, we can see that an objective demarcation of our lives is not possible. However, in understanding the different nuances of the subjective possibilities, we would be better able to appreciate when we must rely on an ‘objective’ ‘clock-time’ as a common dominator of experiencing time.
These days, the prevalence and inevitability of globalisation necessitates a strict adherence to clock-time for universal ease. However, reminders of these variations in our experiences of time serve to remind us how unique our personal interactions with time can truly be and need not be condemned. Returning to Matthew McConaughey’s reaction in Interstellar, a conventional perception of time that constricts us ought to be challenged. Just like how director Christopher Nolan does in the film and later in Dunkirk and Tenet, a linear understanding of time need not be a rulebook to be adhered to, but rather one to be played and experimented with.
Figure 4 Still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’, a director whose films often explored concepts of time (Courtesy of Filmgrab)
Time is particularly relevant in film: screen time, story time and manipulating time through editing. Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky described film as “sculpting in time”, as if the cinematic medium is an artistic exploration, an experimentation with time. Whether it be the stretching of time with a long take or the condensing of time with quick cuts, or even explorations in plot through time travel and the intersections between past, present and future, time is truly the filmmaker’s tool.
Closer to home, the student-run Perspectives Film Festival (PFF) celebrates its 15th anniversary with a unique programme that puts the concept of time as the focus. With films that mourn crumbling artefacts reminding us of the past, display anxieties of the societal ills plaguing the present, or even a curious imagining of the future, PFF offers its audience a unique contemplation about, in, and for time.
Coming to PFF and trying to make sense of the programme?
There’s nothing more human than trying to make sense of time. Whether we mark time with calendars or clocks or use astrological phenomena to explain what we experience, the elusiveness of time is only made sensible by the way we impose meaning upon its passage.
To make sense of Perspectives Film Festival’s line-up of films this year, it might be worthwhile to examine the way our programmers have arranged the film schedule.
Memory Box, as the first film, offers a look into the past as our protagonist struggles to understand a past her family has locked her away from. Moving beyond the past to the present, Mariupolis 2 looks to the present at the devastating effects of the Ukraine-Russian War on ordinary citizens.
As we move to Saturday, we begin to see more creative experimentations with time within the cinematic form. Il Buco blends the boundaries between fiction and documentary through a re-creation of a group of adventurers’ exploration in an Italian cave during the 1960s. Cette Maison combines past, present, and even future to examine the effects of space and time on a person and nation’s identity. Finally, Ikarie XB-1, which influenced Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, is the past’s creative imagining of what the future might hold.
Figure 5 Still from Goodbye, Dragon Inn
On our final day, as our 15th festival comes to an end, we look at the closure of two cinemas as a meditation upon the ‘death’ and future of our cinematic form. The documentary Scala laments the closure of the iconic Scala cinema in Thailand, while Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn explores the spaces and loneliness of a fictional old Taipei cinema about to close down.
Whether this progression of linear time makes sense, it is as subjective as time is itself. Just as how this is one attempt at imposing a meaning upon time, what is to say that another (your own!) interpretation of this time might make sense too. Choose your own programme and see how that adventure can be!
1. Chua, Paolo. (2020). There’s Actually a Reason Why Filipino Time Is a Thing. Esquire Magazine. https://www.esquiremag.ph/culture/lifestyle/filipino-time-explained-a00297-20200814
2. Nanni, Giordano. (2012). The Colonisation of time: Ritual, routine and resistance in the British Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Print.
3. Straits Times. “Clocks will be set forward at 11.30 pm on Dec 31.” The Straits Times, 21 December 1981, p.1.
4. Straits Times. “Malaya Finished With Tokyo Time.” The Straits Times, 7 September 1945, p.1.
Our 2022 articles offered a selection across four broad categories to facilitate your perusal. This article was part of the THINK category: Essays and analysis to spark greater thought into the films programmed and ideas discussed. For the curious and thinkers.