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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Sophia Harvey appreciates obscure, ordinary in film

By Emma Daniels

When asked about her favorite movie, Assistant Professor of Film Sophia Harvey didn't have a definitive answer. She named a couple of Southeast Asian documentaries—in particular, Tan Pinpin. a Singaporean film, and Mysterious Object, a Thai film.

"I also really like The Big Lebowski," she added. "My favorites aren't high art. I don't do high art; I work in popular genres, like horror, for example."

Accordingly, Harvey, who teaches a wide variety of film classes at Vassar—ranging from World Cinema after 1945 and Indian National Cinema to senior seminars like Cyborgs in Popular Culture—focuses primarily in her research on popular Southeast Asian films, and within that region she often discusses its range of horror films.

Harvey's interests stem from her cross-cultural childhood background. Although she was born in Singapore, she went to an American high school in Germany. Harvey's experience growing up was extremely influential in leading her into her the field of film.

She chose film as her course of study after helping produce her high school's weekly news and game show that initially piqued her interest in media and media production. She furthered her interest in the field with an internship in Singapore.

"The spark was planted in high school, but when I interned at national archives in Singapore when I was around 18 or 19, I realized there was a real dearth of critical lit or any kind of history of the moving image culture in Singapore from colonial times to independence in 1965, and it put me on a path towards a Ph.D," she said. "I wanted to contribute in a critical way to the cinema of my country."

Her interest in horror was obvious from an earlier age. She became interested after she watched an Indonesian film in the genre, Sundelbolong.

"It was a very foundational moment that made an indelible impression," she said. "I've made it a subject of study."

Currently, Harvey is working on a book analyzing contemporary cinema in Singapore released from 2000 to 2007. She is looking in particular at how some of the films that have emerged in this period deal with phenomenology, or how these films explore the senses, as well as life and living in the city state of Singapore.

"The films that I'm particularly drawn to explore cinema as a tactile practice—that is, exploring cinema as a sense of touch. Others that interest me have a creative sound design, privileging hearing as opposed to just a sense of sight," Harvey noted.

Harvey's other main research project is larger in scope. It is focused on how cinema can be a space and site for healing. She is studying in particular the cross sections between film and various other art forms, like the use of dance and music by Cambodians to explore the genocide of their own people.

"These art forms act as a space for Cambodians to visually and narratively explore impact of genocide on themselves and their families," Harvey said.

One focus of the project is the Cambodian diaspora in the United States, and the resulting art that has emerged from Cambodian immigrants. She is studying Cambodian-American documentaries, Cambodian-American rap and also the resurgence of Khmer (Cambodian) dance, in particular in a dance academy in California that's looking to re-explore and reintroduce Khmer dances, many of which didn't survive the genocide.

Both projects relate to the classes she teaches and her genres of interest. One section in her course Screening Southeast Asia, for example, explores cinematic representations of trauma and memory.

"We spend three weeks engaging with the period of Khmer Rouge and genocide through not only the study of the Cambodian-American diaspora but also the study of cultural production from within the country of Cambodia," Harvey said.

"One of the more potent forms or genres that has emerged in terms of dealing or engaging with this trauma has been horror so I've screened some Cambodian horror films that deal with that narrative," she furthered.

Screening Southeast Asia is not the only class where Harvey employs her specialties; she also screens Southeast Asian films in her other classes, and in those same classes is notably knowledgeable about all types of film on a global level. Her classes are both popular and accessible.

Spencer Tilger '14, a current student of Harvey's World Cinema After 1945 class, has only positive things to say about the professor. "She's really smart and engaging, and good at placing films in a historical, cultural and societal context," Tilger said.

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