It takes a perceptive person to link places with people, in ways that might not seem immediately obvious to the untrained eye. But it certainly sounds like documentarian Mahen Bala relishes the experience.
Where do trains and people meet? What do you get at the crossroads of railway heritage and community?
This is the entry point for Mahen’s upcoming talk on July 25 (3pm), under The Japan Foundation, Kuala Lumpur’s new JFKL Talk Series.
Longing And Belonging: Portraits Of Different People In Japan is the first talk in this virtual series which aims to introduce Japan in all its facets through the lenses of professionals in various fields.
It will be live streamed here.
During an Asia Center Fellowship programme in late 2019, organised by Japan Foundation, Mahen spent a few months in Japan, and Indonesia (travelling from Jogjakarta to Jakarta).
In Japan, where he stayed for three months, Mahen rode on various railway lines and visited museums and other places of interest.
“For the uninitiated, the Japanese railway is a continually evolving meeting point of transportation, history, culture and community,” says Mahen, a photographer, filmmaker and writer.
From his documentation of Malaysian railways in Postcards From The South, which was published in 2018, it struck him that encounters with strangers formed an important component of documentation.
Postcards From The South, a memory and documentary project, retraced the historic Southern Line in Malaysia, giving voice to the railway, the people and the places they call home.
It served as an idea platform for Mahen’s ongoing research-based work surrounding railways.
As a parallel Malaysian narrative, Postcards From The South explored new perspectives on a century-and-a-half of railway history and its role in nation-building, using previously unpublished photographs, documents and maps.
That led to doors opening for Mahen’s Longing And Belonging: Railway Heritage In Japan And South-East Asia research project, which ran from December 2019 to May 2020. He arrived home in Malaysia right in the middle of the pandemic.
Like so many arts practitioners, Mahen has seen so many of his projects postponed or delayed in the last 18 months.
The upcoming Longing And Belonging virtual session will serve as a welcome break from lockdown inertia.
“It offers insights into how people of a country think and feel about the railways, and ultimately themselves. I decided to apply the same approach in exploring railway heritage around the region the following year.
“The discourse on railway heritage around the world is commonly focused on economic, historical, and even tourism perspectives, but rarely considers people as the main constructive agents,” he says.
Despite its focus on documentation, history and heritage, the talk will be a relatively light session as Mahen is keen on sharing insights on Japanese culture and people he met along the way. He also has stories to share about the cherished souvenirs that came his way, like his paper crane, red plastic folder and golden maneki-neko from a ramen shop.
“The underlying theme of the talk will be the Japanese railways and findings from my research. Along the way, I will be sharing about the people I met and the places I visited, and how these encounters have shaped my own observations and thoughts on the history and culture of Japan,” he adds.
While Mahen notes that we are well acquainted with Japanese culture – as consumers of Japanese cuisine, media, technology, and as tourists and travellers – he hopes that through this talk, people will be able to appreciate Japanese history and culture from a different perspective than what you might already be familiar with.
“After all, we don’t often hear about Japan from the perspective of a Malaysian documentarian. Additionally, I hope the talk demonstrates that the process of research and accumulation of knowledge is rarely linear.
“Our understanding of a particular subject is a complex, fluid process that is informed at various levels at different times.
“On a related note, I understand how frustrating the pandemic has been for all of us. I hope this talk can be a way for all of us, myself included, to do something a bit different and perhaps rediscover the magic of connecting with strangers,” he concludes.
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