Saturday, the 22nd of April 2006 was a sad day for Malaysian arts.
On the evening of that day, a national television channel ran a forum that, with great aplomb, singled out one filmmaker’s work in what was to be nothing short of a public flogging. The topic chosen was woolly at best, and damning beyond reason.
“Sepet and Gubra – corruptors of Malay culture.”
The films were mine, of course, but in truth, the forum actually did my films and me a favour. At a time when audience numbers were beginning to wane, the day after the forum saw the cinema halls packed again. So thank you, sir. Yours is now my favourite television channel of all. (Well, at least for one whole hour.)
So no, that day wasn’t sad for me, at all.
What shocked me were the statements that were made by two members of the panel - a journalist, and a film producer who was clearly on his side.
Film producer: “Malaysia Melayu punya.” (This translates to “This land belongs to the Malays.”)
Journalist: (translated) “How can a good Muslim girl who prays and reads the Koran fall in love with a Chinese infidel?”
And what’s worse, neither of these statements received any form of public reprimand from any authority, despite their blatantly incendiary and belligerent nature.
What signals are we sending out to our youth here, pray tell? That it’s okay to make racial slurs at a public forum? That it’s perfectly cricket to label a member of another race as infidel? (This one’s particularly ironic, given that there are only 18 million Muslims in Malaysia, and up to 40 million in China!)
It seems some people in this country have scaled new heights of paranoia. So much so that Amir Muhamad’s “Lelaki Komunis Terakhir” has been banned by people who have not even seen the film. The decision was based on hearsay, and in response to an article that was written by, surprise surprise, the same journalist who appeared on the earlier-mentioned forum of bigots.
Coincidence? You tell me.
And so the world sits back and observes this embarrassing turn of events. All hopes we ever had of becoming the filmmaking hub of South-East Asia can now be stashed away in the dusty cupboards of Vision 2020.
“Lelaki Komunis Terakhir”, a milestone film that made no attempt whatsoever to glorify Chin Peng, has delighted the audience at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, and opened in Singapore two days ago.
“Rain Dogs”, a film by Ho Yuhang, will open at selected theatres in Tokyo and Singapore. It will also grace several television channels across the Asian continent. Ho Yuhang himself has expressed doubts that any of his future films will ever be shown here.
“The Beautiful Washing Machine”, James Lee’s bittersweet contemplation of feminine alienation, won the Best ASEAN Feature award and the FIPRESCI prize at the 2005 Bangkok International Film Festival. It hasn’t, in any big way, seen the light of day here.
“Sepet”, winner of the Best Asian Film award at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, did hit the cinemas here, but has since been deemed a “corruptor of Malay culture”, by a self-proclaimed film expert who is still free to make any racist statement he damn well pleases, in a leading local newspaper, and on national television, no less.
If I were the head of a foreign film company contemplating making an investment here, I would have to make some observations of the Malaysian cultural climate before committing myself to any contract. And one observation I might make would be that the culture here is a culture of punishment. Make any attempt to do things differently, however mildly, and you will run the risk of having your knuckles rapped publicly, or worse, face outright banning.
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw
And for a while, changes were indeed happening. A group of ten to fifteen new film directors made a more or less collective decision to raise the bar a little. Subsequently, films were made, and awards were won. And thankfully, the most influential arts journalists of all major local newspapers were very supportive of the new movement.
All, that is, but one.
“One bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch,” you might say. Oh, but sadly, it does. And perhaps, in the end, it is the old Malay adage that rings more true than the English one. “Setitik nila boleh merosakkan susu sebelanga.”
“One drop of indigo is all it takes to spoil an entire urn of milk.”
In 2005, following an incessant barrage of diatribe from some members of mainstream cinema, their journalist friend, and some film academicians of dubious credibility, I vowed never to submit any of my films to Festival Filem Malaysia, ever again.
The last I heard, James felt like he had received one beating too many and was close to throwing in the towel.
Ho Yuhang will candidly tell you that he would gladly follow the tracks of multi-award winning Malaysian-turned-Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Mingliang, but for the fact that he loves this country so much. I can’t help but wonder how much longer he’ll stay, given how little it loves him back.
As for Amir, I can only pray that his beautifully innovative films can one day be seen, not just by people of foreign shores, but ours as well.
And let’s just hope that the present McCarthyistic witch-hunt of non-conformist cinema does not lead to a state where “Lelaki Komunis Terakhir” will, in fact, be “Filem MALAYSIA Terakhir”.