Sunday, April 30, 2006

From Mingguan Malaysia

Lelaki Komunis Terakhir goes to cinemas

By Noor Azam Shairi

Mingguan Malaysia. 30 April

All the controversy generated by a few people about the documentary Lelaki Komunis Terakhir before the film had even been written or shot will be answered when it meets audiences in cinemas starting 18 May.

The documentary directed by Amir Muhammad has received official approval from the Malaysian Film Censorship Board (LPF) for general viewing.

The approval, however, is only for three screens run by Golden Screen Cinemas in Mid Valley and One Utama, Kuala Lumpur; and Gurney Plaza, Penang.

LPF Chairman Mohd Hussain Shafie was recently quoted by The Star as saying, even though the documentary is about the former leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng, it will not cause any negative effects.

He said that the documentary did not propagate communism but merely used facts that are readily available in history books.

LKT uses those historical facts as a backdrop but it actually examines what Amir has termed as the "landscape" of this country.

"I am not just talking about the geographic landscape but the historical one. When making Lelaki Komunis Terakhir I wanted to know what this landscape called Malaysia actually is," said Amir in an interview with The Bangkok Post.

Before Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, Amir made the documentary The Year of Living Vicariously which examined the shifts of political consciousness in post-Suharto Indonesia.

After that documentary, Amir was inspired to investigate his own country, and coincidentally that was the time Chin Peng came out with his memoirs, My Side of History, which became the basis for Lelaki Komunis Terakhir.

Lelaki Komunis Terakhir which is described as a semi-musical documentary combines Amir's interviews with people from various walks of life and his observations and experience in several towns where Chin Peng lived in Peninsular Malaysia.

Before the limited screening here, Lelaki Komunis Terakhir was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and received encouraging reviews from international critics.

The documentary has also been invited to several other festivals including Hong Kong, Singapore and Vancouver as well as documentary festivals in Canada, Munich and Amsterdam. Lelaki Komunis Terakhir will also be screened in Ipoh on 19 May as a charity screening for the Perak Heritage Society.

In another development, Amir has just finished filming Susuk under Grand Brilliance, which he directed with Naeim Ghalili. Susuk is scheduled to meet audiences at the end of the year.

* Translated from the original article.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Associated Press article

Like his life, film about Malaysia's notorious communist guerrilla also in a limbo

By EN-LAI YEOH Associated Press Writer

26 April.

(AP) - KUALA LUMPUR -Malaysia's most reviled communist lives in a limbo, unsure if the government will ever let him return home from exile in Thailand.

A somewhat similar fate has befallen a film about Chin Peng, the forgotten communist insurgent leader whose fighters battled British Commonwealth troops in the jungles of Malaya from 1948 to 1957, the most brutal period in the country's modern history.

Malaysia's Censorship Board has approved without cuts "Lelaki Komunis Terakhir," or "The Last Communist," a part-musical satire, part-documentary. But the board only approved it for restricted release in three cinemas nationwide, and it cannot be publicly sold in disc format.

"The Last Communist" by Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad played at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival and is set to be shown at the Seattle Film Festival and Toronto's Hot Docs festival.

Amir said he has no intention of making a hero out of Chin Peng but made the film because he wanted to tell the story of a man who has virtually ceased to exist in Malaysia's official history.

Once demonized in school textbooks, Chin Peng, 82, merits only passing references today, said Amir.

"His role in Malaysian history has gotten smaller and smaller," Amir told The Associated Press. But the threat posed by Chin Peng and his forces was exaggerated by the British, he said. "He was like the phantom menace."

Underpinning the Malaysian censors' reluctance is a deep-seated dread of communism among Malaysian leaders, and fears that glorifying a leftist insurgent - even a reformed one - could lead some to question the country's hard-won capitalist prosperity.

The country's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, said documenting the life of Chin Peng was tantamount to communist propaganda.

"This is an extremely sensitive issue. I don't think the people who have fought for our country will appreciate such a movie being shown, and I'm sure there will be protests," said Azimi Daim, the information chief of the United Malays youth wing.

There are other important stories in Malaysian history, he said. "Why are we coming back to this issue of Chin Peng again?"

Such concerns are also largely behind the government's refusal to allow Chin Peng to return home even though he has pledged loyalty to the country and laid down arms under a 1989 peace treaty.

Chin Peng, an ethnic Chinese whose real name is Ong Boon Hua, was not always the bad guy.

During World War II, he and his guerrillas provided the bulk of resistance to the Japanese occupation after Allied troops were swept from the Malayan peninsula and Singapore. For his courage, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

After the war, the communists began a nationalist fight against colonial rule. Leading a 10,000-strong force, Chin Peng faced some 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian, Gurkha and other British Commonwealth troops from 1948 until 1957, when Malaysia, then known as Malaya, was granted independence.

Some 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in the decade-long insurgency, a period known as the Emergency.

After independence, Chin Peng continued to fight the Malaysian government. But with the dragnet closing in on his jungle hideouts and his Marxist-Leninist campaign losing steam, he fled to China in 1960. From there he went to southern Thailand where he settled with hundreds of exiled fighters loyal to him.

Amir's 90-minute film is essentially a documentary that tells the life of Chin Peng in chronological order. But it does not feature Chin Peng, referring to him only through captions describing important events in his life superimposed on shots of locations.

The movie also has song-and-dance numbers, performed by actors, about political events surrounding the Emergency.

It contains sound bites from his companions in their homes in exile. Like Chin Peng, they too yearn to return.

"Are you used to a wanderer's life? Do you miss your hometown?" one elderly former guerrilla belts out during a karaoke session caught on film.

Amir said the former guerrillas don't regret their years of in combat. "They speak kind of fondly of the time they have spent in the jungle.... What surprised me is how energetic they were," he said.

"The Last Communist "is based on Chin Peng's 2003 autobiography "Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History," co-authored by Singapore-based historian Ian Ward. It was shot over four weeks last year at a cost of 50,000 ringgit (US$13,620; euro11,107), financed by a Dutch foundation.

After the 1989 peace deal, the government of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said it would allow former communist guerrillas to return to Malaysia and to "freely participate in political activities" under the Constitution.

But none of the former fighters has been granted permission to come back. Malaysian officials have continuously cited suspicion over communist activities but no specific reason has been given for denying entry to the ex-guerrillas.

Chin Peng's appeal to be allowed to return home so that he could spend his remaining days here was expected to be heard by a federal court sometime in April, although no date has been fixed.

"He is hopeful," said his lawyer, Darshan Singh. "Why shouldn't he be allowed to return? The peace treaty allows for that. His home is here. His parents are buried here."

Thursday, April 27, 2006

From Today (Singapore)

On the edge

By Yong Shu Chiang

Today. 27 April

GROWING up in Malaysia, independent film-maker Amir Muhammad learned to be afraid of ghosts and evil spirits — and communists.

"Yes, communists were the big bogeymen, next to Hantu Kumkum (a legendary blood-thirsty ghost)," Muhammad told Today in an email interview.

His latest film, The Last Communist (Lelaki Komunis Terakhir), which plays at the Singapore International Film Festival tonight, is a documentary loosely based on the life of Chin Peng, the 84-year-old former Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) leader now living in exile in Thailand.

The colourful history of Chin Peng and the CPM, and how they've become marginalised in public perception, prompted Muhammad to make his film.

"There are about 30 people who lived in Malaysia whose lives interest me because something about them — either the whole track of their lives, or one specific act — put them outside the mainstream of lived experience. Chin Peng happens to be one of them," said Muhammad.

"The CPM is similarly interesting because it was such a small movement that everyone knew about. You can always find out more about a society from people who live on its periphery rather than its centre, no?"

Trained as a lawyer before he became a film-maker, Muhammad described himself as political, but said he doesn't make movies just to make political statements.

"I make movies for a whole host of reasons, not all of them polemical. Party politics per se bore me, though. So, I will never join a party."

And what are Muhammad's thoughts on communism?

"It is the most beautiful political ideology because it assumes that, given a choice, people will want to share. But in practice it has almost always descended into tyranny.

"There's also this leadership cult that I would find pernicious in any political system."

Last month, Muhammad's film was surprisingly passed without cuts — ahead of its May 18 theatrical release — by normally ultra-conservative censors in Malaysia, where Chin Peng is still persona non grata.

This is especially astonishing in light of criticism last month from Malaysian politicians who expressed distaste that a film had been made about a "communist bandit".

During World War II, Chin Peng led ethnic Chinese Malaysians in a guerrilla resistance movement against the Japanese invaders.

He later retreated to the jungles where he led a bloody insurrection in the 1960s that claimed an estimated 7,000 victims, mainly Malay policemen and civilian home guards, before surrendering in 1989.

The Last Communist, which premiered at February's Berlin International Film Festival, where critic Tony Rayns heaped praise on it, is described by Muhammad as a "semi-musical" documentary because it has several tongue-in-cheek musical interludes.

"The roots of documentary in Malaya were propaganda films made by the Malayan Film Unit in the 1940s and these often had songs. So, I'm paying an ironic tribute to them," Muhammad said.

Apart from its focus on Chin Peng, and interviews with his former comrades and fellow exiles, the film is also an affectionate look at the quirky side of contemporary Malaysia and an examination of "Malaysian-ness".

Muhammad's next movie will be a co-directed horror film, Susuk, about a Malay beauty ritual that uses black magic, with a sequel of sorts to The Last Communist also planned.

"I intend to go to all four of the 'communist villages' in southern Thailand (where Malaysian exiles live). We only managed to go to one last August during the shoot, due to the security situation at the time.

"If this happens, maybe a new, different sort of documentary can emerge."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Charity screening: 19 May, Ipoh

One of the organisations that helped us when making Lelaki Komunis Terakhir was the Perak Heritage Society. The Society does not have a website but you can read more about its president here. He took me, Hardesh and Albert on a tour of Papan and even though that sequence has been cut out of the movie (what to do?) it was a very interesting day for us. So it's apposite that we do something in return. Here are the details. If you know people in Ipoh who might be interested, do spread the word.

Film will not be shown in Ipoh

The Star. 25 April.

IPOH: The semi-musical documentary Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist) may be a Perak story but it will not be screened in cinemas here.

However, there is still a chance to catch the film, as the Perak Heritage Society will be holding a special screening at the Syuen Hotel here on May 19 to raise funds.

Amir Muhammad, the director of the 90-minute film, said cinemas in the city here did not have the projection facilities needed to screen the documentary.

“It is a Perak story but it is a shame that cinemas in Ipoh are not equipped to screen it,” he said at a press conference here yesterday.

He said the film, which had received the nod from the Film Censorship Board, would only be screened at the Golden Screen Cinemas in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, beginning May 18.

“It would be good if we could screen it at places where we shot the film like Sitiawan or even in Betong (South Thailand),” Amir said.

“Most of the locations are in Perak such as Bidor, Gopeng, Chemor, and Sungai Siput.”

He added that the film also involved interviews conducted with former members of the defunct Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) at the Peace Village at Betong.

The film, which has drawn opposition from Umno Youth, documents the life of Chin Peng, exiled leader of the banned CPM, from 1924 to 1957.

Amir noted that the film, which cost some RM80,000 to make, had already been shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

“The film will also be seen at film festivals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles and Toronto,” he said.

Those interested in the special screening can contact Su Win at 012-2886888 or Siak Hong at 012-2976517.

Friday, April 21, 2006

From The Bangkok Post (Thailand)

Seeing red

By Kong Rithdee

The Bangkok Post. 21 April.

Partly shot in Betong, Yala province, Amir Muhammad's latest documentary is as humanly sociological as it is sharply political, and as refreshing in its historical re-examination as it is whimsical in its colours. It is as much a loose-limbed travelogue as it is a tight-assed historiography. It plays for and against leftists and rightists, royalists and jacobins, communists and capitalists, pro-and anti-colonialists. It dallies with controversies, indulges in good-humoured diversions, yet manages to maintain the heft worthy of an academic discussion.

And the most unexpected thing: this Malaysian documentary with a contentious title, The Last Communist, has passed the censor's board and will open in three Kuala Lumpur theatres in May.

"I submitted the film to the censor just for the fun of it," Amir told us when we caught up with him at Hong Kong International Film Festival last week. "I didn't expect it, but they let it pass and we're now releasing it. It's a big surprise."

A pleasant surprise, that is, given the conservative rigour the Malaysian board is known for. Bangkok cinephiles should keep their fingers-crossed since local film-fest organisers (smaller ones, not the government-backed one) have expressed strong interest in bringing The Last Communist across the border, not simply because the doc features a section that concerns Thailand's South, but mainly because Amir's work observes the virtues of film as a political gesture - something that's sorely lacking among Thai filmmakers despite the stinking swamp of politics into which we've now sunk.

Simply put, The Last Communist (Lelaki Komunis Terakhir) is a loose biography of Chen Peng, former leader of Malaysia's Communist Party in the 1950s who later fled, along with his comrades, to Betong, the southernmost district of Thailand, after the government's crackdown (it's believed that Chen Peng is now living in Bangkok). But Amir's essayistic approach is less concerned with detailing the episodes in Chen Peng's life than with using this last communist's journey as a springboard to look at the post-war social history of the country. Crisscrossing Malaysia's backwaters and talking to dozens of ordinary folks - not necessarily about Chen Peng, but about their lives, their work, their well-being, their ideas of a country - Amir sketches a luminous portrait of Malaysia's political, cultural and racial identities formed after the 1957 Independence.

So we hear a Malay farm worker lament about the poor economy of her region and a Chinese merchant who gives us a tour of his charcoal factory. All this, by the way, is intercut with cheeky musical sequences scored to mock-propaganda numbers whose lyrics contrast the "official" image of Malaysia with the complex, even difficult actuality faced by the inhabitants of the peninsula.

"If there's a word that describes this movie, it's 'landscape'," says Amir, a 34-year-old law graduate who's pioneered digital filmmaking in Malaysia since the late 1990s. "But I'm not just talking about a geographical landscape, but a historical one, too. In making The Last Communist, I was just curious about what this landscape called Malaysia actually is."

No easy answer emerges from the movie, but that's a trifling matter since the point of good documentaries is all about asking questions. Amir, a Malaysian of Indian descent, faced tough ethnic questions himself when doubts were raised as to why a non-Chinese would want to discuss the life of a Chinese communist. Like everywhere else, politics is racial in Malaysia: the pre-war communist movement in Malaya was strictly a Chinese activity, as the Chinese migrant workers identified themselves with "their people" in China rather than the Malay majority, especially more so since Japan began their notorious invasion of the Mainland.

"My previous film [The Year of Living Vicariously] dealt with political dissensions in Indonesia, and that inspired me to do something about Malaysian politics," says Amir. "And it happened that Chen Peng has just published a book about his life, called My Side of History, which became like a basis that I developed into the movie.

"Since no Chinese filmmaker is interested in the subject, there should be nothing wrong with me wanting to do it. I believe that there are two types of films we should make: films about things that we know about, and films about things that we don't know. With The Last Communist, I had to do a lot of research and travelling; as a Malaysian, there are still many things about Malaysia - so many places and peoples - that I'm not familiar with, and this film gave me the opportunity to get to know more about my own country."

In a section that shows how a national history can slip across physical borders, Amir's doc visits a village in Betong where Chin Peng and his members from the Communist Party of Malaya retreated to in the 1960s. There we meet a group of elders - they don't exactly identify themselves with Malaysia, but they aren't entirely Thai either - who speak eloquently about their present existence and past ideologies. They talk about their sporadic attacks along the borders in the old days and their choices of either going "home" or staying here after they were granted asylum by the Thai authorities.

But above all, Amir believes, what these ex-communists want to say is that they have their place firmly fixed in the history of Malaya, of its struggle for independence. "They want us to know," adds Amir, "that nobody can take that away from them."

As our own southern discomfort grows, Malaysia is sometimes cited as a model on how a sharply multi-ethnic country can maintain its social harmony. But in a way, The Last Communist shows us that harmony might only be a national myth that needs plenty of hard work to nurture, and that Malaysia's quest to find its real identity still goes on half a century after colonial rule.

"In Malaysia, we've racialised the way we think - we make bread this way because the Malay like it, or we make it the other way because the Chinese like it. When times are good, people don't ask questions, but when times are tough, when there aren't enough jobs, then what we think didn't matter starts to matter, like why the Chinese control most of the economy, or why the Malays enjoy more privileges from the government.

"Malaysian people have a short-term memory," he continues. "We can't remember things that happened many decades ago. So if certain things are repeated frequently enough, they will become true in the people's minds - like we can repeat to ourselves that we're living in perfect harmony, or the other way round. Some Malay schools may repeat to their students that they need to work hard if they don't want the Chinese to take over the country. But of course there is tension, like everywhere else.

"In fact, Thailand is different, at least you speak the same language, right?"

Yes we do, though perhaps we, too, need a constant reminder. And it would be nice if we had a few filmmakers with the political consciousness, the will to express their view on the state of nation, like those in our southern neighbour do.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Stutter and shoot

(I wrote this article for the April issue of Plan B, a pretty fine Malaysian magazine for blokes. It was to introduce the Cool Gadgets supplement, of all things. I normally would refuse but the editor who asked over the phone had the sexiest voice. So I present it here as a kind of modest manifesto).

The Indonesians, with their love of shorthand, have a word, gatek, which stands for gagap teknologi. That’s me, always stuttering when it comes to technological gadgets.

But as Fate, that impertinent slip of a thing, wouldhave it, I am sometimes asked to comment on digital technology and the like. This is because in 2000 I wrote and directed what became Malaysia’s first DV (digital video) movie. It’s called Lips to Lips and you haven’t seen it, but that’s OK.

The decision to use digital video rather than film was a deep, considered one that was taken the moment my financier checked his bank balance. I had used 16mm film before when I took a film course (in New York, now that you asked). Our first day of shoot (in New York, that is) had us all excited until we discovered that we had loaded the film in the wrong way, and so what came back from the lab was a perfect expanse of exposed black. We were the only group in the class that had made such an elementary mistake. Looking back, it was the most apposite start, since we had nowhere else to go but up.

When making Lips to Lips I relied very much on our Technical Director, Zalee who is what the Indonesians would call a cowok gondrong (long-haired bloke), who was and is able to wax extensively of CCDs, FireWire, interlacing. These were things I didn’t want to know about. As Katharine Hepburn said, when exasperatedly quitting a tedious Method Acting workshop: "To hell with all that -- I just want to be a movie star!"

The arguments in favour of digital video (as opposed to film) has been made many times in back issues of Independent Filmmaker magazine and its ilk. The democratising potential of consumer-level machinery has been demonstrated time and again, as seen even in the nude ear-squat controversy that royally embarrassed the Malaysian police.

In a society such as ours, it has hitherto not been easy for stories outside the market-driven hegemony to be told. This presence outside the discursive norm can be something as basic as linguistic, since stories not in KL Malay (sometimes sprinkled with English) are not thought to be very commercial.

Digital video has enabled stories like Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road), Mei Li De Xi Yi Ji (The Beautiful Washing Machine), Mu (Sanctuary) and Gedebe (Thug) to be told. This sort of linguistic plurality, otherwise trumpeted in our tourism ads, has caused some self-appointed defenders of National Film Culture to start squealing like stuck pigs, if you can forgive the non-halal simile. "This isn’t the sort of image we want to show to outsiders!" they thunder. Well, tough. The ease and availability of video has moved beyond the realm of the technological to the epistemological. "Permission to narrate" was a phrase of Edward Said’s, but that restrictive need has been blitzed in the neat blur of binary codes,

The Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf likens the availability of digital cameras to the onset of cheap ballpoint pens. Great literature can now be written by anyone, but the number of great new books remains small. It’s the same with films. Most DV quickies will be gone with the wind of the next big fad, but that also is fine because ephemerality carries its own pathos and beauty.

Almost all my movies have been made with digital video. I am a bricoleur; I make do with what I have. Sometimes shortcuts imposed by limitations create a feel that’s more urgent and somehow transcendent. Working with a narrower range can create wonders if the soul’s in the right place; this is why Edith Piaf is a better singer than Mariah. B-movies, made on the cheap and the fly, are more imperishably entertaining than the glossy blockbusters of their time. This somehow relates to the motto I adopted at the time: "Other people can do it better, but I can do it cheaper."

Using video to 'look like film' is a goal of many upstarts but I’ve always preferred to use its inherent mobility and unassuming sneakiness for an aesthetic that’s different from celluloid. Embedded with an Indonesian film crew during their elections 2 years ago, I shot over 80 video tapes which were edited into The Year of Living Vicariously (2005). I was similarly generous when shooting Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (2006), a semi-musical documentary inspired by the life of the communist leader Chin Peng. (On 18 May the latter becomes the first local documentary to get a commercial release in Malaysia. So even if a hundred people see it, it will still become the highest-grossing Malaysian documentary ever, so there!)

Having said all that, I am also this year co-directing a film on good old 35mm Kodak film. I am co-directing because the budget is so big (by my standards) that if Susuk flops I can always share the blame. For the first time phrases like "check the gate" and "how many feet do we have left in this mag?" are bandied around me. An actor’s flubbed line will now cost a few hundred RM in film stock and processing. Even so, non-linear editing is now digital and can solve a few problems. When the bomba failed to materialise during a scene of pathetic fallacy, we decided to just CGI in the raindrops.

The bottom line when it comes to filmmaking or any kind of creative endeavour was articulated by the screenwriter William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything." That is a source of anxiety to investors but a source of excitement for the rest of us, I think that Malaysian cinema is the most exciting in the world simply because there are so many stories we have not yet told, All these electronic manufacturers competing for your moolah creates an atmosphere of enlightened self-interest, if you will only permit yourself to narrate. The very last quote of this article (I promise) comes from Hermann Hesse: "Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

From South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)

Director isn't shy about the big picture

by Clarence Tsui

South China Morning Post, 13 April.

Amir Muhammad was more surprised than anyone when his documentary The Last Communist passed Malaysia's film censors without cuts last month.

Given that its subject matter, former communist leader Chin Peng, is still persona non grata in the country, it was an achievement that the film made it to general release. The 90-minute documentary, which will be screened tomorrow as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, tells the story of the man who led ethnic Chinese Malaysians in a guerrilla resistance against the Japanese invaders during the second world war.

Despite the decades that have passed, attitudes towards both him and the struggle remain complex to this day, Muhammad said.

"People's attitudes towards Chin Peng varied, of course, according to how close they were to the events of that era," he said, referring to the period from 1948 to 1960 when authorities wielded power to arrest dissidents in the face of what they saw as a communist-led uprising. "But it's safe to say that there was actually a sneaking sense of pride that their town or their family had been somehow involved in such a dramatic struggle."

What sets The Last Communist apart from other documentaries is the way it unravels Mr Chin's story. It traces his travels across Malaysia, interviewing people from places where he lived, worked and fought, while also offering glimpses into the struggles of their lives today.

In what is billed as a "semi-musical documentary", The Last Communist weaves interviews with performances of revolutionary songs, from Bollywood to ballads.

It ends with the filmmaker taking the camera across the border into Thailand, where Mr Chin and his fellow members of the Communist Party of Malaya have lived since the 1950s, when talks between the communists and the dominant party in the ruling coalition, the United Malay National Organisation party, broke down.

"They are hale and hearty, and had far greater energy than our own film crew, who were each about half their age." Muhammad said. "They still have their ideals but they have reconciled themselves to their place in history. I didn't sense any great bitterness that Malaysia didn't go the socialist path.

"Quite a few wanted to go back, if just to see their old towns, but the Malaysian government will not allow them."

A filmmaker who has never shied from tackling political issues, Muhammad has examined social discontent in Malaysia with The Big Durian and political reformation in Indonesia with The Year of Living Vicariously - but The Last Communist, shot on digital video for less than US$15,000, is his most controversial.

Rather than simply paying homage to Mr Chin, Muhammad said it was the "landscape" he was interested in examining and the lingering social problems that could have served as the driving force for Mr Chin's struggle in the 1950s and 60s.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sight & Sound, April 2006

The current issue of the British film magazine Sight & Sound has an article by Tony Rayns on the Berlin Film Festival and includes the following words and of course I am right chuffed:

"The Forum...[had] a scattering of engaging titles. The smartest and wittiest was Amir Muhammad's The Last Communist, a sort-of documentary about Chin Peng, the leader of the long-banned Communist Party of Malaya, who remains on Malaysia's 'wanted' list. The film explores the mainly rural locales in which Chin Peng grew up and began his struggle and winds up in Baytong, just across the border in Thailand, which is home to a small community of Malay communist exiles. Along the way, it pauses to interview present-day residents of those places - and to feature a series of newly composed songs performed by the rotund Zalila Lee, parodying propaganda anthems ancient and modern. Chin Peng himself is conspicuous by his absence. As usual, Amir's real subject is Malaysia now, a site of evasions, contradictions, repressions and forbidden desires; this essayistic delight confirms him as the only visible heir to the Chris Marker tradition."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Big Durian: 29 April

The Big Durian screens at the end of the month in the hallowed environs of FINAS (The National Film Development Corporation). If you haven't seen it yet and are too cheap to buy the American DVD, do come along lah.

THE BIG DURIAN: Screening & Discussion

Saturday, 29 April, 3:30 pm.

Auditorium P. Ramlee, FINAS, Jalan Hulu Kelang (next to Zoo Negara).

Admission: Free

Discussion between myself and cultural anthropologist Wan Zawawi Ibrahim will commence after the 75-minute screening.

Further enquiries: | 012–225 1179 (Gareth A. Richards).

There's bound to be some interesting questions afterwards. And the answer to the most urgent one for the moment: Yes, food will be served.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Buenos Aires

The South American premiere of Lelaki Komunis Terakhir takes place this very week at the Buenos Aires 8º Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente.

No I have never been to South America and am unable to now - but it has always been one of my dreams, as the continent has produced many favourite books. Plus, Bafici happens to be the festival which contains the highest ratio of wanna-see movies of any festival I've ever screened in. (This is my third time, natch).

Spanish is such a great language, no? So sexy. Check out the synopsis written by the festival programmers:

La premisa parece temeraria, imposible: contra la historia de setenta años en Malasia, a través de los lugares y momentos en la vida del esquivo Chin Peng, sin dejar de lado ni el control británico ni la influencia china, ni la ocupación japonesa, ni los exilidos tailandeses ni los pomelos de Ipoh. Es que si para el malaya Amir Muhammad el cine y la politica siempre fueron hermanos de sangre - como lo probó en las anteriores The Big Durian (2003) y The Year of Living Vicariously (2005), vistas en dos últimas ediciones del Bafici - en The Last Communist ofrece un certificado de que el cine todavia esta por inventarse. Entrevistas, dibujos, historias de vida, reportes policiales, jóvenes y viejos, catedráticos y revolucionarios y hechos históricos terribles contados con unas sorprendentes canciones - como si Muhammad fuera un cineasta brechtiano pop - animan una pelicula de una vitalidad y una imaginación cinematografica apabullantes. Preguntarse si esta es un filme documental es tan pertinente como interrogar a un fósil por el viaje espacio. Una pelicula que huye todo el tiempo de los ordinario, es desir, una pelicula extraordinaria.

The Spanish word for movie, pelicula, starts off by sounding like the Malay for 'odd.' Just one of the amazing nuggets I picked up when I tried studying Spanish a decade ago (it's almost all gone now) in preparation for living in a Spanish-speaking city named New York. That synopsis in English (although I can't take credit):

Its premise seems impossible, rash at best: recounting a history of seventy years in Malaysia through the places and moments in the life of the elusive Chin Peng, without overlooking British control, Chinese influence, Japanese occupation, Thai exile or the pomeloes from Ipoh. For Malay Amir Muhammad, cinema and politics have always been blood-related - as he proved in The Big Durian (2003) and The Year of Living Vicariously (2005), screened at Bafici's two latest editions - in The Last Communist he draws up a manifesto stating that cinema is still in swaddling clothes. Interviews, drawings, life stories, police reports, young and old, scholars and revolutionaries and terrible historic events retold through some amazing songs - as if Muhammad were a Brechtian pop film-maker - breathe life into a film with an overwhelming cinematic imagination. Wondering whether this is a documentary is as relevant as interrogating a fossil about space travel. A film constantly on the run from the ordinary, this is, an extraordinary movie.