Why is Lelaki Komunis Terakhir banned in Malaysia?
Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is a semi-musical road movie documentary tracing the towns in which Chin Peng (exiled leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya) lived in from birth to national independence in 1957. It does not include any interviews with, or even photographs of, Chin Peng himself. The documentary features interviews with people who live in those same present-day towns such as Sitiawan, Bidor, Taiping, Ipoh and Betong, Thailand. Along the way there are also specially-composed songs and capsule biographical data explaining what Chin Peng did in those towns. Chin Peng himself is mentioned only once during the interviews.
What were my expectations upon submission to LPF? I can honestly say, “I don’t know.” Censorship in this country is an unpredictable thing. I am not a censor so I wouldn’t know what a censor would look out for or find objectionable. I just hoped for the best.
Lelaki Komunis Terakhir had been shot over the course of 4 weeks in late 2005. The total budget including promotion is RM80,000. The shoot had the necessary permit from the National Film Development Corporation (Finas). This was not a ‘guerrilla’ or ‘underground’ shoot and Red Films is a licensed production company responsible for, among others, last year’s teen futsal romance Gol & Gincu.
The funding came partly from the Jan Vrijman Fund of Amsterdam which is a documentary fund for developing countries and not (as a letter in last year’s Berita Harian claimed) a body responsible for spreading communism worldwide.
When the news came out that the documentary was going to be made, UMNO Youth issued a single protest letter. As I had not even started shooting, they were probably making an assumption about its content. I did not respond to this protest letter as I believed the proper thing to do is to make the documentary first.
Lelaki Komunis Terakhir made its world premiere at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in February. The audience included the Malaysian ambassador to Germany who said he enjoyed it. It has since been invited to 14 other film festivals around the world, including London, Seattle, Vancouver and Hong Kong. All these invites were received up to and including April this year.
In April we received the good news: Lelaki Komunis Terakhir was passed uncut by the censors. Yes, not a single cut. And the rating given was U, meaning suitable for all ages. After a meeting that we had with LPF chairman, he clarified that this approval meant that we could screen it in the three digital cinemas we had asked for: namely, the Golden Screen Cinemas of MidValley, One Utama Kuala Lumpur and Gurney Plaza, Penang. This approval did not include VCD/DVD sales and TV broadcast; we were made to understand that these extra approvals would depend on the public reaction after watching it in the cinemas.
I am not naïve and do know that the subject of communism is taboo in Malaysia. I maintain that Lelaki Komunis Terakhir was made with a certain sense of responsibility and sensitivity to history. It is not a propaganda film but a rather odd documentary. “Odd” is the word I heard when I screened it overseas, but most meant it in a nice way.
Being “odd” as it is, we never wanted a big nationwide release. Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is a documentary shot and finished on digital video. It is not a feature film with stars. It is therefore not “commercial.” There are only 3 cinemas in Malaysia equipped to show digital-video movies and these happen to be the 3 cinemas that we chose. (Berita Harian brought up a bizarre point that Kuala Lumpur and Penang have a majority Chinese population but I fail to see why this matters). Each cinema can fit not even 100 people so it is a very limited screening and hardly Lord of the Rings.
After discussion with Golden Screen Cinemas, we set 18 May for the release date on these 3 screens.
Oh yes: Due to its subject-matter, we were asked to hold a special screening for officers of the Special Branch unit of the Royal Malaysian Police Force. I never knew of any other film that has received such a request but we obliged. We screened it for an audience of 20 Special Branch officers. After the screening we had a nice discussion. They did not indicate any objection to the documentary; one said “It should be OK” but another said, “It’s very academic and most people will be bored.” A few of them took my name-card but said they had none of their own. We did not hear from them again.
All seemed to be going well until Berita Harian ran a series of articles criticizing the LPF’s decision to approve the documentary. Berita Harian was the only newspaper in the country to do this. These articles appeared on May 3, 4 and 5 of the newspaper. These included interviews with politicians, filmmakers and academics who seemed appalled that such a documentary was approved for screening.
On the evening of May 5, Red Films received instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs to not screen Lelaki Komunis Terakhir anywhere in Malaysia. The reason cited was that “the public had protested.”
We of course cancelled the Golden Screen Cinemas release date and also an Ipoh charity screening on 19 May (for which separate approval was in the process of being obtained from the Ipoh police department).
The decision to ban the documentary was based on the series of articles in Berita Harian. I need to emphasise this point: No one in Berita Harian has seen the documentary. And no one interviewed by Berita Harian had seen it either.
According to friends of mine who were called up by Berita Harian (and who refused to make any comments), the question that was asked of them was “Do you approve of this Amir guy making a movie glorifying communism and Chin Peng?” This sort of leading question obviously got the answers that the paper was looking for. The people who were quoted were making comments on a documentary they had not even seen. Some of them didn’t even know of its existence until Berita Harian told them. In other words, they literally didn’t know what they were talking about.
I was called up by that newspaper on 3 May to give my comments. The reporter said, “There are all these people angry at you. How do you respond?” I said, “They haven’t even seen the documentary. How am I supposed to respond?” He seemed disappointed that he couldn’t goad me into saying anything else.
Why did Berita Harian object to the documentary even without seeing it? Berita Harian is a conservative newspaper whose cultural politics verges on the ethnocentric and semi-fascist. Proof of this was its intense daily campaign (which ran for weeks) to discredit Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet after it won Best Film at the Malaysian Film Festival. Berita Harian was the only newspaper to take such exception to this interracial romance as being “insulting to Malay culture”. Its Assistant Entertainment Editor Akmal Abdullah even appeared on the RTM talk-show Fenomena Seni to further denounce Sepet and its follow-up Gubra along the same lines. He seemed to take particular exception to the plot of a Malay girl falling in love with an “infidel” (Chinese) youth.
Akmal in his weekly Thursday column Epilog (ironic that such a Malaycentric writer would choose such a foreign word) also ran a weekly campaign against any local film not made in the Malay language. He sees this as part of some kind of conspiracy to “destroy Malay culture”. He singles out internationally acclaimed, small movies like The Beautiful Washing Machine, Sanctuary and Chemman Chaalai (made by people from what he terms “foreign” and “immigrant races”) for attack but has offered no proof that he has even seen any of these fine works.
In fact, central to Berita Harian’s objection to Lelaki Komunis Terakhir seems to be that Chin Peng is an ethnic Chinese. I was ‘advised’ in these articles to concentrate on Malay characters from now on; even if they are radical or communist it’s OK!
More evidence can be found on Berita Harian’s reactionary, racist cultural views. This is the same newspaper that a few years ago ran a long, positive review of that famous anti-Jewish fraud, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion! The fact that it could run such a review with no apology or retraction already places it beyond the ethical standards of civilised international journalism.
I repeat: The censorship board, whose job it is to monitor these things, had obviously found nothing objectionable in the film; this is why it was passed uncut.
The censors of all the countries that have screened the documentary so far in festivals (including Germany, Hong Kong, Argentina) passed it uncut too.
In none of the international reviews published did the critics say anything about how this was a ‘dangerous’ movie that will ‘harm the public.’ The advantage these reviews have over Berita Harian: They were written by people who had actually viewed the documentary. Not one of them came to the conclusion that I was “glorifying” any political leader including Chin Peng. All those reviews are available here:
Sign and Sight
Sight & Sound
OK you might say those are ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerant’ countries whose standards don’t apply to us. But how about this: Singapore passed it uncut too! Yes, Singapore! The very country that barely has any opposition politicians or chewing gum.
It screened at the Singapore International Film Festival in late April. I was there at the full-house screening. I can assure you that no one ran amok after the screening or threatened national security. People just politely went back to the MRT and their lives.
It is, to put it mildly, horribly unfair for a movie to be banned based on comments by people who had not seen it. I am dismayed that a single newspaper (and a culturally chauvinistic one at that) could cause the Home Affairs Ministry to reverse the decision by the censors.
* Perhaps the objections are to the title? Well, Malaysia did once ban Daredevil and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers because of the words ‘devil’ and ‘morphin’ (which sounds like morphine) respectively. But that was in the past. The current Censorship Board seems determined to not make Malaysia an international laughingstock for ill-advised bans such as those. Do we want to return to those times?
* Perhaps the objection is to the very subject of communism? If communism is so untouchable, why is Malaysia now such pals with China and Cuba?
* Perhaps the objection is to “glorifying” communism and Chin Peng? I repeat: This charge has only been made by people who have not seen the documentary. Read the reviews by people who have seen it.
* Perhaps the objection is to painful depictions of the past? Lelaki Komunis Terakhir has no archive footage or historical recreations of war at all. The most violent image you will see is a strip of petai beans being removed from its tree in Bidor. Government-funded films like Leftenan Adnan, Paloh and Embun all feature violence but no one protested about those.
* Perhaps the objection is to the subject of Chin Peng? Well, Chin Peng’s book is not banned (even though he is), so why a different standard for the documentary, which was furthermore not made in cooperation with him?
* Perhaps the objection is to the fact that some communists were interviewed? Well, the 15-minute sequence in Betong (out of the 90 minutes of the whole documentary) does have retired men and women from the Communist Party of Malaya. But they are living lawfully as farmers and traders in land provided after the Peace Agreement in 1989 between Malaysia, the CPM and Thailand. Although they do describe some of their previous experiences in the jungle, they are in no way advocating a return to war. What does a Peace Agreement mean if the other side cannot even be seen and heard at all?
* Perhaps the objection is to the fact that Chin Peng is ethnic Chinese? Well, you got me there!
We will be meeting with the relevant Ministry to appeal the ban. I made the documentary for Malaysians first of all, since it is about our own past and present. Screening in foreign festivals is worthwhile but it has never been my primary intention. A Malaysian audience (the ones who can stay awake for a 90-minute documentary with no love stories, fight scenes or special effects) will understand it so much more.
This is what I humbly ask: If you feel the public has the right to see Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, please write to the press. The authorities do take note of reports in the media. (That’s why the ban happened in the first place!)
Even if you feel this doesn’t affect you, and you wouldn’t even want to watch the documentary anyway: What’s to stop the same newspaper from starting a campaign against some other local movie, book or song for being “not Malay enough”? That might certainly affect you in the future.
I made a multilingual documentary that explores the diversity and plurality of contemporary Malaysia to contrast against the more turbulent times of Chin Peng’s era. It is about both the geographic and historical ‘landscape’ that make up a country. It is this very diversity that is under threat if we allow chauvinists to determine what the rest of us can or cannot see.