Da Malaysia Code, uncut
The Star. 9 June.
Suddenly, everyone’s a psychic and film critic.
Indeed, in the true spirit of Malaysia Boleh, Malaysians – from the all-powerful politikus to the seemingly-ordinary rakyat – have in the last couple of months been crawling out of the woodwork, to show the world how truly maju (progressive) we are. And what a sad sight it has been.
First, we had a report in a Malay newspaper that Finas (National Film Development Corporation) was screening lucah (pornographic) movies, based on the complaints of unknown and unnamed individuals.
The film series was initially conceived by film lovers evidently led by academic and culture vulture Dr Wan Zawawi Ibrahim.
It was largely made up of foreign-language movies, created by independent filmmakers interested in telling stories, making audiences think, using film as an art form, and eschewing the idea of making movies for a quick buck.
And, indeed, there is a growing audience for these films in Malaysia. An audience evidently fed up with the commercial scene, including the Malaysian (Malay) movie scene, with its ongoing themes of cinta (love), duka (heartbreak) and jenaka (comedy).
Anyway, to cut a tedious – but sadly, recurring – story short, apparently on the basis of this one allegation in the daily, without any evidence offered, without any specific movie being mentioned, Finas requested the series organisers to cease and desist.
Which they did, of course, under protest. What is stupefyingly silly about this whole episode is not that Finas made such a decision. That is its right.
But the decision evidently was made without separating fact from fiction, without distinguishing between what may really be quality films and, quite simply, the depraved perceptions of the complainant(s).
More than that, there was just no real public discussion of the issue, merely assertions about public opinion.
The same, however, cannot be said of Amir Muhammad’s Lelaki Komunis Terakhir.
There was much public discussion surrounding the film, although virtually no one had seen it.
And it looks like not many will, now that its “on-off” banning by the Home Affairs Ministry is finally “on”.
It was probably the first-ever locally made documentary film that was condemned so viciously even before it was available for viewing. Condemned based on the imaginings of the inquisitors, the paranoia of the persecutors.
Is it too much to ask that if we are to make valid judgments on anything – including potentially controversial films – that we at least know something about it first-hand and not hear about it second-hand or third-hand?
Surely that’s the least we could do if we wish to be a “scientific, progressive society” (Ah yes, Vision 2020 and the nine challenges, remember?) in the not-too-distant future.
In the case of Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, even the authorities appeared confused, making more U-turns in their statements than Michael Caine did in The Italian Job.
One said that Lelaki Komunis Terakhir was harmless but amateurish, and a couple of days later changed that to “threatening national security”!
Another asserted that the film would upset and shock the older generation who had suffered at the hands of the terrorists.
Let’s get a sense of perspective here. The permit that was being applied for was for a limited run in a couple of cinemas. As with any other movie like, say Sembilu 55 or Pontianak 15, people interested in watching Lelaki Komunis Terakhir would then need to purchase a ticket to view it.
Nobody young or old, hitam manis or kuning langsat, rich or poor, left-winger or goalkeeper, male, female or other was going to be FORCED to view the movie and possibly die of boredom than of shock and horror.
And even if some viewers did get upset or were shocked, so what? To develop as a people, surely we need to take the rough with the smooth, the bad with the good, nightmares with dreams. What’s the point of denial?
First, let’s all agree that films, plays, dramas, popular culture generally all contain opinions, points of view.
There is this notion of authorship. It is a ridiculous myth that a film must consider all points of view or, even worse, only the official viewpoint.
For example, John Pilger’s award-winning documentaries are opinionated, so too are Robert Fisk’s critical commentaries on the war in West Asia. In no way do they toe the official Bush or Blair line.
Second, painful though it may be for some to accept, people like Chin Peng are part of Malaysia’s history – we can’t simply erase that, if we wish to call ourselves a democracy.
We need to remember that it is people like Hitler who burn books, it is murderous regimes like Pol Pot’s in Cambodia that try to erase history.
Fact is, there are a lot of shocking and upsetting events that have happened throughout history and continue to happen on a daily basis – the recent Indonesian earthquake, the May 14 threatening mob in Penang, the ongoing war in Iraq.
Are we supposed to shield our oh-so-sensitive selves from all these and pretend that such incidents, such shocking and disastrous events don’t happen? Deny their occurrence?
Are we to then abandon yet another 2020 challenge, that of creating a caring society?
Because, in all seriousness, how could we even dream of creating such a society if we are emotionally lobotomised?
And emotionally lobotomised is precisely what we risk becoming if the types of films we can watch and other forms of artistic and personal expression become increasingly dictated by the demands of the bigots, the paranoid and the insecure.
* Zaharom Nain is an Associate Professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia.