Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia

The Star review of Malaysian Documentaries (October 2004)

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The Star.

Saturday November 6, 2004

Malaysian DIY documentaries

Ever thought of making a documentary on your family tree? Or your travels? What about your lover? Hello...documentary, not...or OK, maybe you want to record something more political? The good news is, you can do-it-yourself on a low, low budget. ANDREW SIA checks out Malaysia's chronicle-anything-you-want scene.

A local version of Fahrenheit 9-11? Well, we're not quite there yet, but a recent screening of six "independent" documentaries suggests that everyone can borrow a digital video camera and make their own fact-flick.

"Anybody can make a film if they have something to say," noted university researcher Sharaad Kuttan, who recorded his two trips to India.

"(Due to inexperience) I initially ended up with 20 minutes' footage of my bald patch," he smiled.

"I learnt (film-making) on the job. During the first interviews I didn't even have a mike," revealed journalist Danny Lim, the maker of semi-political show 18?.

Amir Muhammad, the host and curator of the Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia (Artistic Film Club) screening at HELP Institute, Kuala Lumpur two weeks back, said that the six documentaries were chosen from a total of 16 entries. Of the six selected, half are by début directors and half don't even take place in Malaysia.

"Some (of the six) are very experimental. Documentaries are not just what you see on Discovery or Filem Negara."

A few weeks ago, he ran a small documentary-making workshop in Kuala Lumpur. Three of the directors (of 18? and Arranged Marriages) were featured at the screening which had a crowd of 200-plus people (the largest ever for local indie documentaries) packing the HELP Institute auditorium down to the aisles.

This is what they saw:


Director: Zan Azlee - freelance writer/producer/director.

30min/in Malay & English

This is ostensibly about the theory that our Prime Ministers will be determined by the so-called RAHMAN "prophesy", based on Tunku Abdul Rahman's name, eg: M - Mahathir Mohamad and A, no, not Anwar but Abdullah Badawi. Who will be N?

While Zan does record a few amusing opinions about it, he also cleverly weaves in the suggestion that the fixation about the next No 1 is rooted in a deeper malaise -- people's deference and ultimately, surrender, to quasi-feudal political power.

He interviews a certain "Chief Reporter" who went around during the last elections -- complete with entourage, bush-jacket and Mercedes -- pretending to be an MP. People were taken in, thus "proving" that people "don't care about politics."

But why? Is it because, as the Chief Reporter says, in ponderous, bureaucratic style: "Journalists are in this profession because they are positive"?

Then the narrative jumps, seemingly at a tangent, into a discussion on public toilets.

"They pay 20 sen to enter yet will never complain if it's dirty," quips one interviewee.

"People need to survive . . . so they just accept s*** . . ." chimes in

The incessant struggle to survive? Or to keep up with the Joneses?

Cut to the Sup Kambing (Mutton Soup) guy. Not only does his spunky stuff cure everything (including THAT male thing . . .), but his folksy yet hard-hitting opinions about the Mamak Work Ethic simply steal the show:

"I choose my friends carefully . . . we talk about business, work, direct selling . . . Kita bukan jolly sana-sini. (We don't go jollying here and there)."

While the docu seems to meander a bit at times, the butterfly dance of the segments eventually coalesces into the question: why don't we ever ask for our 20 sen back if we aren't satisfied with society's cleanliness?


Director: Haanim Bamadhaj - creator of experimental videos, documentaries and installation art.

10min/in Malay & English

This personal journey to retrace the director's Arab-Yemeni family tree since its emigration to Singapore has some snazzy graphics, maps and old photos to amplify the interviews. But its wandering narrative and patchy audio takes effort to follow.

It's interesting that the Arab identity in Singapore is being highlighted whereas in Malaysia, as pointed out at The Penang Story Conference two years back, the separate "threads" of Arab, Tamil-Muslim, Punjabi-Muslim, Achehnese, Jawi Peranakans (a mix of those three with Malays), Mendailing, Rawanese, Bugis
etc, identities have been largely subsumed under the larger nationalistic classification of Malay.

The documentary that's begging to be made would be the story of
Arab-Malaysians, especially now that one is very prominent in the news...

Arranged Marriages

Directors: Halimatul Saadiah, Malina Shamsuddin and Sharifah Shazana - university students.

11min/in English & Malay

A hodgepodge of opinions emerge during interviews with matchmakers, naysayers and "success story" couples. A young man, in opposing the idea, unwittingly shows just why it could be a good thing.

"Just because someone's from a good family we won't know what's in the heart, whether they hate or love spaghetti," he says.

Precisely. Are the young too swayed by external "compatibilities" and lacking in judgement about deeper character?

And a mother gives the classic Asian statement: "We cannot decide for her . . .we just give what's good for her."

There's no conclusion either for or against, just an airing of views on this still-very-relevant social phenomenon. Visually, the monotony of the talking heads is broken only by some interesting angles on the ears and hands (holding a walking stick) of 96-year-old match-made Mrs Ong.

Auto Focus India
Director: Sharaad Kuttan - freelance journalist and researcher at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

12min/in English

This work is stitched together from footage assembled during the director's two trips to India. It starts promisingly - a moving motorbike shot through the dirty rear window of a typical Indian auto-rickshaw juxtaposed with posters of Stalin (communist parties are both legal and active in India).

However, it soon descends into an intellectual lecture cum soliloquy. Eg: long "artistic" takes on a cup of tea at a train window while he narrates high-minded stuff about Nehru-style socialism and the like. It's a lot of TELL with hardly any show, so much so that one almost feels it's a radio show.

"It was my first documentary and I was very disappointed that I could not extract the (ambient) audio," said Sharaad during the Q & A session.

As an unfortunate result, despite the lofty democratic-social justice principles in the voice-over, "the people" cannot "speak" for themselves. The all-dominant voice is the director's which becomes increasingly convoluted. It also certainly doesn't help that the arty abstract visuals bear little relevance to the monologue.

Not surprisingly, Auto Focus India was chosen as "least favourite" by six of 18 viewers who filled in post-screening feedback forms.

The most democratic moment in the movie is when he lets his subjects use the camera. Otherwise, Sharaad's well-intentioned effort inadvertently manages to draw ironic parallels with the top-down, intellectuals-imposed structure of Nehru-style socialism - which fell prey to corruption and abuse by its own guardians.

Perhaps his next video will be more in the style of Gandhi's grassroots people-centric version of socialism?

You and Me Running
Director: Hakim , freelance artist.
26min/in Malay

"I had no technique. Langgar aje (just bang)," revealed Hakim during the Q & A, about how he made his very personal portrait of Melanie, his Australian girlfriend.

It's like his vacation video, recording his visit to her remote Queensland town, and it's overlaid with mushy statements - "stroking your hair", "looking into your eyes", "missing the heat" - reflecting the immense longing of separation.

The pace is slow, at times downright sluggish. Shots of clouds from the plane's window, interminable (and blur) visuals from inside the bus on the way there, lingering kitchen shots. The movie could have benefited a lot from judicious cuts.

She may mean the world to Hakim and we are drawn to sympathise with his deep yearnings but overall, it comes across as a little voyeuristic and self-indulgent. We never hear her speak - she is like a detached OBJECT of his very personal love. Hakim doesn't really get the audience involved in liking her, or even knowing her, as a person.

";I was born to love her till I die," he told the audience at the screening.

Hmmm . . . perhaps this extremely individual flick belongs more in his private collection than the public domain.


Director: Danny Lim - journalist.

21min/in English & Malay

18? - this piece of graffiti is one of a crop that has been sprayed at strategic urban areas around Kuala Lumpur. Other examples include: "Ada apa dengan (What's up with) National Service?" "Defend Human Rights", (left), "Free Your Mind" and a certain ex-politician captioned either with "OBEY-LAH" or "DIAM".

But do people even care? When interviewed, two bakery staff, part of the working class who will presumably benefit from better human rights, are just confused and bemused about the graffiti right next to their premises.

So just what is 18? about? Lim does a vox pop.

Some think it's got to do with the age for National Service. Or maybe it's a local gangster group.

The more political interviewee thinks it's about the announcement by Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim (then Minister in the Prime Minister's Department) in February just before the elections that "18 high-profile corruption cases" were going to be prosecuted.

Beyond that, other pertinent issues are explored. Is it vandalism? Art? Freedom of expression?

If it's OK for companies to erect huge billboards to promote their wares, why can't activists put up public street art (beyond the control of elitist galleries) to promote human rights?

An interviewee has a spot-on observation: Our public spaces have been sold to the highest bidder. There is effectively no public space for "free expression" unless we pay for it.

Another interviewee comments: "Maybe there are more things to worry about than Happy Hour."

And rabble-rousing film-maker Hishamuddin Rais grabs the spotlight with some remarks about how the graffiti "takes art back from the bourgeoisie" and returns it to the people.

Why even toilet wall drawings of ahem, you-know-what, are art. Why, maybe he could even market it in New York for a hefty sum and then upgrade from smoking kreteks to cigars!

Way to go buddy. Yeah, sell the crap back to the Americans - the land of Dollar-mania where Might is Right. I mean, if they can dump Fast Junk Food on us, why not?

Perhaps ultimately, 18?, explores how much we have sold our principles and souls for commercialism. And, as a result, are willing to DIAM and OBEY-LAH . .
The movie was chosen as "Favourite Work" by 17 of 31 viewers who filled response forms. Among the six documentaries screened, it was easily the most accessible and coherent, a reflection of the director's clear journalistic style. Perhaps Lim might want to go further and make Malaysia's Fahrenheit 9-11?