Article from the Far Eastern Economic Review



Armed with inexpensive digital videocameras, a new generation of Malaysian film-makers is tackling issues long ignored by the country's mainstream cinema

Issue cover-dated November 06, 2003

EARLY this year, Malaysian independent cinema came of age. Just off Merdeka Square, where Malaysia was born, an audience packed into the Actors Studio Theatre for the premiere of The Big Durian. Named after a tongue-in-cheek term for Kuala Lumpur, this personal essay is the most mature work so far by journalist-turned-film-director Amir Muhammad, 30, who has become the informal ringleader of a new generation of cinematic taboo-busters.

This film focuses on the racial jitters and political machinations surrounding an incident in 1987, when a Malay army private named Adam ran amok with a gun, killing one and injuring two. Made for less than $5,000 in just nine days, the film mixes real and re-enacted interviews to offer a straight-on but witty examination of ultra-sensitive issues--racial tensions, a national herd mentality--that Malaysians avoid discussing. Not surprisingly, despite screenings at overseas film festivals, The Big Durian is unlikely to be released in Malaysia.Ironically, films like the The Big Durian are only being made because of Malaysia's push for hi-tech industry and cutting-edge computer skills. Spearheaded by recent graduates of the Multimedia University, a growing coterie of young film-makers, armed with inexpensive digital videocameras and film-editing software, has begun holding a mirror to issues previously kept in the dark.

"A revolution is going on here--and it's long overdue," says Hassan Multhalib, who created the country's first animated feature 20 years ago. Vernon Emuang, producer of Lips to Lips, Amir Muhammad's 2000 comic debut, says: "A new generation is pushing the boundaries of our cultural landscape--and with each push, legitimizing another sector of society."He's not just talking about intellectuals, homosexuals, feminists, criminals, rebels or rockers--but Chinese and Indians who make up 38% of Malaysia's population. While few of the independents' subjects are overtly radical, their recent output finally puts on screen the concerns of an upwardly mobile multi-ethnic middle class, largely educated abroad and, says Emuang, "as metropolitan as any in the world."

Actor and film-maker James Lee, 30, whose 2003 film Room to Let, a tale of bored and alienated young Malaysians, has been shown at several overseas festivals, says: "The only way to get a clear picture of Malaysia is for all our races to contribute. This country doesn't need East vs. West, Islam vs. non-Islam, we need 10 perspectives on everything."Already limited by its small market to around a dozen movies a year, mainstream Malaysian productions have always been made in Bahasa Malaysia and are usually formulaic love stories or epics extolling the heroes of the majority Malays. The government censorship board--"a cultural Taliban," says Lee--approves these scripts and tightly controls the content.Most of the new generation of guerrilla film-makers don't even bother applying for official licences. The new, mobile technology allows them to make full-length features cheaply and quickly, before the authorities even notice. As for distribution, most get around the content restrictions applied to commercial releases by cultivating a growing coterie of enthusiasts at not-for-profit screenings that are publicized over the Internet.

True, some of the works are crude, their stories fumbling and imitative, and audiences are too small to provide any serious box-office returns. But the local mainstream industry isn't doing that much better: Between 1997 and 2002, 38% of the country's screens closed. In 2003, films in English from Hollywood outgrossed those in Bahasa by five to one. Piracy is rampant."The pirates have actually helped educate us in film. My aunt in a village now watches Kurosawa," points out Dhojee Roshishan, a book publisher. He has ambitious plans to set up a distribution network for independent films on campuses and to market direct to DVD. He's also tested the limits of censorship by co-producing Gedebe (Kelantanese slang for "Bad Ass"), an adaptation of a stage production by Nam Ron that depicts a Shakespearian power struggle with parallels to the ousting of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. "So far, no one has come to my house to take me away," says director Ron, 33. That wasn't the case for social iconoclast Hishamuddin Rais, director of the 1998 road movie From Jemapoh to Manchester, who wound up serving two years in jail.


Another film-maker who knows all about working at the sharp edge is Osman Ali. The soft-spoken Ali, considered the most talented independent, was barely out of film school when he began work on an educational video for a gay, anti-Aids organization in the capital.He found his cast through tryouts at Aids clinics and managed to shoot Bukak Api--"to light a fire," street slang for a sexual encounter--in just 12 days in1998.

Local police tried to interfere, saying the film encouraged prostitution; neighbourhood gangs had to be won over; and the film could only have its world premiere inside the protected ground of Kuala Lumpur's Australian High Commission. "What a pity it can't be shown here," Ali says. "Video is a such great tool for exposing real life."Still, there are signs the establishment is coming to appreciate that the coreof 20 directors may be the ones to spur an industry revival. TV-7, a major Kuala Lumpur station, funded and broadcast a season of original 45-minute dramas by top independents, which was produced by Ali. And while the censorship board shows no signs of loosening up, another arm of government, the film- development board Finas is offering individual grants to several in the "underground."

As one Finas official, Hamzah Hussein, 76, points out: "If people want to see our true faces, these kids can show them."

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