Do you remember when Sergeant Adam ran amok with an M16 in Chow Kit? Do you remember Operation Lalang or the UMNO leadership tussle that Mahathir won so narrowly? Did you think it was going to be May ’69 all over again? Can you tell the difference between Sungais Klang and Gombak when they meet at Masjid Jamek? Director Amir Muhammad seeks to clarify (or muddy) the estuary of those times with his new film The Big Durian – a documentary that he says is not a documentary.
The Big Durian’s starting point are the events surrounding Sergeant Adam’s amok and then it expands out to become nothing less than a distillation of Malaysia’s recent history – a street level history. And from the perspective of the Malaysian street we are always left looking over the heads of those in front of us as we attempt to make sense of our times. The Big Durian shows how perceptions of events, facts, “facts”, the media and the government muddy our ability to understand what is happening around us and we invariably fall back on the one thing we know we can always trust – rumour.
Amir says that the dominant feeling he had during the events of 1987 was rumour and in The Big Durian he isn’t attempting to discover the truth of the times but rather the truth as people saw it. The Big Durian is a series of talking heads interviews with people talking about their Malaysia, their 1987 from the starting point of Sergeant Adam. An interview with the activist Eli Wong describes how The Star newspaper, her Ipoh childhood, Milo in the morning, breakfastime window on the world published the faces of all the Operation Lalang detainees and then disappeared. Teacher and actor Anne James describes how she drove to work the morning after Sergeant Adam’s amok and found the streets of KL completely empty and yet there was no word on the radio. Everybody was left in the dark and everybody had to rely on hearsay and rumour in order to work out what was happening.
Newspaper headlines declared the government declaration “Don’t listen to rumours.” This pronouncement is wheeled out on a near daily basis in Malaysia. But why shouldn’t we listen to rumour? Why should we trust the government? Because they are our elders and better? Or because they have all the power? That’s it, we should trust them because if we don’t then we’ll get into trouble. For many (but by no means all) 1987 was the death of trust and the beginning of fear.
And according to The Big Durian fear was in the air in 1987. Mahathir narrowly beat Tunku Razali in the UMNO leadership struggle, there was a rally in Kampung Baru with banners exclaiming “My kris wants to drink Chinese blood” (middle-class Chinese Malaysia will never forget Najib Tun Razak’s role in that), and another, far larger rally was planned to celebrate UMNO’s 41st anniversary. Things were escalating, possibly out of control. Then suddenly Sergeant Adam ran amok in Chow Kit with an M16 and the streets emptied. Then Operation Lalang emptied the streets a little bit more. And where were you?
By concentrating on the political events of 1987 I am doing a disservice to The Big Durian because this film covers so much more. It is a social history – a bottom-up exploration of Malaysia. Many of the interviewees were too young to remember 1987 or not even in the country and none are the movers and shakers of the time. And many of the interviewees don’t even exist. Amir has employed the unusual technique of having fictional interviewees that puts this film at odds with the traditional notion of documentary and makes it – as he says – a movie.
There is a scene where the camera is chasing after a member of the general public and is asking her what she knows about Sergeant Adam but she keeps saying “I don’t know anything!” It neatly describes a slice of Malaysiana but the woman is the actress Sandra Sodhy and she is acting. Actor Rashid Salleh plays a Tourism Malaysia rep who describes a robbery in Megamall. Actor Jo Kukathas plays an aunty who tells her niece (called Jothyi) to not get involved. Actor Patrick Teoh plays an ex-waiter who tells us the commonly held legend behind why Sergeant Adam ran amok (something about a brother, a golf club and a Royal). Some of these scenes are scripted by Amir Muhammad, some are improvised by the actors.
These fictions telling truths do raise a concern if we want to stay true to the notion of documentary as objectivity. Amir Muhammad says that he deliberately wanted to make the film “slippery” and subjective. It is his voice and his point of view that he wants to have come shining through. And it does but possibly only if you know all the actors in question. If you don’t and you believe that all the interviewees are real then what message are you receiving? Is it the message that the film-maker wants? Will the audience understand that they are a witness to rumour, subjectivity and a confluence of fact and fiction – the meeting of two equally muddy rivers to create the muddy estuary that gives KL its name.
It might be inappropriate to insist on the rules of the documentary genre when the film-maker does not call The Big Durian a documentary. Let the audience decide. The Big Durian is a fascinating exploration of the Malaysian psyche, its prejudices and beliefs. Even though so many of the views expressed in the film are ones that we are all familiar with, putting them together makes it a unique, fresh and exciting endeavour. If I were Siskel and Ebert I’d have two thumbs up.