Art, Entertainment and Politics
Feature by: Khoo Gaik Cheng
Malaysian independent filmmakers have been attracting a lot of attention in the past year or two at festivals overseas. Internet and media savvy, this “Just-Do-It-(Yourself)” generation of independent filmmakers emerges from the digital revolution as well as high-tech state initiatives such as the establishment of the Multimedia University (only one aspect of the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor) and the general support and training for work in the high-tech sector. Film festivals have proliferated in the last few years as there is a growing curiosity about places beyond one’s national borders that accompanies shifts in global communications. Novelty or not, in Southeast Asia, the Malaysian indies are quickly gaining a reputation for remaining consistently active while independent of a state which does not have a systematic way of providing funds in the form of loans and grants. There had been a Malay New Wave in the early-mid 1990s heralded by U-Wei Haji Saari’s The Arsonist and several individual films produced outside of the Malay mainstream film industry. Within the last five years though, a core group has emerged that is growing in maturity, experience and confidence while individually trying to find a voice and style to call their own. This newer generation differs markedly from their predecessors in terms of their prolific output, mode of production and organization.
Moreover, they distinguish themselves from previous Malaysian filmmakers by the collaborative way they operate: helping to edit, produce, shoot and write each other’s films. The credits behind Amir Muhammad’s The Big Durian is a prime reflection of the core group consisting also of James Lee, Woo Ming Jin, Deepak Kumaran Menon, and Tan Chui Mui who went on to direct their own projects after that.
I offer two broad reasons as to why this indie movement is significant.
First, they provide an alternative to the existing commercial film industry and film culture in the country which is plagued with formulaic content, illogical plots and Hollywood imitations that undermine the intelligence of its audience. Indie films expand the conventional ideas of the function of film as both art and a documentation of social reality, rather than mere entertainment. Ho Yuhang, whose films Min and Sanctuary have both won acclaim overseas (Nantes, Pusan), laments about there being no strong tradition in social realist filmmaking in Malaysia, something which his films have sought to do. In terms of genres, in addition to features, indie filmmakers make short films, animation and documentaries, which are narrative or experimental in style. James Lee, who together with Amir Muhammad helm the country’s indie film movement, has been making experimental shorts and features since 1999 which have been screened in film festivals abroad (Teatime with John, 2003; Goodbye to Love, 2004).
The current indie filmmaking scene in Malaysia is centred in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where the Kelab Seni Filem (Film Club) supports filmmaking activities by curating the Malaysian short film and documentary series several times a year. This has gradually increased interest in a relatively new genre in Malaysia, the short film, which in the past, was more associated only with student works. Moreover, independent documentaries are also able to stray away from the propagandistic or commercial style produced by state television stations and DiscoveryAsia or National Geographic by covering topics that are potentially censored. Indie films provide an insight into the marginal spaces of ethnic, class and other subcultures such as HIV-positive patients in a community home (A Place Called Home, Sabina Arokiam, Tina Von Sethe and Jimmy Choong, 2003), or transsexual sex workers in Chow Kit Road (Bukak Api, Osman Ali, 2000). They ask questions which have not been asked before on Malaysian screen such as Sex Education in Malaysia: Are We Doing Enough? (Lydia Lubon and Ahmad Yazid 2004) or do a vox populi on the meaning behind the grafitti 18? (Danny Lim 2005).
In terms of production, indies also undergo alternative modes of production, exhibition and distribution. Digital technology has, to a large degree, democratized filmmaking by making it more affordable. While there are always exceptions, most digital indie films are shot without permits or membership to professional film organisations using digital video, non-actors and a minimal crew. Made on a shoestring budget on private funds, they can be edited on home computers, then screened in ‘underground’ localities in Kuala Lumpur to film aficionados, amateur filmmakers and art and film students of various ethnic backgrounds. Since most of the films are not made to be shown in the local cinemas where they would have to undergo the National Censorship Board, they have relatively more creative freedom.
Secondly, indie films are assumed to make an important contribution to the most critical discourse in Malaysia: that of “race.” “What are you?” may sometimes be the first question one is asked of one’s ethnicity in Malaysia. In a country where the term ‘race’ is still used unproblematically in official and popular discourse, race underpins the crux of Malaysian society and identity. And “May 13, 1969,” when race riots occurred between the dominant Malays and minority Chinese, is still deployed to prevent any public discussion on what is now considered a ‘sensitive’ issue. Independent films like 6horts (2002) and The Big Durian (2003) both by Amir Muhammad, cleverly broach topics tangential to ethnicity and culture such as Malay hegemony, the power of the Sultans, and systemic and structural racialisation sustained by corrupt crony politics and numerous laws that stifle freedom. However, aside from a few indie filmmakers -- Yasmin Ahmad (Rabun 2001, Sepet 2004), Teck Tan (Spinning Gasing 2000), Amir Muhammad -- not all indie filmmakers are keen on discussing race. This is because most are born after 1969 and grew up during Mahathir Mohamad’s developmentalist 1990s. Ho Yuhang’s Sanctuary and James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine are two examples of Mandarin language films which focus on urban individual alienation (and gender/power relations, in the case of Beautiful Washing Machine). According to political scientist Francis Loh, the discourse of developmentalism replaced the discourse of ethnic rights in Malaysian politics during the 1990s as minority political parties (Malaysian political parties are predominantly ethnic-based) lobbied for an economic share in the developmentalist state rather than emphasizing the preservation of ethno-linguistic and cultural rights as they did in the 1980s. 
Nevertheless, although racial difference may not be overtly politicized, ethnic and linguistic diversity is the strength of the indies (see Kong Rithdee  ). These films differ from the Malay-centric mainstream commercial film industry which features Malay actors, directors and producers, stories in the Malay language that revolve around Malay culture and society. Malay cinema gives the impression of Malaysia as an ethnically homogenous nation. Often when actors of other ethnicities are cast, they are stereotypes: the crass Chinese businessman, the comic Indian character (Buli which appeared in 2004 is a contemporary example). Indie films represent the polyglot that is Malaysia by being in Mandarin, Tamil, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, or English (always accompanied by English subtitles as a unifier).
Sepet, an interracial teenage love story between a Malay schoolgirl, Orked, and Chinese boy, Jason, is a film that transgresses the racialised boundaries of Malay cinema by its cosmopolitanism. The Malay family in the film is represented as being open to other cultures: they are familiar with at least two languages; are fans of Hongkong soap operas and Thai pop music; Orked is infatuated with Japanese-Chinese actor, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and reads Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. More importantly, such a cosmopolitan disposition is also directed towards other cultures within Malaysia which are represented with some complexity. The Chinese cast is shown to speak in their various dialects (Cantonese, Hokkien) and Jason’s mother is Peranakan Chinese, a group that has historically become indigenized to Malayness by language, food and clothing. Even the Malay characters are differentiated by their comfort with the multiple layers of modernity, religious commitment and conspicuous consumption that impact their identity: fashion is one way of perceiving this but fashion too, as Yasmin intends, can be a superficial marker of the comfort with one’s identity. When Orked goes on a date with Jason, she wears the traditional baju kurung, a loose long-sleeved shift with a long skirt rather than jeans and T-shirt. This seems bizarre as two young people meeting across ethnic boundaries would normally compromise and choose a non-racialised, neutral halfway-point symbolized by wearing western-style apparel. Yet Orked’s confidence in her Malay Muslim identity defies this norm.
Other indies contribute to the racial discourse by providing a diversity of representations that may focus particularly on their ethnic community and history (Tamil feature Chemman Chaalai or The Gravel Road; Ah Kew the Digger) or perhaps more subversively, when they transcend racialisation by portraying characters of other ethnic backgrounds or raise the topic of racialisation. However, indie filmmakers whose films secure local cinema screenings may realise their films are not “truly Malaysian” after all when they are later denied the incentive aid (to recover the entertainment duty they have to pay upfront) on the basis that their film is not a “local film” because it is not in Bahasa Malaysia (this policy is under review now).
Encounters with the state
Although the current Malaysian Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage announced in March this year that RM50 million has been approved for a feature film loan scheme under the National Film Development Board (FINAS), critics claim that these loans favour film production companies with large capital rather than low-budget indie productions. Moreover, the criteria for securing funding remain the same and the loans will likely be available only to those making commercial films (click for article). Prior to this decision, FINAS did give out small grants for best Student Short Film. However, recipients have also complained about the complicated, unclear and lengthy process they have to undergo before obtaining the money. In the late 1990s, Malay filmmaker, U-Wei Haji Saari, obtained a FINAS loan to make the kine-transfer for The Arsonist. More recently, when Ho Yuhang and his producer James Lee asked for some money from FINAS for the kine-transfer of Sanctuary (2004) for Pusan International Film Festival, they were offered only a tenth of the asking price. The initial reasons cited for the lack of support was that the film was not sufficiently multicultural to represent Malaysia. This incident and explanation cannot help but raise the issue of racialisation since The Arsonist dealt solely with Malay and Javanese relations and did not represent a multicultural Malaysia either. Ironically, even though most of the indie filmmakers themselves were moving away from problematizing race relations in their films, and working across ethnic boundaries in terms of independent film production, they encountered discrimination when dealing with state bodies that were ideological remnants of a Malay-centric NEP (National Economic Policy, 1971-1990) and National Cultural Policy. Such a policy emphasises assimilation to Malay language and culture rather than a practice of the politics of multiethnic inclusion. While many would deny that an intentional gatekeeping on the basis of race is occurring—since gatekeeping may also function due to ignorance and fear of those who may be more successful or have film school training compared to apprenticeships, the heated debate and discussions in the media and on the internet (weblogs, Malaysianfirstname.lastname@example.org email discussion list and kakiseni website) illustrate the deep-rootedness of racialisation in Malaysian public discourse and our collective consciousness.
Another similar contentious debate centered around the question of why independent digitally-shot films were not included in the 18th Malaysian Film Festival which had as its 2005 theme, “Era Globalisasi.” Yet, the era of globalization saw only commercial Malay films (and some of dubious quality) included for national film award nominations; not to mention a surprising unreadiness to embrace more global trends like Digital Video technology. As the indie films receive more attention abroad and this gets reported in the local media, shaming more progressive and less insular officials into showing more support for local creative talents, perhaps the very status or level of independence (of the state) these filmmakers have may be undermined, particularly if and when the state seriously decides to fund them.
But meanwhile, independent filmmakers source out external funding from Japan (NHK), France and The Netherlands: from the Hubert Bals Foundation, Rotterdam, (Ho Yuhang, Hishamuddin Rais for Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee), and from the Jan Vrjiman Fund (Amsterdam) for script development of Amir Muhammad’s next documentary, The Last Communist. With or without state funding, the indie filmmakers will hopefully prevail if they keep to their initial aspirations to work with the medium of video/film to tell stories, represent diverse perspectives while simultaneously pushing the limits of what Malaysian cinema is: art, entertainment and politics.