Why Do Films Fail in Depicting Malaysian Life?


Short films appear better able to bypass political constraints, commercial burdens and excessive censorship.

Visual narratives may have the power to leave vivid impressions, but they always beg the question, whose narrative is being fed to the audience?

“Films have the potential to affect people in ways print cannot because we are dealing with images and visual narrative,” says Dr Mahyuddin Ahmad from the School of Communications, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). Mahyuddin, who holds a PhD in Film and Cultural Studies from Coventry University, says images can invoke a strong sense of recognition and recollection.

While this should make films an effective medium for fostering a sense of nationhood, Mahyuddin says such a project is “doomed to fail”.

Too Many Restrictions

Dr Mahyuddin Ahmad.

“When dealing with a project of building national identity, whose framework of identity are we supposed to adapt?” asks Mahyuddin.

Politics and profits leave filmmakers and moviegoers little choice apart from adopting fantastical or officially sanctioned narratives. (To be sure, some short films in recent times have shown some independence and creativity representing different facets of our society.)

Generally, local filmmakers rely on commercial production companies or grants from the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) to cover costs. Commercial films, says Mahyuddin, are about profit maximisation. “They can try to work around it, but at the end of the day, profit is their motivation. So how much can we expect them to portray different representations of our society or tackle difficult, sensitive issues?”

Through Finas, the government helps to create a structure for the local film industry, but along with that comes control: there are written and unwritten rules for filmmakers to adopt a certain narrative or structure as part of the conditions for grants.

These restrictions dampen the creativity process. For example, the theme of repentance is constantly present in local films. The idea is that in order not to promote the “wrong message” to the audience, the characters must express guilt and regret by the end of the film if they are deemed to have engaged in immoral activities – especially in the eyes of the Censorship Board. For example, in … Dalam Botol (2011), though ground-breaking as Malaysia's first film with gay lead characters, the protagonist is later shown to regret his decision and falls in love with a woman.

On top of this, the written rules must be strictly adhered to. For example, filmmakers cannot depict our armed forces and police in “a position of weakness”. There is no room for films to tackle subjects such as police brutality, death in custody or police bribery.

Given these restraints – politics, commercialisation and censorship – Mahyuddin expresses scepticism that commercial films can accurately portray our society and its issues.

Is a Truly Malaysian Film Possible?

Ola Bola.

Films cannot be isolated from the social context in which it was produced, watched and discussed. This also means that films are often caught up with societal debates, the most prominent being “What counts as our national film?”

In an article published in the Asian Journal of Communication, Mahyuddin and co-author Dr Lee Yuen Beng discussed the Malaynisation of P. Ramlee and his films. They deciphered the ideological and deliberate attempt to “promote the cultural artefacts that greatly emphasise the dominance of the Malay bourgeois and its middle-class idealism”.

This, and the reconstruction of history, bothers Mahyuddin. For instance, he questions, “Why was there a need to change the goal scorer in Ola Bola?” (While inspired by a true story, the film took creative license with historic facts.)

Last year, the 28th Malaysia Film Festival (FFM28) gathered a firestorm over its decision to divide Malaysian film nominees into Malay and non-Malay language categories. Favourites such as Jagat, Ola Bola, and The Kid From the Big Apple were ineligible for the Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay categories as they did not pass the 70% national language requirement. (Conversely, the Finas Act 1981 did not specify language as a requirement for a film to be considered a national film.) The decision was later overturned by a minister, and Jagat, filmed mainly in Tamil, won Best Malaysian Film. A newly created award category, Best Film in the National Language, was picked up by Munafik.

Finas defended their initial decision to not include non-Malay films in the Best Picture category as an attempt to uphold the national language, but the decision received backlash from many quarters, including popular actor Afdlin Shauki, cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim, and screenwriter and president of the Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Screenwriters Association Alfian Palermo for its detrimental effect on national unity and for its racist overtures.

To get a sense of how deep and complicated this issue is, we have to go back to the National Culture Policy (NCP). Created in 1971, it emphasises three principles:

1. The National Culture must be based on the indigenous [Malay] culture;

2. Suitable elements from the other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture;

3. Islam is an important component in the moulding of the National Culture.



One can surmise that rather than celebrate diversity, the NCP is a document demanding assimilation. The emphasis on Malay culture, Malay civilisation and Islam is not lost on anyone, while other cultures are only briefly mentioned and lightly worded (“may” be accepted).

If strictly adhered to, the NCP is a contradictory document in itself. All three principles are not always in line with each other. For example, the NCP has done an equally great disservice to pre-Islamic Malay cultural performances such as wayang kulit. By suppressing subcultures not identical with the superstructured dominant narrative, the NCP is perpetuating episodes of dissonance concerning national culture – in film, language and belonging. If NCP doctrine persists in the film industry, can we then rely on films to reflect the different facets and dialects of our society?

While he doesn’t place much hope in commercial cinema, Mahyuddin is optimistic about film activism and short films. “There are a lot of creative talents out there in the independent film scene. The variety that we encounter in short films is much more than what is offered in commercial films.” Platforms such as Freedom Film Festival, an annual documentary film festival, offer support and outlet for first-time and independent filmmakers to produce short films and documentary.

“We need to democratise our cinema space,” argues Mahyuddin. Indeed, the subjects covered by the short films – e.g. racial stereotypes, stories from ex-ISA detainees, the exploitation of housing for profit, the struggles of the Orang Asli – capture more accurately the different representations and colours of the people of Malaysia.

Ooi Kok Hin is an INTP who lives to write and writes to live. Follow him at www.facebook.com/ooikokhin.

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