THE HISTORY OF Malaysian cinema began along Jalan Ampas in Singapore in 1933 with Leila Majnun, a rendition of a classical Persian story about two ill-fated lovers, directed by B. S. Rajhans and produced by Motilal Chemical Company of Bombay. After a sequence of development and decline following World War II, the industry relocated to KL in the 1960s, with the establishment of Merdeka Film Studio. But it was not until 1963, when the television was introduced, that the local film industry truly experienced a shock; and with the introduction of coloured television and VHS in the 1970s, Malaysians realised they no longer needed to frequent the cinemas for movies.
The goal at the time was to increase the production of local films to be showcased on the international stage. This led to the establishment of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) in 1980, with the intent of stimulating growth and maintaining standards of the film industry, mainly through funding which in itself is a constant obstacle at both the creation and distribution levels of the industry.
Jafree plans to broaden the scope of his filmmaking workshop and create a vibrant film community in Penang. Photo: Faizal bin Hussin.
“Government backing, like in the US and Korea, is important in helping to sustain the film industry,” says Al Jafree Md Yusop, film editor, screenwriter and director. On the flip side, however, content regulation by the government disheartened many local filmmakers. But the change in government in 2018 renewed hope. “Many are in agreement that the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia should not have dual censoring and rating roles – this may cause some confusion. But filmmakers are still able to work around this. Iranian filmmakers face worse censorship and stricter regulations, yet they are able to produce some of the best movies in the world,” he says.
Adding to this, the film industry has been recently afflicted by an identity crisis, e.g. what makes a Malaysian movie uniquely Malaysian? The Malaysia Film Festival caused an uproar in 2016 when it decided to categorically divide the entries based on the language used. “This ties back to a lack of understanding of how the Malaysian film industry first came to be, and the importance of the national film archive in preserving the history and identity of Malaysian cinema. Films that are directed or produced by Malaysians in Malaysia are essentially local products,” says Jafree, who has written and directed ten films and telemovies, including his latest romantic comedy Mencari Rahmat (2018), a Malay adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
By and large, despite the gradual increase of ticket prices since 2012 and the emergence of online streaming websites like Netflix, the Malaysian film industry still garnered over RM150mil via 49 box office releases in 2018; and a total of 86 locally-produced films such as Fly By Night, Shuttle Life, Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu and Bunohan premiered at the New York, Shanghai, Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals respectively.
The film industry is an unpredictable business; and much like gambling, it involves trial and error. William Goldman in Adventure in the Screen Trade (1989) wrote that “not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”
Ghahim Takut Nak Azan (2018) is the story of a young boy named Ghahim who has a problem pronouncing the letter "r". He became a bullying target for friends at school. Photo: Al Jafree Md Yusop.
It is for this reason that when Jafree made Melur vs Rajawali and Ghahim Takut Nak Azan, two of the highest-rated telemovies that have now become cult phenomena among local movie-goers, he only focused on the storytelling aspect, rather than the market itself.
In filmmaking, the same formula does not always translate into the same outcome. “In 1975 when Steven Spielberg decided to make Jaws, everybody thought it was a crazy idea. ‘It was not going to work, nobody will watch it’. But the film became the first to earn more than USD100mil and pioneered the era of blockbusters in the US,” he says.
The advancement of technology, too, has reinvented the filmmaking industry; films can now be shot on smartphones. Yet, storytelling is still a very important skill to have. “Our problem right now is a lack of imagination and creativity in filmmaking. Many film directors start out as scriptwriters, and directors as writers. I’ve always believed that storytellers are intellectuals that must constantly develop themselves through the readings they do.”
Potential Film Hub
Penang serves not only as a creative ground for exchange for artists, actors, and filmmakers; the combination of traditional kampung and colonial town settings, as well as its diverse population makes Penang a great movie location. Since 2014 the state government has been actively organising creative programmes annually, ranging from art and theatre to music and film; and providing funds and spaces for hosting these events. To further boost the local film industry, the state government is also assisting FINAS in the form of entertainment tax from movie ticket sales. The first Penang International Film Festival will be introduced next.
In witnessing Penang’s cinematic offerings, Jafree left KL in 2017 to make the island his new home. “As a city, Penang is very inspiring and visually beautiful. You can make a great romantic movie here,” he says. And for the past two years, Jafree has been hard at work organising workshops on screenwriting and storytelling in George Town, as well as developing its film community. He believes that for the film industry to flourish “you must not only develop the filmmaker, but the audience as well. Be it for education or entertainment, once you learn the art of reading films, you will be able to determine what a good film actually is,” he says.
Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.