Do Malaysian Films Have a Future?

By Badrul Hisham Ismail

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Photo courtesy of Anomalous Films, Rhu Graha.

Badrul Hisham Ismail is the director and screenwriter of Maryam Pagi Ke Malam, a 2023 film about a Muslim woman’s struggles with religious bureaucracy and societal norms in her desire to choose a marital partner. The film, which touches on sensitive themes ranging from feminism, xenophobia and racism, is not outright banned in Malaysia, but has been largely ignored by the government and the general populace. The movie premiered at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) 2023, but was not shown in Malaysian cinemas.

JANUARY 2023. The cold winter breeze sent chills down my spine even though I was indoors. The war in Ukraine had led to energy shortages across Europe, and public buildings like the cinema I was in had cut their central heating down to the minimum. But it was not just the cold that gave me goosebumps; it was also the extremely long line of people waiting to be admitted into the cinema hall to watch my film.

I don’t know about others, but showing one’s own film to the world is scary business. It is even more so if it is the first screening—what is called a “World Premiere” in the film industry—of your debut film. And even more so if it is in a sold-out IMAX theater. Your entire being—your thoughts, beliefs, emotions, tastes— is projected onto a 22m x 16m screen; in front of 500 pairs of eyes and ears, watching, listening and judging.

When I had to introduce my film, Maryam Pagi Ke Malam, to the audience before it started, my body almost failed me. When the film started rolling, I felt like hiding under my seat, or making a quick dash out of the cinema hall—I was already seated near the exit door. But as the movie started, the audience stayed, engaged, connected and responded to it. I noticed only one person leave the hall and not return, so I stayed too.

When the film ended, the post-screening Q&A session with the audience was interesting. It almost became a debriefing session for members of the audience who shared similar experiences with the film’s protagonist. A third of the audience were of the Malaysian diaspora—a rarity in my previous experiences at international film festivals—and they were already familiar with characters portrayed in the film. Two more screenings followed in that festival, with a similarly enthusiastic crowd and with positive responses, albeit in smaller cinema halls (thank God).

Most importantly, I survived unscathed.

Mine was the only Malaysian film at the IFFR that year. But later in April, a Malaysian film was showcased at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, followed by yet another at the Semaine de la Critique in France in May and one at the Busan International Film Festival in October; by the end of the year, back-to-back screenings at Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival and Singapore International Film Festival featured six Malaysian films, some of which won prestigious awards.

A New Wave?

An old friend, who is also one of the programmers at the Singapore International Film Festival, said to me one day over lunch during the festival, that there seemed to be a new wave of Malaysian filmmakers. He was not far of the mark—most, if not all, of the films that premiered at these festivals were directed by first-time directors. The portal, Asian Movie Pulse, wrote that 2023, in particular, seems to be one of the greatest years for Malaysian films.

If this were any other country, there would be ample media coverage and write-ups on this encouraging trend, but in Malaysia, media coverage celebrating the local film scene as a whole seemed lackluster. Yes, the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) did hold an event late last year to recognise successful local films—mine was not invited, of course, for obvious reasons. But in the public realm, discussions about the films or the local independent film scene, whether good or bad, seemed absent.

This echoes a conversation held quite recently at Riwayat Bookstore, an indie bookstore in KL’s Chinatown, about the state of local music journalism. The general consensus from the conversation was that journalistic writings and reportings on local music have failed to celebrate it as an art form and as cultural products—instead, they focus heavily on personalities, entertainment and celebrity. The same is true of film journalism.

In an essay published in Svara, a Malay language arts journal, Norman Yusof, who teaches film theory and appreciation, wrote that to have a robust film scene, it is important to sow the seeds of love for cinema. It is not enough to merely show films in multiplexes and streaming platforms; you need film clubs, film education, film critiques and good writing on films as well. It is this ecosystem that contributes to a vibrant film scene, be it mainstream or independent. Like music, film needs to be celebrated as culture, not mere entertainment.

Film As Culture

Often regarded as a quintessential form of entertainment, film transcends this role to become a powerful medium that reflects, shapes and generates culture. Indeed, it holds a mirror to our society, acts as a vehicle for our cultural expression, and functions as a catalyst for social change. Its importance lies not only in its ability to captivate audiences but also in how it provokes thought, evokes emotion and fosters a deeper understanding of human experiences.

Filmmakers draw inspiration from the social, political and historical contexts of their time. Whether depicting the struggles of marginalised communities, exploring complex interpersonal relationships or confronting pressing social issues, films offers a lens through which audiences can interrogate the intricacies of the human condition. They serve as a repository of cultural knowledge, preserving and disseminating stories that might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten.

Moreover, film transcends linguistic, racial and cultural barriers and speaks to audiences across the world. Filmmakers are well placed to communicate complex ideas and emotions in ways that resonate with viewers of all backgrounds. By exposing audiences to diverse narratives and worldviews, film cultivates interconnectedness and shared humanity.

But when all is said and done, a broad societal appreciation of film is essential to a vibrant and thriving film scene. Once audiences and stakeholders recognise film as cultural heritage, they are more inclined to support and engage with diverse cinematic expressions; it is this condition that generates an environment conducive to creativity, innovation and growth for the film industry.

But how can this be done? Norman Yusof laid out at length the ecosystem needed in his aforementioned essay. I will add two other aspects based on my own experience.

Funding and Creative Freedom

It took a global pandemic for me to be able to make my first feature film. During the lockdown, as many industries—including the creative industries—were in dire need of a lifeline, support did come. The Pelan Jana Semula Ekonomi Negara (PENJANA) was established as part of the government’s Covid-19 aid programme. Funds to make films were allocated and administered by three (as far as I know) agencies—FINAS, Astro and MyCreative. Each grant programme by these agencies was tailored differently. I was informed about the grant administered by MyCreative by a friend, who also encouraged me to apply.

The grant programme is called the Creative Industry Recovery Grant, Art Film or Festival Grant. As the name suggests, it was dedicated to the production of art films for international film festivals. The best thing about it was that the funding came with no strings attached—no prior approval by the national censorship board or FINAS, no requirement to have a local cinema release or to make a profit. The only required “KPI” was that the film needed to be selected and screened at at least one international film festival from a list of about 30 provided by MyCreative.

It was a rare opportunity for local filmmakers to receive this kind of support without the burden of ensuring commercial success, and without the pre-approval of the censorship board. So, I decided to pitch a story that had been on my mind for some time but would not have been able to secure funding for under “normal” circumstances—a story about the reach of religious and social institutions into people’s private lives.

Funding and creative freedom are the twin pillars upon which a vibrant and dynamic film scene stands. Without adequate financial support and the autonomy to pursue artistic vision, filmmakers face significant barriers to realising their creative potential and contributing to the cultural tapestry of society.

Funding initiatives can amplify diverse voices and stories that might otherwise be overlooked or diminished, and enrich the cinematic landscape with a breadth of perspectives, experiences and storytelling styles.

Equally important is creative freedom—the autonomy for filmmakers to explore bold ideas, take risks and push the boundaries of artistic expression. Creative freedom empowers filmmakers to tackle challenging subject matters, experiment with unconventional techniques, and defy genre conventions, resulting in works that are innovative, provocative and emotionally resonant.

Sadly, the funding programme (and the creative freedom that came with it) that provided opportunities for films like mine to be made is no longer continued. Things have returned to the norm, where public funds and grants for film are available through the usual channels, requiring prior censorship approval. In fact, certain parties in the country were upset that films were made using public funds without pre-approval. It seems that creative freedom is again being severely restricted, and the authorities are intent on stifling whatever creative air remains by tightening the pre-approval process.

Films Are Provocative By Nature

The biggest excuse against creative freedom in Malaysia is “national security”—the belief by authorities and other like-minded parties that, if given too much freedom, filmmakers will provoke and hurt people’s feelings, and trigger social disorder and violence. The censorship board exists to guarantee that films eventually released to the public are not provocative in nature and will only promote themes that are in accordance with “societal values”.

First of all, as someone who also works on peace and security issues, I find that the idea that these are ensured by controlling thought and creativity is utter nonsense. In fact, one can say that violence erupts when we do not have opportunities to express our thoughts and emotions in a safe space.

Secondly, indeed, at its heart, film is inherently provocative. It often pushes the boundaries of societal norms and conventions. It dares to confront uncomfortable truths, challenge ingrained beliefs and stimulate thought-provoking conversations about the state of society. In this capacity, film serves as a safe space—a cinematic sanctuary—where audiences can engage in difficult dialogues and confront contentious issues in a controlled and mediated environment.

Films have the unique ability to broach sensitive topics that might otherwise be met with resistance or defensiveness in other mediums. Whether exploring race, sexuality, religion or politics, filmmakers have the creative license to delve into the complexities of human existence with nuance and empathy. They invite viewers to step outside their comfort zones, question their assumptions and empathise with characters whose lives and experiences differ from their own.

Moreover, the immersive nature of the cinematic experience—being surrounded by darkness, enveloped by sound and transfixed by imagery—is conducive to introspection and reflection. Within the confines of the movie theater or the privacy of one’s home, audiences have the freedom to engage with challenging subject matters at their own pace, without fear of judgment or reprisal.

Where Are We Now?

Unfortunately, despite the positive reception of Malaysian films on the international circuit throughout 2023, the situation back home was not as favourable. Of the films shown at the festivals, when it came to screenings at local cinemas, at least one emerged heavily edited, and two opted out of local cinema releases entirely to avoid dealing with the censorship board. Even on streaming platforms—often considered a “safe haven” for local films—one of them was forced to be taken down by the Malaysian government—something unprecedented. The filmmakers behind this film were then harassed and threatened by religious zealots. They, instead of their attackers, were also charged in court for hurting religious feelings.

This environment undermines the confidence and sense of security, both in existing and potential filmmakers. Instead of focusing on their craft, filmmakers may find themselves preoccupied with navigating potential risks and self-censoring, diverting energy away from creative endeavours.

I recall overhearing an interview between a filmmaker friend and a journalist a few years back. He said that the Malaysian film scene is the most interesting in the world because there are so many untold stories. I agree with the sentiment—the films released in 2023 truly put that statement to the test by being as diverse as the country itself, telling stories that we have not seen before in local films.

The pressing question remains: How do we continue telling our stories if we are not allowed to, and if we do not feel safe doing it?

Badrul Hisham Ismail

is the director and screenwriter of Maryam Pagi Ke Malam.