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Politics: Saying It With 'Indie' Films

Contributed by Anonymous on Tuesday, February 28 @ 07:14:50 CST

National: PoliticsBy:Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR , Feb 28 (IPS) - One day, last year, reporter Ong Ju Lin attended a forum and heard villager Alice Lee argue why a multi-billion dollar incinerator should not be built near her home in Kajang town, about 30 km south of the capital.


''I was blown away by her passion. She was just a clerk but her delivery was so powerful that the audience was swept away,'' Ong later said, recalling the exact moment when she decided she had to make a film about Alice and the protest against the incinerator.

''I decided that only a film could truly portray her passion and anger,'' said Ong in a recent interview. She knew nothing about film making.

Using a borrowed digital video camera, Ong and three friends got to work crafting a film on the villager's spirited protest against the giant incinerator. Several months later, the hard-hitting short film ‘Alice Lives Here', a classic tale of collusion between government and big business, was showing to applause before a select audience of students, social activists and a burgeoning general audience.

Welcome to the brave new world of Malaysian independent or ‘indie' films.

Like Ong, a wave of young Malaysians are turning to the digital video camera to express their anger against social ills, question deep-rooted taboos and lift the veil off sensitive and prohibited subjects like sex and Islam, race relations, discrimination, detention without trial and homosexuality.

The 'indie' movement was born in 2003 when protest against the autocratic government of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was at its height. A young lawyer turned film maker Amir Muhamad made and screened ‘The Big Durian' and sparked the movement, local film critics say.

The ‘Big Durian', the first Malaysian film to be invited to the Sundance Film Festival in the United States, revolves around an explosive moment in race relations in 1987 when an armed Malay soldier rioted and killed several Chinese shopkeepers in the capital.

''I wanted to delve back into that formative period of recent Malaysian history,'' Amir told IPS. ''On the day of the riot, I saw politicians on television telling lies. I try to tell the truth in the film,'' he said.

Made in two-weeks, the film was shot on cheap digital video camera and mixes real and re-enacted interviews with people caught in the turmoil of that day.

''The Big Durian portrays a society that is not quite comfortable with itself and its complexities -- a nation perhaps that needs the ‘truth' to be revealed so that its citizens' can make sense of their place within the scheme of things,''says Benjamin McKay of Charles Darwin University in Australia, an expert on Malaysian film history.

He told IPS that numerous films since then have made the grade and have been screened at international film festivals.

These include ‘The Beautiful Washing Machine' and ‘Room to Let' by James Lee, and ‘Sanctuary' by Ho Yuhang. They examine alienation among Chinese middle-class families in a society that treats them as second class citizens.

McKay describes Ho, who is currently shooting ‘Rain Dogs', a film funded by Hong Kong's Andy Lau, as "a major filmmaker with a sense of poetry rarely seen on screen."

Ho's ‘Sanctuary' won awards at both the Pusan and Rotterdam International Film Festivals last year. ‘The Beautiful Washing Machine' claimed best regional film award at the Bangkok International Film Festival, this year.

Another promising director is Deepak Kumaran Menon, 26, whose first film, ‘Chemman Chaalai' (Rustic Road) tells the story of a minority Indian family growing up in poverty in a rubber plantation. It was the first "indie" entirely in Tamil language to cross over into mainstream cinema and seen by a larger audience.

Amir, Lee and Ho form an informal group of independent film makers helping dozens of aspiring young film makers make the cut. They teach at informal sessions, organise local screening and send promising new films to prestigious film festivals abroad.

''We are not rebels but just film makers pushing for little spaces in out society,'' said Amir who has completed a controversial new film titled ‘The Last Communist', a witty and probing portrayal of Chin Peng, the legendary communist chief who led a bloody 12-year insurrection that was put down brutally and now lives in exile in the city of Haadyai across the border in southern Thailand.

A convergence of several factors have fuelled the ‘indie' movement -- dull mainstream cinemas, emergence of cheap digital video technology, expansive film editing software made cheap by piracy and Malaysia's own push for hi-tech industry and cutting-edge computer skills.

All it takes is a digital video camera, a few tapes that can be erased and reused and an open mind. Editing is done on home computers using cheap pirated software. Many young film makers are graduates of the Multimedia University (which offers a course in film making) and are part of the internet and digital revolution promoted by the government itself.

''The possibilities are limitless,'' says film maker James Lee.

One drawback, however, is the sometimes low quality of the final product -- being shot on video as opposed to the extremely expensive 35mm film stock, and without props and lighting.

Mainstream films are almost always either a horror flick, love-triangle, tear jerker or a period epic. The scripts are approved and filming heavily controlled at every stage by a Censorship Board that film critics call a ‘cultural Taliban.'

Producers have to apply for a slew of licences before filming something the independent film makers don't bother doing. "We are guerrilla filmmakers," said Amir. "The new technology allows us to make films cheaply and quickly before anybody notices."

The mobility and affordability that fuels the new films, however, also sets them back.

Sponsors are hard to get if the script is controversial. Commercial screening is also difficult. Outside of the traditional screening at campuses, private halls and inside foreign embassies, the general audience seldom sees the films.

''With time, the local audience will grow as more independent films cross over into mainstream cinema,'' said McKay who is completing a study of Malaysian film history. ''The scenery is getting livelier and is growingŕthere is depth, breadth and multi-ethnic flavor to the films.''

 
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