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Responsible Filmmaking 101

  • May 26, 2004

By Toni Kasim

For over a decade, Pusat KOMAS (Komuniti Masyarakat), a non-governmental organisation producing social documentaries, has been training and empowering marginalised groups to do their own documenting. Sometimes they go so far as to lend video cameras to orang aslis, urban poors, or squatters who get evicted and forced into uninhabitable longhouses, to enable them to present their conditions and make a case for their rights.

Pusat KOMAS decided to give our camera-wielding urban youngs a chance at it too. And hence, The Freedom Film Fest Competition 2004, screened from May 14-16, at Help Institute. Why a Freedom Film Fest? Because films are powerful means of social messaging and can be catalytic in building awareness and advocating for social change.

Clued On and Clear

The jury, which comprised filmmakers and human rights activists-type folk (like myself), had little trouble  agreeing on films that had an effective blend of both social messaging and good production, namely The Big Durian by Amir Muhammad, Classrooms by Ho Yuhang, Moris Rasik by Haanim Bamadhaj (first, second and  third respectively in the Professional category) and Jimmy Choong’s A Place Called Home (winner in the Student category). These films presented images and narratives sans overkill, kept the integrity of the issues intact, and at the same time gave us something to think about.

The Big Durian and A Place Called Home tackled issues surrounding two familiar yet little-discussed acronyms: ISA and HIV/AIDS respectively. Much has been written about Amir’s Durian so I won’t go into detail about it except to flag that I really liked the use of fictional and real characters in creating a non-intimidating environment within which one can explore the events of 1987 and the issues of detention without trial under the Internal Security Act. His grasp and deep understanding of the issues comes through the narrative and images – clued on and clear. Jimmy Choong’s camera could have easily exploited the images of ‘pain and suffering’ of people living with HIV/AIDS but it did not. Talking to the team, you realise one of the factors that got them delivering their film with such integrity and sensitivity was the time they put in at the community centre.

I couldn’t help but compare it with William Kok’s The Paper, second runner-up in the Student category, about a little girl who loses her leg. Excellent production, but the sympathy approach to disability can actually be disempowering. There are a variety of ways to impact viewers, without betraying the responsibility and respect towards the persons and stakeholders from whom the images are borrowed. I wonder if William’s messaging might have been more rights-based had he first spoken with activists from the disability movement.

The content yardstick for the FilmFest was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), i.e. the films needed to uphold fundamental rights and liberties. That’s not to suggest that those that don’t subscribe to the UDHR don’t generate discussion. Films can open doors to debate and discourse, even when you vehemently disagree with the content. Space must be made for that, so the viewer is able to reflect on about what goes into creating a world that upholds equality, justice, freedom and peace. But filmmakers should as far as possible ensure they don’t dig injustice, inequality and misinformation in even deeper.

Greeeeeat Lengths

Speaking of responsibility, Sex Education in Malaysia: Are We Doing Enough by Lydia Lubon and Ahmad Yazid did a great job exploring the lack of sex education in Malaysia. But guys, guys, you have to squeeze the air out of the tip of the condom before you roll it onto the banana! I was also bothered by the construction of ‘Public school-Asian kids-are-ignoramus’ vs ‘International School-Caucasian kids-are-clued on’ because it fans stereotyping, inadvertent as it may have been.

Several films were eliminated on account of both poor messaging and poor production. A few seemed be promos for events and organisations (you sure you got the right film fest?). But what do you do when you are to choose between a film whose social messaging is undeveloped but okay on ‘watchability’ and another whose strong message is sinking under the weight of lackluster production?

Some films (primarily in the Amateur category) had something to say but went to, literally, greeeeeat lengths to tell you about it. Strong openings got muted by long footages. Sheltering the Wrong Ones by Ong Boon Keong (Amateur) on the misallocation of low-cost homes, A Displaced Lot by Lachperabu Santhinathan (Student) on the state of the Indian urban poor community, and even third-place Amateur winner At the First Glance by Azram Norhakim which documented the food programme of Food Not Bombs, could have all definitely delivered tighter punches with more snip snip (and better mikes!).

There were several good productions in the Professional and Student categories which seemed to have no apparent intent to message. One example of highly tenuous messaging was Raaga Mood by student Sylvia Ong which depicts a mother’s aspiration for her daughter to dance from the soul. It received a Jury Award for high production quality, and it is a pity that it did not use its strength to explore the myriad of social issues on plantations. Dancing Kites by Azharr Ruddin and The Rebel Dancer (about classical Indian dancer Ramli Ibrahim), by Kumar Tangaiah chronicled personal journeys. Personal journeys can be powerful anchors to examine social contexts and identity, but these two films did not give the viewer much to think about.

All is Not Well in the Shire

During the post-screening discussion, Angie Choo was asked to account for the oversimplified message of Chinese-Malay-Indian ‘unity’ in Kangkung when reality seems to suggest that all is not well in the shire. The use of the ruling coalition flag to suggest ‘unity’ was also queried given that filmmaker has a responsibility to the issues and not to political propaganda. To her credit, Angie explained her intent: to inculcate a sense of unity amongst the young, and took the audience feedback well and in her stead.

The other person who took feedback about ethics and responsibilities in his stead was Zan Azlee for his The Black, White and Grey, a documentary comprising interviews with three male bus passengers – a Bangladeshi migrant worker who talks about his life in this country, a Chinese Malaysian who seems to want to say very little about politics in the country and a Malay cikgu who relates to us his sexual ins and outs.

While the film is entertainingly candid, the third interview really does the film in and puts the ethics and responsibilities of the filmmaker under scrutiny. This third guy tells us that he is a teacher of children with special needs (full details of the school – with phone number – kindly provided on screen), describes sexually explicit events involving a friend of his (name mentioned) at a Club (also mentioned) and describes his own sexual practices. Zan tells us, during the post-screening discussion, that he thought the ‘cikgu’ had a mental disability and admits that in retrospect there are some things he could’ve dropped, for example the name of the school. Agreed. That and all the other names.

Secondly, let’s say the cikgu did have a mental disability, isn’t there an ethical question here about exploiting the guy’s inability to comprehend the ramifications of the red light on the camera, letting the audience have a good guffaw at his expense? Or is the filmmaker then inviting us to judge the interviewee’s teaching capabilities? For all we know, he might be a perfectly good teacher who happens to have a colourful sex life. What then happens to him and the school? There is a responsibility and accountability to the interviewees and the audience that goes with this type of filmmaking.

Awareness and perspectives take time to build and sharpen. Skills take time to be acquired and honed. The Freedom FilmFest acknowledges this and sees its role not only to celebrate socially-conscious films, but also to create space where capacities to produce them can be built. Because ultimately, it’s not just about producing a film. It’s about contributing to meaningful social change.

“If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you are a friend of mine.” –  Che Guevara.

First Published: 26.05.2004 on Kakiseni