By Kam Raslan
Questionnaires were handed out at the door. Then the lights went down, a broken air-con rattled like an old movie projector and oxygen levels gradually dipped. For the next two hours we saw slices of Malaysiana, journeys through India and Australia, views on arranged marriages, Arab ancestry in Singapore and the search for an elusive graffiti artist. The cinema of the HELP Institute was packed to capacity this Monday night. Amir Muhammad and Kelab Seni Filem had summoned us there to present six documentaries made by new, but not necessarily first-time, Malaysian film-makers.
The quality, both textual and technical, ebbed and flowed, film-makers’ points-of-view were often hard to discern and patience was sometimes tested. I saw some moments that were familiar and some unknown to me, but my understanding of this world was not threatened. Somebody I knew, shrugged his shoulders as we filed out and said, “I didn’t see the point.” But I felt I did.
During one of the slowest documentaries I have ever seen I was suddenly put in mind of the Chinese opera and wayang kulit I have seen, where the marathon events are as much about the audience as they are about the show itself. That is what happened that Tuesday night, some new film-makers had been blooded but so had an audience. For those raised on the North Korea of Malaysian TV, there was an exciting newness to seeing people talk about aspects of our lives where the conclusion wasn’t always that “our government has got it right.” And there was also the thrill of recognition in seeing the election-day crowd, a doomed relationship or confused Bangsar waitresses. The digital revolution is putting cameras into the hands of scores of young people who want to document our lives without a care for “nation-building” and with nothing more than naïve enthusiasm and a DV camera. For that reason alone, that night is exceptional. And in the very act of screening, that moment of naivety has probably, hopefully, gone.
I know some of the film-makers personally and so I am probably not capable of giving an objective criticism of the individual films but I’ll try.
Zan Azlee visits the election day crowd, a journalist and a sup kambing seller and asked them what they thought of the RAHMAN oracle, which says that the names of the prime ministers of Malaysia will spell the name of our first prime minister: Rahman, Abdul Razak, Hussein Onn, Mathathir, Abdullah, and… Najib? A charming and enthusiastic slice of Malaysiana that is excellent in parts but ultimately formless and bewildering as a whole. This film-maker’s exciting ability to get people to talk could be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.
Hanim Badmadhaj asks her family about their Arab ancestry and what it means to them. Nice graphics cannot cover-up the fact that this is a home movie with the twee conclusion that roots are very important. We all know that and larger possible questions are not addressed. For instance, given the context of a multi-cultural society, where some cultures are more equal than others, do our roots make us exceptional or ordinary? Does being a member of a minority culture impact the way people live? Very disappointing from a film-maker from whom I was expecting much more.
Halimatul Saadiah, Malina Shamsuddin and Sharifah Shazanah ask the young and old the pros and cons of arranged marriages. Very poor sound made much of this sadly unintelligible. An interesting subject but the talking heads generally lacked colour, anecdote or insight. A voice over and the film-makers’ own, personal quest would have helped to form the interviews into a cohesive whole.
Auto Focus India
My favourite but Sharaad Kuttan is a very good friend of mine. A video essay more than a documentary of his impressions of India. A satisfying whole.
You and Me Running
Hakim visits his girlfriend in Australia. The slowest, most excruciatingly dull documentary I’ve ever seen. And yet, one of the most intriguing. The tone and pace actually mirror a doomed relationship, the film-maker perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally lays his self-obsession bare and although we see nothing but the object of his love we never hear her which makes us imagine what she thinks. A voyeuristic poem to the ultimately selfish quality of love. Some may find it dull but this was never a film searching for a vast audience.
Danny Lim takes to the streets to find out who is spraying “18?” on our walls. A journalistic and humanistic look at the lack of space for self-expression in Malaysia. Although the piece lacked tension (more Michael Moore-like door-stopping might have helped) and the talking heads became a bit declamatory, Danny Lim clearly has more stories to tell.
An edifying assemblage but I humbly believe that the film-makers must take the leap into another level. Here are a few ideas how.
For a documentary to be engaging the audience needs either a narrative thread or an insight that they could never have gained on their own. You and Me Running had a simple but effective thread of a journey and day-today happenings whereas R.A.H.M.A.N. only had a cheeky question to return to which is not enough to draw the different stories together. There were several different excellent documentaries in R.A.H.M.A.N. uncomfortably stuck together.
Tension is also required. Good dialogue has tension in the dialectic of the ping-pong of an argument. Disconnected talking heads can be given the shape of a dialogue by the film-makers choices in editing, and voice-over is the perfect tool. Otherwise the talking heads become formless and meandering, sometimes repetitive, sometimes confusing. The interviewer must also fight to expose personality in all its glorious colours. The interviewees must come over as real people and not as merely a soundbite or a “point of view” – that’s news, not documentary.
When I first started film-making, a very long time ago, we shot everything on film. Video was barely good enough for a home movie and digital video hadn’t been invented. A roll of 16mm film lasted 11mins and cost a small fortune but DV is so damn cheap. This is a boon and a bane. On the one hand film-makers can shoot hours and hours of stuff but on the other hand they don’t have to ponder the worth of each scene before they press the button. As a consequence, there is a tendency for the DV film-maker to shoot and show a lot of meaningless stuff while the film film-maker had to use all the tools of the trade (a sharp interviewing technique, voice-over, music, etc) in order to squeeze out as much meaning and emotion as possible from what little footage was available. Although it’s great that DV has given everybody the chance to make films it can also make people sloppy.
Finally, good sound is vitally important and DV cameras all have very bad sound. Do not trust the camera mic and get an external mic.
The myth goes that many (what’s the politically correct term?) “primitive” peoples think that cameras steal their souls. And they do and documentary film-makers have great power over their subjects by the way they choose to edit “reality”. Ethical decisions have to be made as to how much you really own the images you have shot. The audience enjoys seeing subjects being roughly handled by the film-maker but that might not be the right thing to do. My point is that documentary film-making takes toughness and cruelty. It’s not for the faint hearted but it is for the morally sound.
First Published: 09.11.2004 on Kakiseni