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In the Year of the Tsunami – Pt. 2

  • January 6, 2005

By Pang Khee Teik

Film: 157 (last year: 196)

Why do spineless cowards and sycophants keep saying that giving freedom to artists will result in total chaos and anarchy? Will the country fall apart if a local movie shows a Malay girl who doesn’t try to convert her Chinese boyfriend to Islam? If our national security is that fragile, it is because someone somewhere is profiting from keeping it that way.

When I heard that Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet was banned, it rattled me to the spleen. Our nifty strategy toward racial integration seems to consist of not from talking about it at all. Why is it that 35 years from 1969, we are still afraid of each other? Bureaucrats obviously suck at this. Perhaps it is time to let artists handle the issue.

Rais Yatim, our new boss at the Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Heritage, is obviously one of our savvier ministers. But somehow he seems stuck with defeated pessimists and indifferent civil servants. There are some good intentions at FINAS, but the Malaysian Video Award winners’ dealings with it would certainly make an epic movie. It wasn’t until Rais Yatim cracked the whips that the winners received the money they were promised.

Ho Yuhang’s film Sanctuary, which was accepted into the prestigious Pusan Film Festival, also tried asking FINAS for money to transfer the digital movie to film. FINAS rejected the appeal for money on the grounds that the film was not muhibbah enough.

GSC at Midvalley should be congratulated for showing Red Comm’s experimental horror flick Visits, but it should be booed for rejecting James Lee’s film My Beautiful Washing Machine. They claimed it was not marketable. Not marketable? Why should they worry? After all, they didn’t pay for the marketing of Ng Tian Hann’s film First Take Final Cut, which they agreed to exhibit. The cost of Hann’s posters and stuff had to be subtracted from his slim box office takings. Hey, thanks for supporting local filmmakers…

Sobranie Film Classics closed, leaving us with the cultural offerings of the Japan Foundation and Alliance Francaise. Meanwhile, the lowkey Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia, while exposing us to films by Satyajit Ray and Leni Riefenstahl, also provided a platform for showcasing Malaysian short films. Curated by Amir Muhammad and Bernard Chauly, the three separate screenings presented an unprecedented total of about 45 short films throughout the year.

Kelab Seni’s Malaysian Documentaries and Pusat KOMAS (Komuniti Masyarakat)’s Freedom Film Fest also provided for some insightful perspectives on Malaysian life. Most famously, journalist Danny Lim documented political graffiti (18?) in the city. Film editor Khoo Eng Yow gave us the candid and poignant Ah Kew The Digger, which unearthed stories hidden in local tombstones. This country could do with a few more diggers.

Visual Art: 205 (last year: 266)

Judging from the flurry of readers’ comments found on the listings of visual art exhibitions on Kakiseni, Malaysian art must be a riot. Yeah, right.

The first event that inspired some fury was Compulsion: A Survey of Contemporary Malaysian Art, exhibited at National Art Gallery, and curated by Valentine Willie. Readers questioned if the title implied that unrepresented artists are not part of “contemporary Malaysian art.” The title was then changed to Malaysian Art Now – a clever way of not solving the problem. And then Bakat Muda Sezaman 2004, also at NAG, generated hot debate about policies and the artists. NAG subsequently decided to hold an open discussion on its premise. How cool. These were the few times in which reader’s comments resulted in open discussion (always better than outright ban). But folks, remember, as they say in boxing, keep it clean.

It’s tough being NAG, promoting an intrinsically subversive form of expression within government-sanctioned walls. Case in point: the retrospective of dissident artist Wong Hoy Cheong, which seemed to be deliberately delayed to lessen the provocation. Kudos to NAG, nevertheless for: Suara Jiwa: Pelukis dan Kanak-Kanak and Common Ground: Aspect of Contemporary Muslim Experience (a brave topic to let loose on artists).

There are presently 51 galleries in the Klang Valley listed on Kakiseni. Last year a new one opened in a Bangsar bungalow, called Darling Muse. A more alternative space with a not so alternative name, De Lost Generation, launched itself with an anti-establishment event called notthatbalai art festival. For five days, visual artists, performance artists, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and writers mingled, created, collaborated, and then sat down and talked (much time was spent deconstructing the words ‘not’, ‘that’ and ‘balai’). Audience interaction/disruption was encouraged. So somebody stuck a chopstick through Lee Swee Keong’s fundoshi. Very eloquent.

Courses: 31 (last year: 37)

Dance courses proliferate on Kakiseni. Are folks there to pick up partners for some forbidden dance, or do they just want an excuse to don a tutu? Places offering dance courses are Celestar Studio of Performing Arts, Ellie Zhou Ballet Studio, RiverGrass Dance Theatre, Havana Estudio, and Fame School of Performing Arts.

The Actors Studio Academy offers the most diverse ways of getting in touch with your inner artist: theatre for children, monologue for teens, and puppet making for everyone. For less artistic types, they have set up the Malaysian Alliance of Technical Theatre.

(Courses and workshops require a very small payment to be listed. Contact Kakiseni director Jenny Daneels.)

Books/Readings: 39 (last year: 29)

Out of 39 events, 19 belongs to the KL Lit Fest, organised by Silverfish Books. Criticised for its lack of tight organisation, the festival was at least ambitious, and brought in interesting folks like Nigerian activist Ken Wiwa, British author Paul Bailey and Indian thinker Amit Chaudhari.

Following the festival, was a strange beast called KL World Poetry Reading, for which Indonesian poet Goenawan Mohamad was invited to give the opening address. Somewhere in the middle of this, delegates were taken to Putrajaya, where they had to read poetry by the man-made lake, and endure recitations by poetic members of the Ministry of Finance. Meanwhile, Goenawan escaped to launch his poetry collection at Valentine Willie Fine Art. A few days before, chairman of the Yayasan Kesenian Perak, Raja Ahmad Aminullah, also launched his poetry collection, Menyarung Jiwa, with great peer support.

Alliance Francaise, not satisfied with a music festival, and an arts festival, also gave us philistines the French Book Festival, which featured French films based on French literature, and French cuisines accompanied by French short stories. The British Council uses its video conferencing technology to bring us face to face digitally with known English authors. Last year, we spoke with David Lodge and Beryl Bainbridge. Any requests for this year? Salman Rushdie?

Talks: 33 (last year: 46)

Forerunner in providing talks is Galeri Petronas, who gave us established artists like Nadiah Bamadhaj, Redza Piyadasa, and Chuah Thean Teng. Yayasan Kesenian Perak, however, brought in foreign writers and artists for Ipoh enthusiasts, totally ignoring us poor folks in KL Nokia’s Upstart Creative Arts Workshop 2004 organised free talks with industry leaders from the region.

Interesting talks titles throughout the year include: ‘Art, Advertising & Ideology’ at KLCC, ‘The 18th Sultan Azlan Shah Law Lecture’ at Shangri-la Hotel, and ‘Peace Through Arts – Forum on Mindanao’ at Global Peace Mission. We also slipped in subtly political titles like: ‘Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion’ at the Bar Council Auditorium, ‘Debate on ISA’ at Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, and ‘Watching the Watchdog: Media Monitoring Talk’ at the Centre for Independent Journalism. Not too subtle for you all, I hope.

Elsewhere: 63

Last year, we listed the Edinburgh International Festival, the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, and Feel Felt – An International Art Exhibition and Intercultural Encounter in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. This section, however, seems largely a listing for Singapore events. I heard many folks did go down to catch Mamma Mia! Next time you are heading down, don’t miss anything with the following names: Ivan Heng, Alfian Sa’at, Glen Goei, and that honorary Singaporean Krishen Jit.

For Kids: 25

Kids this year were entertained with real lions at The Royal London Circus, as well as fake babies at Little Violet and the Angel and Little Match Girl, both of which have really dark, disturbing moments at the heart of their cuteness. Provocative theatre for the young? Why not? Teaching kids to ask existentialist questions before they turn five is a brilliant way to shut them up, or else, it will just turn them into artists. Oh, just as well.


Please note: Numbers of events listed may not be accurate. Some of the events naturally fall into more than one category, but the programme can only make one mention of each event in the list.

First Published: 06.01.2005 on Kakiseni