By Lainie Yeoh
Should I be afraid to point a camera at something if it’s wrong?
A few nights ago, I watched a stout, thuggish man collect RM2 from people parking along Tengkat Tung Shin. I was tempted to point my little digital camera at him and record a video, to later upload on Youtube.com — but decided against risking my physical health. Perhaps naively, I expected the problem to be solved when a police patrol car slowly drove by. Both parties casually ignored each other. Later on, the police did their duty by ticketing cars, but left the man alone.
Watching Andrew Sia’s cheeky documentary Kopi O Khau Sikit Kurang Manis, about general power abuse and lack of integrity within the Malaysian police force, did not do much to reassure me. I was at this year’s Freedom Film Festival (FFF), an annual event — organized by community video-makers Pusat Komuniti Masyarakat (KOMAS) and sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation — that presents ‘social and community films’: documentaries. There was a competition, part of the FFF: earlier this year, KOMAS began accepting proposals for documentaries, from which four winners were selected. The Justin Louis Award, named after the late first coordinator of KOMAS, came with a RM5000 grant and the technical assistance to turn these proposals into film.
Andrew was one of the award’s recipients this year. The others were Hariati Azizan for The Invisible Children, a film about the marginalised existence of refugee children in Malaysia; Loh Yin San, Ong Ju Lin and Claudia Theophilus for Twelve 11, about the Street, Drainage and Building Act, a law that confers immunity to local authorities — that, out of negligence, approve plans to construct unsafe high-rise buildings; Rajan Paramesran for The Tapper and The Law, concerning a rubber-tapper who finally wins a 21-year court case to be paid an RM22.40 salary the plantation owed him — after his death.
These four winners were screened alongside many other films — including two international movie features The Road to Guantenamo and Imelda — under agendas like ‘Police & Governance’, ‘Racism’ and ‘Dignity and Rights to Live’. These, with forum discussions between filmmakers, relevant activists and the audience — including the Tikar Talk, an informal free-for-all with everyone seated on mats — meant that I had a lot of information to absorb over the weekend.
A lot of issues for a compressed three days, if one is so inclined. Few people were. Most of the invitations I’d sent out for this event — “It’s all about documentaries!” I said — were met with reluctance, even ridicule, from my friends.
Why Attend the Freedom Film Festival?
Friday began quietly, in accordance with my pessimistic expectations. I arrived in Taylor’s College, Subang, half an hour late to find less than ten people in the audience, and expected a similarly sized crowd throughout the rest of the festival. They were screening two previous films by Freedom Film Festival alumni: Amir Muhammad’s The Big Durian (about Operasi Lalang) and Ong Ju Lin’s Alice Lives Here (about the Broga incinerator). Having watched both of them, I decided to poke my nose around outside the screening hall.
To the right were booths, occupied by NGOs such as the Centre for Independent Journalism and Food not Bombs KL. Volunteers were telling people about the functions of their organisations, handing out leaflets, and convincing the newly-aware — and dazed — people exiting the hall to sign up for newsletters. To the left was Wrong & Rights, a photography exhibition by KOMAS co-founder Tan Jo Hann. Each photograph depicted a marginalised society in Malaysia, and a brief caption under each summed up their plight. I warily eyed the faces that stared back at me from these pictures, unsure if I wanted to be aware of their troubles.
The festival slogan, ‘Dare to Document’, is pretty straightforward: a celebration of one’s right to free speech and information, but also an acknowledgement of its difficulties. Filmmakers were not the only ones being dared here: ‘They dared to document. Do you dare to watch?’ asked a promotional flyer.
The genre is frequently accused of controversy, I think, because a lot of these documentaries look at how the authorities could be doing a much better job. No one — much less the government — likes to be told they’re found wanting.
Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore GaGa, my favourite among the documentaries screened that weekend concerned the aural quirks that play a part in Singapore’s identity. It traverses an hour of fun personalities — including Margaret Leng Tan, the world’s foremost proponent of toy piano interpretation, performing John Cage’s silent 4’33” — before ending with footage of a government-organised New Year’s celebration: a man scales to the peak of a huge, shiny balloon model of Mount Everest, then triumphantly waves to the crowd.
My reaction to that empty gesture was largely summed up by this image fading into street performer Melvyn, singing a song of unrequited love called ‘Wasted Days, Wasted Nights’. At a post-screening discussion on Saturday, Pin Pin spoke about getting around censorship in Asia, plainly mentioning that: “I’m scared, a lot of times.”
I don’t blame her. Hearing about Singapore’s draconian Films Act, and watching, on Sunday, Martyn See’s Zahari’s 17 Years — about Said Zahari, Singapore’s second longest-serving political detainee, and his criticisms of Lee Kuan Yew — I could see the need for caution. The last I read of Martyn See, he had been threatened with two years imprisonment or a $100,000 fine over Singapore Rebel, another documentary critical of Lee Kuan Yew.
Weirder things right here drive the point home. Looking for alternative means of distribution, the staff of KOMAS approached several local DVD pirates. Those fearless sorts, who set up shop right across the road from the Bangsar police station, had this to say about carrying local documentaries that the copyright holders actually encouraged them to sell: “It’s great stuff, but we are afraid.”
Why Stay Indifferent?
There is no denying that the socially-aware documentary, as a genre, has brought about real change. The films of Leena Manimekalai, filmmaker from India and one of the festival’s judges, are good examples. Mahtamma and Break The Shackles explore caste-ism and women’s rights in religion, in an Indian context — and these documentaries do what documentaries should do: put a spotlight on things that need attention.
At another post-screening discussion, Leena spoke of one of the ways her documentaries were used to helped people: ownership of her films was appropriated by those she aimed to help, and used at their own events to raise awareness. Film gives a lot of power to people, normally deprived of a voice in the mass media, to have their say.
Discussions at the FFF were uplifting. These weren’t sessions of wail and woe, as I had been afraid of, but rather made for a good use of time: questions were asked, concerns were voiced and strategies were compared. I learned the difference a letter to the newspapers could make.
Particularly heartening for me was learning that, about a year after Ju Lin’s 2005 FFF winner, Alice Lives Here, plans for building the incinerator at Broga have been dropped. We were told that Alice, the driving force behind the protest against the incinerator, was thankful that the filmmakers cared enough to document the issue, as the film helped generate a lot more media coverage and support for their struggle. Media coverage meant pressure on the authorities, who now knew that further transgressions might not go unpublicised.
What better than seeing tangible, positive results of people putting their voices together to make a difference?
Watching the documentaries themselves, though, was another thing altogether. I don’t think the problem is bravery. It isn’t ‘Do you dare to watch?’ as much as ‘How is the idea of travelling to Subang to watch a bunch of potentially depressing films about human suffering more appealing than any number of generic weekend activities?’
Don’t get me wrong, I like what KOMAS is trying to do with the Freedom Film Festival: Make the World a Better Place and all that. And it was obvious, by Friday afternoon, that many people thought the same — though few of them actually sat through all the three days of screening. As for me, I’m sorry: I had to conserve my energy. I’m just careful of the amount of charity I would have been obliged to feel for the films’ subjects, and the responsibilities that would entail. The apathetic recluse in me acknowledges that ignorance is bliss.
After Twelve 11 screened, we discovered that the guy shown crying onscreen was seated in the hall with us. Mr Phang, who lost his family in the Highland Towers tragedy, came to personally appeal to the audience for change. Mr Phang ended by pointing a finger at the crowd, charging us to help NGOs approach the government to amend the law.
I wished I didn’t see him crying on film. While I found Twelve 11 very effective in its delivery of information, I had already reacted towards the pathos-driven approach of the filmmakers by suppressing any feelings I had developed.
I can recognise manipulation when I see it, and most of the films I encountered at the FFF were blatantly aimed at tugging my apathetic heartstrings. With this negativity in play, I had a personal filter straining away many elements of these documentaries, leaving behind neat packages of information: just the Issue, shorn of agenda.
It was a simpler way to deal with the onslaught — I found myself wishing the filmmakers had done this condensation for me. Local news has left me with a lot of cynicism I find hard to shake off, even for films made by friends or people I know share my views. I was getting tired of all the Voice of God dictations.
Why Not Preach?
Mien Lor is a name that popped up in the credit rolls of almost every Malaysian documentary at the Freedom Film Fest — her own film, My Confessions – the picture diary, was screened on Saturday under the ‘Gender and Sexuality’ umbrella. Mien, who works for KOMAS and is the FFF’s coordinator, told me that the most important aspect of the festival was not the casual audience, but the volunteers — an army of individuals who, by sheer proximity, should have their social consciousnesses well-flexed by now.
They are turning up some nuanced work. Roy Vimalan, one such FFF volunteer, had his film, Lost and Found, screened on Saturday under ‘People & Culture’. A simple documentary about a foreign student who finds his sneakers at a pasar malam’s second-hand shoe stall and has to buy them back, Lost and Found was taken by some as a simple film about shoes, and therefore deficient. Others considered it a creative approach towards foundational property rights — and whether, in prioritising the rights we fight for, we end up regarding as unimportant the basics. Roy later said that he was well aware that such a non-polemical approach could alienate viewers who missed the message.
I watched the documentaries at the FFF, aware that I was supposed to be getting an agenda-guided message from most of them. Some filmmakers were asked, during discussion: “What, exactly, were you trying to say, here?”
I am aware that approaches with sentimental designs can be more effective at getting people to sign the relevant petitions. Still, documentaries that examine their topic with an even-handed, velvet-gloved approach can be done very well, and my preference gravitates towards being allowed to judge myself the amount of emotional investment necessary for each issue.
In The Tapper and The Law, we are shown, by a straight dramatic re-enactment, how the titular rubber-tapper took over two decades to get the meagre wages his employers owed him. Apparently, the courts had lost his file — a judge, going through a backlog of cases before retiring, decided to settle the dispute 21 years after it began.
Later, during discussion, a child in the audience questioned how such a miscarriage of justice could happen. The rubber-tapper’s flight was a situation that did not require much tear-wrangling to speak for itself.
Why? Why? Why?
On Sunday evening, after performances by singer-songwriters Mei Chern and Azmyl Yunor, judges picked Twelve 11 as the best documentary amongst the Justin Louis Award commissions. It was an excellent example of a professional and effective presentation of an Issue: the negative impact of the laws involved in the resolution of the Highland Towers disaster was very real, and the anger and concern it stirred in the festival’s audiences was formidable — if a petition had been waved in the hall, I reckon it would have easily gained many signatures.
I agreed with the decision to award Twelve 11. It delivered all the basic information I could possibly need on the Highland Towers issue, told its story well and empathically. By this time, though, my psyche, in withdrawal, found the more light-hearted, less didactic of the FFF’s offerings more appealing.
The prevalent question at the festival was “Why?”: Why should a man help fight for women’s rights? Why should a Malaysian help an Acehnese refugee? Why get involved? Why talk about the things the government doesn’t want talked about? Will they arrest me under the ISA? Why challenge the authority to perform their duties — and in doing so, risk trouble? Why should we help out after watching all these films? Why care?
I didn’t have the answers to these questions, and being at the FFF made me realise I was still inadequately fortified with the guts — whether out of fear or emotional economy — to care this much. I was exhausted by this hand-wringing, I left the festival feeling tired, slightly older, and somewhat sadder.
Still, considering my own reactions, I found newfound comfort in the fact that a band of socially conscious people, of their own volition and KOMAS’s assistance, were trying to help others through film. I can’t say I came away from the Freedom Film Festival unmoved.
Lainie Yeah is a design student and dilettante, infamous for blogging about her life.
First Published: 19.10.2006 on Kakiseni