The Freedom Film Fest 2006

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The Freedom Film Fest, held for the first time in Penang, brought a breath of fresh air into the humdrum of everyday living on the island. Aliran Monthly writers watched some of the movies and led some of the post-movie discussions. Here we carry their movie reviews.

The Freedom Film Fest came to Penang on 6-8 October 2006. Over three days and nights, almost 50 clips (some as short as five minutes), documentaries (most about 20-30 minutes long) and a few full-length features (lasting about an hour) were shown to packed audiences in the Actor’s Studio downtown.

The Fest was organised by Kuala Lumpur-based Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat (Community Communications Centre), or Komas for short, a group that has been in the forefront of ‘producing videos by, for, and of the rakyat’ since 1993, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which also sponsored the Festival. The Fest was first held in Kuala Lumpur, moving to Penang a week later.

Some of the feature films shown like ‘Imelda’ (Ramona S Diaz, Philippines, 2005) featuring the widow of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and ‘The Road to Guantenamo’ (Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2006), focusing on Pakistan/Afghanistan as the US invasion began, were produced outside the country. So were many of the shorter videos and clips. But a fair number of the films shown were produced locally by Malaysians, including some recently submitted for this year’s ‘Human Rights Films Awards’.

The format for the Awards required the entrants to submit their proposals first, and on the basis of their human rights content, four were then awarded RM5,000 each to turn the scripts into films, with technical help from Komas. Apparently, this new format was adopted because the films submitted in previous years’ contests often had good human rights content but were poor technically; on the other hand, some others were technically superior but lacked human rights content.

A highlight was the discussion sessions which were held after every two-odd hours of screening related clips and documentaries. On two occasions, these discussions featured the film-makers who fielded questions. On other occasions, the discussions were facilitated by local human rights activists-turned-film buffs, including several Aliran members.

Another highlight was the opening ceremony by Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon, Penang State Exco Member and a keen supporter of civil society initiatives. ‘Reel On’ was apparently his message to Malaysia’s budding human rights film-makers. Anak-Anak Kota, a Penang-based children’s theatre group, also performed at the opening, lending it a nice festive mood.

Young and tech-savvy

It was noteworthy that the vast majority of the audience that showed up were ‘young’. Come to think of it, the majority of the film-makers who were featured are young, as indeed, are the majority of Malaysia’s independent filmmakers who have been putting the country on the international filmmakers’ map (See AM vol 24 no 9 ‘Just-do-it-yourself: Malaysian independent film-making’ and the box below on 28-year-old Tan Chui Mui’s award-winning Love Conquers All).

No doubt, the young are more savvy with the digital camera and the new information and communications technology than their elders. And as the Fest showed, it is certainly possible to promote human rights education via films and this new technology. There is a lesson here for the older human rights activists who tend to depend on the print media and oral presentations in workshops and rallies.

That said, the more experienced human rights activists might possess a greater familiarity with Malaysia’s past including the history of its human rights struggle. Often, they also possess an appreciation of the wider socio-economic and political context and the ability therefore to locate a particular human rights event in its wider context. This point became evident in some of the discussions. Indeed, if at all there was a weakness in the prize-winning films featured, there was, at times, a disconnect between the particular episode featured and the wider socio-economic and political context. Herein is an opportunity for the tech-savvy youths to collaborate with the older social activists.   

Below we carry a few reports of the films and discussions submitted by several Aliran members who attended the Fest and facilitated the discussions. Perhaps these reports will give readers a flavour of this Fest which brought a breath of fresh air into the humdrum routine of everyday living in Penang. The films focusing on the struggle for justice and rights certainly clashed against the crass racial posturings of our power-crazed politicians.

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by Francis Loh

Women and religion

The three movies or clips screened on the night of 6 October: Mahtamma, An Afternoon with the Hijjabed and Portrait of Amina Wadud.

Mathamma is about the practice in certain villages in certain parts of India where a girl child who is chronically ill (or is no longer wanted) is married off to a goddess. The belief is that the goddess can cure chronic illnesses. The child then becomes a Mathamma  and she belongs to the temple and the village. She cannot ever marry. Her role is to dance at religious functions and should she be asked, satisfy the men’s sexual needs. She can live with a man but never marry him. She can bear his offspring but cannot expect him to maintain them. He is not obliged to her or their children and he can leave whenever he pleases.

The film shows the abuse of women in the name of a cultural or religious practice. The impact of this practice has been to make such women totally dependent on the men for their survival. They are destitute when the men leave them. Their children have no legal standing in society nor can they expect to be educated. The Mathammas are subject to sexual exploitation, sexually transmitted diseases and to a cycle of poverty and dependency. It was mentioned in the discussion that the low level of education and literacy combined with high levels of poverty in the communities breed such superstitious beliefs and help to further perpetuate these practices. There is currently a move in India to put a stop to this practice.

Hijabbed is a short video depicting five different young women, all of whom wear the hijab (the tudung) in different fashions. These young women also have different ideas and understanding about the hijab. The video was done in a light manner but the issue of differences in opinion regarding the hijab or the plurality of understanding with regard to the hijab is clear. The verse in the Qur’an which refers to modesty is shown in the last frame of the video clip.

Amina Wadud’s film showed Amina’s scholarly struggles as well as her personal ones. The context of the film is the aftermath of her controversial leading of the prayers. Arguments for and against this are presented. Since the incident, Amina has lost her academic position because the university felt unable to guarantee her safety given the number of death threats she received. Throughout the film, what is highlighted is Amina’s quest for the focus in Islam to be on the substance of the religion (i.e. justice) and not solely the form. She refers to the lack of space Muslim women are given to speak out. She talks about the importance of ‘gender jihad’ and ‘horizontal reciprocity’ (interchangeable and equal positions between men and women, with God as the supreme being). Her strength, courage and her single mindedness in her quest is inspiring.

After the three short movies were shown, a brief but lively discussion followed. Some of the issues discussed included whether or not practices which are deemed as religious (i.e. God’s commands) are often simply patriarchal practices which discriminate against women, the issue of substance over form in religion, the issue of freedom of choice with regards to the wearing of the tudung (to wear or not to wear) and who decides (or judges) what is good or not good.

by Prema Devaraj

People and culture

This session featured four films:

Lost and Found tells of the story of a few foreign students in Malaysia whose shoes are stolen from their houses. What concerns them is the fact that most of the time their lost belongings cannot be recovered by the police, apart from the fact that the culprits often escape police detection. It is an attempt to show that there is a dire need for greater policing against law-breakers and thefts.

Puppet Theatre – Tax Boycott
brings the theatre of popular politics to the streets of Jakarta in an everyday language that is accessible to the ordinary people. It also features how ordinary people are brought into the important process of discussing issues that affect their daily lives.

Kata Gender is a story of how a group of artist-activists descended on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to raise the consciousness of the ever-busy urban dwellers about violence against women. Slogans protesting the violence against women were chalked on the sidewalk by artists as a way to attract attention and concern among ordinary people. Although this kind of protest may be a common sight elsewhere in the region, such as in Jakarta, Manila or Bangkok, it is rather novel in tightly-controlled Malaysia.

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Positive People demanding rights to dignity is a documentary about the lives of a group of Cambodian people who are afflicted by HIV/Aids. Most of them are women who contracted the deadly virus from their husbands or, from the featured prostitutes, through sexual contacts with their male clientele. Not only are they poor, they are also marginalised by the rest of society because of the stigma associated with the disease. Their attempts to get medical treatment and to rehabilitate themselves back into society is often fraught with problems and scorn.

If there’s a thematic thread that runs through all these films, it is the issue of social justice. Of the four films, ‘Puppet Theatre’ and ‘Kata Gender’ excited the audience most of all.

In Puppet Theatre, we were shown how the arts people in Jakarta make use of puppets to highlight the injustice of a new tax structure that would badly affect poor urban dwellers, such as the rickshaw riders. There are scenes of the Jakarta poor taking part in a puppet show to express their disgust over the new tax scheme. Apparently, the show was an attempt by some arts people in Jakarta to promote the empowerment of ordinary people as well as advancing the important notion of participatory democracy. Indeed, participating in the puppet show provided the ordinary people with a platform to use their usual street language to express their sentiments.

Similarly, in Kata Gender, a group of concerned arts people in Kuala Lumpur attempt to raise public awareness about the injustice and dangers of violence against women through use of the cultural form. Such an attempt is indeed remarkable given the fact that there are numerous laws against popular politics. Indeed, using the arts to express one’s self politically is even rarer in Malaysia. So questions were raised as to how this cultural expression of politics could materialise. One of the artists involved, who was present in the audience, clarified that they were queried by the police over their street act. But they went ahead nonetheless.

In the discussion, a member of the audience argued, and rightly so, that citizens should fight against unjust laws such as the Police Act, which allows the authorities to control – and to restrict – legitimate assemblies and expressions. A few people also felt that public expression through cultural forms should be popularised in other parts of the country so that more people could get involved in issues of public importance – and not be beholden to the whims and fancies of the so-called elected representatives of the people. No doubt, the film sparked off some lively debate about the country’s coercive laws.

The third film, Positive People, tugged the heart strings of many in the audience. The story of Cambodian women who endure the physical pain and social stigma of having contracted HIV/Aids from their husbands or through sexual contact with their male clientele moved many. More so since they are not simply shunned by the rest of society but are often also denied medical treatment or proper clinical care. Faced with these social obstacles and uncertainties in life, many of the affected women band together to chart their own collective destiny with the help of certain quarters in society.

Not surprisingly, the difficulties faced by these Cambodian women prompted a few questions from the floor pertaining to the way Malaysian society treats its HIV/Aids victims.

by Mustafa K Anuar

Alice Lives Here

Winner of the 2005 Fest

Whoever heard of Broga? I certainly did not; not until Alice Lee made me aware that it was a little agricultural town tucked away near Semenyih in Negri Sembilan.  And thanks to Alice, Broga is a cause célèbre for Malaysian environmentalists and social activists. But who is Alice Lee?

Many have now anointed Alice ‘Malaysia’s Erin Brokovic’. But it wasn’t the lure of fame that drove Alice to champion the cause of the Broga residents in resisting  the siting of Asia’s largest waste incinerator there. It was the sheer injustice of it all for this Broga resident, simply but brilliantly portrayed in the video documentary, Alice Lives Here.

Kudos goes to Penangite photo-journalist Ong Ju Lin for bringing Alice and Broga to our attention. Ju Lin’s maiden direction of this engaging, straight-to-the heart, 40-minute video documentary, originally named ‘Clean Shit’, deservedly won first prize in the amateur category of the 2005 Freedom Film Fest. It certainly deserved a rescreen in this year’s Fest.  

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The documentary traces how Alice organises a grassroots campaign against what clearly was a disingenuous attempt by the government to foist a waste disposal scheme – with clearly established environmental and health hazards – on the unsuspecting dwellers of Broga. Originally planned to be located in Puchong, the RM1.5 billion incinerator, to be built by Ebara Corporation, had met with objections from Puchong residents because of the anticipated health risks.

The film shows Alice’s low-key but determined activism in orchestrating awareness and exposure campaigns, sending memos and appeals to government authorities and, at times, ever so gently confronting embarrassed government intruders coming to check out Broga’s situation. Most interesting for me is how the documentary illustrates how an ordinary citizen like Alice Lee becomes ‘politicised’ and decides to commit herself to struggle against the waste incinerator menace.

Her actions slowly but surely also leads to the social awakening of her fellow Broga residents as it exposes the chicanery of the local contractors of the project as well as the callous action of the government, which now, we are told, may have second thoughts about the project.

Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting has reportedly said the government would reconsider building the incinerator if there are other environment-friendly alternatives with low maintenance cost. This sounds like the familiar politician’s doublespeak but hopefully the residents of Broga led by the tenacious Alice won’t let him get away with it that easily.

The song by Leow Mei Chern which accompanies the documentary puts the problem in a nutshell:

Oh it’s a shame,
To say it’s ok
You wash your hands
It’s not your life
It’s easier,
If you don’t see me like you

by Johan Saravanamuttu

 


2006 winners

The four winners this year were:
•    Twelve 11 (Loh Yin San, Ong Ju Lin, Claudia Theophilus, 2006 – 30 mins) about the Highland Tower tragedy wherein 48 people died yet the victims were denied justice by the courts;
•    Kopi O Khau Sikit Kurang Manis (Andrew Sia, 2006 – 30 mins) – a hip-hop documentary about the ear squats incident and allegations of corruption and abuse of power by the Police;
•    The Invisible Children (Hariati Azizah, 2006 – 30 mins) discussing the everyday lives of children (about 9,000 throughout Malaysia) in refugee camps who have been denied proper education; and
•    The Tapper and the Law (Rajan Parmesran, 2006 – 30 mins) documenting the life of an Indian rubber tapper and his struggle to gain a fair wage to sustain his family. 


Kudos to Malaysia’s own independent filmmaker Tan Chui Mui whose Love Conquers All shared the New Currents prize for the best new Asian filmmaker at the Pusan International Film Festival in late October. ‘Love Conquers All’ is about a working-class woman confused about her own feelings after moving to the city to work in her aunt’s restaurant. She tries to stay in touch with her boyfriend back home as a new suitor aggressively pursues her in the city she has moved to. Initially, she rejects the new suitor but gradually allows him to conquer her. Tan’s minimalist style, detailing the little changes in the relationship between the woman and her suitor, was praised by the critics who awarded her the FIPRESCI prize (sponsored by the International Federation of Film Critics).


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