There are lessons to be learned from the recent Malaysian Film Festival, on and off-screen, says Mustafa Anuar.
This year’s 28th Malaysian Film Festival has been prematurely ushered in with the kind of fanfare that it and the film industry as a whole could do without, but nonetheless raised eyebrows from interested parties and the general public.
At the time of writing, it appears that the festival would not only lack the presence of those who matter in the industry, but also lustre and common sense.
The Film Directors’ Association of Malaysia (FDAM) wants the Best Picture in the National Language award to be prioritised over the Best Picture award that is open to all contestants. Prior to this, two of its executive committee members resigned from their posts as they disagreed with the stand taken by the FDAM.
Actor-comedian Afdlin Shauki and award-winning cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim were the ones who triggered a train of events after they first expressed their intention to boycott the festival as a protest against the segregated categories.
The FDAM initially condemned the inclusion of film entries, which they consider do not fully use the Bahasa Malaysia, to be rewarded at the national level as it claimed that this changed rule violated the Federal Constitution and also ridiculed the status of the national language.
In other words, the FDAM and others of similar ilk insist that only movies that are in Bahasa Malaysia should be regarded as ‘Malaysian’ or ‘national’. Other movies using less of the national language, they’d reminded, only qualify for the non-Bahasa Malaysia categories.
Therein lies the rub. If a film is to reflect social reality, or at the very least bring to public attention certain pressing social issues that certain quarters in society shy away from, then it is bound to cut across cultural, social and political boundaries, including language, especially in a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic setting like ours.
In other words, the national language would be one of the languages that would emerge in such a film that addresses issues that confront a particular community, especially a marginalised one at that, whose mother tongue is other than the Malay language.
To be sure, this is indeed a Malaysian film that examines issues of national import and by no stretch of imagination would it intentionally and automatically relegate the national language to a secondary position, as some language purists claim.
Moreover, a 100 per cent Bahasa Malaysia film, using bahasa baku to boot, doesn’t necessarily guarantee a runaway success at the box office especially if the storyline is trite and only to be filled by some wooden characters.
Besides, surely equal importance should be given to the language of the film that is employed by the entire film production crew. This would involve things like the screenplay, the storyline, point of view, editing, camera angles and shots, and soundtrack. Don’t they count for much when assessing a film, apart from quibbling over the language used in the movie?
A film festival is meant to search for and reward the best among the contestants. The contestants in this film festival, therefore, must be judged against universal standards if we are serious about gauging the quality of actors and others in the film world and also attempting to raise the standards of the film industry in Malaysia.
Like the many ‘special places’ in larger society, these segregated categories in the film festival could lend themselves to possible abuse. Hence, a few undeserved ones may happily find themselves on the list of people who’d win the coveted prizes and honours.
For lack of a better parallel, it is like creating in a school a special category for the “Best bumiputera student in school”, which is patronising in effect. Such a practice has over the years been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a means of creating a comfort zone or a club of orang kita.
Worse, such a phenomenon carries a certain social stigma that would also affect those who rightfully deserve to be awarded — with their heads held high — but have been huddled into such segregated categories. This may demoralise others who undoubtedly deserve awards given their high professionalism.
It is in this light that we can empathise with the likes of cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim who confidently insisted on being judged on a level playing field, something that groups like Perkasa are reportedly averse to. Mohd Noor knows the value and wisdom of winning on his own merit. By the way, most film festivals elsewhere put priority on merit and quality of the celluloid.
This local practice also suggests that there is a dire need to have an environment where a film festival would be organised by a truly independent professional body, representing all the stakeholders in the local film industry, instead of state participation and intervention.
This is because the (prevailing) artistic and political constraints that professionals in the film industry have to face and endure constrict their range of creativity and quality. It is like having a chemical company organise an award-giving event for best practices in environmental journalism.
There are lessons to be learned, on — and off-screen.
Note: The main organiser the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia managed to extinguish some of the controversy by introducing several changes, including the new Best National Film category to recognise the best film made in Bahasa Malaysia, apart from the Best Malaysian Film category. See report here.