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Andrew Sia & Hari Azizan
A gutsy film festival shows how we can create a better world with nothing more than a cheap video camera, a computer and some dedication.
What does the privatisation of our water supply have to do with Perak’s political controversies? How does possible poisoning from a gold mine in Raub relate to big oil palm companies grabbing land from the Ibans of Sarawak?
They all come together in the Freedom Film Fest (FFF) 2009, a showcase of “social documentaries” now into its sixth year in Malaysia.
Thanks to technology, video movies are now relatively easy to make, requiring nothing more than a cheap video camera, a computer to edit the footage and some committed people – and this fest shows what can be achieved with simple ideas.
Organised by Komas (the Malay acronym for Community Communications Centre), an organisation set up in 1993 to utilise videos to promote social change, the Freedom Film Fest has held screenings in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and will travel to Kuching and Johor Baru in the next two weeks (see details below).
As in previous years, the public was invited earlier this year to submit proposals for short films. The three best submissions were awarded RM5,000 each (and given technical support from Komas) to transform their ideas into an actual video movie.
The winning proposals this year were Kayuh by Soh Sook Hwa, about the Ride for Change campaign by over 100 cyclists; No Silver Lining: The Perak Crisis by The S-ploited team, which features a giant frog head!; and Al-Fatehah Memali by Rahmat Haron, about the Memali tragedy of 1985.
Inspired by the people
What started out as a chore for Soh Sook Hwa, 27, when she became a coordinator of the Ride for Change Campaign, soon provided priceless footage for her first short documentary called Kayuh (Cycle).
“In the beginning, we only planned to shoot some video for documentation. Halfway through, a friend suggested that I make a film and submit it for the competition, ” says the soft-spoken organic farmer from Penang.
Organised by a local NGO called Jerit (Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas or Oppressed People’s Network), the Ride for Change campaign highlighted several major issues, among them: the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA), provision of a minimum wage and housing for the poor, and a review of the privatisation of hospitals and water/power supply.
The bicycle campaign was stopped by the police throughout the whole journey for various reasons, like the so-called “misuse” of teenagers and even the lack of rear reflectors!
“All that gave the wrong publicity to our campaign. That made me more resolved to make my documentary, as I wanted to draw attention to the issues we were trying to highlight,” she says.
Soh adds: “The cyclists were the most inspiring part for me. They all come from diverse backgrounds and various parts of the country. They are not activists; merely ordinary people who want to take action to champion their causes and beliefs. I hope those who watch my documentary will be inspired by their courage.”
In fact, the judges were so moved by Kayuh that it bagged the Best Film award at the festival.
For No Silver Lining: The Perak Crisis by The S-ploited team, a frog, or rather, a giant frog head, was the main star.
The documentary chronicles the party-hopping incident in Perak early this year, that led to huge political controversies.
“The Frog is a common image in the issue,” says lawyer Seira Sacha Abu Bakar, 30, who makes up the S-ploited team with another lawyer, Khaizan Sharizad Abdul Razak, 27.
Inspired by a winner of the BMW Shorties film competition last year called Teddy, they got a friend to make a huge frog head mask, says Sacha, as she is better known.
The frog captured everyone’s imagination and drew a lot of laughter, making the serious issues more palatable.
Says Sherrie (as Khaizan is called), due to the various legal issues, the Perak case was close to their hearts as lawyers.
“It was a memorable experience because the feelings and thoughts on the ground about the evolving crisis were strong and passionate. So we knew we had to make sure their voices were heard,” says Sherrie.
Trying to tell the people’s side of the story is also what prompted poet and painter Rahmat Haron to make his short documentary, Al-Fatehah Memali (Condolences to Memali).
It relives that day on Nov 19, 1985, when the villagers of Memali in Kedah squared off against hundreds of police personnel.
The authorities had received information that an allegedly “deviant Islamic sect”, led by Ibrahim Mahmud (better known as Ibrahim Libya), had influenced the villagers to “overthrow” the Government. So, armed with M16 machine guns, the police surrounded the village.
“I’m not digging up the past for the sake of being controversial or provocative. I believe we have to discuss issues like this openly. We cannot carry any historical baggage with us if we want to move forward,” says the 32-year-old artist.
As his film chronicles, the authorities opened fire when Ibrahim – a scholar who had previously appeared on national television to lecture on Islamic matters – resisted being placed under arrest under the ISA.
Four policemen and 14 villagers died in the confrontation while 120 people (mainly farmers, rubber tappers and schoolteachers) were arrested, including women and children.
Although Rahmat was only eight when the Memali incident happened, he says he remembers watching the news on television.
Haunted by the memory, Rahmat, who is now an advocate for the abolition of the ISA, stresses that he is looking at the Memali incident from a human rights rather than a religious perspective.
“I strongly believe that the Memali incident is an example of how the ISA has been misused. To detain someone without a fair trial is inhumane.
“The ISA is a law that the British colonial masters created, and I do not understand why we are continuing this colonial legacy. We have enough existing laws to protect ourselves, we do not need the ISA,” he says.
This year’s Freedom Film Fest introduced a new competition for ready-made documentaries. The RM2,000 prize was won this year by Peace Cyanide Hill, made by the Black Film Brigade led by S. Thilaga.
“We are just a bunch of amateurs trying to help out the villagers,” says Thilaga.
This documentary tells the story of a gold mine at Bukit Koman (which translates as Peace Hill), near Raub, Pahang, where villagers allege cyanide is being used for “more efficient” extraction of gold. Despite their complaints of rashes, vomiting and other ailments, their pleas to various authorities to stop the mining are ignored.
What made the first screening (held two weeks ago at the Central Market Annexe in KL) more meaningful was that some villagers cum campaigners (including retired English-speaking civil servants) turned up to answer questions.
“We should be peacefully retired but now we are scared for our lives and homes. The Department of Environment came to check in the daytime, but the mine releases the pollution only at night,” relates Hue Fui How. “And the police seem to be in love with us, as they constantly follow our movements and even that of the film crew.”
Another villager, Mustapha Hussin, sighs, “Even when the villagers want to go out and carry tang lungs (lanterns), the police say we need a permit.”
These same villagers came for the FFF last year at the very same venue and were inspired by the power of video in highlighting social causes. This year, they harnessed some of that power themselves!
Another inspiring documentary that is being shown at the FFF screenings is Di Bawah Langit (Under the Sky) by Fiqtriey-al Haqimiey, a tale of how the people of Kg Berembang in Ampang, Selangor, struggle against five demolitions by the authorities.
While the Malay villagers are now labelled “squatters”, back in 1969, they were known as peneroka bandar (“urban pioneers”) who had come to settle on the (then) fringes of Kuala Lumpur after the May 13 riots in response to a call by then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak to have a better racial “balance” in the cities. Not surprisingly, they have been staunch Government supporters. However, some 35 years later, they find that developers are greedily eyeing their village land.
“Although the top people behind the developer were Malays, they sent Chinese gangsters to evict us,” says Aqila, one of the villagers tells the audience after the KL screening.
Chew Siew Fong, a Chinese student activist who went to help the villagers, shares: “When the villagers first saw us, they scolded us with (swear words). It was only later that they realised that not all Chinese are linked to the developers who want to evict them.
“Later,” testifies Aqila. “We ourselves went to help out a nearby Chinese village facing eviction too. We now understand that this is not a race issue, but an issue about poor people.”
Another film also showing at FFF screenings, Delaying Justice by Hilary Chiew, brings up the irony of reverse colonialism. It was the benevolent White Rajahs of Sarawak who first recognised “native customary rights” (NCR) over ancestral lands. However, after independence, the politicians, in league with timber and oil palm companies, found the lands too tempting a target and tried to “redefine” NCR land in the narrow terms of “land actually being cultivated”.
But the natives have been resisting ever since the late 1980s, with blockades of logging roads (which are seldom reported in the media) and then with court cases. After years of litigation, despite the less than stellar reputation of the Malaysian judiciary, there have been several court decisions favouring the natives and recognising much broader customary rights to land, including rights of hunting and collecting jungle produce.
At the screening, Chiew, an environmental journalist with The Star who reported last year on how Penan girls and women were being raped by loggers, explains to the audience: “Despite those court decisions, the State Government of Sarawak still insists on fighting and appealing the cases in court further. And while justice is being delayed, the companies continue grabbing more land.”
The film also highlights the case of T.K. Kelesau, a Penan community leader who was found dead in suspicious circumstances after resisting logging companies.
Apart from these Malaysian-made films, the FFF also features several excellent foreign documentaries.
Burma VJ (video journalist) by Denmark’s Anders Østergaard shows how the courageous young citizens of Burma risked jail and torture by the military regime to be “underground reporters” and record the epic events of September 2007 in Burma (Myanmar) when Buddhist monks marched on the streets to seek a more compassionate democracy.
What about those who manage to leave their troubled country? All That You Can’t Leave Behind by Singaporean Choon Hiong Ho shows how Burmese living and working in Singapore pay a heavy price for standing up for their homeland’s rights.
Another must-watch is French filmmaker Irena Salina’s Flow, a documentary which looks past the 20th century’s black gold to the new blue gold of the 21st century: water.
Flow asks some hard questions: If you don’t charge people for the air they breathe, how can you charge people for the water they drink? Is water supposed to be a government “service” and responsibility? Or is it a commodity corporations can make huge profits from?
The film shows how big multinationals have tried to capture and “colonise” water supplies in various countries, including Bolivia and India, while depriving the locals who can’t pay “market prices”.
What about Malaysia? Charles Santiago, the MP for Klang who is part of the local Coalition Against Water Privatisation, reveals how the privatised water supply company in Selangor made some RM50mil just from water reconnection fees.
“In Malaysia, water is not a basic human right,” he says.
An audience member also stands up to share how her neighbourhood in Malacca used well water.
“But after water supply was ‘corporatised’, we were told that we could not even use the water from the well even though it was on our own land!”
If there’s one thing that the Freedom Film Festival demonstrates, it is the power of social documentaries to create awareness of the need for a better world – from nothing more than a few people working with a cheap video camera and a computer. Perhaps your ideas (and ideals) will become movies for next year’s fest?
The next three-day screenings are on Oct 23-25 at Sekolah Menagah Chung Hua No.1, Kuching, and Oct 30-Nov 1, at Tropical Inn, Johor Baru. For invitations to this private event, go to freedomfilmfest.komas.org or call 017-3749 887.
Winning films of previous festivals can be seen online at http://engagemedia.org/Members/Komas/freedomfilmfest-fff-videos.