At the very least, we need to ask why the Tanda Putera movie was made in the first place, observes Zaharom Nain.
Prominent, though not necessarily cerdik, Malaysians evidently love to make inane comments. And in public at that. It’s, like, become a national pastime.
Politicians do it all the time. And since the mainstream Malaysian media of the press and television virtually only provide coverage of BN politicians, it often seems as though it’s only BN politicians, invariably from Umno, who were born with foot in mouth disease.
Or were trained as performing berok.
That’s the small price you pay, I guess for not providing non-BN politicians and members of civil society access to the media that everybody knows you own.
But while BN politicians seem to have a monopoly on making stupid public statements, once in a while we do get others, often their apparatchiks, elbowing their way in, equally anxious to make utter ninnies of themselves.
And nowhere has this been more obvious in recent times than in the comments made by the makers of that new drama-zaman-ini, Tanda Putera.
I have no intention, of course, of falling into the trap of ‘reviewing’ a movie that I have not seen nor am likely to view.
But some of the comments made by the makers of the movie at a press conference yesterday, particularly those by its director, Shuhaimi Baba, were quite hilarious, in a kind of tragic comedy way, that I just felt they deserve some assessment.
The first was the rather dim assertion by the director that “We are filmmakers, not an organ to produce propaganda”.
Listen, as with most of these ‘artistic creations’, context is all-important.
First, this is NOT a Tom and Jerry cartoon feature that you produced.
Indeed, one report has the director stressing that “the movie is about our history…” Another has her saying, “It is just a movie about two great men. If they are from Umno, that’s just history. If they are also Malay, it is also our history.”
Contentious accounts of the distant past
So, I’m sure it doesn’t require the author of Interlok to tell these ‘filmmakers’ that when you deal with history, you are invariably dealing with different, often contentious, accounts, often of the distant past.
And no matter how much ‘research’ you may conduct, depending on the diversity and veracity of your sources, you are invariably going to come up with a particular account, more so when you have 115 minutes to tell your side of the story in a ‘dramatic’ way.
After all, history be damned, your 115-minute movie would also have to sell, right?
Or else there’d be another RM4.8m more of the taxpayers’ money, courtesy of the funding from those national bodies, Finas and MDec, flushed down the toilet.
So, let’s cut out all this crap about film (historical film?), like other media, being about providing ‘random accounts of random events’.
Fact is, there’s always the element (and process) of selection.
And journalists, broadcasters, even filmmakers like the makers of Tanda Putera would be wise to remember the title of the late, great Howard Zinn’s memoirs, You can’t be neutral on a moving train.
So, enough of all this silly, feigned innocence about “not knowing the implications of my work”.
Even my 11-year old daughter can’t get away with a line like that, let alone an ‘acclaimed’ film director who, indeed, has had some previous experience making ‘historical’ movies – this, after all, is the same director who, in 2007, came up with another ‘historical’ movie, 1957: Hati Malaya (1957: Heart of Malaya), isn’t it?
And when your movie is largely, if not totally, funded by particular state-related agencies, I think you should be just that wee bit circumspect about implying, if not exactly making bold claims of, “independence”, being “historically accurate” and “ideologically untainted”.
Come on, this is Malaysia, for heaven’s sake, a country where ideas of ‘artistic freedom’ and ‘creative licence’ need to be digested together with the less-appetising realities of authoritarian control and the implications of state funding .
All this aside, evidently in order to belittle the many criticisms hurled at the accuracy of Tanda Putera’s depiction of the May 13, 1969 riots, at the same press conference, Shuhaimi stressed that only about 10 minutes of the 115 minutes plus movie were about May 13.
Let me make that more quantitatively impressive for her by stating that ‘only 8.69 percent of the movie deals with the May 13 riots’.
And even then, as Shuhaimi further stresses, this less than 10 percent of the movie merely functions as a ‘backgrounder’ to the bigger story of these two ‘putera’, one of whom coincidentally happens to be the late father of the present PM who, in turn, is facing a general election soon.
It’s not the duration that counts
But, as any student of film, semiotics or semiology, will tell us, it’s not the duration of the segment that counts.
Indeed, a particular film segment may only last for five minutes, yet, again depending on context, on the overall structure of the movie, on the underlying message provided by the segment, those five minutes – or 10 minutes/8.69 percent – of the movie could easily provide the very foundation of the movie.
Like personal memories of a horrific past, May 13, 1969 still resonates quite unhappily and uneasily for many of us who were around at the time.
It certainly needs to be discussed openly and rationally in many arenas and, possibly, may even serve as the backdrop to any romanticised account of our dead ‘leaders’, as asserted by the makers of Tanda Putera.
But, when the date is exploited by the racists in our midst to assert supremacy, to scare us from thinking of a more inclusive alternative future – as it is perennially done come election time, as it is being done now – whatever the protestations of the makers of Tanda Putera, we really need to be vigilant.
At the very least, we need to ask why such a movie was made in the first place.
Zaharom Nain is a media analyst and academic based in Kuala Lumpur.
This commentary first appeared in malaysiakini.com