It would be a shame if the film industry is constrained to produce mere cardboard characters in a movie who are totally out of tune with the goings-on in society, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
The recent announcement by Malaysia’s Film Censorship Board about the tightening of its screws on local films made for television broadcast came as no surprise given the present political, financial and social controversies — particularly the much-talked about 1Malaysia Development Berhad — that have besieged the country’s political leadership.
It is, however, regretful and worrying as such stricter censorship has wide repercussions on freedom of expression, artistic creativity, directorial independence and the future of Malaysia’s creative industries as a whole.
Like the press, film cannot and should not be curbed in its important role as a (creative) medium of communication to relay messages and images that are fictional as well as documentary in nature.
This is especially so when such films are aired via television that has become a popular medium among Malaysians over the years.
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Further restrictions on the local film world would not only kill creativity and imagination among the industry’s professionals, but also dampen any attempt at raising the bar in the industry.
This, of course, goes against our political leaders’ penchant for pronouncing all things global class about Malaysia.
Creativity, to be sure, demands an environment that is as far as possible free of political and economic interference and constraints. Ideas must be allowed to flow freely if we are serious about improving the quality of local films and television content.
What is also important is that film, as a creative art form, should not divorce itself from social reality, no matter how “harsh” the reality can be, especially when some things are best said on celluloid. It may reflect social reality through symbolism and even parody.
Many great and world-acclaimed movies address social issues of the day. The movie The Colour Purple, for instance, revolves around the pressing issues of racism and sexism in the United States. The blot in American society is put under the microscope not necessarily to smudge the image of the country, but to examine critically these social problems.
Similarly, the film Mandela: The Long Walk traces the challenging life of Nelson Mandela as activist, prisoner and eventually president of South Africa – after going through immense hurdles of racial discrimination, political oppression etc. This filmic interrogation may have embarrassed the previous apartheid government; but it brings forth the attendant issues to the fore for all to see and understand.
Far from the country being smudged, this movie is a courageous endeavour to examine South African history and its problems upfront.
While the Mandela movie might have shamed the apartheid government, the country as a whole was not affected negatively. Incidentally, this is the overriding concern of the Malaysian film censorship board when it drew up this new censorship guideline, which is the result of the inability or refusal to acknowledge the vital distinction between state and country.
These are examples of films that painstakingly handle significant social and political issues for not only entertainment but also the political awareness of the audience.
Whether Malaysia’s censorship board likes it or not, this world is patently imperfect and as a result, conscientious artistes, script writers and film directors do take it upon themselves to play a serious role of addressing this very world, warts and all. Censorship of issues of class conflict, abuse of power, human greed, ethnic discrimination, wife abuse, and drug addiction would practically force these creative people to bury their heads in the sand.
To be sure, even the prophets of yore trained their eyes on such grave issues as social injustice, corruption, discrimination, poverty and human greed. Taking a leaf from the book of these religious figures would do the censors good.
One can’t imagine that these additional filmic constraints would be able to give birth to creative and imaginative artistes such as our very own cultural icon P Ramlee, whose parody and social commentary littered his films. Under the present censorship regime, he would not have been able to delve into or lampoon such issues as Malay poverty, aristocratic excesses and arrogance, class conflict and feudalism.
P Ramlee’s production of Antara Dua Darjat (Between Two Classes), for example, explores the conflict a couple from different social backgrounds face. This scenario still exists till this day, which is why many of his movies are perceived to be realistic and evergreen.
As a film professional and human being, you can’t whitewash the fact that, for instance, certain universities in the country would metaphorically use the sledgehammer to bludgeon a group of students who publicly expressed their dismay over a water shortage on campus or student leaders who invited opposition politicians for an intellectual discourse in their university.
Neither can you ignore the fact that there are religious leaders who would look the other way when confronted with such issues as blatant abuse of political power, endemic corruption and political oppression, all of which run counter to their religious tenets.
You also cannot overlook the fact that there is religious extremism: there are those who would impose their values – or sarongs – on others in, say, government departments.
This new ruling of the censorship board smacks of a short-term measure that unfortunately has long-term implications on the creative industries. Political expediency of the powers that be should not sacrifice the creative impulses of young and dynamic artistes who are eager to experiment with their filmic skills.
It would be a shame to the film industry if it is constrained by the authorities to produce mere cardboard characters in a movie that is totally out of tune with the goings-on in society. Surely, a storyline that does not take into consideration issues of say, poverty, ethnic discrimination, inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions, political oppression, transgressions of human rights, and cultural minorities would not make Malaysia a perfect place on this planet.
In the meantime, Malaysians will have to contend with the fact that in an imperfect world, there still exists a film censorship board whose raison d’être is to promote and protect the public image of the political leadership and sitting government no matter what.