“Did you know that in Malaysia, filmmaking is parked under the communications ministry?” said filmmaker Badrul Hisham Ismail.
“They see it as communications. They don’t even consider it an art form.”
Filmmaking arrived in Malaysia in the form of the Malayan Film Unit – later Filem Negara – which functioned as a propaganda tool of the state, showing its exploits against the communist insurgencies from the pre-independence days, and later providing newsreels of the government’s development and nation building efforts.
That was more than half a century ago, but it remained the same until today despite the landscape of filmmaking has evolved and grown so much that a Malaysian – Michelle Yeoh – has an Oscar with her name on it, along with several career-defining accolades to go along with it.
Badrul’s comment came from talking about his movie, Maryam Pagi Ke Malam, which is currently making rounds in the festival circuits in Europe. With a star-studded cast of Sofia Jane, as the titular character, along with Vanida Imran and Susan Lankester, the film is up there with Nik Amir Mustapha’s overnight sensation Imaginur as one of the most talked about Malaysian films of the year.
The difference is, while Imaginur is still being screened today, seven weeks after its release, and cashing in almost RM 7 million at the box office, next to no one has seen Maryam Pagi Ke Malam, and most people are likely not going to see it.
While Imaginur is science fiction, touching on the topic of our “funky” human memory, Maryam – the truncated name of the movie for an international audience – is a social commentary about the titular character as she struggles for her own happiness in deciding to marry the love of her life, and the other men and the institutions behind them that are getting in her way.
A touchy subject matter, obviously, for Malaysia’s film industry which has long been beset by politics, censorship, restrictions, and rampant fear of “offending sensitivities”.
“The chances of it being screened in Malaysia is zero,” Badrul said.
“But I’m surprised that it is getting a lot of traction in Europe.”
In the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the organisers had to find a bigger hall to screen Maryam after more than 5,000 people wanted to see it.
“I’m not sure where they even heard about the movie,” he said, saying they barely had enough money to finish the movie, with next to nothing left to promote it.
Far from surprising, the successes of Imaginur, Maryam, and most recently Tiger Stripes which became the fourth Malaysian feature film – and first directed by a woman, Amanda Nell U – to be premiered in Cannes continues the trend that proves that there is a place and audience for Malaysian-made Malaysian stories in the world stage.
In her recent homecoming to Kuala Lumpur, Michelle Yeoh herself echoed this sentiment, saying that there are many talented filmmakers here that deserve recognition and a platform to take their craft onto the global stage.
“A lot of the times we box ourselves in a comfort zone where we say let’s just deal with our own market. When you make a movie, it should be global,” Yeoh said.
It is a winning formula, and she should know it. Yeoh herself attributed her Hollywood game-changing global worldview to her experience growing up in multiracial Malaysia.
“That has fundamentally made me such an international, global person,” she affirmed.
It’s not just her. Along her side, we have director James Wan. On American television and around the world, Ronny Chieng is a familiar name. Outside of the celluloid reels, our singers are making their songs heard internationally with big names like Yuna, Zee Avi, Shila Amzah, and Fish Leong.
“RM 20 million in filmmaking grants ended up being used to renovate homes and fund luxury vacations by people who were entrusted to use it to create art.”
Even our comedians are stepping up and touring international stages after getting their specials on Netflix.
Despite the lack of support, despite the lack of funds, and despite the heavy hand of the censors, Malaysians are out there, making art.
The fact that many of them found success abroad shows that there is nothing inherently wrong in the Malaysian person that could hinder them from success. What it proves is that the fault lies in the institution here that should have done better.
In the news recently, RM 20 million in filmmaking grants ended up being used to renovate homes and fund luxury vacations by people who were entrusted to use it to create art. Flip a few more pages and there’s a story about how we sunk RM 748 million into a film studio that ended up being a failure.
Still, people are making art. Susan Lankester, a contemporary of Michelle Yeoh, is also not content to settle. Instead, she is pursuing to direct her first-ever film this year, despite knowing the hurdles that lie in front of her. She wants to make art.
We have all the proof we need that there is a burning desire to do great things in the Malaysian film industry. We have enough proof to show us that there is a path for many who have walked it and is shining a bright light on it for others to follow.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” Timo Cruz said in the highly regarded 2005 movie Coach Carter.
“Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frighten us. Your playing small does not serve the world.
“And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
We already have everything we need.