A. Samad Said vs Hollywood

“No, I don’t watch local movies,” said the interviewee. She was being interviewed by Marzuki, the roving ntv7 reporter, who interviewed people on the streets. “I don’t think that they’re very good.”

Her comments sparked a fire in me, and I waved in exasperation to the studio presenter, who was surprised by my reactions, but pleasantly so. Of course, the people at home couldn’t see all this happening; they’re being fed the live feed from Pavillion.

Soon enough, my chance came.

“Thanks, Marzuki,” she beamed into the camera. “Now we have a very animated Fikri, who has been waving his arms, ready to jump in and defend the Malaysian film industry! Alright Fikri, take it away.”

Here’s my chance, to talk about a particular pet subject of mine. And the first thought that came through my mind, as I looked at the red light atop the studio camera was…might I freeze?

Freeze, my ass.

“It’s not so much defending the local film industry,” I started, “although there are elements of that. What I personally take issue with is the fact that…there is this discontent with anything that is tagged as ‘local’. Anything that is made in Malaysia, certainly when it comes to films, music, and what not, is automatically thought of as inferior. This applies to other sections of society as well, but let’s stick with films for now.”

“Let’s consider when people usually go to the cinemas at the weekends,” I continued. My father would later tell me that my hands were animated themselves, the chops and side movements taking on a life of its own. “When people go to watch movies, their biggest concern will be ‘Should I watch ‘AvP 2’, or ‘I Am Legend?’ A lot of people that I know won’t even entertain the thought of watching a local Malaysian film.”

“I don’t actually have an issue with this. After all, a lot of the times, a local movie directly means a Malay movie, told in the Malay language, set in Malay settings, and what not. Many people I know are not keen on this. That’s a whole other issue in itself, but in this context, it’s perfectly fine. And it’s not exactly as if the majority of local movies that I’ve seen have covered itself in glory, either. Some of the ones that I’ve watched are absolutely poor, poor films.” At this point, the presenter’s fixed smile widened a bit more.

I smiled back and continued. “Furthermore, if you can get the best of Hollywood’s special effects and explosions for the same price, then why not go for that one, right? Get more of your money’s worth.”

“What I do have an issue with, however,” getting to the point of this whole stance, “is the fact that people judge local films inadequately. When I say judge, I mean conclude, almost immediately, that the film is terrible, that it’s not worth watching, that it’s going to be a waste of time and money. When I say inadequately, for the large part, I mean that the judgement is due to the fact that it is local, and nothing else. Many people won’t bother reading the synopsis, look at who’s in the film, or who’s directing it. The minute they understand the writing on the poster to be of the Malay language, they tune it out.”

“If it’s not your cup of tea, it’s fine. Like I said, a lot of my friends are not that well-versed in the national language. So that’s fine. But if you come out, guns blazing, and said that it’s crap, and say that it’s crap because it’s a local movie, then I have a big issue with that. Quite frankly, its akin to discrimination, and the simplification of things. You might as well say that I’m lazy, because I am Malay. Or I could just as well say that you’re Chinese, so you must be rich.”

“I mean, judging a movie before its seen, before it has served its purpose in this world, is absolutely ridiculous. It’s like the Pope condemning, and by default, leading most of the Catholics, at least, in the world, to condemn ‘The Golden Compass’ and boycott it, without even watching it, is a pathetic notion. If they think it’s a piece of propaganda crap, then it’s a judgement that should be arrived at after watching the movie.”

“When ‘The Last Communist’, the film by Amir Muhammad, was banned, there were widespread condemnation on the government, saying that the reasons given was weak. I see that condemnation almost every week, with the same weak reasons. Once again, I can understand the reasonings, but I don’t agree with it.”

“But you have to agree, at least,” started the presenter, who had been a bystander over the past two minute tirade, “that there’s not a lot of Malaysian movies out there that has inspired the excitement, or the quality needed to get people to watch it.”

“I do agree with that,” I said, still in my debater mode. “Like I have said, there are a lot of Malaysian movies that are just rubbish. If I can get my money back for ‘Cinta Yang Satu’, I will. That movie was a complete waste of my time, a TV drama masquerading as a cinematic feature.”

“But there is hope. I believe that for two reasons. One, there is quality out there. Even in the last year, ‘Mukhsin’ is very well made. ‘Zombi Kampung Pisang’ was hilarious. Stupid, but in a good way. ‘Dancing Bells’ and ‘Flower in the Pocket’ were international hits at their respective film festivals. I haven’t seen ‘Anak Halal’ yet, but I’ve heard only good things of it. ‘Puaka Tebing Biru’ is about as unconventional as a horror movie could be. And so on. The quality is already here, but unfortunately, it’s being shut out by a lot of the movie-going crowd.”

“The other reason is that the type of movies that is made, a lot of the times, are not interesting enough. Out of over twenty films released last year, three quarters of that are horror films and comedy. I believe that we should be braver in terms of the films that is being made, that is being financed. Variety, after all, is the spice of life, and the same goes for the movies.”

“What kind of movies would you make?”

“Malaysian movies,” I said without hesitation. “I want to focus more on events that has happened, is happening, and will happen. There’s a lot of indie fare that gives us slices of Malaysian life, but I think that there’s not enough movies that looks at events that has already happened in Malaysia. Off the top of my head, only ‘Budak Lapok’ looks at that, and that’s a cartoon about P. Ramlee and his friends.”

“We have such a wide and varied history and culture that’s somehow not translated onto the big screen. Let’s not even look at controversial issues like May 13 or the recent rallies. Why not a movie about Tunku Abdul Rahman? Or Tun Mahathir? P. Ramlee is about as iconic as any Malaysian figure could be, and yet what do we have on him? It’s only recently that a musical was made about his life. Beyond that, I don’t recall anything else.”

“Look at the subjects of American movies. They, as much as anyone else, turn to their own culture and history and literature. The Oscar nominees, lets say. ‘There Will Be Blood’? Based on a book. ‘No Country For Old Men’? Based on a book. ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘I Am Not There’? Based on historical figures. Even the blockbusters: ‘I Am Legend’, a remake of a film based on a book. ‘Lord of the Rings’? ‘Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Harry Potter’, even? Based on books.”

“Then look at us. How many films are based on books? We proudly and rightly proclaim A Samad Said as a sasterawan negara. How many times have his book, Adik Datang, been made into a film? If the Americans have Tunku Abdul Rahman as their own historical figure, they would have made at least two movies about him, no doubt about it. Right now, we don’t have enough of these sort of movies. Correct this,” I paused, “and we’ll get better.”

There was a short moment of silence, as we (and the Information Minister, as it turned out, who was watching at home) digested what I had just said.

Then the presenter looked back at the camera, and smiled. “We’ll be right back, after the break.”

*Previously posted on Fikri’s blog, Thoughts of Wisdom, entitled ‘A Local Cover’, documenting a portion of my interview on NTV7’s ‘Perspective’ on New Year’s Day. I have to note: some creative license. I couldn’t recall the exact exchange, and I added a few more examples here to hammer home my point further (I thought of it, but didn’t have the guts to say the Chinese and Malay thing on national TV). But beyond this, the gist is about as true as it gets.

Of course, it’s always easier said than done…

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5 thoughts on “A. Samad Said vs Hollywood

  1. Great perspective. It’s to that of black films in America (as well as other minorities). Sometimes people easily write those type of indie movies off because like you said, some of them can be poorly made but there are good ones, great ones even! I’m curious, what are the top 10 Malaysian films you would recommend to a foreign? Also, who are some of the emerging Malay filmmakers to watch out for?

  2. Top ten films I could recommend to a foreigner? Hmm…I will need to sit down and work that one out. There are, of course, plenty, but many of it depends on your own personal tastes, as well as how you can watch the films, of course… 🙂

  3. I do wish I was there myself being interviewed by NTV7 but I could’ve said pretty much the same thing. But then, I would’ve froze my nerves out.

    Love this piece!

  4. Being interviewed as a voxpop, or on the couch? 🙂 It wasn’t all that easy, as it turns out, but thank God it’s in English, at least.

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