Malay films have been produced for almost 80 years, and it can be said that the time has come for Malay films to truly become Malaysian films. The problem, however, lies with the very definition of the term ‘Malaysian film’. In trying to define this, further questions can be raised: what will happen to Malay films? Will Chinese- and Tamil-language films made in Malaysia also need to be defined as Malaysian films? Or is the reverse is true?
These questions have been raised extensively by the new generation of Malaysian filmmakers and filmgoers. This paper will consider the issues at hand, and the complex questions that needs answering when it comes to Malaysian films. It will also give several different viewpoints, with the hope that this can kick start a dialogue and constructive discussion to further understand the shape and image of Malaysian films, for the sake of its own development, as well as the future of national art and film appreciation.
A film made in the Malay language, telling Malay stories, is currently termed as a Malay and Malaysian film. Malay films that raises non-Malay issues are also considered as Malaysian films. Thus, Malay films are naturally and automatically regarded as Malaysian films without requiring any official directive from above. With the transformation of the Federation of Malay States (Malaya) into Malaysia in 1963, Malayan films became Malaysian.
This can be traced back to the active production and reproduction of Malay-based film stories. Between 1933 and 1955, they are mixed together with elements taken from Tamil films (films like ‘Laila Majnun’ and ‘Penarik Beca’ are prime examples). Influences were also forthcoming from Hong Kong and Japan. A lot of these films were made at Studio Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur, between the years of 1962 and 1968. These films are still considered as Malay films, given the elements of its foundation, such as language, culture, and characters, amongst others. The language, especially, is based on the ‘bangsawan’ style, with a structured musical rhythm. It is similar to poetry and ‘syair’ in terms of tempo and style of the dialogue delivery. These are the main features of the early Malay movies in this period.
During the same period, as Malay films flourished, the productions of films in other languages were almost non-existent. The effect, then, becomes the cause: films that weren’t made in the Malay language or did not touch upon Malay issues are not classified, officially or otherwise, as Malay or Malayan/Malaysian national films.
Thus, society’s acceptance towards Malay film as Malaysian films, as stated above, happened spontaneously. This wasn’t a serious cause for concern for the non-Malays, however; they tend to regard films from countries like Hong Kong and India as their own instead. To them, Malaysian films are only for the Malays. Their involvement in the industry is more related to the happenings behind the scenes, usually in the financial side of things. Such a point of view existed since the first Malay film production – the effect of seeing film merely as a product by the producer. And like other products, it is a market-driven industry. The productions, and eventual expansion, were also determined by trade conditions.
Simply put, film is a risky business. It is difficult to be accepted as a form of culture that is important for both the nation and society at large. Because of that, there are many different perceptions about film in this country, because film appreciation leans more towards film as a product and not as a film by itself. Therefore, it is measured, valued and reviewed from a different perspective by the elite (those who constantly portray opinions and thoughts that are shallow, obstructive and destructive, which makes the work of making films that are good for the nation even more difficult).
When an attempt to look at film as film is made, it is often cramped by unreasonable demands. Some parties argue that it corrupts the society, while other say that it can become an educational and propaganda tool, perhaps even a moral police: a direct, straightforward and simple way of spreading a message in a pre-globalisation era. The value of art and aesthetics is looked upon cynically and difficult to be appreciated. The lack of a constructive perspective, then, made things even more difficult, but it is not all doom and gloom.
Until today, with 80 years having passed, there is not one film that is produced for non-economical reasons (with the exception of a few government-backed films produced by Filem Negara Malaysia that can be categorised as public service announcements: formal and apolitical in terms of the filmmaking style). Examples of this can be seen in ‘Gelombang’ (1980), ‘Bila Hati Telah Retak’ (1983) and ‘Cempaka Biru’ (1989). Having discussed trade as a reason as to why film is difficult to be accepted as film, it is fair to say that the history of Malay and Malayan/Malaysian films were created by businessmen.
One interesting aspect that should be considered in all this is how the non-Malays became the backbone and the group that shaped film history in this country. The non-Malays includes those not from the Malay Peninsula, Malaya/Malaysia or Singapore. The Finas Act (1981) directly and indirectly monopolised industrial production, distribution and exhibition of films in Malaysia and Singapore, and their informal film history. Even though the majority of the audience are the Malays, the people running the show were non-Malays. Throughout history, the likes of S.M. Chisty, who made ‘Laila Majnun’ (produced in 1933 by the Motilal Chemical Company), Run Run and Runme Shaw, Ho Ah Loke, Loke Kuan Thoo, Panchacaran Nelliah, Moorothy, V. Nagaraj, David Teoh, and others, are the non-Malays who benefited from producing Malay films.
We should also consider once again the strife between Hamzah Hussein and Asrah during the establishing of Angkatan Sasterawan 50 (ASAS 50, described on their website as “the first literary association in post-war Malaya”) in 1950 in Singapore. Hamzah advocated the philosophy of “art for art” as the main foundation for ASAS 50. This clashed with Asraf’s opinion, who wanted “art for society” to be the main objective instead. Art for society can be defined as art produced as catalysts to improve society’s life, desires and ambitions towards race and nation as well as ensuring that traditional artistic values are emphasised. His vision won out in the end, as ASAS 50 chose “art for society” as its main objective instead. This should be a reminder as to the importance we should place on the trend and views of society towards the films that were produced until now.
Film viewership in Malaysia
The multicultural society that is Malaysia generally only watch “our own films”, in addition to the imported Hollywood and English films. Films not defined as our own are rarely given much attention, apart from those considered to be unique in their style and/or substance. Generally speaking, Malay films would be watched by Malay people, while Chinese and Indian films would be seen only by the Chinese or the Indians. Because of this, a lot of the Chinese and Indian community in Malaysia, especially from the older generation, consider the culture and lifestyle presented on the screen as their own. This doesn’t help with the assimilation process to the local environment and lifestyle, and may become an obstacle to some in efforts to establish the feeling of ‘belonging’ to Malaysia.
Even the effort of the few to release Chinese and Indian films made in Malaysia does not receive a great amount of support, due to the low perceptions held regarding these films. The attraction of Chinese films from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China and films from India are so big that the local Chinese- and Indian-language films are often seen as unworthy.
This compartmentalised the viewership of films in Malaysia, mirroring other such divisions in society, like the separation between vernacular and national-language schools. This situation also mirrors the cultural and language differences amongst the general Malaysian society that can still be problematic, even though the elements and foundations for unity were laid before Malaysia even became independent.
There are also those who feel that because Malaysia is a multi-racial and multi-cultural nation, Malaysian films must not just be about the Malays and should indeed be multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. This view is correct from the perspective that in reality, we do not yet have one single cultural and language that is shared amongst every single Malaysian. Even amongst the Malays, there is no one single language and culture that truly ‘unites’ us. From that aspect, there are still a lot of things that’s up in the air.
The Fifth Generation of Filmmakers
After all, film has often been associated with the society that it represents, sometimes including the society that the maker is not necessarily a part of. In such a repressive, competitive and open situation, film becomes an important asset and tool. It doesn’t just selectively document, disseminate and portray a slice of life, but it also gives a permanent definition from a certain perspective, which will later become ‘history’. Today, nearly all the communities and societies of the world use film to strengthen themselves.
Malaysia’s first generation of filmmakers comes from 1955-1962. The second were prominent from 1963-1970, while the third from 1980-1990. The fourth generation came to the fore in the last decade of last century, while the contemporary fifth generation, from the start of the new millennium, comes from the digital and film schools.
For film to really become responsible towards the society that it represents, however, it must be born from within that society itself. The best societal energy is one that represents its own time. The new generation of Malaysian filmmakers is actually a generation at the crossroads.
The ambitions of ‘the fifth generation’ are so big and different from those contained within the collective of the past. This generation wants film to be everything. They want it to be a mode of expression, a form of intellect, and a perspective that transcends national, societal, religious, cultural and historical barriers. They want to create an identity that is based on the reality of everyday lives, one that is tolerant, free, and true. They hold the responsibility to make films that can compete and appeal universally. If there is no reasonable space and room provided to the young Malaysian filmmakers, not only are their talents wasted, but they could also become a source of difficulty that could hinder the successful development of future Malaysian films.
The new generation of Chinese and Indians who became interested in film explores ideas about Malaysian society through digital films that they make. This shows a new Malaysian generation from the non-Malays working or at least see their own perception and definition in their films. They are the new generation of Malaysians born and bred in Malaysia, trying to find their own space together.
The challenge that they face is the effort to draw society’s attention, one that likes to look outside its own borders for inspiration, and create a sense of belief amongst their own generation. This also includes the Malays who are also making Malaysian films from a new perspective.
In this context, Malaysian films becomes a film by Malaysians and one that looks at Malaysia without considering too much about the language, culture, or race that is portrayed. It doesn’t mean that the characters or mixture of language is without its own justification. It is actually something that reflects the reality of everyday life for them. It contains the heart, dreams, imagination and intellectual sensuality of the modern-day Malaysians. Furthermore, being a Malaysian film doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s multi-lingual. There is no need for aimless, pointless multi-culturalism, without any of the cinematic reasons that shows the great ideas of an artist.
With the arrival of the new generation, even though they started out with digital video, it is an effort worth commending, one that tries to instil in society more confidence in locally-produced works. This development, thus far, has been well-received, because it enriches the intellectual treasure that is the form of visual arts related to the lives of Malaysians.
After all, what can been seen in a film is a ‘consciousness’ – the ‘consciousness’ of the filmmaker, as well as the collective ‘consciousness’ of a civilisation. When we talk about films on a national level, the factors that shape these levels should be given such attention, because these are the factors that decide the flow and content of a nation’s identity. According to Ahmad Murad Merican in “Apakah Filem Memerlukan Falsafah, Pemikiran Dan Pendekatan Kurikulum”, presented on 16th July 2004, amongst the most important are:
- 1. Man power
- 2. Finance
- 3. Audience
- 4. Identity
- 5. Creativity
- 6. Technology
- 7. Linguistic ability
- 8. Visual ability
- 9. History ability
- 10. Scientific literacy
- 11. Film schools/academy
- 12. Historical appreciation
- 13. Political culture
- 14. Fine arts
- 15. The skill of film industry workers
- 16. The expertise of film teachers
- 17. Ideas
- 18. Traces of civilisation
- 19. The culture and strength of writing