Muscle Flexing – Malaysia’s New Censorship Guidelines

Recently, it was announced in the local press that there would be new censorship guidelines coming into effect from today (March 15) with regards to the production of local films in Malaysia. It came on the back of a Film Censorship Guidelines meeting, chaired by the secretary-general of the Home Ministry Datuk Seri Mahmood Adam. These are the quotes attributed to him by The Star Online: “For the first time, scripts can be submitted to the Film Censorship Board before shooting, to be screened for offensive content so that changes can be made accordingly.” For my purposes here, and just for clarity, I will lift further points about these guidelines straight from the press report:

– the board would be fully open to discussion with movie-makers at any stage of the production process.

– certain words on which there was a blanket ban will now be permitted, depending on context and if used in a non-offensive manner. And…err, that’s it. Well, from him, anyway. Datuk Yusof Haslam is reported to have said that he is satisfied with it, claiming that the guidelines would allow for more films to get approval for general viewing, rather than being given more restrictive ratings like PG-13 and 18SG: “When films are categorised for viewing only by those aged above 13 or 18, we end up having a smaller audience.”

Lee Majors got nothing on this Six Million Dollar man.

“It is a good system that allows us to remove any parts rather than having the parts removed at the censorship stage,” said another producer, David Teo. According to him, the guidelines were good because they were clearly laid out, allowing producers and directors to prepare their scripts accordingly.

Now, there are several things to be borne in mind before I start.

I quoted extensively from the article because I do not want to be misquoted. I do, however, think that there is a possibility that reporters themselves misquote or misreport on events (it happens even if you cut and paste from the press releases prepared in a lot of events like these).

I say this, because having gathered some information and research about this issue (though I am yet unable to get a hold of these infamous guidelines) I have to call into question the competency of these reporters and editors to title their articles accurately. ‘New censorship guidelines to allow local movie-makers more flexibility’ is actually a bullshit title in my opinion. As I have understood it, there is no improvement in terms of flexibility whatsoever. In fact, there’s nothing actually mentioned about flexibility. What is there is a sense of clarity, as well as an increased involvement by the ministry in the filmmaking process at an even earlier stage.

I have to admit, though, that such clarity is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are making a film for commercial purposes (meaning that the main aim of making the film is an attempt to make even more money), then it is a positive move. You do want as many people as possible to watch your movies; having the criteria for a PG-13 or a U rating clarified is a decent step forward. The people I quoted above, David Teo and Yusof Haslam, are filmmakers who do precisely that: make films with a strong commercial purpose in mind. It is also something that they do well. Based on their track record, they seem to have a deep understanding of the Malaysian cinema-going audience.

Obviously, it costs more money than this to make a film…

Datuk Yusof Haslam, however, hits the next point perfectly: “I am also happy there is a chance now for us to submit our scripts to the board so that any parts considered offensive can be changed before shooting begins,” he said. It fits in well with his motive, but what about the rest? A lot of filmmakers do not make films purely for the purpose of making money.

In fact, making money out of filmmaking is almost literally a hit-and-miss affair. A lot of people are perhaps more interested in making films to tell stories that won’t necessarily be commercial in nature. It is these people upon whom the new rules won’t seem to be friendly (or flexible) at all. As a filmmaker, I do not personally see the vetting of my script as a way of improving flexibility. On the contrary, I see it as a way of further imposition by outside parties.

The thing with scripts is that as more and more people read it, the number of cooks in the kitchen increases. This could be an advantage, depending on how you handle the feedback. My experiences of this has been largely positive, given the people I do show my scripts to are all interested in trying to help me further sharpen my vision or ideas. They all know what I want (to tell a story about my brother), and they are interested in making it better so that the character will have more weight (reduce the dialogue, don’t make him too angry), and the lines will have more punch, and the situations will be more sensible and logical. Their intentions, I believe, are sincere and genuine.

I guess that means a Hishamuddin biopic is out of the question, then.

However, if another party comes in with another intention, it is a totally different story altogether. “To be screened for offensive content so that changes can be made accordingly” does not seem like an attempt to further character development, but one that is tailored to ensure that it doesn’t touch upon the personal and political sensitivities of others. There is just so much that is wrong with this statement that it seems…unseemly.

There is, of course, a matter of pushing the envelope too far (no cartoons about the prophet Muhammad S.A.W., please), but by and large, film has a potential role of mirroring society, warts and all. To say that we should only make films that everyone is happy with is an anomaly: not everyone can be perfectly happy about how a movie turns out, not even the filmmakers themselves. Each person has their own taste, and thus, “screening for offensive content” is something to be abhorred.

To some, the late Yasmin Ahmad’s ‘Muallaf’ would probably have never seen the light of day, if they had their way. Yet it is largely considered to be one of her more powerful works. ‘Budak Kelantan’ had simulated rape scenes in it, yet it is generally regarded as a quality film because of the vividness of its story. Back then, I described it as a very strong film, “one that deserves to be described not just as a very good Malay/Malaysian film, but as a very good film worth watching.” Under the new regulations, it might not have even seen the light of day (though with the poor box office returns, some might say it never did see the light of day).

Even the director of such commercial films are not all that happy. Ahmad Idham (director of the mega hit ‘Jangan Pandang Belakang’), said, “It took us filmmakers years to be in sync with the current guidelines to finally produce movies that can interest the public, while also complying with the censorship guidelines.

“I fear that the new guidelines will make filmmakers more confused and, as a consequence, will stifle our creativity,” he continued. “It will also take a while for us to adapt to the changes. Honestly, I am just content with the current guidelines.”

“No, we should take out the Anwar essence, replace it with some Najib sauce.”

Malaysian Film Producers Association president Ahmad Puad Onah feels the same way. Though he generally praised the amendments, he worries about the “verbal and oral instructions given.” “The minister still can cut out scenes if these are ‘deemed’ sensitive in relation to current issues, even though these comply with the guidelines.”

Ultimately, merely portraying such perceived social ills (presumably the main target of these changes) is not necessarily a bad thing. I feel that what we need is more honesty and sincerity from all of our filmmakers. Take the case of ‘V3: Samseng Jalanan’, for example. It is a film that touches upon the issue of mat rempit. There has been a number of films made about this, and I suppose one could argue that we don’t really need another mat rempit film. Having said that, I’d argue that there’s plenty of space for everyone with their story. In this case, it still is a very topical issue with little end in sight.

Its director Farid Kamil himself is a firm advocate for mat rempits, having experienced that lifestyle before. “Many have stigmatised them,” he said. “Sadly, we overlook the root of their problems. We have to understand why they opt to race in this manner.” Filmmaking is his an attempt to look for a solution; the director went so far as to create outlets for illegal racers to stop illegal racing. “Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) has a race track and it agreed to provide a place for these racers. Those who attended the event took an oath against illegal racing.”

Not that that helped the case of ‘V3’; the ministry ‘strongly encouraged’ the filmmakers to change the title from its original title, ‘Rempit V3’ (which no doubt cost some extra money to reprint the film posters). It even took the extra step and discouraged the filmmakers from making another film on mat rempits, for fear of glorifying them. Like I said, though it has been done before, it remains an issue that is current and topical, and artists from across the spectrum should be able to freely approach the subject.

In conclusion, I have to say that at the very least, perceived clarity is welcome, not just to adhere to but also to push against. After all, if you want to get around the system, you have to know what you’re dealing with. Having said that, it doesn’t really fill me with much confidence that the Malaysian film industry is one that will open up sufficiently to a more liberal, a more open stance.

I would also like to know more about who it’s applicable to: do they apply to the films to be screened in cinemas only, or does it go beyond that? Is it Malaysian productions in general, or just the Malay-languaged films? For all of his film acumen, I don’t agree with David Teo’s comment in a separate interview: “What else should be the medium for a Malaysian production other than Bahasa Malaysia, the national language?”

Does this mean that Ho Yuhang’s ‘At The End Of Daybreak’ be exempt from such vetting? And who will conduct them? Will the vetting be done by film professionals, by experienced veterans, or by bored administrators attempting to flex some muscle? Will the minister and/or the ministry personally read each and every script? Will they merely look at the title, skim through, and make their final judgments? What if someone decided to go all Wong Kar-wai on us, and make a film without a script? I’d certainly be tempted to do that…

Improved accessibility to bikes had unintended results.

Far more importantly, what are the consequence of not availing ourselves to the services purported to be on offer by the ministry? What if we choose not to submit our scripts to them early on? What if we have an idea that manifested itself during the production, rather than at the scripting stage? These are the kind of things that can’t always be predicted, and are therefore difficult to regulate against.

In a way, though, the title may well be right. The new regulations does give more flexibility. It’s just not going to be us the filmmakers, but the ministry who would be able flex their muscles a bit more.

Ah, but for the pleasure of being able to dissect the rules and regulations themselves…

For good measure…does this movie make you feel like taking up rempiting?

Fikri is not happy he couldn’t get his hair cut. Below is a copy of the aforementioned article from The Star. It’s copied here for posterity, because they’ve a nasty habit of removing their articles after they’ve been uploaded online.

Tuesday March 9, 2010
New censorship guidelines to allow local movie-makers more flexibility

PUTRAJAYA: New censorship guidelines that come into effect from March 15 will allow local movie-makers more flexibility.

“For the first time, scripts can be submitted to the Film Censorship Board before shooting, to be screened for offensive content so that changes can be made accordingly,” said Home Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Mahmood Adam.

He added that the board would also be open to discussion with movie-makers at any stage of the production process.

The new guidelines, the first in 17 years, have been thoroughly discussed and agreed to by all industry players, Mahmood said after chairing the Film Censorship Guidelines meeting here yesterday.

Productive meeting: Mahmood shaking hands with filmmakers at the meeting in Putrajaya Monday.

Certain words on which there was a blanket ban will now be permitted, depending on context and if used in a non-offensive manner, he added.

He said some of the items added to the guidelines had actually come from industry players, while others were made to take into account current trends and lifestyles that might conflict with the norms in Malaysia.

“There are certain changes some representatives have asked for in the draft guidelines but these are mainly on the terms used and the spelling, so it will not be difficult to iron all of them out by the end of the week,” he said.

Mahmood said he was also happy that the changes were well received by representatives from the industry.

Meanwhile, local movie producer and director Datuk Yusof Haslam said the new guidelines would allow more films to get approval for general viewing, rather than being given the PG-13, 18SG, 18SX, 18PA and 18PL ratings.

“When films are categorised for viewing only by those aged above 13 or 18, we end up having a smaller audience.

“This means less revenue and as producers or directors, we would like to avoid this.

“I am also happy there is a chance now for us to submit our scripts to the board so that any parts considered offensive can be changed before shooting begins,” he said.

Another producer and director David Teo said the guidelines were good because they were clearly laid out, allowing producers and directors to prepare their scripts accordingly.

“It is a good system that allows us to remove any parts rather than having the parts removed at the censorship stage,” he said.

Current movie ratings

> U – General viewing for all ages.

> PG-13 – Parental guidance suggested for children under 13.

> 18SG/SX/PA/PL – Accompanying adult required for those under 18. These are for movies with elements of violence, gore or horror/terror; sexual content and dialogue, and nudity; religious, social or political elements; and with all elements mentioned earlier.

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