A Pie In The Sky? – Assessing Malaysia’s Oscars Chances

Fikri Jermadi takes a closer look and considers the factors affecting Malaysia’s chances for the Academy Awards.

With the conclusion of the Academy Awards not too long ago, there remained plenty left over for many to discuss. Some were still upset about the omissions of films such as ‘Selma’ and ‘The Lego Movie’ from specific categories, while the surprise box office success of ‘American Sniper’ surprised even more people that it wasn’t majorly awarded at all.

Not to be left out are we the people that are Malaysians. The director-general of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional Malaysia, or FINAS), Dato’ Kamil Othman, stepped up in an interview with Astro Awani and mentioned how an Oscar-worthy film is the target for the next few years. It seemed like the opportune thing to say at the right moment, though it did provoke a lot of scepticism for many.

"Get off my front porch, you bloody kids!"

It has to be understood that being submitted and being nominated are two different things. In that regard we’ve been here before. Slightly over a decade ago, ‘Puteri Gunung Ledang’ was submitted as the country’s official entry for the Academy Awards. Though it didn’t make the cut, that big budget visual spectacle was a clear upgrade on many other films produced in Malaysia. Of a lower budget but with just as much quality is ‘Bunohan’, whose submission in 2012 caused some excitement.

Mentioning the Oscars will always do that. It raises the bar more than just a bit, and perhaps not attaining a nomination may well be seen as a failure. However, if this does lead to serious efforts by many parties, it should not be deemed as such; going beyond such awards shows, A-list film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Busan and Venice, amongst others, are worthwhile targets. The more hipster-inclined might prefer to pack their bags to South by South West (SXSW) and Sundance.

Recently, films like Edmund Yeo’s ‘River of Exploding Durians’ and ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ by Liew Seng Tat did exactly that and more, competing and winning awards in their own right. This should be a part of the vision, for Malaysian films to consistently screen in competition (like ‘River’) as well as an official selection (like ‘Terbaik Dari Langit’). In this regard, we are far behind our regional comrades Thailand and the Phillipines, amongst others. That, however, is a slightly different can of worm.

film-cuttingThe can I have opened here says that while this whole Oscars thing is a complex interplay of different factors, FINAS is not really the biggest issue. Rather, I believe that the Film Censorship Board (Lembaga Penapisan Filem, or LPF) is the biggest of the elephants in the room.

Tasked under the Ministry of Home Affairs, it is supposed to filter films for contents deemed unsafe for public consumption in Malaysia. Essentially, it is an ideology-shaping tool, with a wider reach compared to FINAS, transcending production stages and even generational timelines (the films that do get made historicises certain moments in history).

In an interview with Film Business Asia, Rafidah Abdullah, who wrote ‘Istanbul Aku Datang’, said that LPF “shift the goalposts all the time,” greenlighting one thing before changing their minds later. The producer of ‘Nasi Lemak 2.0’, Fred Chong, noted some of the issues his latest film, ‘Banglasia’, faced: “Because one character had a ‘Save Malaysia’ slogan on his t-shirt, they said we were suggesting that Malaysia needs saving.”

This is not an isolated incident, but merely the latest in a long line of ‘tak bolehs’. They have their reasons, but the fact remains that we can’t deal with the writing on the wall if we can’t deal with those on our t-shirts. What does the writing on the wall say? It may well say this: an Oscar nomination is not the unrealistic, impossible pie in the sky many may think it to be.

This assumes that the categories aimed for is the foreign language category. From the outside, many nominated films appear to be selected not because of their dazzling pyrotechnic or high tech aesthetic values. Rather, they have a real heart and soul that is irresistable. “They have a passion to make such films,” said Kamil Othman in that same interview. “They do as if it is their life’s achievement, like they want to achieve something solid and complete.”

ida6_7094932I think of films like this year’s winner ‘Ida’, whose lo-fi approach did not hinder the Polish director from pushing and subsequently posting the envelope, reappraising segments of their history. I also think of ‘Tangerines’, a film set in a time of real conflict and hardship; Georgia is a sizeable territory, but half the time that film had little more than four characters in a single house.

Neither do we have to look too far beyond our own borders. Thailand’s ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ won the Palm d’Or award at Cannes in 2010. More recently, Anthony Chen’s ‘Ilo Ilo’ gained much street cred for Singapore with its success in international festivals. Completing the set of ‘films strangely titled after Philippine cities but not officially made by the country’ is ‘Metro Manila’, Britain’s submission for the Oscars in 2013. It wasn’t nominated, but you know what was? ‘The Missing Picture’, a Cambodian film that told a vivid story of their painful past…using clay figurines.

Again, others factors should be considered (‘The Missing Picture’, for example, is also a French co-production), but the above illustrates how ideas and stories are what drives these films. In that regard, we have talented filmmakers and storytellers who can tell interesting stories well. In addition to the likes of Seng Tat and Edmund, who are probably such festival veterans they might have a rolling suitcase ready to go at any time, Woo Ming Jin should drop the whole MJ Woo moniker and do what he does best, more ‘Second Lives of Thieves’ instead of ‘KL Zombi’, while Yeo Joon Han shouldn’t have to wait for half a decade after the brilliant ‘Sell Out!’ to make his next feature film.

Guang-Feature-Film-FLength-SS4What of the new generation transitioning to feature films? We Jun Cho’s latest effort, ‘Salvaj’ , is an astounding piece of work, while Diffan Norman actually did get into Sundance with his short film ‘Kekasih’. Quek Shio Chuan is probably tired of making Petronas adverts as we speak, and a feature film adaptation of his award-winning short film ‘Guang’ is underway.

The same goes for Nadiah Hamzah, whose treatment for ‘Jupiter’ I read and commented on many moons ago, but beyond a trailer to drum up financial support, little else have seen the light of day. In short, the actual stories and talent base required to tell them exists and does not have to be developed from zero. Will all these filmmakers be nominated for the Academy Awards if given the chance? Probably not. However, I believe widening the storytelling canvas for them to share their visions would allow for their stories and talents to grow. This is where LPF comes in.

Piles of cash, amongst others things, can help (in this regard we will have to wait and see what FINAS has up their sleeve), but a loosening of the ideological leash intent on keeping power for power’s sake, if not the cutting of this constrictive umbilical cord altogether, would make for an even bigger step forward. At the very least, a restructuring of LPF and/or its processes to ensure a greater consistency of what is and is not allowed can be constructive.

I don’t know whether this will actually happen. I do know, though, that the efforts of many, including FINAS, will be rendered all the more difficult without any changes in and by LPF. After all, by knowing what is not allowed, we know how confidently to push the envelope. I think we can only present the very best of us once we are actually allowed to look at ourselves, warts and all.

Only then could we truly chart the path to that golden pie in the sky people care about so much.

Fikri thinks an alternative to all of this is to make a movie out of actual Lego bricks. He previously wrote about film censorship in Malaysia here.

Featured image credit: Hero Complex / LA Times

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