The View from Below – Rapuh

Adi Iskandar and Ezzah Mahmud attended the screening of Bebbra Charles Mailin’s film at the 2018 SeaShorts Film Festival, and shares their thoughts on the film.

Having been in Penang for a few days now for the SeaShorts Film Festival, it has been a slew of short films that engages with the mind and soul. There’s quite a number of selections that stand out for the right reasons, which we will get to in good time. For now, it suffices to say that one of those that did stand out is Bebbra Charles Mailin’s ‘Fragile’.

The screened itself started at 1.00 pm in the main event hall of the Khazanah National Berhad building. It’s actually part of Screening Borders and Boundaries, which is a programme put together by Dr. Norman Yusoff of Universiti Teknologi MARA, where Bebbra also teaches as a lecturer. He started by delivering a speech about the overall theme of the programme, considering how borders may well be a physical entity in some ways, but there are also metaphorical and figurative aspects to that concept. The question remains as to how dynamic this border can be, and who decides on them to begin with. In a way, the screening location itself is indicative of this; though ostensibly cordoned off as a venue to enjoy films, outside the hall is a coffee kiosk, so you can hear the sound of the barista making coffee as the films are projected.

We started watching the films, a selection which included Sheron Dayoc’s ‘Angan-Angan’ and ‘Azman’ by Sherman Ong, but we must admit that ‘Rapuh’ is the one we feel most engaged with. Also entitled ‘Fragile’ in English, the film follows the daily life of Nirwana. She is a 12 year-old born and bred in Sabah, but what complicates her situation is the status of her immigrant parents, both of whom hail from Indonesia. We see how she interacts with others in her school and her community. Nirwana is also someone with big dreams… of being a singer! In the documentary, we see her preparing for a singing competition, the climax of which serving a similar function for the film as a whole. At the same time, the trials and tribulations of her family are also contoured in this observational piece; they have lived in the country since the tail end of the 1990s, and issues of nationhood and belonging are thus explored expertly by Bebbra.

We say expertly (in direct reference to her skill in putting on screen such portrayals), but the heart of the matter is a more subjective, humanistic approach to storytelling. One key example can be seen in the scene at night, when they were all in bed and ready to sleep. “Why must I lose her this way,” she sang, “Please, God, please don’t do it.” We must admit that there are better singers out there, but her cracking voice (at parts) delivering her soliloquies of the night is suggestive of a bigger picture helplessness, of an unacknowledged people adrift in a place they call home. “There is a prize money,” Nirwana said at one point, her voiceover lingering as we see dishes being washed. “I can share it with the family if I win.” This is the dilemma that the family face as a whole; they could cross the border and return to Indonesia, but doing so means giving up the economic opportunities they deem necessary for a brighter future.

The simple fact of the matter is that this film tackles this bigger-picture socio-economic issue with an adroit sensitivity. Out of all the films we watched in the programme (with the poor exception of ‘Parting’ by Boo Jun Feng, as technical problems derailed its screening), we found ourselves to be most engaged with this. It’s a very human story, and we can’t help but empathise with Nirwana. We may be biased (especially Ezzah), as we do love us a good documentary, but all the same, this is a small film with a big heart worth viewing beyond film festivals in Penang. Dr. Norman did explain that Bebbra’s perspective as a Sabahan filmmaker is invaluable in this regard; without her discovering of such schools for Indonesians in Kota Kinabalu, we may not be as aware.

It’s a good thing that she was, because after the screening, we definitely were.

‘Fragile’ was screened as part of the Screening Borders and Boundaries programme at the 2018 SeaShorts Film Festival in Georgetown, Penang. We also interviewed Bebbra here, while she took part in episodes 19 and 20 of our film podcast.

Featured image credit: Barefeet Theatre

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