Putting Humanity First – The Short Films of KKIFF 2017 (part 1)

Leading up to the tenth Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival, Fikri Jermadi takes a look back at some films from the 2017 edition.

This piece has been a long time coming, a Word document sitting quietly on our hard disk. However, given that the next edition of the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival (KKIFF) is just around the corner, it is time that we brush off the digital dust, and pay closer attention to some key films from the previous event in 2017.

In many ways, there is no better place to start that ‘Heaven of Children’ by Masoud Soheili. Certainly out of quite a lot of the films here, this is the title that caught my attention the most, hailing back to Majid Majidi’s ‘Children of Heaven’. That classic Iranian film aside, it is clear that the director has captured much of the same heart of Majidi’s work. We follow a boy (Tetra Abram Tabriz) and a girl (Binar Mutiara Yahya), two street children (it seems) who explores a cinema now abandoned.

An emptiness filled only with memories of the past, this is also where their father used to work as a projectionist. Scrounging around, looking for whatever they could find, they discovered a film print of the aforementioned ‘Children of Heaven’. Unfortunately, as we (and I include myself in this imaginary collective) are enjoying this film, they are kicked out by the security guard (Pak Jamsuki).

The inversion in the film’s title also works on a more emotional level, as, in watching the film, I can’t help but feel excited about such a nostalgic notion of film viewership. The idea of an actual film strip projected unto the big screen seems somewhat romantic. I was not around and conscious enough, in a way, that such an experience forms a big part of my own history (I’d say I became more aware of films and filmmaking in the age of VCDs), so there is more than a tinge of melancholy to this film. That makes the film almost meta, as the film’s ending also refers to that same experience in the cinema.

Moving on, the eponymous character of ‘Si Tommy’ by Kubendera M.S. Mahadevan is actually a dog, owned by a neighbour of Budiman (Mohd Darren). Wondering why Tommy is barking senselessly, he is aided by his father (Zaini Arjuna Hassan). They try to feed the dog, but are promptly stopped by Budiman’s mother (Joana binti Jaya). Much of the scenes above play out in a light-hearted way, dipping its toes in the comedy genre while remaining conscious of its social conditions.

I should also contextualise the above on two different levels. The first is that the story takes place during the month of Ramadhan, where Muslims (such Budiman and his family) are supposed to be fasting from sunrise until sunset. This means that the discussion and interplay with notions of food (either for the self or for others) become a little more sensitive than is the norm. In Malaysia, many restaurants either shut down during the day, or cover their windows and doors, as a way of ‘shielding’ those who are eating inside. That’s not the main focus of the film, of course, but that is the context we should bear in mind.

The other level is more socio-economic, with a hint of religiosity. I first came across this film at the 2016 Pesta Filem KITA, where the director dissected the character of the mother in greater detail. The tudung, for instance, makes her seem every bit your typically pious Muslim mother. She also speaks in English a lot, suggesting a level of education and income that is often seen as more liberal and urban. The conflation of the two need not be contradictory, yet she espouses a mentality (adopting a hardline approach with regards to Tommy, as dogs are generally considered unclean by many Muslims in Malaysia) that would not look out of place if she had just graduated from a pesantren. Kubendera intended to show that acceptance and tolerance of others are not necessarily associated with the level of money we make, or the kinds of degree we have. I agree wholeheartedly.

I am equally enthusiastic about Geraldyn Acibron’s ‘Tubod’. The film starts with a light plucking of the guitar, the sounds of the streaming river water flowing, and a young girl, Elvisa (Mar Grace Balauro), being woken up by the sounds of a cock crowing in the distance. She then gets ready for the day ahead. It turns out to be a day of labour, and we see her toiling in the sun, shielding herself from the heat with only her hands and a head scarf. I can’t imagine her age to be into double figures, so to think of someone probably relatively close to my son’s age already being put to work is… not comfortable.

There is a dramatic twist in the narrative, making it the first of the films we’re looking at here that clearly positions itself both as a real-life documentary and a fictional narrative. Far from jarring with my own sense of the story, it actually made it more effective, hammering home the emotional points of the story. For this, I must applaud Geraldyn’s endeavour in telling the story; the film officially listed three cinematographers in Mark Lifana, Jomar Allan Solania and Geraldyn herself, so I don’t know who to credit for the work in that specific scene, but it was stitched together effectively all the same.

The film’s signifiers appeared to indicate something located within rural Malaysia. My Indonesian students, however, felt that it recalls something a lot closer to their home, before my Filipino student hit the jackpot, proclaiming the film to be of her homeland as it utilises Tagalog. What I love about this example is how the film speaks to those far beyond its borders, highlighting the constructed imaginary that is nationhood in Southeast Asia. At our core is a more universal truth than we realise, masked by ideas of governance not native to our own. That’s probably what we need here, mind you, a wakeup call that is as effective as the cock’s crow in the beginning of the film.

Another country in this context is Myanmar, and it is there that we pay our next visit to via ‘Zero Level’. Directed by Ko Oo, this is a straight-up documentary that captures the day-to-day lives of residents on Kaingthaung Island. It seems like a nice enough community, with lovely people and your friendly neighbourhood children. One problem, though: global warming. Climate change. Whatchamacallit. Whatever it is and whichever side of that divide you fall on, ‘Zero Level’ makes sure that we know it’s more real for others than most. We see rising sea levels gravely affecting those who live by the sea, with water literally getting into people’s houses.

The title refers to the village’s geographical position, being at zero-level elevation. In layman’s terms, this means that it is the same as the sea level, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that rising amounts of water in the world’s great oceans brings greater risks for those whose homes and livelihoods are tied together in this context. Ironically, in the case of ‘Zero Level’, much of the families are sustained by working in fisheries, and earnings appear to make the place more attractive partly because of the sea levels. “At our village, a man earns 2000 to 3000 kyats per day,” said a woman interviewed in the film. “At our village there is work for women and children too. At the other villages, the children and adults have nothing to do.”

Again, contextualised in an education landscape, it links well with the subject of capitalism and its impact on the environment as a whole, visualising for my students just how problematic the issue is. Looking at stuff off the slides, it can be easy to remain disconnected; there’s a smaller chance of that happening when you see seawater snaking around the chair legs in someone’s house, with the television having to be placed on a high shelf so as not to be affected. ‘Zero Level’ was useful in contextualising that discussion on a more human level, at least for my students and I, and I am hoping that it can do the same for others elsewhere.

Speaking of home, ‘The Light of Hope’ by Marjito Iskandar Tri Gunawan brings us to the biggest country in Southeast Asia. Yet, for once, it is a film that does not necessarily train its eyes on the usual suspects of Jakarta and Bandung. Rather, we are brought to Yogyakarta, geographically located in Central Java. We follow the story of Tomi, a disabled ojek (motorcycle taxi) rider. Though he is essentially rendered less able due to his inability to use his legs, he still manages to stand on his own two feet, eking out a living by delivering items and people.

Yet his is a story not without its pitfalls. “I applied for so many jobs, but people just look down on me, and said, ‘What can a cripple like him do’?” he said on screen, maintaining a good expression even in recalling what must have been something incredibly traumatic. What’s intriguing here is that the Indonesian term for disability is difable, amalgamated from differently-abled. Such official terms may well have carried positive connotations from the government, seeking to shift mindsets away from a condescending position, yet Tomi’s story reminds us that the practical, day-to-day reality remains far removed from the intended outcome.

All this have led to him even trying to commit suicide. “It crossed my mind that the only solution is to commit suicide,” he said, detailing attempts of self-poisoning and the search for railway tracks to lie on. Some statistics here are worthy of greater analysis. For instance, the World Health Organisation places ranks Indonesia as eighth amongst all the other ASEAN nations in 2016. While is an achievement in its own right given the size of the country, internally the data remains rather worrying, with Central Java (in which Yogya is the key, even if it is defined separately for political purposes) recording by far the highest rates of suicide. Stereotypically, this is where a lot of the country’s working class originate from (at least on Java), and while Islam is often identified as a buffer against such acts, it is depressing that there remains much to be done in terms of furnishing the best socio-economic solutions for all, for differently-abled persons and otherwise. In that regard, Iskandar’s film is a key contribution to this discussion.

Read parts two and three. The 10th Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival will run from Saturday 7th September 2019 to Saturday 14th September 2019. Click on them for more details.

Featured image credit: River Hills Traveler

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