Concluding his discourse on Imran Sheik’s film, Hassan Muthalib thinks aloud on the road ahead for Malaysian filmmakers.
Concerns of Malaysian Filmmakers
Many Malaysian filmmakers have shown their concern over the last three decades of how national politics was rife with corruption, misuse of power and misuse of the media, with displays of double standards in the laws of the country. Human rights had deteriorated, there was a lack of unity among the various races in the country, racist attitudes had become rampant, and certain Malay Muslims were behaving like gangsters, intimidating the Opposition party and minorities without being remonstrated.
In ‘Sell Out!’, Yeo Joon Han lamented at how the non-Malays were being sidelined from the mainstream. Mamat Khalid’s ‘Estet’ is a parody where he makes fun of the National Day celebrations, which is shown to be the only time when national unity is paraded to the nation. Whither real unity? In ‘Jalan Pintas’, Nam Ron showed his anger at successful Malays who were not helping those who were struggling.
‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ saw Liew Seng Tat calling for the citizens to work together for the nation, instead of being at loggerheads with each other. In 2017, Chiu Keng Guan used a national football match in ‘Ola Bola’ as a call to Malaysians to remember past times when they were truly united. Namewee did something similar with ‘Nasi Lemak 2.0’, imploring the various races to learn from each other’s cultures so as to develop a better understanding between them.
‘Crossroads: One Two Jaga’, for the first time, tackled police corruption and bribe-taking, but for the idealistic policeman in the story, things do not go well. A well-paid senior police officer is found to be corrupt. When will he be satisfied with the money he is getting? How much more is enough? That is the reality of the post-modern world. M. Prakash’s ‘Suatu Ketika’, like ‘Ola Bola’ and ‘Estet’, uses a football game for Malaysians to come together for national unity.
However, it is in Mamat Khalid’s parodies (in particular, the tetralogy of ‘Rock!’ films) that Mamat clearly takes a stand in support of young rockers who have become victims of managers, promoters and politicians. The youths in the 1980s and 90s were innocents, influenced by their times through the promotions of Western rock groups by the media. Many of them became decrepit and were unable to survive because their means of livelihood (rock songs, appearances on television and concerts, etc.) had been taken away, as they were being deemed a ‘bad influence’.
These were young people who were not criminals. However, certain political figures whose hands were dirty with corruption, condemned them publicly, and even equated them with Satan. Of course, the media went to town with that. Director Paul Thomas Anderson says at the beginning of his film, ‘Magnolia’, that one may be through with the past but the past is not necessarily through with you. Three decades later, one of the politicians became infamous for the biggest kleptocratic scandal in world history. Poetic justice indeed!
Imran Sheik himself is a concerned citizen. In that regard, ‘Daulat’ is an act of citizenship. He has witnessed how democracy and fair play have been hijacked by Malay-Muslim political parties, with morality and ethics being thrown out of the window. He has seen how evil leaders go unchecked to obtain and maintain positions of power through manipulation and back-door power play.
In the film, Imran offers some advice for leaders who want to be in politics but want to be honest and idealistic. Understanding the enemy and his cunning is the starting point to achieving success over them. He recommends, in the words of Suri, that “You can either be effectively kind or effectively malicious. Kind leaders need to learn from the ruthless. Learn from them and never put them out of sight.” For her, to be an effective ruler the Machiavellian way, one must know “how to orchestrate the semiotics of power, so as to place yourself in a position where you don’t actually have to use power to achieve your aims”.
In the repeated scenes of Suri playing chess with Hassan (Tony Eusoff), the president of the fallen party, we see the dexterity of Suri at moving the pieces to finally checkmate him. In the same manner, she eliminates all those who need to be cast aside, pitting one side against the other until they all fall like chess pieces. It is she, in reality, in whom resides the actual ‘daulat’, having the power to win and survive in politics.
A Hope Dashed for the People (and for Malaysian Filmmakers)
Films, like literary works, are barometers of the happenings in the country that chronicle, analyse and interpret its ups and down. Filmmakers are thinkers who are sensitive to what goes on in the country, which then becomes a subject for reflection in their works. It is not for them to moralise, but just to present a story about human beings and how they live their lives. They are like the ancient village storytellers, the penglipur lara (soother of woes), whose own woes are not soothed.
The New Malaysia as heralded by Pakatan Harapan was the clarion call and inspiration for stories that finally could be told, and so we witnessed those four films that, otherwise, would not have been made. It’s a pity that many important events of the country like, May 13th of 1969 and the Reformasi movement of 1998 have not been brought to the screen by filmmakers. Amir Muhammad tried to do that with a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary called ‘The Big Durian’, which is about the shooting incident in the Chow Kit area involving an army private. It was, of course, banned from public screening.
After the recent political developments, it is now back to square one for local filmmakers. The kleptocrats are back in power, and the daulat now resides with them to do as they wish. These circumstances will further regress the film industry that has been struggling for decades to progress. Not being politicians, filmmakers watch silently, their hearts crying out at the many injustices and inequalities that continue to be perpetrated on the gullible and the powerless. Now filmmakers will not have any outlet to express their annoyance and frustrations in the mainstream about greedy, manipulative and power-crazy politicians.
For an autocratic government, films like ‘Rise: Ini Kalilah’, ‘M for Malaysia’, ‘Daulat’ and ‘Babi!’ spell trouble. Being part of a popular culture, the films reach a wider public and can create a thinking audience. For the discerning few, they can be references for public discourse, as has been happening over the last two decades. It is for this reason that many films have suffered unkind cuts or being banned altogether by the Film Censorship Board. The key word for them is, it affects ‘national security’.
However, our filmmakers can take heart. They have other venues to screen their films now via streaming platforms like Netflix, iFlix, Mubi and YouTube. These four films have also proven that they can get made without financial assistance from the government or its agencies. Additionally, filmmakers can take a leaf out of Amir’s book; with Malaysia’s first digital feature, ‘Lips to Lips’, that he made in 2000, he bypassed the Censorship Boards and screened it publicly at a multimedia theatre at the Actor’s Studio. The millennium did create kleptocrats, thieves and liars, but it has also brought all kinds of creative acts from filmmakers who won’t take things lying down!
In an interview for a foreign news agency, one senior politician from a dominant political party told the interviewer that Malaysia was not yet ready for democracy. Is it any wonder then that they have behaved ignominiously all these years without compunction? And so oligarchy reigned under the guise of democracy for six decades, while race and religion were manipulated to no end to consolidate their power.
Imran, with his debut effort (and what is surely a very personal film), provokes us through Suri to take stock of the current situation. Suri asks the audience if they are distressed, that someone evil, akin to the devil, has been elevated to be their leader. She reassures them that all that has been portrayed in the film is not to motivate to become like those leaders. Instead it is to be a guide so as to learn their cunning and nefarious ways so as to be one step ahead of them.
She asks to accept the reality that “di mana-mana tempat, pemimpin yang baik akan dipijak dan dihina…”, that the fate of leaders who walk the straight path today is to be trodden upon and chastised, be it in any country. Accepting this reality in this post-modern world is the first step to understanding how to become a real leader, one who truly wields power. For Imran, one cannot win in politics today ‘by being nice’.
In Imran’s act of citizenship with the making of ‘Daulat’, he has done his part as a good Muslim i.e. he is now in the group that calls for the doing of right. His film, in the words of the great Indonesian filmmaker Teguh Karya, allows us to see ourselves among the characters that have been created. Let us ask ourselves then: which one of Imran’s characters – made up of the good, the bad and the ugly – reflects our own character? Be honest! No oath taking is necessary.
The production values of ‘Daulat’ are high with good film dynamics that make use of the right conventions of visual storytelling. It is obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the art direction, cinematography, editing and music. It is a film made with passion and with good teamwork. Imran shows great potential as a filmmaker. Now he only has to learn the nuances of screenwriting and directing, and he also needs to pay his dues to make it in the industry. No doubt in the next Festival Filem Malaysia, he will be conferred with the ‘Hopeful Director’ award. But if his second film does not make the grade, it will mean he does not have any hope! (Laughter, please!)
It must be reminded again that the story of this film is fictional, that it has no resemblance to Malaysian politics. If you believe this disclaimer by the producer, then there really is a Santa Claus, and turtles can fly! Taking into account recent happenings in Malaysia, truth is certainly stranger than fiction. Billion-dollar scandals, massive corruption, switching of camps, betrayals, treachery, deceit, bullying, gay confessions, gay sex videos, statutory declarations, party hopping, political bargaining and U-turns, killings and to top it all off – the lying by clerics supposedly sanctioned by their religion (we wonder what religion that is!). How much more ruthless than that can you get? But I guess it will probably be all washed away each time after the five times daily prayers when forgiveness is fervently sought for transgressions…
It certainly is another kind of power. However, isn’t it also said in the Qur’an that God has readied Hell for those who pray? That reminder, of course, is aimed at those who pray but are lax in the living of their lives outside of the prayers. As my mentor, the late Dr. Anuar Nor Arai told me, “You must live your life as if you are performing your prayers.”
May this month of Ramadhan bring the light of understanding and open the hearts of those who preside over us, and to the rest of us as well.
Featured image credit: Netaly Reshef / Pexels