Against the Currents – Pengidup Aku

Celebrating Hari Gawai, Fikri Jermadi casts his eye on Albert Bansa’s documentary.

It’s always the children that gets you.

Someway into ‘Pengidup Aku’, an Iban-language documentary directed by Albert Bansa, we are introduced to Kevin. He is the son of Tonny Anak Iman, the film’s protagonist. Kevin is a primary school student, with maybe little more than a few years on my own son. Singing a song in assembly, he practically hides right at the back of the group, shying away when the camera turns its attention on him.

Up until that point, the film had pottered along nicely, if somewhat predictably, in detailing Tonny’s life in town. It is not an easy discussion to have, as any story of a single father having to leave their children behind for work is. Seeing Kevin, however, makes it real; that is the moment when the discourse expands beyond the logical and becomes a little more emotional. If all else fails, think of the children.

Think of Tonny, too. He is a labourer working in the town of Dalat, and has done so for over two decades. Here, life is no walk in the park, especially for someone on the lowest rung of the construction business. He counts his money, trying to make ends meet down to the last cent. This is an obstacle made all the more challenging by the increase in the cost of living in society as a whole, a rise that has not been equated in real wage terms.

That is actually the main theme of the 2019 Freedom Film Fest (“Harga Naik, Gaji Maintain”), where the film premiered. Albert received a grant from the festival organisers earlier that same year, so it is not surprising how the focus of the film aligned with the event’s. His film does well to highlight the crushing weight of economic pressure the working class finds themselves under.

The lack of social safety nets here makes it all the more worrying. It is a situation exacerbated even more with rural-urban migration patterns. Recently, Adi Iskandar noted the same development in ‘Spirit’, a documentary co-directed by Jane Dyson and Ross Harrison. That film focused on a community trying to maintain its identity and traditions, a task made all the more difficult by the young leaving the village for economic opportunities.

If ‘Spirit’ focused on those who remained, ‘Pengidup Aku’ makes for a fine companion piece, documenting on life away from Tonny’s longhouse. Without his family (Kevin is being looked after by his grandparents back home in the longhouse a few hours away by boat), we see his interactions with others, including his co-workers and employers. I can appreciate his good nature and humour shining through the clouds. “There’s no money left after withdrawing RM50,” he laughs, showing the camera the withdrawal receipt from an ATM.

Speaking of which, it is not necessarily all doom and gloom, as the story leads up to Hari Gawai, a thanksgiving celebration in Sarawak. In many ways, it’s the most important date on the community’s calendar, so in spite of his meagre means, he still makes his way home to celebrate it with his family. He spends time with Kevin, going out and about to buy supplies, and helps to set things up at the longhouse. Being less familiar with the festivities than I should, I appreciate the film’s documentation of this.

On a side note, I like a t-shirt Kevin wears when he is out with his father. It bears the flag of the Raj of Sarawak, inspired by the cross of St. George (popularly associated with the English flag these days). It was used under the administration of James Brooke, and a Sarawakian friend recently noted this as his preferred flag (instead of the current one imposed by West Malaysian ‘colonisers’). Though that statement not unproblematic, I imagine he is not alone in thinking that.

I doubt that’s the actual sentiment of Kevin, Tonny, Albert and others associated with this film, but the picture painted here could be seen as the breeding ground for such thoughts. ‘Pengidup Aku’ may have bits of sunshine in it, but the forecast is generally cloudy. In ‘Spirit’, Adi noted how the film deploys a peak-trough-peak pattern in its narrative, with the story ending on a positive note. He wondered whether the filmmakers’ outsider status had any role to play in that, as a good ending is almost always well-received by many.

Here, however, Albert is very much a part of this community, his childhood friendship with Tonny practically guaranteeing not only honesty, but a perspective as the community’s own. As such, he is concerned not with happy endings, merely with the truth as he sees it. At the film’s conclusion, Tonny returns to his life on the economic margins in town. “As Malaysia becomes more developed, the majority of indigenous peoples are still poor and it is even worse for those who have become urban poor,” Albert said in an interview. “They left their villages for a better life, but at what cost?”

That’s the question that lingers: what is the price of so-called development and modernity? This, of all questions, should be at the forefront of relevant critical discussions, especially in a country like Malaysia, a nation built on the backs of labour both migrant and domestic crossing the rural-urban divide. ‘Pengidup Aku’ highlights the economic exploitation exacted on those most vulnerable, damaging their families and themselves.

It that does nothing for you, just look at Kevin, think of the children, and let that river guide you where it may.

Featured image credit: Harrison Candlin/Pexels

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