Class in Session – Film Schools in Malaysia

Queried on the matter recently, Fikri Jermadi shares his thoughts on film education in Malaysia.

I was invited some time ago to provide feedback on film education in Malaysia, for a Korean Film Council report. Published recently, it draws upon a lot of other sources and perspectives, but it goes without saying that it is also in Korean, and I figured it would be useful to make more accessible a version of what I had contributed.

It should be noted that the following is not final and conclusive word on the work and quality of these institutions, with much of it based on personal and professional experience. The films produced by the students also come into the equation, giving an insight into universities I am less familiar with.

Generally speaking, there is a decent number of film schools in Malaysia. Some are fairly established, with the likes of Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA) and the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation (FiTA) in Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) having been around for a number of years. That duration is useful in expanding upon their links to the industry.

Taking FiTA as a particular example, this can be seen through a variety of lecturers with years of experience in the film and television production. Leading them is Abdul Razak Mohaideen, a filmmaker with so many credits under his belt I have actually lost count of the films he has produced and directed.

Some years ago, FiTA attempted to solidify these connections with the signing of memorandums of understanding with companies in creative industries. This also extended beyond Malaysia, with links establishing a partnership with the likes of Taman Ismail Marzuki, the hub of art and culture in Jakarta, Indonesia, making it easier for students to conduct their internships outside of the country.

Others, like the Faculty of Cinematic Arts (FCA) of Multimedia University (MMU), have become more prominent in recent years. With MMU, I find it interesting how many of their student films appear to rely on crowd-funding. From afar, it seems like there is a systemic approach in place, perhaps with a curriculum with some emphasis on the funding, planning and promotion of a film.

This can be seen with ‘Weeping Birds’. Directed by Chan Teik Quan, as a work of art the film itself is absolute quality, but the professionalism of the initial crowdfunding effort makes it seem a lot more convincing. This may have conditioned my mindset in watching the film, and I’m certain it’s not limited to them alone. It is compelling all the same.

Some may argue many of the points above are redundant, especially for digital natives at home with online learning. Though that may be valid, neither should we underplay the informal networking opportunities facilitated by formal institutions, as the mingling of similarly-driven individuals can catalyse further creative endeavours.

Coming back to UiTM, I have in mind the Wayang@Budiman collective based at Alam Budiman in Shah Alam, Selangor. Led by the likes of FiTA lecturer Norman Yusoff, they often host screenings of critically-acclaimed films. Though all are welcome, its remote location (far from the center of Kuala Lumpur) means those who do come tend to be current and former FiTA staff and students (located in the adjacent neighbourhood).

This is fertile ground, leading to the emergence of important filmmakers like Ridhwan Saidi (whose ‘No Love for the Young’ will premiere at Singapore International Film Festival), Muzzamer Rahman (who has released two feature films in 2020 alone) and Bebbra Charles Mailin (director of the award-winning ‘Ninavau’ and an important representative for Sabahan filmmakers).

Having also produced a short film anthology, this de facto FiTA alumni group are not averse to book publication as well. In looking at the list of contributors for ‘Gambar Melayu Era Studio’ (edited by Norman himself), it feels like half of the book chapters are written by past and present FiTA students. Though not uncommon (‘Malaysians and Their Identities’ have a very strong whiff of the Monash University flavour), it does strike me as being more unique than most.

Monash itself is an interesting scenario here. They have a screen studies major in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, where students study and critically analyse films and television shows in terms of gender, genre, ethnicity, nationalism and other such discourse. However, the largely theoretical thrust means it lacks a more practical filmmaking aspect.

It remains relevant in this discussion, for there was (and still is) a strong emphasis on extra-curricular programmes by way of screenings and workshops. Nasi Bungkus Cinema, for instance, provides a space for independent films, ranging from their own students’ films to filmmakers like John Torres from the Philippines. They were also the first to screen BMW Shorties films in an academic setting, now a staple in the promotion of the competition.

They have even directly financed the making of student films in the past. One such project, the Monash Anthology, featured four films powered by their students. Many of the crew members remain active in the industry. Two of the four directors have excelled, with Bradley Liew making waves in the Philippines and Eng Sze Jia attached to Industrial Light and Magic in Singapore.

Across the road from Monash is Sunway University. They offer diploma and degree programmes in filmmaking and performing arts, in collaboration with Lancaster University. There is a range of theoretical and practical subjects. Having taught there before, I am biased, but I think it is a good programme, with some like Tan Ce Ding and Joyce Soo Wai-Xin having done particularly well.

Other filmmaking options can be found amongst major private and public universities. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), for instance, appear to be a popular choice for those pursuing their graduate education in filmmaking. The aforementioned Bebbra is one such graduate, studying there before becoming a lecturer at FiTA.

There are also more independent entities, like Kuala Lumpur Film School and Institut Kesenian dan Kajian Media, Malaysia (SEMESTA). The former appears to place greater emphasis on workshops and courses, with the bigger picture view of offering diplomas and degrees in filmmaking, while the latter is more focused on talks and seminars. Both are options to consider for short and sharp upskilling sessions.

I’ve not even mentioned others like The One Academy (with a strong track record in animation) and Limkokwing University (who have even produced a telemovie in the past). Equally intriguing is KRU Academy, established by the production company KRU Studios. They offer diplomas in visual effects filmmaking, and I think the idea is to create their own supply line of workers for the company. It’s an interesting approach, but I don’t personally know how successful it is.

The snapshot above should not be seen as an endorsement of any of the institutions or their programmes, for they all have their own pros and cons. There is also a need for interested parties to consider other options; the presence of Jef Samaroon and Yow Chong Lee at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), for instance, makes me think there’s more to find out there.

All this may be the system, but schools are nothing without their students. For better or for worse, they deserve much of the merit for being the true locus of their own creative efforts, whether that is supported by formal institutions or otherwise.

Read the Korean Film Council report (in Korean) on the Malaysian film education landscape here.

Featured image credit: Monash University Malaysia / Twitter

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