Hot Stuff – Chilli Powder and Thinner

Adi Iskandar contextualises the controversy surrounding this short animated film.

Three minutes and forty-five seconds. That is how long it takes to watch ‘Chili Powder and Thinner’ from start to finish.

In spite of this relatively short duration, the film tells the story of police brutality and abuse of those in custody. It is based on real-life events, as researched and collected by Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), a human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO), and has ruffled more than a few feathers among the powers that be.

Featuring a largely rudimentary animation, this is not quite the straight-up documentary you may come to expect from the genre. Using the aforementioned animation as the main storytelling method is not something I anticipated, although it was pointed out in a recent episode of our podcast that this is not new (see ‘Waltz with Bashir’ as the case in point).

This is actually a good thing, as this blank canvas allowed for a greater and more complete (albeit creative) recreation of events; though the backbone of the plot is based on reality, ‘Chili Powder and Thinner’ visualised something not particularly seen on Malaysian screens: that of the nation’s police officers involved in such activities.

This is because such portrayals are usually highly-policed (pun intended). Certainly for major film productions, there is a need for official approval before the right is granted for filmmakers to feature members of the force as characters in their stories. It goes without saying that this would only be allowed if the light shining on them is a favourable one. Hence, the masculine military might showcased in films like ‘J Revolusi’ and ‘Paskal’ are hegemonic to the end.

In fact, it is only in the last few years that a film like ‘Crossroads: One Two Jaga’ was able to feature police officers as bad apples. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is not an uncommon experience on the ground, but such representations on the silver screen have been far and few in between, a rarity making this film all the more effective.

This is why the use of animation in ‘Chili Powder and Thinner’ is clever. Though I described it as rudimentary, it is not meant as a slight, for it, along with the voice acting and sound effects, made the story (and hence the film) more complete than it might have been otherwise. Anything flashier (like 3D animation) might have even detracted from the film’s subject matter via its polished gloss.

It is this focus that has catalysed the close attention paid to the film, with the police questioning those involved in its making and exhibition. The cartoonist, Amin Landak, was hauled in, along with Anna Har of the Freedom Film Network (FFN, which distributed this film on its platforms). This also happened to key members of SUARAM, while the office of FFN and Amin’s home were searched.

I connect this to last year’s events, when a crackdown on freedoms of expression was couched in terms of protecting the nation’s image. Starting with Al-Jazeera reporters and migrant workers being criticised for their take on COVID-19, it was a long journey on which even the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) stated how YouTube videos would need an official license from the authorities.

It was also last year when the murder of George Floyd at the hands of American police officers sparked a worldwide reaction. Though the Black Lives Matter movement really began some years ago, this brought it back into the mainstream, along with a more critical lens on racism, discrimination, abuses of power and the legacy of colonisation, among others.

In the Malaysian context, this is not something that has really gone away; off the top of my head, any mention of such abuse will immediately recall the name of Kugan Ananthan, who died while in police custody in 2009. This year alone, the names of Surendran Shanker, Sivabalan Subramaniam and A. Ganapathy are just three highlighted by the press.

The irony here is that all the above puts the good work done by the police in these challenging circumstances firmly in the background. It is even more disappointing to note how, in this time of great national stress due to public health problems, economic instability and political discontent, the focus appears to be disproportionately placed on filmmakers and artists.

In addition to Anna and Amin’s plight, in the past few days alone Toh Han Boon (producer of ‘Babi’, directed by Namewee) was charged in court for the unlicensed production and promotion of his film. Go back a few months, and you’ll find that it was Fahmi Reza’s door being kicked down by the police, all because of a Spotify playlist riffing on comments made by the Malaysian queen.

All this begets great frustration among the populace, especially when there are other, more serious issues at hand deemed important enough to place the country in an official state of emergency. Yet such powers, initially promised to not be wielded as a way of silencing dissent, has been used to do exactly that, distracting from other problems worthy of greater and more critical discussion.

Some may argue that these films and works of art have tarnished the name of Malaysia in the minds of many. What is more certain is that the overzealous response of the authorities have distracted from many of their other good efforts in this hour of need. This is not a constructive way forward for all, especially those involved in the creative industry.

The above makes ‘Chilli Powder and Thinner’ a more important film than it might have been otherwise. It could well have bobbled along in the background as one of the many films FFN puts on a regular basis. As it stands, however, the state’s overreaction and misplacement of focus has ironically shifted the spotlight back unto them.

And the heart of the matter; it took nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds for Derek Chauvin to murder Floyd by kneeling his neck. This film runs for less than half of that, but the story here is no less important, for all our lives matter.

We talk about the film in the 82nd episode of the podcast. Watch the film on YouTube or Cinemata, and sign a petition calling for the end to police brutality.

Featured image credit: MarketSimple

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