Pain and Pleasure – Selected Films from the 17th Mini Film Festival

Fikri Jermadi takes in a week of film pleasure at the 17th Mini Film Festival.

This is a piece looking at selected films from the Open Category at the 17th Mini Film Fest, organised by students and academics in the Cinematography Programme at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). This is because we have previously covered some of the films, like ‘BEE, My Friend’ by Cheng Thim Kian and Nadira Ilana’s ‘Tadau om Vuhan Kopisoomo’, and had a whole episode of the podcast on Anwar Johari Ho’s effort, ‘Burung-Burung’.

Speaking of which, plans are afoot to record a session for some of the other films in this category, where we’ll think aloud on ‘The Dalang’s Tale’, ‘Tempat Letak Kereta’ and ‘Times Have Changed’. That will be published sooner rather than later.

For now, the focus is on Faijan Mustapah’s ‘Dora’. Our eponymous character is a young girl from a community deep in the interior of Sabah. And when I say deep, I mean ‘a trip of over five hours one way by boat and other vehicles, navigating treacherous waters both on land and water, depending on the season’ deep. This is visualised on a map of Sabah at the start, highlighting the journey between Simohong and Kota Kinabalu.

Why is this important? Dora Jalius was suffering from brain cancer, and unfortunately passed away from it. The film’s focus is on the difficulty she faced just to get adequate medical treatment. She did visit various medical facilities prior to the big trip to Kota Kinabalu, but none were equipped with the right equipment and expertise to help her.

That is an outrageous indictment on an infrastructure that has failed its people. We can argue that these are not easy problems to solve, but maintaining an inadequate status quo is also unacceptable. This is not new, either; viewers of ‘The Story of Kam Agong’ may well be tired of this refrain. And we only know about these stories through filmmaking; it is doubtless that many others have suffered in the same way.

In the film itself, there is an attempt for us to better know Dora. Testimonies from her family is interspersed with photographs of her undergoing treatment at the hospital. Her parents provide some of the more emotional moments in describing her ordeal, with the story of Dora’s doctors denying her one last trip home for Christmas being particularly affective.

My only concern with the film was that it was a little too brief. When words appeared on screen, wondering what would have happened if the nearest hospital could have treated Dora’s cancer, it caught me by surprise. It has a lot going for it (including some interesting footage shot on a boat), but the film ended just a little bit before the story really got going.

Flying all the way to the Republic of Ireland, we check in on Desmond Ooi Xian Wei, asking ‘Is Everything OK There?’. The film is essentially a one-man show, not just in featuring a singular character on screen, but also with Desmond completing the Sorayos Prapapan bingo, his name popping up as the director, writer, producer, editor, sound mixer and subtitlist.

He is also our protagonist, a graduate looking to continue in the country. However, COVID-19 has complicated things, and this film begins right on the cusp of the first major lockdown in Europe last year, a standstill in life which, crucially for him, also grounds flights. That time lock (down to the minute) is key here, and there is great pressure on him to make a decision very soon.

Some of that comes from his mother, who understandably wants him to come back. He tries to stand his ground with little white lies, ranging from his bank balance to potential employment opportunities. The contrast between what he’s saying and what we’re seeing is interesting, and makes us wonder what else will be done to raise the stakes.

Having said that, it is easy to empathise with him, as the title is familiar to those far from home. You don’t want others to worry about you, so you tell them what they want to hear (see ‘Ally Chia’ for reference). The film’s last line suggests that this may also run in different directions of the same street.

The COVID context may well explain the paucity of names in the film’s credits. The likes of Pauric Mullen and Ardy Aditya appear in key roles behind the camera, but I can imagine this being done on a shoestring, and under a pressure not dissimilar to what we see on screen.

To that end, Desmond has maximised his props. A copy of Barrack Obama’s ‘Audacity of Hope’ could well be a statement on the situation, punishing Desmond for daring to dream of staying on. We also see his diploma, placed somewhat haphazardly on the bookshelf, suggesting the fallacy of paper qualifications in this new normal.

Most intriguing for me is the mini Malaysian flag. They used to be incredibly popular, stuck on cars during Merdeka season. On screen, though, it feels like a common signifier of choice from minority filmmakers, especially in Malaysian-Chinese short films: is this a part of the natural vista, or a deliberate attempt to flag this as a Malaysian film? I might be reading too much into this here, but it is a testament for Desmond’s skill to provide that space within a short running time.

We rush back home for Jeremy Jecky’s latest film, ‘Kelinguh’. The story is of a couple, Elena (Connie Grace) and the Hunter (Anthony Ngau). He is hospitalised with an illness, but both are hanging on with their love. As they do so, Elena thinks back to key moments in their relationship, including the first time they meet.

A part of the clue lies in the film title. Meaning ‘echo’ in the Kayan language, much of the story progress with aural cues. A number of scenes and transitions were precipitated by them, and it is cleverly done, forcing you to pay attention at every moment. I can imagine the script having an overload of O.S. in parentheses.

On screen, there’s plenty to captivate you. ‘Kelinguh’ is very cinematic in its composition, using the correct tone for its scenes. Much of it feels natural, as if the camera just happens to record life as it unfolds. The story also progresses at the appropriate rate, taking its time without dragging on; it ran for nearly 20 minutes, but I did not feel like my attention wavered at any point.

A part of that is the switch in storytelling mode in the middle. I first came across Jeremy via his film ‘Talisman’, a creative effort from an early career filmmaker at the time. Skilled in animation and visual effects, the first half of ‘Kelinguh’ felt like a departure from all that, making his eventual reversion to home comforts at key moments a pleasant surprise.

It also adds a layer of fantasy to the proceedings, elevating ‘Kelinguh’ beyond a conventional love story. Furthermore, it allows for greater depth in our excavation of meaning, showcasing Jeremy’s growth as a filmmaker. Additionally, some narrative questions raised earlier in the film were answered at the appropriate time, making the film more complete. Keeping us waiting, then delivering on that promise, it exemplifies a surety in his cinematic instincts.

Finally, we get to ‘Ayahku, Dr. G’, a much-hyped documentary making the rounds since its premiere at last year’s Freedom Film Fest. It tells the story of Amiruddin Nadarajan Abdullah, a former army captain who repurposed cannabis for its medicinal qualities to improve his own health. While it worked, it also brought the state’s attention to him, leading to his present incarceration.

Having said that, the film is not from his perspective, but that of his daughter’s; similar to ‘Dora’, his absence does not absolve him from remaining very much at the film’s focus. Amiruddin does appear through old photographs and archive footage, but we see more of the spaces in which he used to be than him himself.

This film is a definitive Freedom Film Fest film, emphasising the human costs of policy. You get the underdog going up against the big bad, pushing back against its legal system, firmly established in the film’s opening: ominous white text against a black background detailing Section 39 (B) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952. It describes the death penalty as the punishment, even for those using it for medicinal purposes.

Though the law originated as a way of policing drug use, it’s difficult to ignore growing evidence and practice of using such drugs for medical purposes, which can be seen in countries like the United States; Portugal went one step further, decriminalising them over twenty years ago without too much of the obligatory fear mongering actually coming to fruition.

The film also helpfully points out how the United Nations has reclassified cannabis in 2020 as having positive medicinal qualities. All the same, you may wish to consider other sources if you want to find out more about the issue, as we should not forget that the film’s purpose is to remind us of the plight of Amiruddin and his family.

A particularly poignant scene is after a session they had in court; with Amiruddin being immediately wheeled away back to prison, the daughter runs around, looking for him but not finding him. Director Hidayah Hisham did a good job to position him as someone to both sympathise for (he is not in the best of health) and empathise with (he is forcibly separated from his family).

This is the humanity these films have brought to the foreground. Whether they are crusades against the authorities, or private emotions wrestling within, all of them have their own qualities worthy of further exploration. In showcasing the pain that is a part of the journey, they have certainly contributed to this week of film pleasure.

The following is a full list of films honoured at the 17th Mini Film Festival:

Best Short Film in the Open Category
‘Tadau om Vuhan Kopisoomo’ by Nadira Ilana

Jury Award winner in the Open Category
‘Ayahku, Dr. G’ by Hidayah Hisham‘Burung-Burung’ by Anwar Johari Ho

Honourable Mention in the Open Category
‘Kelinguh’ by Jeremy Jecky

Best Short Film in the Students’ Category
‘Pulang’ by Yam Kin Wai
‘Bagan’ by Firdaus Balam

Jury Award winner in the Students’ Category
‘Who The F*ck Are You’ by Ng Kai SoongHonourable Mentions in the Students’ Category
Menunggu Kau Pulang’ by Izaq Yuzaini

Find out more about the Mini Film Festival here.

Featured image credit: Wallpaper Access

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