A Gutsy Gust – Selected Films from Cinebah 2021

Fikri Jermadi checks in on a number of Sabahan short films.

CineBah is a virtual screening of short films made by Sabahan filmmakers. Programmed by Nadira Ilana and Bebbra Mailin, and supported by Sabah Creative Economy and Innocation Centre (SCENIC), the event shares eight films from filmmakers ranging from award-winning filmmakers like Putri Purnama Sugua to young filmmakers such as Edjucchio Effour Edmund.

I won’t be looking at all their films, as we’ve touched base with a number of these works in the past, but I would like to talk about a number of them. Chief amongst these is ‘Lu Os’, a film by Farizie Morinding. Our eponymous protagonist (played by Nuhaimin Suman) is a mentally-difabled person who is also responsible for his stroke-stricken mother.

This is a film I’ve wanted to watch for a while, because in addition to having a long-standing personal and professional interest in such discourses, Farizie also made the film ‘Odoi Odu’, which had previously won accolades at the short-lived Astro Kirana Short Film Awards in 2009; that golden touch works for this film as well, taking home the Golden Kinabalu Award at the 2019 Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival.

What struck me the most about both films is how they blur boundaries between what is conventionally accepted as fact and fiction. Though ostensibly a narrative fiction film, its core and aesthetics meant that it can also be seen primarily as a documentary. This grey area is suitable for the story, allowing for an affective verisimilitude on screen.

That lends weight to its subject matter, as issues of people (dis)located far away from formal medical services remains troubling, even if it’s not the newest idea on the block (see ‘The Story of Kam Agong’ and ‘Dora’ for more evidence for the prosecution). In that sense, it works well as a clarion call for attention not entirely dissimilar from an episode of ‘Bersamamu’.

Admittedly, it could also do with a greater degree of technical aptitude to strengthen its case. This might be down to an overworking of the director, with Farizie’s name listed for directing, producing, scriptwriting, photography, editing and production management duties. Shot in his hometown of Ranau, he may well have gotten more help that noted on screen, but greater separation of duties could be constructive all the same.

The second film, ‘Solunsug’, is directed by Edjucchio Effour Edmund. It tells the story of a dought hitting a local village. With a lack of water to be used for many things, the local villagers are in a difficult position, until one day they decide to stand up and find their own solutions, emancipating themselves by finding their own solutions.

What elevates this beyond the ordinary is that these villagers are ‘adult’ characters performed by school children. The director himself was in Standard Six at the time of its making, and also doubles as the film’s lead. Such a reversal of roles is always cool to see on screen, but more often than not it is the infantalisation of adults that is more common.

Here, seeing children take the lead hits home in a number of ways. It ties in well with issues related to climate change. Though ‘Solunsug’ was made some years ago, watching it again in the aftermath of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Scotland recently lends it extra weight, as the event reminds us of the fallacy of relying on older generations and politicians to lead the way.

The film portrays emancipated children with a capital E. Their proactivity is inspiring, and it’s quite funny; that shot of one scrupulous kid lining his own pockets by selling water to desperate villagers cracked me up, in part because of its fairly enlightened political anchoring (representing politicians exploiting the rakyat in the same way). I’m not sure how deliberate that is, but it remains the reading I’m making all the same.

The film itself was fairly well-made, with a certain crispness to the editing by Elekxa that keeps the story following, packing the film with quite a punch within its eight-minute runtime. Orchestrated by their teacher Iroet Marteni, this is a product of school children from Sekolah Kebangsaan Tampulan in Telipok, Sabah, and they can look back on this with pride.

Wrapping up our discussion here is ‘Hembus’ by Anel Safihie. Set in Kota Marudu, Kudat, the story begins with an end, as Takung’s family mourn her passing. However, the main conflict comes after that fact, as the village’s ustaz arrives to inform her family that she converted to Islam prior to her death. Having lived with and known Takung her entire life as a Christian, this information upended her family’s lives, placing everyone in a difficult position.

Unfortunately, this is not a new thing, with several such events dotting the national consciousness in the past few decades. Most infamous among these is the passing of M. Moorthy, a former soldier whose death in 2005 became a legal conflict between his family (who had known him as a Hindu) and the government (which claimed he converted to Islam before he died).

Similarly, there have been discussions of this on screen as well, with Lim Kean Hian’s ‘Never Was The Shade’ giving us a more intimate look at such interreligious tensions. That was a more intellectual approach, to be compared to the emotional discourse found in ‘Hembus’, yet there is a strong maturity to be noted here as well.

In many ways, the ustaz is seen as the main antagonist in the story here, as his claims (backed up by flimsy oral evidence on the day itself) was highly questionable. Yet Anel’s treatment of his character highlights how he himself is simply carrying out his duty, without wishing to cause any further strife to the family.

In doing so, Anel highlights how the issue (or problem) is to do with bigger picture politics, rather than the community and its personal relations on the ground. To that end, it’s worth noting that as much as this must have been difficult for all, it was never a cantankerous affair which descends into vicious insults and name-calling.

Instead, there is an understanding that this is a community with specific ways of honouring the day; wherever they began, to the sea the rivers flow in paying their proper respects to Takung herself in Kota Marudu. I give great credit to Anel for this level-headed approach, displaying a maturity not often found when such topics are dealt with on screen.

These are merely some of the films which I have noted here. The works of others selected for CineBah 2021, like Ekin Kee Charles and Sinn Chun Hou, should also be born in mind, as they bear evidence not just to the quality of stories to be found in the Land Below the Wind, but that they should be taken seriously for more storytelling opportunities in the future.

We have previously written about ‘Gold! There’s Gold in the River!’, ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’, ‘Forget Me Not’, and the films of Putri Purnama Sugua.

We also interviewed Anwar about the making of ‘Forget Me Not’, while Putri and Nadira previously shared their views on the East Malaysian filmmaking context back in 2017 at the Young Filmmakers and Digital Content Forum.

Featured image credit: TRX

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