Exorcising Past Ghosts – The Significance of Roh’s Success at Festival Filem Malaysia ke-31

On the eve of Festival Filem Malaysia ke-32, Fikri Jermadi considers the importance of Emir Ezwan’s film winning the top award at last year’s edition.

Festival Filem Malaysia ke-31 (FFM31) is an event that is not without its significance. An event delayed numerous times by the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing regulations, there is much that could be seen positively in terms of how it has given credence to various genres, filmmakers and performers, as well as expanding upon its previously-narrow definition of festival.

I see a closer alignment with a more international iteration of the term ‘festival’, serving as a platform for a wider celebration and appreciation of cinema; while many do revel in the awards night and the red carpet leading to it, it is often also an opportunity for cinephiles to come together in a variety of ways to delight in film screenings, panel discussions and other such events.

The likes of Dina Iordanova may well believe the festival’s locus to lay beyond such delights, firmly believing that their ability to firm up behind-the-scenes business and professional relationships to be more important. Whatever that may be, for the longest time it was most certainly is not the case in Malaysia, with the spotlight often trained on the awards also conditioning those in the country that this what a film festival is all about. 

More recently, however, there is a sense that things are changing. For instance, the rescreening of selected films may not be all that novel, but this time around it felt like a more concerted effort, not just to provide a boost to local exhibitors coming out of financially-debilitating COVID-19 lockdown conditions, but also to highlight a select number of films in the running for key awards; having been delayed for so long, you may not remember as much efforts like ‘Metro Maalai’ over two years after its initial release.

Furthermore, the rise in people’s familiarity with online conferencing has also led to a greater flowering (and potential historicisation) of critical discussions on Malaysian cinema itself. This is something that the organisers of FFM31 exploited, putting on five different webinars touching on areas like short films, national cinema and international film promotion, among others. It is a pity, then, that I notice less of this for this year’s event; a more constructive consistency is required by the organisers on that front.

It’s also key to note the significance of ‘Roh’ winning the Best Film award. In an official sense, it is directed by Emir Ezwan and produced by Elise Shick and Shizrin Salleh. Undoubtedly significant to the film’s success is also Amir Muhammad. His presence on stage at Istana Budaya that night is testament to the groundbreaking career he’s had.

The first reason why the film’s victory is significant is because it marks only the second time that a Malaysian New Wave filmmaker made the transition from independent darling to mainstream trophy go-getter. While that movement produced quality filmmakers like James Lee and Tan Chui Mui, they have remained largely adrift from such recognition in awards season at home (though it must be noted that Chui Mui is nominated in the Best Actress category for this year for her film, ‘Barbarian Invasion’).

That’s not to say that they’ve not been active. Both have kept busy (the aforementioned ‘Barbarian Invasion’ will finally be released on the home front after a year of rave reviews abroad), but the fact remains that from that early noughties movement, only Liew Seng Tat has been accorded with major awards at Festival Filem Malaysia. There is a clearer pathway in other cinemas like Indonesia, but that same road back home remains one filled with roadblocks, making Amir’s shock of blonde, holding the trophy aloft, a sight for sore eyes indeed.

Another reason why last year’s success was significant for Malaysian cinema is the fact that ‘Roh’ is a horror film. That genre is one that has been well-received by audiences at the box office, regularly racking up the ringgit. However, in terms of critical appreciation by way of film awards, horror has a poor track record at Festival Filem Malaysia. Quality notwithstanding, it hints at a discrimination against such genres.

The record books speak for themselves. Dain Said’s ‘Dukun’, a long-awaited film from the auteur, picked up a few trophies, but lost out in the Best Film category to ‘One Two Jaga’ by Namron in 2019. Similarly, ‘Munafik’s domestic and international box office success was not enough to propel it to the top of the mountain beyond ‘Jagat’ in 2016.

Going back a few years before that, only ‘Sembunyi: Amukan Azazil’ (2013) and ‘Senjakala’ (2011) made further dints in the 2010s. The decade prior to that was more promising, with a number of pontianak films paving the way for not one but two Best Film nominees in ‘Waris Jari Hantu’ and ‘Chermin’ for 2007. All the same, these promises were unfulfilled, as they did not win the award.

In fact, to find the previous horror film to win the Best Film award, you’d have to go a quarter of a century back to ‘Rahsia’ in 1987. Directed by Othman Hafsham, it beat back the challenge of ‘Puteri’ and ‘Mawar Merah’, and also won him the Best Director award.

Of course, all this is not without its context. A popular genre since the beginnings of Malayan and Malaysian cinema, its relative slim pickings may have much to do with the political machinations of the day, as the likes of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad noted how such genres could be seen as counter-productive in building of a more developed society.

His comments should be considered in the context of a politician willing to pull the community away from perspectives laced with traces of animism, allowing themselves to be easily swayed. What he wanted was a society that was better able to base its reasoning and logic on critical thinking, and in that context, the making of horror films was not seen as useful.

More’s the pity, for horror has always been a useful way of exorcising demons on screen, especially when tinged with a hint of spirituality and religion. With a majority of the population believing in one form of religion or another, the genre can be a constructive arena through which a conflict between good and evil could be visualised, especially if it externalises the unseen in a form of constructive social commentary (as can be noted in ‘Roh’ itself).

These are some of the challenges that ‘Roh’ had to overcome to reach the mountain top; it’s worth noting that for Festival Filem Malaysia ke-32, horror remains conspicuous by its absence not only in the Best Film section, but also in other major creative categories. It is for these reasons and more that I believe the film’s success should be celebrated, not just as a singular appreciation of a great film made by a collective of wonderful filmmakers, but also as a victory against historic, generic and industrial biases.

Read our review of ‘Roh’, which we also discussed in episode 67 of the podcast.

Featured image credit: Linkology

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