IN Yasmin Ahmad’s 2004 film Sepet
, 19-year-old Ah Loong is a hopeless romantic who harbors the urban squalors of Ipoh. Ah Loong and his friends are involved with the local gangsters and he sells illegal DVDs at the usual ‘pasar malam.’ His life takes a sudden twist when he meets, and falls in love with local Malay schoolgirl Orked.
The on-screen chemistry between Ah Loong and Orked make all who watch the film devoted to the couple’s forever after. But beyond the young affair, Sepet also presents numerous social commentaries.
The most obvious is that of a Malay girl being romantically involved with a Chinese boy, an affair that would still turn heads in modern-day Malaysia. Yet Yasmin Ahmad doesn’t stop there.
Orked comes from a well to-do family whilst Ah Loong seems to have no hope of going to col-lege. Their relationship therefore transcends social classes. Despite living in economic modesty, viewers are forced to accept that Ah Loong is greater than his surroundings, he reads and writes poetry, watches old Japanese films and is outstandingly proud of listening to traditional music.
Yet great films don’t always have to have an issue-based social commentary. In this year’s Os-car nominated movie La La Land, the story constantly reminds us that it’s all a fantasy; drivers on the highway simultaneously breakout into a song and dance, the main characters Seb and Mia float romantically across the Griffith Observatory. But we love fantasy because it challenges our minds towards impossible possibilities, it gives the unromantic in our lives just that bit of spark.
“It’s funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you watch them on a screen.” -Anthony Burgess.
We don’t watch superheroes to see if they’ll save the day. We know they will. But films reach out to us. We watch them because, for those two hours, we get to imagine being in someone else’s shoes. And whether that someone can fly as fast as a bullet or whether they’re couples living in an increasingly segregated society, films transport us into direct empathy with the subject in fo-cus. They have the power to make us understand and feel for someone whose troubles and con-flict we might never have otherwise understood. And in a country where, as the Edelman Trust Barometer recently found, we are 20% to 30% more distrustful of those who are different from ourselves, having films to collectively help the general public appreciate a certain issue is a valu-able asset to hold. It can bring us together.
For Transformasi Nasional 2050, as much as we focus on building an inclusive society, as much as we talk of an innovative digital economy or a comprehensive education system, we should also be including ideas of progress for our film industry. My hopes are that by 2050, or even sooner, Malaysia can be internationally recognized as a hub that produces culturally rich, intel-lectually progressive entertaining films. Film industry players and policy makers need to come together and outline the issues surrounding film making in Malaysia.
There are numerous hurdles however that have so far stumped the Malaysian film industry. Here are a few.
In a survey conducted by University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) 3 years ago, one critical issue cited from industry players was the shortage of decent scripts.
Professor Dr Jamaluddin Aziz of UKM contends that more needed to be done to comprehend what stories the audience wanted to watch, “with systematic research, at least one could gain a little insight of the attitude and expec-tation of the audience.” FINAS director general, Mohamed Zain Haji Hamzah had proposed the idea of having a script bank back in 1986.
But nothing of the sort has taken place since then.
The next big issue comes in the post production workflow; organizing the footage, editing, color correction, adding music and sound, finishing, mastering and output. Most of the cinematogra-phers who were surveyed in a 2016 Review of the Malaysian film industry noted that they would rather conduct their post production in foreign laboratories rather than the ones in Malaysia.
It isn’t that Malaysian laboratories are inadequate, Gaya Lab in Shah Alam or the one at FINAS had the right technology, but in terms of cost, labs in Thailand such as Technicolor, Time Lab and Kantana all offer packages with a competitive price. Cinematographers could go to these labs and see their work through to the end. But using foreign labs would then make it hard to ob-tain government grants.
In Malaysia, as one cinematographer mentioned, “all the machines are there but not in the cor-rect workflow pipeline.” Local filmmakers struggle with the post production process because it isn’t centralized and systematic.
It’s not as if the government has done nothing. Initiatives such as Film in Malaysia Incentive (FI-MI) and Creative Malaysia aim to put Malaysia’s artistic industry on the map. In 2012, Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib included in his budget announcement an allocation of RM200 million to develop the film community in Malaysia.
But issues such as the financial security of actors are still a major concern today. As former ac-tress and now producer Dira Abu Zahar notes, even the mainstream actors and actresses have had experiences where their production management went ahead with filming without securing the finance for the entire cost of the project. And when the money flow halted and filming had to stop, actors and actresses didn’t get paid, thus wasting months of their work.
Instances like these give reason for parents to not allow their kids to pursue acting or filming in Malaysia. Talents and skilled cinematographers who could have impressed world audiences perhaps never got to shine because the film industry in Malaysia was incapable of giving them their rightful spotlight.
If we are to enrich our film culture towards TN50, then laws and regula-tions need to be penned out to ensure the financial security of industry players. Policymakers, directors, producers, technical experts, actors and actresses all need to blueprint a way to make the workflow more stable. Only then will talent shine in Malaysia’s film community.
P Ramlee was the lighthouse who showed us how far Malaysian talent could go. All we have to do is fix our boat to get to the distance that his spotlight has already graced.
* The writer is a special officer to a Malaysian politician. He voices his opinions in several English dailies about the local political landscape and general news.
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.