Updated at 4:25 p.m. ET on 2017-09-26
Malaysian filmmakers have banded together under the wing of a human rights NGO to jumpstart their creativity in a politically charged climate that can mute free speech, they say.
The Komas Center (Pusat Komas) this year launched the Freedom Film Network (FFN), whose mission is to boost the talents of filmmakers as stakeholders in Malaysia’s nation-building process and function as a collective peer support group, while they compete in an industry dominated by commercial and politically aligned mainstream media.
“We work together as a team and form a model where social filmmaking will be sustainable, so while maybe not everybody has money to make their own films, we can help out and work on each other’s film,” Anna Har, a film maker and program coordinator at Komas, told BenarNews.
“It is important to defend a space like this where you can talk freely about human right issues and important issues that cannot come out from the mainstream media,” she said.
On its website, the network describes itself as a non-profit established to “support and develop social documentary filmmaking within the context of freedom of expression and values contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Malaysia.”
The parent NGO, Komas, which started the annual Freedom Film Festival in 2003 to showcase films that deal with social justice issues and promote human rights, passed the responsibility of this year's festival to the FFN.
Earlier this month, Komas staged the latest instalment of the festival, an eight-day event that drew about 2,500 spectators and during which 40 films from Malaysia and other countries were screened.
This year’s festival, which called it a wrap on Sept. 9, featured some entries that were submitted by FFN.
Among others, FFN-made films included “The Hills and The Sea,” a documentary about rapid development taking place in Malaysia’s Penang state and the impact on flora and fauna there; “Selfie With The Prime Minister,” a film about the plight of Rohingya refugees in the country; and “Saving Malaysia,” which is about policies surrounding the country’s much- anticipated 14th general election.
The country’s censorship laws make it illegal for people to own or distribute films unless they have been cleared by the Censorship Board (KDN).
In March, a human rights activist, Lena Hendry, was fined 10,000 ringgit (U.S. $2,384) for screening “No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,” a film about the Sri Lankan civil war that KDN had not approved.
Also this year, Malaysian authorities postponed the release of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” because the movie contained LGBT-related content. But Disney refused to bow to the government’s demands to cut out a scene with a gay character, Le Fou, and the animated movie was eventually released in the country uncensored.
“KDN regularly conducts enforcement based on reports from the general public. Citizens are advised to be aware that there are rules governing the media in this country and we encourage them to report anything suspicious,” KDN officials who serve under the Ministry of Home Affairs told BenarNews.
A medium for social justice
Wolfgang Hrushke, the Malaysia director for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, applauded the film festival, saying it served as an important platform for raising awareness on social issues.
“Documentary is a much more powerful medium than just a printed report to show people about social and political problems,” he told BenarNews, adding such issues often are overlooked in Malaysia.
He pointed to issues such as the marginalization of indigenous communities, which was a common theme in four documentaries from Southeast Asia shown at the festival: Malaysia’s “Abai”; Indonesia’s “The Hope of the Honey Hunter”; Thailand’s “The Big Tree”; and the “Right to Learn,” a film from the Philippines.
The director of “Abai,” Syafie Dris, a member of Malaysia’s indigenous community, said filmmaking was a crucial tool to counter misinformation about his people.
“In my film, you can even see high-ranking state government officials making wrong assumptions about the culture of Orang Asli [indigenous people]. And this is someone who meets the Orang Asli fairly regularly. What about people who have never spoken to one?” he told BenarNews.
The director vowed to keep working to chronicle the displacement of his people from their traditional jungle homelands in favor of logging and land-development interests.
This version clarifies the role of Komas in organizing the annual film festival and corrects information about the number of people who attended this year's festival.