Shuhaimi Baba speaks to FMT in a brief e-mail interview about her upcoming controversial film that will depict the May 13 bloody race riots.
PETALING JAYA: Filmmaker Shuhaimi Baba has declared that she is open to a debate to discuss her latest controversial movie “Tanda Putera”, provided that such talks be held after the movie is screened.
The award-winning director, whose movie retells the story of Malaysia’s second prime minister, the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and deputy prime minister, the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, amid the bloody May 13, 1969 race riots, said in an e-mail to FMT that she would not mind sharing views as long as it was done in a “mature” manner.
The director, who has received open scorn from critics lately, has also called on all Malaysians to just “cool it”, stressing that she and her crew have put in a lot of love into their work and are not about “peddling hatred and propaganda”.
Even before it has hit the silver screen, Shuhaimi’s movie, which is now re-scheduled to be screened on Nov 15, has been criticised for allegedly providing only a one-sided view of history.
Shuhaimi had denied accusations that the movie promoted a pro-Malay agenda. She also had to douse accusations that it featured a character based on DAP leader Lim Kit Siang in a negative light.
Another controversial aspect of the movie was that the RM4.8 million cost was fully funded by the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) and the Multimedia Development Corporation (Mdec), with questions raised over whether a movie that did not gel with the “official version” would receive such support.
The film, according to critics, demonises early leftist movements, with its trailer allegedly showing scenes of Chinese groups marching through the streets of Kuala Lumpur city after the success of the opposition parties in municipal elections carrying the Labour Party flag and other banners bearing anti-Malay slogans.
However, despite all the “unexpected and upsetting” response she has received, Shuhaimi maintained that she has done her legwork.
“I looked as far back as confrontation to understand the deep psychological resentments at that time until May13. But the catalysts were – the ‘hooliganism’ – the choice of words and insults thrown at the Malays, the over-the-top celebration by the opposition parties.
“The movie is not about judging and blaming any side in particular. Touchy as it may be, we needed to drive home the point of the trauma of May 13 (that we should not let it happen again) and how Tun Razak and Tun Ismail succeeded in making the country overcome the trauma and forget May 13. The movie sets out to do that as we share the journey taken by the two heroes,” she said.
Tanda Putera – rated PG13 – stars Rusdi Ramli (Tun Abdul Razak), Faezah Elai (Toh Puan Rahah), Zizan Nin (Tun Dr Ismail) and Linda Hashim (Toh Puan Norashikin). The film, a joint production by Pesona Pictures together with Finas and Mdec, tells the story about the friendship of the two national leaders and their struggles in healing the nation after the riots.
Below are excerpts from the e-mail communiqué:
FMT: Firstly, the meaning behind the title “Tanda Putera”, if you could elaborate more on the choice of words?
Shuhaimi: Tanda Putera means “Mark of a Leader”. This is the closest my team of writers and I could draw from our original title “Incurable Hero”. It was written for a documentary drama in English. However, after several friends read the documentary script , they convinced us to do justice by writing it as a screenplay and a feature-length movie. The thought was scary at first, the amount of research, detailing and design work and most of all the budget needed gave me sleepless nights. But then after going through several material, I thought: ‘Yes, why not? The two heroes deserve this tribute’.
Could you share with us your feelings so far, are you perturbed by the controversy the movie had courted?
Controversy, well, I think it comes with the territory. You know, it’s only the movies after all! Expect anything in film-making – there are always issues to deal with. There was my first horror film ‘Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam’ – after 30 years of horror films being banned. But I went ahead and it opened doors for the industry. There’s also the first feature-length movie on local folk lore ‘waris jari hantu’, the tigerman and the boy-girl character (hermaphrodite). They were contentious and controversial – only because the ideas were fresh and unexplored . But the ‘restless’ and ‘opinionated’ [ones] settled down anyway and cinema goers accepted the film.
So yes, I didn’t expect the May13 scenes to go through without the usual noise. But I didn’t expect the attention from people who don’t watch local movies. They have no idea what movie-going culture is about and rant over the movie trailer! Aiyooo… what to say. Attention from politicians are much worse, I can say that much. Their reasoning is simply: ‘See it my way or no way’.
I have a team of young people managing the Facebook for the movie and it turned into a ‘battleground’! I had to keep reminding the admin team to keep their cool and it was tough for them to manage the racial slurs and hate-mongers. But you know, like other times, I told them these are people who need to get things off their chest and they will tire. I briefed them on the background of the country’s history especially from Konfrontasi onwards so that they are confident and they know what they are up against.
Other than the threats, obscene language, racial slurs and hatred – I think although it was very unexpected and upsetting – we managed to calm everyone down reminding them this is nothing, we must deal with it as cool as possible.
Why was this movie being done? What prompted you to take up the challenge of such a touchy topic?
Difficult question. But I will try to answer. Malaysia was the only country in a unique dangerous situation – where the prime minister and deputy PM were facing critical illness at the same time – in a critical fragile situation. Their brave sacrifices needed to be told. It captured my imagination – I believe it would ‘capture’ others too. It’s only touchy if you don’t respect someone else’s views and creative expression.
When I first read Dr Kua (Kia Soong’s) book, I thought what came out first and shining through was his prejudices against Malays and his resentment against the office of the prime minister then. His accusations – alluding to who was responsible for May 13- that is, Tun Razak, was not only atrocious but irresponsible. But then he knows that, I am sure, since he’s more intelligent than most men, and he does it for effect and propaganda and to rile up Chinese sentiments. It was too easy for him. As a writer, he preferred to be biased and did not shed any light on the riots but even considered the communists had nothing to do with it.
His obvious biasness – not questioning why in Tunku’s own book, and later in an authorised biography of Tunku as late as 1990 – Tunku did not cast aspersions on Tun Razak.There were reports and books written by people who were not present during May 13. Some were based on third party reports. Yet in one publication, no mention was made that the writer was not in the country, the author did not point out he was not present but his comments and observations on May 13 were like a first-person report. Complete with prejudices against the Malays and the Malaysian government. How is it that this author can be quoted as a reliable source? He had deliberately too omitted details of what were the insulting behaviours towards the Malays before May 13.
I find the NOC (National Operations Council) report on May 13, 1969, may not be as complete, but it was more useful and reliable because they were verified with statistics and signed support reports and documents. The NOC report was also verified by a committee appointed by Tun Ismail. The head of the committee was a person of high integrity. So that’s where I am coming from when I say I looked at all angles.
I looked at some background of newspapers of big powers like Great Britain – example Times of London. They were already known then as instruments of British Intelligence. There was no love lost between them and Tun Razak. and the Malaysian government. As early as 1967 they were already hostile with their reporting on Razak and the Malaysian government. Malaysia wanted full British military withdrawal from Malaysia by 1967. Razak’s and the Malaysian government’s foreign policies under Tunku, were not ‘welcomed’ by the big powers. Malaysia chose to be close to the third world powers and non-aligned nations as well to counter balance the influence of super powers. The super powers and Singapore criticised Malaysia for being the only country that forged relationship with China, a communist country. Razak’s foresight was a blow to the communist radicals in Malaysia.
So that being the background, it’s no surprise that foreign media like the Times of London, Time Magazine, and New York Post were typically anti-Malaysian government because it’s also a faceless voice of foreign government. The game of superpowers using the media in their country as part of their intelligence was new to Malaysia at that time. So I took all that into consideration.
You must also be able to imagine that at the time, Malays were mostly in the fringes. It’s natural that foreign correspondents fraternise more with the city communities of mostly Chinese and Indians. So as friends naturally you empathise with friends – that’s how I look at the obvious anti-Malay stance of the foreign press at that time, where cities and towns were populated by non-Malays.
It’s like this British painter. He didn’t know the Malays when he came to this country. So he painted a picture of a Malay kampung house that resembled a cow shed. But as he stayed longer and made friends with the Malays, the house he captured later were more attractive and artistic. I may be going off tangent but these were maladies we need to understand then.
In fact, in Tun Ismaiil’s interview with a Singapore newspaper then, he too said to the effect that this talk of ‘coup de tat’ is nonsense. And there was no such move to oust the Tunku. Why would he be believable in other aspects, but not this? Of course knowing the situation between Singapore and Malaysia then, Singapore was quick to say that Malaysia will become a country under dictatorship during the May 13 turbulence.
It’s quite sad when a Malaysian cannot differentiate between hatred and prejudices and respect for the office that everyone is fighting for – office of the prime minister. How is it that young Malaysians can deny Tun Razak and Tun Ismail as prime minister and deputy prime minister of this country just because they are Malays or from a different party? How did they come to this stage of complete disrespect? I did comment to a hate-monger in that aspect – that he’s probably in the wrong country. It’s like we can’t deny that Anwar Ibrahim was deputy prime minister of this country once, for better or for worse. Even though his daughter would not pay a single sen to see my movie, her father would still be acknowledged as being a former deputy PM .
When writing on hindsight and after the fact – it’s easy to be judgmental. So if I, as a Malaysian, accepted Kua’s book and I didn’t ask for it to be banned or burned, I therefore expect the same for my interpretation of May 13, 1969. It would be dishonest to say that communist infiltration had nothing to do with May 13. That’s nuts .
Are there are any lessons to be learned from the controversy: What are they?
I think Malaysians should cool it – those who attacked the film – and should increase support for the local film industry. Watch local movies and understand the sentiments. The typical movie-goer has no problem with the film. It’s the ones who don’t watch local movies who are barking- mostly faceless – but barking in Facebook. We are not revisionists nor are we hate-mongers. We put a lot of love in our work – so it doesn’t sync, doesn’t make sense that we want to peddle propaganda and hatred.
Do you think that criticisms so far have been unfair, seeing as to how none of those who are attacking the film have actually watched it?
Criticisms are actually ridiculous, based on movie trailers – it’s never happened before. But we don’t want to have to defend the movie when people have not watched it. We are looking at it with an open mind. Many have asked for a discussion and what my views are on what happened before May 13 onwards. Yes I am open to a debate or discussion provided we treat it as mature as possible, once the movie has been screened