Art and propaganda

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Those of us who want to see Malaysian art freed from considerations of propaganda must be gratified that the controversy over the 28th Malaysia Film Festival (FFM28) is now settled. Nominations for the Best Film award is now open to all contenders.

The controversy erupted when “Ola Bola” and “Jagat” were disqualified from the category because they are not “fully Bahasa Malaysia” films. They were nominated instead for Best Non-Bahasa-Melayu Film, one of three non-Bahasa categories, the other two being Best Director and Best Screenplay. The creation of these categories riled filmmakers and, eventually, a large part of the public.

“Why must the Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) and Film Producers Association Malaysia (PFM) create a racist category like ‘Non-Bahasa-Melayu Films’?” Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Screenwriters Association (Penulis) Alfian Palermo asked.

Eventually the organisers caved in and scrapped the offending categories, but not before Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak stepped in to say that the Best Film award should be open to all films made by Malaysians, regardless of language.

Frankly, it’s way past time. This move should have happened a long time ago; the issue should not have exploded the way it did. The argument had become downright ugly in places.

For example, local filmmaker Norman Abdul Halim said that removing the Bahasa Malaysia criterion for the Best Film award would risk opening up the floodgates for the nomination of films in foreign languages and project a “confused” Malaysian identity. “So if the medium used is Bahasa Indonesia and it wins the film festival and is touted as a Malaysian film, won’t this confuse people to a certain extent on who we are and what our identity is?” he said.

But is a film always supposed to be so simple that no one is ever confused? Isn’t it part of the enjoyment of watching a movie to try to work out a confusion?

What is our identity, after all? Are we defined purely by the languages we speak, or where we come from? Is an Indian man from Jinjang who speaks Mandarin just as well as he does Tamil and Malay any less Indian, or for that matter, Malaysian? What of the old school, English-educated Malays who remain fully cognizant of their Malay identity? Are they any less Malaysian than those who speak only Malay?

To avoid recognising realities such as these is to reduce the film industry to nothing more than being propaganda. Our film industry is not a tool for overzealous nationalists and race/language supremacists to “project the national identity”.

PFM President Yusof Haslam argued that Malaysian films should reflect the country’s national identity and as such should obey the Malay-language policy. Malay rights group Perkasa naturally also had to have its say. It’s president, Ibrahim Ali, said it was appropriate that those involved in Malay language films should be given priority “even if they are not Malay”, all for the sake of honouring the national language as per the Federal Constitution.

No one Is challenging the Malay-language policy, but the policy should not be used to limit creativity.

It’s strange how we seem to forget that our identity has to do with the stories we tell and are told, and the narratives reinforced in our heads on a daily basis. These stories should, for better or worse, reflect reality. The reality is that Malaysia is more than just the Malay, Indian or Chinese people or the languages they use. It is a complex and bubbling hotpot of stories.