Monday, 21 May 2012


Mahadi J Murat

A FILM made in the Malay language telling Malay stories, is termed as a Malay and Malaysian film. A Malay language film about non-Malays is also considered as Malaysian films. However, Malay films are naturally and automatically regarded as Malaysian films. The society's acceptance towards Malay film as Malaysian films happened almost spontaneously.

This wasn’t a cause for concern for many non-Malays, however, as most of them tend to regard films from countries like Hong Kong and India as their own. To many of them, Malaysian films are only for the Malays. Their involvements in the industry are more related to the happenings behind the scenes, particularly on the financial side.  

The effect of seeing film merely as a business commodity existed since the first Malay film production. Like any other form of commodity, it’s all about market value and market driven products.  Film was and is not primarily seen as a product and work of art that is important for both the nation and society. Because of that, there are many different perceptions about film in this country. The lack of a constructive perspective, then, made things even more difficult, but it is not all doom and gloom.

Until today, with 80 years having passed since the first Malay film was produced in 1933 (Laila Majnun, produced by Motilal Chemical Company, Singapore), there is not one mainstream film that is produced for non-economical reasons (with the exception of a few government films produced by Filem Negara Malaysia [FNM]), that can be categorised as more like public service announcements films (PSA): formal and apolitical in terms of the filmmaking style. Examples of this can be seen in ‘Gelombang’ (1980), ‘Bila Hati Telah Retak’ (1983) and ‘Cempaka Biru’ (1989).

Film viewership in Malaysia

The multicultural society in Malaysia generally watches their own films, in addition to the imported Hollywood and English films. Films not defined as their own are rarely given much attention, apart from those considered to be unique in their style and/or substance.

Generally speaking, Malay films would be patronised only by the Malays, while Chinese and Indian films would be watched by the Chinese or the Indians. Because of this, a lot of the Chinese and Indian community in Malaysia, especially from the older generation, consider the culture and lifestyle presented on the screen as their own. Though other factors are at play, this doesn’t necessarily help with the assimilation process to the local environment and lifestyle, and may become an obstacle to some in efforts to establish the feeling of ‘belonging’ to Malaysia.

Even the effort of the few to release Chinese and Indian films made in Malaysia does not receive a great amount of support, due to the low perceptions held regarding these films. The attraction of Chinese films from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China and films from India are so big that the local Chinese and Indian-language films are often seen as unworthy.

This compartmentalised the viewership of films in Malaysia, mirroring other such divisions in society, like the separation between vernacular and national language schools. This situation also mirrors the cultural and language differences amongst the general Malaysian society that can still be problematic, even though the elements and foundations for unity were laid before Merdeka.

There are also those who feel that because Malaysia is a multi-racial and multi-cultural nation, Malaysian films must not just be about the Malays and should indeed be multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual. This view is correct from one standpoint, but wrong from another.  A film needs always be on the basis of what the film is all about. If the story is about people of various cultures, the film must convey that story idea. If the story is about a particular family or individual from a certain cultural background, it must also convey that. We cannot have all races, all languages and all culture in all movies without strong filmic reason.

The Fifth Generation of Filmmakers

After all, film has often been associated with the society that it represents, sometimes including the society that the maker is not necessarily a part of. In such a repressive, competitive and open situation, film becomes an important asset and tool. It doesn’t just selectively document, disseminate and portray a slice of life, but it also gives a permanent definition from a certain perspective, which will later become ‘history’. Today, nearly all the communities and societies of the world use film to strengthen their positions.

Malaysia’s first generation of filmmakers comes from 1955-1962. The second were prominent from 1963-1970, while the third from 1980-1990. The fourth generation came to the fore in the last decade of last century, while the contemporary fifth generation, from the start of the new millennium, comes from the digital and film schools.

For film to really become responsible towards the society that it represents, however, it must be born from within that society itself. The best societal energy is one that represents its own time. The new generation of Malaysian filmmakers is actually a generation at the crossroads.

The ambitions of ‘the fifth generation’ are so big and different from those contained within the collective of the past. This generation wants film to be everything. They want it to be a mode of expression, a form of intellect, and a perspective that transcends national, societal, religious, cultural and historical barriers. They want to create an identity that is based on the reality of everyday lives, one that is tolerant, free, and true. They hold the responsibility to make films that can compete and appeal universally. If there is no reasonable space and room provided to the young Malaysian filmmakers, not only are their talents wasted, but they could also become a source of difficulty that could hinder the successful development of future Malaysian films.

The new generation of Chinese and Indians who became interested in film explores ideas about Malaysian society through digital films that they make. This shows a new Malaysian generation from the non-Malays working or at least see their own perception and definition in their films. They are the new generation of Malaysians born and bred in Malaysia, trying to find their own space together.

The challenge that they face is the effort to draw society’s attention, one that likes to look outside its own borders for inspiration, and create a sense of belief amongst their own generation. This also includes the Malays who are also making Malaysian films from a new perspective.

In this context, Malaysian films becomes a film by Malaysians and one that looks at Malaysia without considering too much about the language, culture, or race that is portrayed. It is actually something that reflects the reality of everyday life for them. It contains the heart, dreams, imagination and intellectual sensuality of the modern day Malaysians. Furthermore, being a Malaysian film doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s multi-lingual. There is no need for aimless, pointless multi-culturalism, without any of the cinematic reasons that shows the great ideas of an artist.

With the arrival of the new generation, even though they started out with digital video, it is an effort worth commending, one that tries to instil in society more confidence in locally-produced works. This development, thus far, has been well received, because it enriches the intellectual treasure that is the form of visual arts related to the lives of Malaysians.

After all, what can be seen in a film is a ‘consciousness’ – the ‘consciousness’ of the filmmaker, as well as the collective ‘consciousness’ of a civilisation. When we talk about films on a national level, the factors that shape these levels should be given such attention, because these are the factors that decide the flow and content of a nation’s identity.

Should Malay Films continue to be Malay Films?

One approach that should be continued is the furthering of Malay films. The production of Malay films should be increased in quantity and quality. This is because Malaysia is the only country whereby Malay films can be produced. Without Malay films from Malaysia, it can be said that there will be no Malay films in the world. Another reason is that there is still a lot of other Malay and Malaysian issues from Malaysia, as well as from the Malay Archipelago, that can be translated into film. Reducing the production of Malay film and producing Malaysian films on the excuse that Malaysian films have to be multi-racial and multi-lingual will marginalise a strong film source or idea, and will also diminish the importance of Malay history and culture. It is a culture that may well disappear.

At the same time, the production of Malaysian films from the perspective of the non-Malays should also be encouraged. The production of films like ‘Homecoming (Lee Then-Jeen, 2010)’ and ‘Nasi Lemak 2.0 (Namewee, 2011) suggests that a viable production model acceptable by all can be found. This will improve the standing of film in society and film as a medium and source of culture that benefit the nation.

Increasing Appreciation Programmes for Local Films
 in a Structured and Holistic Approach

Another step that could be taken by all relevant parties is to increase the number of film appreciation activities or programmes in a structured and scheduled manner, so that the attention paid towards local films could be increased. This is of critical importance, seeing how low the audience numbers for local films are if compared to our population of 26 millions. Compare this to the Czech Republic, who have around 10 million people, but can depend on around 1 million of them (10%) to watch their own films.

If we can increase the number of viewers even by 5% (1.3 million) of the total population, it would certainly change the overall picture of the local film industry.  At the same time we could also look at other countries and consider how they develop their own films; South Korea, for example, imposes a quota system to protect their local filmmakers.

The new generation of film audience members have a different perception and exposure compared to the previous generation, and with this comes a different viewing trend. If there is no programme to encourage further appreciation towards our own local films, Malaysian films, Malay or otherwise, will not have a chance of strong showing. Only through a consistent, holistic, and well-planned approach will the situation change.

Training Programmes, Technology,
Networking and ‘Fund’ for Young Artists

Other areas that can be looked at is further exposure about all aspects of filmmaking, including further training to those who currently active in the industry. We can also work to strengthen relations and networking, and providing practical encouragement for filmmakers to take Malaysian films beyond Malaysia. This networking will help to increase Malaysian film appreciation not just within the country, but also without.
One other
important factor is to create a fund for young artists. This fund can be used for various activities, like script development, but with an especial focus on encouraging the number of young directors with quality. Only through such efforts will we find the diamonds in the rough.


The issues and problems of the film industry are constantly changing with the winds of time, and so long as there is an effort to improve the making and content of local films, then the sky will truly be the limit as to what we can achieve. To conclude, it is very right for Finas to support activities outlined in the ‘Young Film Makers Forum (YFF)’, and Festival Filem Pelajar Malaysia (Malaysian Student Film Festival) which is in its 9 years now.

(Dr Mahadi J. Murat has been involved with the film industry for 30 years, and is currently teaching at the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation, Universiti Teknologi MARA)