A Programmer's Chronicles 18

A Programmer's Chronicles 18

From left to right: Albert Hue, Hardesh Singh, Armin Muhammad and (standing) Liew Seng Tat (Malaysia, 2007, photo: Danny Lim)

by Gertjan Zuilhof

I’m on Facebook. During my last journey through Southeast Asia, I was regularly asked why I couldn’t be found on Facebook. I usually replied that I wasn’t out looking for an Internet date or – if there was a need for more further explanation – I described my experiences in MySpace.

Edwin, the hope of independent Indonesian cinema, had once persuaded me to look at his work on MySpace. After about a week, I received so many invitations from potential friends (in the form of blonde painted women) to visit their site (first enter your credit card number) that I turned my back on MySpace in no time. But Facebook is different, many young film makers said, and after a few weeks that does indeed seem to be the case.

There are people who have 500 friends in Facebook. In order to reach that number, you obviously have to spend some time there. I’ll never get anywhere near that. In addition, I think that 50 friends is an astronomical number anyway. In the real world I have always made do with three or four friends.

Facebook, like everything that’s happening on Internet, is also full of adolescent rubbish. You’ll have to ignore it just the way you do in real life. But let me start off by admitting it’s a lot more enjoyable than I thought. I can leaf through the photo album of a Thai or Filipino film maker with whom I’ve exchanged e-mails in the past or peruse the friends of these friends. I hadn’t been on Facebook for more than a day before I had a new and promising contact in the occasionally difficult corner of Indonesian short-film making. So it can be useful too.

In the Facebook profile of Amir Muhammad, the political and humorous conscience of Malaysian cinema, I found the photograph that’s been included with this blog. A real Facebook photo, because all the people on the photo are now Facebook friends, as is Danny Lim, the photographer who took the photo. So I could easily ask for their comments on the photo through Facebook.
The photo was taken last year when they were shooting the rural and playful documentary Village People Radio Show by Amir Muhammad. Amir is sitting at the front on the photo. He’s wearing a T-shirt for Osians Cinefan, the striking festival of New Delhi. In New Delhi, earlier this year, The Last Communist was screened, also a playfully made film about the role of the Communist resistance in the recent history of Malaysia. Soundman Hardesh Seng, with the largest headphones, is wearing the promotional T-shirt of The Last Communist. The sequel to this film they’re shooting on the photo, just over the border with Thailand, shows the ageing warriors speaking out.

In India, The Last Communist was also screened later, but back home both films are still banned. While they’re shooting here, they’re aware the film won’t be screened in Malaysia. They’re making it anyway in the realisation that the people they’re talking to won’t live forever. Here they are talking to the bodyguard of two old leaders. Every morning the three of them go for a stroll through the jungle village.

I asked Amir about the camera and he commented that this Panasonic DVX102b was exactly the same camera with which Love Conquers All by Tan Chui Mui and Flower in the Pocket by Liew Seng-tat were shot. These were the Malaysians films that confirmed there was such a thing as a Malaysian New Wave. Love Conquers All won both festivals of Pusan and Rotterdam while Flower in the Pocket is preparing to do the same thing. Pusan had already been taken and it’s soon to be screened in the VPRO Tiger Awards Competition 2008 in Rotterdam.

Liew Seng-tat is standing on the right of the photo. He wrote to me through Facebook that he still had to adapt at that time. He came to the village later. As a result he also missed his appointment with the barber. The other three – cameraman Albert Hue alongside Hardesh and Amir – had their hair trimmed in the village for 1 Malaysian Ringit (less than €0.20). On the photograph they therefore look more like serious Buddhist monks than ebellious film makers working on a film that is sure to be censored.

The reason this photograph appeals to me so much is that it encapsulates the secret of Malaysian film. A small number of friends, real friends, not Facebook friends, makes a clever and manageable film with more conviction than means. They do that with concentration, yet totally relaxed. According to cameraman Albert this is also because they had just been swimming in the river and also thanks to Thai whisky. An ageing guerrilla village as the Garden of Eden. Photographer Danny considers the idyllic light to be a photographic mistake with backlighting, but everyone was on it and that’s more important.