Fact or fiction?

  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 15 Sep 2013

A worker cleaning a poster of the movie 'Tanda Putera' at a local cinema. There has been controversy about whether the film depicts a true, or whitewashed, version of history. - AFP PHOTO/Mohd Rasfan

A film about May 13 has many points of contention. So what really happened on that black day?

MY mum makes great home-cooked meals – and then she spoils them by “improving”. She likes the extra taste nuts give most of her recipes, be it salads, main courses or desserts. I say, “it’s fine as it is, keep the dish simple”. For me, what you leave out is as important as what you put in.

This feeling extends to the recent film, Tanda Putera, which has been accused of distorting history with the addition of controversial scenes. The criticism is mostly aimed at the first third of the film, depicting the rioting of May 13, 1969, when fights between Chinese and Malays in Kuala Lumpur left hundreds, if not thousands of people dead.

The rest of the film is about how then deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak dealt with the aftermath.

Subsequently, it recalls how Tun Razak as prime minister dealt with a string of personal tragedies, including the unexpected death of his close friend Tun Dr Ismail and Tun Razak’s private battle with leukaemia until his passing in 1976.

As a film, I commend it for the clear amount of effort shown by all involved, yet despair at the opportunity lost for greatness. Good acting carries the story through a few truly emotional moments, but ultimately it feels like a litany of facts and events, obscuring whatever personal story it is trying to tell.

As for the complaints of historical inaccuracy, I should point out that many movies based on history take liberties with the truth.

For example, take the film Argo which recounts the rescue of Americans trapped in 1970s’ Iran.

Several scenes were manufactured just for the film (including one where the group risks going out to a bazaar in Teheran, and another when armed jeeps chase down the plane as it is taking off) and the movie also glorifies the role of the United States, while downplaying the hard work done by the Canadians.

But the reshaping of facts didn’t harm the movie’s ability to win three Oscars.

Nevertheless, it is good for people to sit up and ask how a film tallies up with historical records. The event generating the most controversy is the depiction of Chinese youths urinating on a flagpole bearing the Selangor flag. I, too, wonder about this, as I can’t find any historical record of this happening, let alone who was responsible for it, and where it was done; I would be very interested to know what the basis of that scene truly was.

On the other hand, just because something isn’t recorded, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. For example, there is a scene in the film where Chinese men attack the patrons of a cinema and lock the doors so the victims can’t get out. The official report on the May 13 tragedy produced by the National Operations Council (NOC) is very brief about what happened at the cinemas.

However, I know something like this really happened because I have a relative who was at a cinema in KL on that day.

Her story isn’t in any of the official documents or the newspaper reports of the time, but her emotions of that night are more real than anything I saw in the film or read in any report. The truth carries its own weight when spoken by somebody who was really there.

In actual fact, most of the discussion over the last few weeks has been by politicians and not historians or eyewitnesses. As an example, Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz had stated that the film was very well researched and that “it is a historical fact that the riot was sparked by Chinese” – something that overlooks the fact that the first killing seen in the movie on May 13 was of a Chinese by a Malay.

In response, Lim Kit Siang in his blog wrote that “no well-researched and historically faithful movie would have concocted a total lie” and that “there was simply no such incident in 1969 where ‘DAP campaign workers kill an Umno campaign helper two weeks prior to the general election’.”

On one hand, the MP for Gelang Patah had stated the truth when he wrote that no DAP worker killed an Umno worker in that year. On the other hand, on April 24, 1969, three weeks before the general election, an Umno member named Kassim bin Omar was indeed beaten up and murdered, and with the words “Don’t vote in the elections” painted in red near him. The assailants were suspected to be Labour Party members.

The opening scene of Tanda Putera recreates that event, but does not identify who the attackers were or what their affiliation was. It seems disingenuous to take that scene, imply that it said something it did not, then boldly deny that no such event took place in order to condemn the filmmaker and the film as a whole.

But of course, a politician understands how important it is to keep your message clear, and perhaps the complex facts of history interfere with the point you are trying to make – much like the dilemma faced by filmmakers.

In trying to understand our history as a nation, perhaps we should base our discussion not on a film, or what politicians tell us, but let those who lived through those times share their memories with us.

South Africa did something similar with apartheid through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where witnesses, both perpetrators and victims, testified about their experiences and all were guaranteed amnesty for whatever crimes they admitted to.

Indeed, the recipe for future peace and progress depends strongly on how much truth we put into the mix. There is a place for commentary and analysis but surely those who come up with their own opinions should be kept separate from those of us who want to know what really happened.

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Opinion , Tanda Putera , May 13 , Racial riots


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