AFTER being stuck in censorship limbo for nearly a decade, the film adaptation of late playwright Jit Murad’s theatrical masterpiece Spilt Gravy On Rice finally opened in local cinemas in June this year.
The long-awaited release of the film, now renamed Spilt Gravy: Ke Mana Tumpahnya Kuah, was gleefully celebrated by many.
For Spilt Gravy producer Zarul Albakri, however, to at long last get the film permit from the Film Censorship Board (LPF) was very much a Pyrrhic victory as the whole experience had left him so emotionally scarred that he was even thinking of leaving the industry for good.
“I had been producing films in the mid-80s and early 90s before taking a long break...
“One of the reasons why I stopped producing was because the marketplace and cinemas at that time – the mid-90s – were not really in good condition (for local filmmakers). So I decided to wait until things got better,” says the Matinya Seorang Patriot, Kembara Seniman Jalanan and Mat Gelap producer.
When his brother, theatre actor and director Zahim Albakri, approached him about turning the play into a movie, he immediately jumped at the opportunity.
“I'd seen the play before, so to me it was a no brainer. In 2011, we went into production.
“We were not trying to cause any ripples, not really trying to make money either, just trying to break even.
“We had our usual sort of production problems, I had to deal with internal censorship during the production and post-production process and all that, but when we sent it to the censors, I really did not expect to get a letter from them to say that ‘Filem ini tidak diluluskan untuk tayangan kerana ia melanggar aqidah Islam’ (The film is not approved for release because it goes against Islamic beliefs).”
A black comedy about a dysfunctional upper middle-class Malay family, Spilt Gravy tells of a father, Bapak, who is visited by two angels who tell him that it is his last day on earth. Bapak then quickly summons his estranged five children, all from different mothers, for a last family dinner to settle unresolved family matters. The film follows that one day in their life as the children grapple with their personal issues and deliberate on their father’s sudden request.
The LPF did not approve of some swear words in the dialogue, LGBTQ themes and the depiction of angels, among others, says Zarul.
“I really did not expect it at that time. I mean, (for one) the two angels were clearly comedians dressed up in flight attendant outfits...”
What is clear, he adds, is that there is a double standard.
“At that time, I was watching a lot of international movies in our cinemas, I saw many things were allowed, so I thought it would be okay for Spilt Gravy.”
“There definitely is double standard, they were not even trying to hide it.
“Some even said, ‘You know, if you have made your film about Chinese family, sure pass.’
“I know as a producer, I should have done my due diligence and do my research.
"Maybe I should have gone and talked to them first, discussed everything, but then maybe the film would never have been made,” he notes with a wry smile.
Zarul shares that the LPF’s rejection really hit him hard.
“There was a whole bunch of stuff I had to deal with then, so I just went into a rabbit hole after that.
“I just went into a depression, I had a breakdown. I was very angry and I was very stressed. I just didn't know what to do. Because we were not getting anywhere. I did go for a few meetings, I kept going but I wasn't making any progress.
“I just didn't know what to do. We've already invested money in the film and it had already kind of gone over budget. Yeah, it took a while for me to figure out what to do.
“I did speak to some of our community, I went to the producers’ association, and they just said ‘Buat sajalah’, (Just do whatever they ask).
“So at one point, just before 2018. I just decided you know what? Okay, well, whatever they want. Just do it. I already gave up at that time.
“So I went to see them I say okay, whatever you want, whatever you want. I don't want to argue anymore,” he recalled the traumatic time.
Zarul was speaking in the “Sorry, tak lepas...” The Paranoia & Tragedy of Film Censorship talk at the FreedomFilmFest 2022 (FFF2022), which is now on at PJ Live Arts, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, until Saturday, Sept 17. FFF 2022 is organised by the Freedom Film Network (FFN), a non-profit organisation that harnesses the power of films to catalyse social change and human rights for all.
As festival director Anna Har points out, the toll of censorship on the lives of filmmakers are not talked about enough.
“From Zarul’s experience, you can tell that it's not just about technical censorship. How censorship impacts filmmakers is not talked about enough.”
Adds Har, due to the Film Censorship Act 2002, many Malaysian films are never seen as they get banned before they could come out.
“Most of the time, the film is done, but cannot come out. Actually, a lot of people kena cut but never say anything about it.
“For filmmakers, life goes on, so a lot of them don't want to make films anymore. Others find another way to screen their film or they just put it online, and no one sees it.
“We have really good filmmakers and good stories. These could be really important Malaysian stories,” says Har, who is also FFN co-founder.
Another thing that FFN is concerned about is the impact of censorship on ordinary people.
As it questioned: What happens when stories that expand the diversity of perspectives and differ from mainstream ideas are not told on screen?
“We need to be able to see and be exposed to different types of things and perspectives to be able to understand better our lives. So, censorship is everyone’s problem, not just the filmmakers’’ problem. We need to be in this together,” says Har.
With this in mind, FFN embarked on the “Bebaskan Filem, Merdekakan Minda Rakyat” (Free the films, free the people’s minds) initiative, which is a movement to reform the censorship system in Malaysia, around two years ago.
One of the steps taken was to come up with a comprehensive overview of the system, from the legal framework to the impacts on the stakeholders’, including the viewers.
FFN commissioned researchers Dr Thomas Barker and Maha Balakrishnan to conduct the studies, which have been compiled into two reports: An evaluation of the film censorship in Malaysia and Censorship and its impact on the screen industries in Malaysia. The reports were launched at the FFF 2022 session and are available online as well as for sale. For more information go to https://freedomfilm.my/bebaskan-filem/
To get the people’s perspectives, a survey is also being conducted.
“Over 300 people have responded to the survey and around 90% say that they want classification of films, not censorship,” says Har.
To take part in the survey, go to https://freedomfilm.my/survey-for-creative-practitioners-censorship-malaysia/
This Malaysia Day weekend, take the chance to catch the last two days of FFF 2022’s diverse films that bring critical perspectives on the theme of Pandemik Dua Darjat or Pandemic of Inequality.
Says Har, these diverse stories represent a world and a nation during a difficult time and they form a part of its people’s history.
“It is a time to reflect on what happened to us, and to make sense of the challenges that are still ahead of us.”
All screenings will be followed by interactive discussions with the filmmakers or resource persons. Festival guests can look forward to exclusive behind-the-scenes stories, deep dives into the issues and brainstorm strategic actions to support their causes.
FFF2022 will close on September 17 with the latest film by Britain’s foremost political filmmaker Ken Loach. Sorry We Missed You is a story about a hard-up UK delivery driver and his wife struggling to raise a family and make ends meet in the gig economy.
True to the festival’s reputation of giving voice to the marginalised and unheard, this year’s edition will feature 12 Malaysian films supported by FFN that were made during the pandemic. These include four films produced by FFN’s annual grant programme in 2021 and 2022, which will be screened on Sept 16 at 5pm and 8pm.
Grey Scale by urban planning researcher Evelyn The, which is told through the eyes of her 79-year-old aunt who is living alone and growing old in a gentrifying neighbourhood, and whose hardships became more evident because of Covid 19.
In Can’t Run, Can’t Hide, filmmaker Umashankari Yomarakuro spotlights the health and ecological crisis in the once-peaceful and green Kuala Langat district in Selangor as the area is converted into a heavy industrial area. At the centre of this crisis is a group of relentless residents who are campaigning for the authorities to act before tragedy strikes.
Fafa: Perjuangan yang Tak Didendang is by illustrator Amirul Ramthan, who combines creative energies with fellow artist Fafa, to tell a story of the social stigma faced by mental health patients - an issue that they and thousands of Malaysians struggle with.
Journalist Rahmah Pauzi returns to her old secondary school in Jiwa Pendidik, to document the struggles of its under-resourced but passionate veteran teachers to help their pupils who were unable to use remote learning when the pandemic shuttered classrooms.
"If Not Us, Than Who?'' talk and screening of three films by young Orang Asli women filmmakers told from their own perspective and in their own voice about their identity and culture - Selai Kayu Yek, Klinik Ku Hutan and Rahsia Rimba will be on Sept 16 at 11am. These films have premiered in a variety of film festivals, including the Native Spirit Festival (United Kingdom), Chuncheon International Film Festival (South Korea) and Asinabka Film & Media Art Festival (Canada).
On Sat, Sept 17, 11am-1pm, there will be a workshop by award winning documentary filmmaker and former journalist Chan Tau Chou titled How to turn an investigation into a story. This will be followed at 2pm by two films on the struggles of the Orang Asal of Sabah and Sarawak in defending their ancestral land:
* Baliu Kano Kai, which concerns the Punan Ba community in Belaga, Sarawak, who rise up when their ancestral lands are leased to plantation and logging companies by the state government. The film questions whether this is a new form of colonisation.
* Empangan Nenggiri: Suara Bantahan Orang Asli, about a dam being built on Temiar ancestral land in Gua Musang, Kelantan. The authorities claim that the majority of villagers affected by the project approve it. This film shows that there is strong opposition from the tribe that has not been heard.
For more on FFF2022 screenings, please go to https://freedomfilm.my/fff2022/