RUJIAH Sami considers herself as just an ordinary person. But to over 70 stateless children, she is an angel.
Every day, they squeeze in a baking hot shack with a leaky roof to learn from her. Rujiah is their teacher, and she has been running the school to provide basic education to stateless and marginalised children living in her community in Sabah for about four years.
This is one of the Malaysian stories captured in a documentary film that will be screened at the FreedomFilmFest (FFF) 2018, Malaysia’s leading annual international human rights documentary film festival, which will be held at the PJ Live Arts in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, from September 29 to October 6, 2018.
The plight of Rujiah and her stateless students is featured in Aku Mau Skola, directed by Putri Purnama Sagua – one of this year’s FFF Film Grant recipients, whose films tackle three areas in Malaysia that require immediate attention.
The other two recipients are Lawrence Jayaraj who looks at the maternal healthcare in rural Sarawak with his documentary The Story of Kam Agong, and Low Watan who deals with the rights of the different-abled to an independent and dignified life in his In The Dark.
All three films, slated to premier on the festival’s opening night on Sept 29, are based on this year’s festival theme, “Mend the gap”, which draws inspiration from the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s principle that “no one should be left behind”.
In light of the recent changes in our political landscape and in the spirit of Malaysia Baru, FFF aims to harness the power of film and great storytelling to create more awareness and empathy; and facilitate a deeper exchange between groups in order to close these gaps and inspire real change, says Anna Har, executive director of the Freedom Film Network (FFN).
FFN is a not-for-profit body established to support and develop social documentary filmmaking within the context of freedom of expression and values contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Malaysia.
Last year, FFN took over the organisation of the festival from FFF founder, human rights organisation Pusat Komas.
Since the festival was conceptualised and established in 2003 as a creative platform to promote human rights and social filmmaking, it has supported and showcased a diverse lineup of bold and brave documentaries tackling multiple issues and highlighting various human rights abuses in the country.
Unsurprisingly, the festival was perceived somewhat negatively by the previous administration.
Today, however, there are those who feel that with the rise of people power in the country in May, there could be less need for human rights and social documentary filmmaking here.
“Human rights are universal and the need to document violations are important no matter who is in power and holding truth to that power is something that filmmakers in Malaysia will continue to do,” she says.
As she sees it, the work of documentary filmmakers in the new Malaysia is only just beginning.
“The Pakatan Harapan government have pledged in their manifesto to support human rights and so this is our moment to hold them to account on that, and to make visible the issues that need to be addressed. Our stance as documentary filmmakers won’t change, we will just continue to uncover and follow the stories that need to be told.
“The same as it was in the ‘old Malaysia’, documentary filmmakers’ role is to tell stories, to highlight issues and to raise awareness,” she reiterates.
In fact, Har is optimistic for the documentary filmmaking platform to grow in the new political era.
“There is a feeling that the space for expression and debate has been opened up now we’ve had a change of government, so hopefully more filmmakers will feel empowered to come forward with stories that they want to tell.
“Filmmaking is a fantastic tool for engaging with the public at large.”
But there are those who simply feel tired of issues and politics after the tumultuous 14th General Election – what does FFF offer them?
Says Har, the great thing about the sort of documentaries that they screen at FFF is that they cover a wide range of topics that really matter.
“We’ve got uplifting and empowering documentaries as well as serious and hard-hitting films, which aim to inspire change.
“As well as screening documentaries, we bring filmmakers and protagonists from across the globe to share their stories personally, so it’s an opportunity for members of the public to learn about issues in depth.”
There is a range of thought-provoking documentaries by Malaysian filmmakers that are must watch this year, she adds, singling out the three FFF Film Grant winners as those with “really important stories to tell”.
The Story of Kam Agong follows Lawrence’s wife Agnes Padan, who takes a long journey back to her Lun Bawang village in Long Semadoh, in the interior of Sarawak, to piece together what happened to her mother, Kam Agong, who died shortly after she gave birth to her eighth son, Jordan, 16 years ago. Agnes’ journey reveals a story of severe medical negligence that led to Kam Agong’s eventual painful death.
Through The Story of Kam Agong, we get a glimpse of the state of maternity healthcare available to villagers living in rural areas of Sarawak, says Har.
In The Dark revolves around blind masseurs Ken and Penny. It provides us with an intimate observation of two people and moves us away from stereotypes, focusing instead on their strengths, dreams and hopes for the future, she notes.
This year’s FFF Film Grant recipients were selected by a panel of judges comprising filmmaker Tan Chui Mui, R.AGE deputy executive producer Elroi Yee and human rights activist and filmmaker Arul Prakkash.
Yee was particularly touched by Lawrence’s heartfelt pitch, as he told FFF, “It’s a personal story that this filmmaker persisted with for so long...I think that persistence was also what struck a chord with us.”
For the festival, the FFN has also identified some of the other gaps facing young people in education, says Har.
One is the education of orang asli girls, who will share their experience in an oral storytelling workshop.
In collaboration with the Federation of Reproductive Health Malaysia, the FFF will highlight sex education, or the lack of it in the country, with Ask The Sexpert by Vaishali Sinha and Kantoi by Adam Zainal.
Other local documentaries on show include Firefly by Lau Kek Huat which tells of ethnic Chinese Malaysians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: as they traversed the lands in the South China Sea, and Poca Boy by Sevan Doraisamy, which chronicles the life of Ang, a 16-year-old boy who has been under house arrest for more than a year and is forced to walk around with an electronic monitoring device fitted to his leg.
Powerful international documentaries will also be showcased at the festival, but this year, FFF hones its attention on some of the lesser reported issues facing Palestine: women’s role in the struggle for freedom in Naila and The Uprising by Julia Bacha, and the first woman judge in the middle east’s Shariah Courts in The Judge by Erika Cohn.
Each film screening will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker or a main protagonist from the documentary. Local experts will also be invited to contextualise issues and engage with the public.
International filmmakers whose documentaries will be screened during FFF2018 will also be conducting expert masterclasses and sharing their international perspectives on filmmaking, including Joakim Demmer (Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas), Huang Hui Chen (Small Talk) and Olivier Pollet (The Panguna Syndrome).
Those looking for a brand new watching experience can try FFF’s bicycle- powered cinema in collaboration with Biji-Biji Initiative.
But for Har, it’s the “old” tradition of storytelling that is the main attraction, and she hopes the new dawn in Malaysia will usher in more freedom of expression and freedom of information.
“I hope that we won’t have to consider film censorship an issue any longer and that the new government will understand the need for a free media environment.
“There are still laws that that violate the rights to FOE and FOI that need to be reviewed or repealed, and this should be done with urgency,” she says.
FreedomFilmFest 2018 will travel to Georgetown, Muar, Johor Bahru, Manjung, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Singapore between October and December 2018. For more information and updates on FFF2018, please go to: https://freedomfilm.my