Pushing patriotism via films

  • Letters
  • Friday, 26 Aug 2016

IT has been written that patriotism is about protecting the land we live in while nationalism is about protecting the way we live. During the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, patriotism was defined as devotion to humanity. For example, providing charity, criticising slavery and denouncing excessive penal laws were all considered patriotic.

Many contemporary notions of patriotism are influenced by 19th century ideas about nationalism. Paul Gomberg, a contemporary scholar of ethics, has compared patriotism to racism. He argues that the primary implication of patriotism in ethical theory is that a person has more moral duties to fellow members of the national community than to non-members. Patriotism is therefore selective in its altruism. Gomberg notes the view (in ethics) that moral duties apply equally to all humans, which is known as cosmopolitanism.

Theories and philosophies aside, to put it simply, isn’t a man who loves his country both patriotic and nationalistic? But how does one express his love? Does he march with his fellow men and wave the flag of his country? Does he sing or play out loud the national anthem of his country? Does he argue about how devoted he is to his country? Do these acts of patriotism make him more patriotic than his fellow citizens?

For many generations, people in the art scene have demonstrated this patriotism in perhaps a creative and artistic way through their stories. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, Lord Rama tells Lakshmana “Janani Janma Bhoomischa Swargadapi Gariyasi (Mother and Motherland are greater than heaven)”, which greatly lays the foundation for consciousness of patriotism among Hindus.

Over time, the way the stories are told evolved – from drawings and paintings to oral storytelling (also known as penglipur lara in Malaysia) and from writing to plays (bangsawan, makyong, and wayang kulit) right to when a medium known as motion pictures or film came into existence in 1895.

The first 11 years of motion pictures had the cinema moving from a novelty to an established large-scale entertainment industry. The techniques, effects, narrative, and film continuity have been further developed. Film has become an interesting and effective way of storytelling for it captures at least two of the five senses instantly – sight and hearing. Not only is a film a medium for storytelling but it has also become a medium for propaganda.

A film, as with a book or other possible medium of art, has the ability to produce and spread fertile messages that, once sown, will germinate in large human cultures. In the 20th century, a “new” propaganda emerged which revolved around political organisations and their need to communicate messages that would “sway relevant groups of people in order to accommodate their agendas”.

A propaganda film is a film, either a documentary style or a fictional screenplay, that is produced to convince the viewer of a certain political point or to influence the opinions or behaviour of people, often by providing deliberately misleading, propagandistic contents.

Perhaps it is worth knowing how to differentiate between a film that is propagandistic and one that is patriotic because many a time, films that try to sell the idea of patriotism are instead perceived as propaganda. This is usually apparent from the political point of view, and more so when the film is funded by the government of the country.

The 1950s was considered the golden age of Asian cinema. Many of the most critically acclaimed Asian films of all time were produced during this decade, including Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.

During this era, Malaysia (then Malaya) also saw the blossoming of the legendary P. Ramlee who, in 1955, acted in and co-directed what was to be Malaysia’s first ever patriotic film, Sergeant Hassan. The film revolved around the life of Hassan who joined the Malay Regiment Army and later fought against the Japanese occupation in Malaya. Not until about 26 years later was another film of a similar genre produced when Jins Shamsuddin directed and acted in Bukit Kepong. Nineteen years later in 2000, Aziz M. Osman made another such film based on a real life hero, Leftenan Adnan.

The beginning of the new millennium saw serious efforts of the Government through the National Film Board (Finas) to produce patriotic films with the production of Erma Fatima’s Embun and Adman Salleh’s award-winning Paloh in 2002 and 2003 respectively. The renowned filmmaker Shuhaimi Baba helmed two such films, 1957: Hati Malaya and Tanda Putera in 2007 and 2013 respectively.

Apart from all these films that tell stories of the pre-independence years and are directly patriotic and nationalistic in nature, there are also others that are more subtle in their patriotism and nationalism values. These include Jamil Sulong’s Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (1983), Bade Hj Azmi’s Bilut (2005) and Chiu Keng Guan’s Ola Bola (2016).

Certainly, the meaning of patriotic films goes beyond the ordinary definition. Some may argue that even the most modern film, such as Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet or the most slapstick one such as Razak Mohideen’s Anak Mami, carry in itself the values of patriotism and nationalism.

Thus films, in addition to entertaining the people, do play a greater role of instilling patriotism and nationalism among the people. And as we celebrate Malaysia’s 59th independence, we can celebrate patriotism and nationalism by way of film-making which will not only travel throughout the country but beyond our shores as well.

We shall not waste our efforts in categorising which of the Malaysian films is national and non-national but we shall embrace the nationalistic value in the film itself for this is what being patriotic and being nationalistic is about.


Kuala Lumpur

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