SIFF '09: MALAYSIAN GODS Review

During the mini-seminar session, director Amir Muhammad mentioned that Malaysian Gods had been passed without cuts back home, but also not permitted to be publicly screened. It's no surprise to this as he admitted, given the buzz the authorities had unwittingly created because of their banning of his earlier film The Last Communist. Strategy-wise, Malaysian Gods had adopted the same approach as Amir's earlier documentaries, which consists of visiting the actual sites where the movement had began and demonstrations had occurred, and interviewing people in talking heads fashion in a more natural setting. There's a slight departure here though, where interviews are not with figures directly involved in the events presented here.

What we have instead is a documentary told in chapters commemorating the 10 years since the Malaysian Reformasi movement began in 1998 starting with the protests led by Anwar Ibrahim after his sacking from his Deputy Prime Minister post. For non history buffs, the documentary provides some insights that began from the past, and had its eye firmly focused on the 8% of the Malaysian population who are ethnic Indians with Tamil as the common language between them.

Told in chapters, the film plays out like reading a history book, with inter-titles cluing you in on specific historical events, before bringing you back to its present day location, and conducting interviews with some everyday folks. The narrative moved from place to place where significant events had happened, and interviewing what could probably be the most colourful character the filmmakers could find in the vicinity, such as the kacang (nuts) seller, contractors, salesmen, cinema operators, and your man on the street who just happens to be out on a date. In terms of venue, we get to see prominent landmarks like the National Palace, the KLCC park, the Chinese Assembly Hall, KL's oldest Tamil cinema, and it goes right down to the simple barber shop right around the corner.

While it might seem quite random in picking off people from the streets and talking to them, there's a method in that when asked some pointed questions about the location's significance, or whether the interviewee had been involved in those events in one way or another, there are a few interesting nuggets of the human psyche which unfolds. I guess in today's economic climate, everyone's more concerned with their personal rice bowl issues, and can only remember things that hit closer to home rather than mass protests or demonstrations which seem like a disruption to economical pursuits.

Either that, or they are personally guarded from freely discussing those issues since a video camera is pointed in their direction. However, you can see that while everyone has their own issues to air, those of the older generation tend to be more reserved and afraid of repercussions, compared to the younger generation who are not afraid to discuss them quite directly and speak their minds on things they feel are going against them, such as the education system. I suppose when push comes to shove, they are more than willing to express themselves than to continue keeping quiet, and this in itself perhaps gave way to a representation of what we've been seeing in the political climate up north, with some drastic changes to the landscape already made.

The film is never dry, and is rife with wry humour throughout in true Amir fashion. Against the backdrop of a downfall of a leader and the rise of his party and movement, one can find some rib-tickling moments either from the interview subjects themselves, or from the subtitles which you have to pay some attention to, as illustrations pop up like easter eggs, and you have to look quite closely for things like skewed logos. Or a shot of a car I found quite amusing as the driver clearly violated traffic flow direction, and found himself turning into the Traffic Police HQ.

If you've enjoyed Amir's previous works like The Last Communist, and Village People Radio Show, then grab any opportunity you can get to watch his latest film, before he embarks on an announced filmmaking hiatus.

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