Friday, October 8, 2010

Shah Alam Protest

This article has recently appeared in the sun (Oct 7, 2010).
It talks about a protest that took place in shah alam that turned ugly. Here two film makers are talking about their documentary touching on this matter

Shah Alam protest

First-time filmmakers Sheridan Mahavera and Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi talk to Bissme S about their documentary on the cow-head protest, Kisah Tauke Mancis dan Minyak Tumpah.

What motivated you to make this documentary?
Sheridan: As a journalist, I did the story on the protest. (Where protesters marched with a cow’s head). I felt I never got into the real story behind the protest. As I looked at all the reports, a lot of them were superficial. They didn’t go into the heart of the matter. I wanted to write the story behind the story. I did have a vision this story should be a film. But I didn’t have money and the time to make this film. Komas has a freedom film festival where you can submit a proposal and if they find your proposal to be good, you will be given a grant to do your film. I applied and got the grant (RM6,000). I roped Siti into the project because she has script writing experience. We used to work in the same organisation and we worked well together. (Sheridan is now a freelance journalist while Siti is attached to an English newspaper portal.)

Is the documentary going to offer something new?
Sheridan: Yes. Because of the scarce publicity, the protest issue had been framed as one religion against another and one race against another. But that is not the case. It is not a religious issue. It is not a race issue. We are a plural society with many religions. We are one of the most plural societies on earth. It is a mismanagement in the planning of our communities. It is a problem of governance. It is a problem of how Malaysians deal with their history. It is a problem with local authorities in how they organise and plan their communities.
You have to ask yourself why Petaling Jaya doesn’t have any of these problems. In Petaling Jaya, you have temples, mosques and churches and some of them are built next to each other. In Seremban, a friend of mine told me there is a Hindu temple in the middle of a Malay community and the Malays have no problem with it.

Siti: You have other people labelling this incident as a religious issue and not really solving it. When we did this documentary, we talked to a lot of people. We did a lot of research. We found out there is a deeper layer to it. The people of Shah Alam felt cheated because the whole issue has given them a bad light. It is not about them being racist. It is not about them being intolerant towards other religions. The real problem has not been resolved in the last 20 years. They have been living with this problem for 20 years.
I would not like to reveal too much about this problem. It would be like giving away the story. Come and see the documentary. All I can say is the film is supposed to remind us how extremism can easily be fuelled when we fail to understand the context and manage such situations rationally. The temple has been in Section 19 (before it was relocated to Section 23) even before Shah Alam was developed. We have seen the master plan of Section 19 and the temple was not indicated in the plan. We cannot tell the audience what to think. But I can only hope after watching the documentary, people will leave the hall, thinking that there is always two sides to any story.

What is the main goal of this documentary?
Sheridan: There are ethno and religious extremists who want to manipulate you … who want to incite you. Do not be swayed by them. You had a case of a non-Muslim politician entering a surau blown out of proportion. She was invited to visit the surau. She didn’t give any religious talk. She was explaining certain government funding that people can benefit from. People should be mature and should not be swayed by emotional religious manipulation. They should see things beyond race and religion.

Some people may feel you are sensationalising this issue. What do you have to say?
Sheridan: I will argue with that. There are no films done on it. There are not enough articles written on it. People misunderstand this issue. With this film we hope to deal with this misunderstanding … to change people’s opinions about this issue. It is an issue that begs to be dealt with.

Siti: When I write I aim to be objective. I always try to give two sides of the story and it is the same here. Before we even began to write our proposal to Komas to get the grant, both of us went to the ground and did our initial research. I do not want to be accused of riding on the popularity of the story. I do not want to be accused of sensationalising the story. There is a real issue and people of Shah Alam have been fighting for it over 20 years. Till today it has not been resolved. We are portraying their plight.

What is the biggest challenge you faced?
Siti: Both of us are writers with the print media and we had never held a camera before. It took us time to be comfortable telling the story we wanted to tell in visual forms and we had to make it engaging as well.

Both of you have different opinions. How did you solve your differences?
Sheridan: We had a lot of discussions before production began. We sorted out our differences. We made sure we were on the same page with the storyline, on who we wanted to interview, visuals we would use and music. We were co-directors. It had to be our story. If we were not able to sort out our differences, we would not have made this film.

Siti: He comes from a political background while I do general news and human interest stories. Naturally our approaches were different. When we were drafting the concept behind the documentary, we agreed it was not going to be a political documentary. It was going to be about the people … about community we live in. A friend has said this is a film about loggerheads by loggerheads.

Do you think your documentary might be censored?
Siti: We rather not think about it.

Sheridan: I do not think so. The documentary tells people not to be racist. I do not see that as a problem. Do you?

What do you think about race relations in this country? Some people say that it is hostile. Do you agree?
Siti: I do not think we have any major problem in that department. Even the experts we talked to agree with this statement. I do not deny that we have religious extremists. They are a small minority but the problem is we have let the minority voice become louder.

Sheridan: The extremists in this country are a very small minority and that is their weakness. But their strength is that they are vocal while the majority is silent. It appears as if the minority are speaking for the majority. We have to understand that some groups want to create racial problems because it benefits them. They get political mileage. They get into the papers every day. You get into the papers every day by saying crazy things. (We laugh) Seriously, the crazier the things you say, you get into the paper a lot more. It is not to say we, as journalists, like to sensationalise things. People are trying to sensationalise themselves and we are just writing about them.

Some people say we had better race relations in the 60s and 70s. Do you agree?
Sheridan: I think the belief that race relations were better in the 60s and 70s is an illusion. It is like looking at the past through rose tinted glass. After doing a lot of research, I think there was probably a lot more intolerance then. We didn’t have much inter-mingling. The Malays were living in the village, the Chinese were mostly in urban areas and (many) Indians were in estates. We were more separated then. But now there is greater movement between us, it forces people to be more integrated ... it forces people to be more tolerant … it forces people to accept the fact Malaysia is made of different races and you have to deal with it. The whole idea of race relations being better back then is nostalgic. For the people who said the 60s were the golden age of race relations, I like to ask them what happened in 1969?

Does the Shah Alam incident paint a bad picture of Islam as an intolerant religion?
Siti: When I started the project, I thought the social engineering of Shah Alam had caused this problem. The majority were Malays and Muslims. I thought they (the people of Shah Alam) wanted to be the dominant race … they wanted to be the dominant religion. When you dig deeper you will find that is not the case. The Malay people in Section 19 Shah Alam had lived beside the temple for the last 20 years. Even the Indians (in Section 23) were protesting over the relocation of the temple to their area.

Sheridan: The people who stayed in Section 23 did not agree with the protest. They have said this is not what Islam is all about. But a small group of people have hijacked this issue. I hope the film will kill that perception that Islam is intolerant.

Both of you were in the print media. Now you have become documentary makers. Was it difficult to move from one medium to another?
Sheridan: You should try it. It is so much fun. Journalism is always about telling stories. The people you interview are characters and you have a plot line which is basically the issue that you are going to highlight. The only difference is I am telling my stories in moving pictures

Since both of you are Malays and Muslims, some people may accuse you of doing this documentary to justify that Muslims and Malays are not racist in this particular incident.
Siti: We cannot help being Malays and we cannot help being Muslims. But our intention is genuine. We are not putting any record straight. We made this documentary to correct our own perception. We thought it was a race and religion issue. But it is not. We have been fair in presenting the facts to our audience. We interviewed people from the temple, people from current and past administrations and people who stayed in the areas.

Sheridan: If you judge us as Malay and Muslim first, film-maker second, then you are not going beyond race and religion. You should judge people by their actions and not by their race and religion. I think we have been objective in presenting our facts.

What is your next project?
Sheridan: I am working on a book that talks about Islam. It is more like I am writing letters to Muslims; to get them to think about certain things that have been happening in this part of the world; to talk about certain challenges the Muslims are facing; to make Muslims see a broader perspective of Islam than what they have grown up with. The book is part memoirs and part self discovery. Islam has a broad intellectual tradition. For ages, Islam has nurtured mathematics, astronomy, medicine and engineering that Europeans have used to create their renaissance. It is more of getting the Muslims to rediscover a different part of their faith that would probably help them see the world in a different light.

Siti: I am working on a book on Mariam Johari who was stranded in Korea after World War II. During the Japanese Occupation she was abducted and forced to become a labourer. Then she was taken to Korea. In 2007, when she was 84 she wanted to return home. But she lacked the proper travel documents. Finally, she got her Malaysian passport. She wanted to die in her own country. But her dream was not achieved. She died in Korea. Her body was brought back. It is a dramatic story. I think she is an extraordinary woman because she lived in a country not knowing the language and the culture.

The documentary will premiere at the Komas
Freedom Film Festival on Oct 16 at Auditorium
Menara PKNS, Petaling Jaya. For details, go to

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