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20 Must-See Documentaries On Malaysia’s Biodiversity, Cultural Heritage And Social Realities

Malaysia, with its stunning natural landscapes and rich cultural diversity, boasts a treasure trove of experiences and stories waiting to be discovered. Yet, the demands of modern life, coupled with constraints on time and finances, can sometimes limit our ability to fully explore all that our beloved nation has to offer. That’s where documentaries come into play.

These cinematic works serve as windows into the heart and soul of Malaysia, allowing us to embark on immersive journeys from the comfort of our homes. They unveil the magic of our pristine rainforests teeming with extraordinary wildlife, the intricacies of our society, and the multifaceted tapestry of our culture.

From the resplendent wildlife that calls our forests home to the enduring social issues that challenge us, these 20 documentaries offer a kaleidoscope of perspectives on Malaysia’s past, present, and future. They provide an opportunity for armchair travellers and curious minds alike to delve deep into the heart of our nation, gaining insights, understanding, and appreciation for the wonders and complexities that define our Malaysia.

A Starting Point

#1: Malaysia, The Reserved Side Of Asia

Source: Says

This documentary which is available online on Youtube provides a general look at Malaysia, covering famous landmarks, popular tourist destinations and the various cultures that call this country home. Following an itinerary made by director Pierre Brouwers, this documentary serves as a good starting point for a look at Malaysia’s cultural, historical and natural treasures, from shadow puppets and rubber tapping to Penang’s Snake Temple and Batu Caves.

Watch the documentary on Youtube.

Our Natural Treasures

#2: Layar Liar Malaysia

Created by local production house Nuvista Media, with support from Jabatan Perlindungan Hidupan Liar dan Taman Negara Semenanjung Malaysia (PERHILITAN) and Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD), Layar Liar Malaysia is a 52-episode Youtube documentary series focusing on Malaysia’s biodiversity and giving us a chance to see our amazing animals without leaving our doorstep.

Considered to be Malaysia’s Planet Earth, Layar Liar serves as a platform of knowledge that will be easily accessible to all Malaysians especially school children to create awareness on Malaysia’s rich natural heritage.

The Layar Liar Malaysia series aims to create and increase awareness for Malaysia’s rich biodiversity through clear and visually striking videos. This is important considering the general public’s low level of awareness of our local animals, their elusive nature, and obscure habitats. – Nuvista Media founders Harun Rahman and Lara Ariffin on Layar Liar Malaysia[1]

This documentary series is part of YSD’s efforts to not only protect and preserve with scientific research and ecosystem conservation but also to raise awareness and to educate communities on how to live sustainably with their local environment.

The Layar Liar Malaysia documentary series is part of our ongoing efforts to educate young impressionable minds and the public in general, on the biodiversity that we are fortunate to have in Malaysia. – Dato’ Jeffri Salim Davidson on YSD’s contribution in Layar Liar Malaysia[1]

Watch the series on its Youtube channel.

#3: Finding Solo

Bukit Serdang (Serdang Hill) is an unassuming little hill tucked within the suburbs of Seri Kembangan, Selangor. A popular hiking spot amongst locals, it is most alive during the early mornings: elderly people doing tai-chi, young families immersing themselves in nature, and urbanites getting a fresh dose of fresh air after a long week in the city. 

Less well-known, however, is that it is also home to Solo, a white-handed gibbon that is believed to be the last of his kind in Serdang Hill. Unlike the locals who will be able to enjoy Serdang Hill with their families for generations to come, Solo’s fate has already been sealed: there is little to no possibility of him having a family, and he will eventually die alone.

It was Solo’s sad story that Myles Storey wanted to tell with his documentary “Finding Solo”. Myles’s documentary will help ensure that Solo’s imminent death will not be in vain. By highlighting how similar gibbons are to us (not only do we share 96% of our DNA, gibbons are also capable of experiencing complex emotions[2]), Myles hopes that his documentary will get people to care more about them, as Solo’s loneliness is something that we can all relate to.

I don’t think the documentary has changed perceptions about gibbons because I think most people just don’t know much about gibbons in the first place. But many have told me how it moved them and made them really feel for Solo, which was the purpose of the film. – Myles Storey

I think a lot of people are moved by Solo’s story and they have a newfound appreciation for gibbons. Once the film is released online, I hope it will reach a lot more Malaysians and allow them to realise that there are so many special species in Malaysia that are worth fighting to save from extinction. – Myles Storey

#4: Wang Kelian – The Forgotten Valley

Special show: At the screening of Wang Kelian – the Forgotten Valley documentary at Golden Screen Cinema, LaLaport in Kuala Lumpur. (Source: The Star)

Wang Kelian is a name that invokes a dark memory. For many people, the mere mention of Wang Kelian brings up the worst of human nature and the atrocities of human trafficking.

One project aims to show another side to Wang Kelian. A brighter side that until now was lost to the darkness.

Wang Kelian, Perlis – The Forgotten Valley (Wang Kelian, Perlis – Lembah Yang Kian Hilang) is a documentation project that seeks to raise awareness and appreciation of the biological diversity and nature of Wang Kelian and Kaki Bukit, which are also part of the Perlis state park.

Through this project, the beauty of nature, the uniqueness of biological diversity and the distinctiveness of the local historical heritage of Wang Kelian, Kaki Bukit and the Perlis state park can be expressed in the form of book publications, exhibitions and even documentary films – Tuanku Syed Faizuddin when officiating the Wang Kelian, Perlis – The Forgotten Valley[3]

In addition to a book, the project also created a 30-minute documentary of the same name, shedding light on the region’s biodiversity including the rarely seen stumped-tailed macaque, which can only be seen in the area. Residents and conservationists say the primate is reflective of the area’s natural beauty and they hope that this project can help turn Wang Kelian from an inauspicious place into an ecotourism hub, which would then preserve its unique karsts and forests from exploitation and destruction.

At first, I wanted to read up about the macaques but there was not much information available. So I decided to start documenting them with my friends and posting about them online.

Other residents and Malaysians across the country started to show interest in discovering the macaque and Wang Kelian, and I have been documenting them until [September 16th] – Syamil, Wang Kelian Native[4]

Here’s the trailer for this film.

#5: Borneo Elephants – A Journey Through A Living Landscape

This mini-documentary was featured at the United Nations’ 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Sabah as part of the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD).

The 10-minute video produced by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia, focused on the trials of tribulations of the Sungai ethnic group of Kinabatangan, Sabah as they try to live in peace with the wild elephants of Borneo, despite being haunted by previous incursions of wild elephant herds that led to the destruction of their villages and crops.

The documentary also highlighted the conservation efforts undertaken by Pemuliharaan Biodiversiti Sabah or locally known as ‘Seratu Aatai’ (which means solidarity in the Sungai lingo), which was established in December 2018 with a mission to create a society that is willing and capable to take responsibility to protect and coexist with elephants.

WWF-Malaysia Conservation Director, Dr Henry Chan said the documentary takes the perspective of Bornean elephants in Sabah, of which only 1,500 remain in the wild, as they traverse through the landscape.

It also shows how these gentle giants can co-exist with humans amidst different challenges that both they and their human counterpart face, as well as the LLA as a model of innovative nature-based solutions to protect biodiversity in balance with economic development.

Through its three pillars – Protect, Produce and Restore – the documentary explores the dynamics between people and elephants, highlighting the challenges for both as they share the same space and ultimately showing that a co-existence is sustainable and beneficial in the long term.

In fact, viewers will have the opportunity to appreciate the unique biodiversity that Sabah is blessed with and gain an in-depth understanding of the conservation efforts to continue to safeguard its environment. – Dr Henry Chan, WWF-Malaysia Conservation Director[5]

Watch the trailer here.

#6: Malaysia’s Last Tiger

Source: Malay Mail

The Malayan tiger is our national symbol, but it is threatened with extinction through a combination of poaching and habitat loss. This National Geographic documentary sheds light on the plight of the Malayan tiger and the efforts to protect it.

Malaysia’s Last Tiger” is a documentary that was ten years in the making, made by two Malaysians, director Harun Rahman and producer Lara Ariffin. According to the local filmmakers, the documentary was meant to emphasise the necessity of conserving Malaysian tigers owing to their decreasing numbers in the early 2000s. They also urged fellow citizens to be key players in rescuing the endangered species[6].

#7: The Conservationist

A local documentary focusing on Malaysia’s wildlife. Synopsis from Facebook:

The Malaysian rainforests are home to many rare and precious species. However, how well do you know about them? Explore the vastness of nature & admire the mysteries of our land & sea. Experience one visual feast after another as you take a closer look into the forests and seas to learn more about the daily life of conservationists and the latest situation of various wildlife in Malaysia.

Stream it on Astro GO app & On Demand

#8: Wildest Indochina – Malaysia – Freaks of Nature

Source: TVdb

Wildest Indochina is a documentary series that travels throughout Southeast Asia and the Indochina region, covering the wide array of biodiversity in the countries that make up this region.

This episode focuses on Malaysia and the bizarre plants and animals that call it home from the proboscis monkey and mudskipper to the pitcher plant and rafflesia. The episode goes over the various adaptations these flora and fauna evolved in order to survive in their often dangerous habitats.

Watch it here on the Go Wild channel!

Our Cultural Heritage

#9: The Malaysian Culture

A short docu-drama follows the lives of everyday Malaysians as they go about their daily lives and search for their next meals. While the documentary celebrates our love of food and the various cuisines we get to enjoy in this country, it also shines a light on our wastefulness and how this culture of wasting leads to pollution.

Watch it right here.

#10: Man Hunt – How Indigenous Tribes Live In Malaysia

Source: Says

Man Hunt is a documentary series that follows zookeeper Hayden Turner as he lives with various indigenous communities in order to learn more about their way of life and their hunting tactics.

In this episode, Turner spends 10 days with a Jahai tribe as he learns their survival and hunting techniques and how these people thrive in the hostile depths of the Malaysian jungle.

Watch the episode here.

#11: The Last Nomads of Borneo

Source: SwissInfo

Another documentary focused on the Orang Asli people, “The Last Nomads of Borneo” follows the Penan people of Sarawak as we delve into their way of life and their deep connection with the jungle. Unfortunately, this ancient tradition is being threatened by logging and oil palm plantations, turning the Penan’s way of life upside-down as they are forced to abandon their semi-nomadic traditions and move into permanent settlements as the very forests they depend upon for food and materials are being torn down.

Watch it here on Youtube.

#12: High In The Sky

It took traditional kite craftsman Muhd Azmie Mohd Noor, or Mie, nearly three weeks to complete this 4.6m-wide, 30kg wau bulan in Kelantan. (Source: The Star)

High In The Sky‘ is the first documentary to explore the tradition of Wau (Malaysian kite-flying). The brainchild of Selangor-based filmmaker and documentarian Keshvan Sugumaran, the film follows the day-in-life of traditional kite craftsman Muhd Azmie Mohd Noor, or Mie (as he is fondly called) as he demonstrates every aspect and step involved in the art of Wau, from the making of the kite to the attempts to fly it.

The film explores the historical background of wau kites, and sheds light on how it became one of Malaysia’s most profound symbols of national identity.

The film will also highlight the uniqueness of wau kites compared to other kites in the world. Wau-makers hone their skills for years to become master craftsmen,” says Keshvan, who hails from Sungai Siput, Perak.

Very few individuals are left in Kelantan who can make them by hand. We hope to showcase this traditional art form for the world to see. – Keshvan Sugumaran, filmmaker[7]

Social Issues And The Darker Side Of Malaysia

#13: The Big Durian

Source: World of Buzz

The first (and only) Malaysian film to ever be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Combining documentary with fiction, ‘The Big Durian’ tells the true story of a Malaysian soldier named Prebet Adam, who ran amok with an M16 in Jalan Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur on the night of 18th October 1987.

The Big Durian‘ was screened in over 30 film festivals, including the Sundance, Hong Kong, and Vancouver International Film Festivals and received international acclaim[8].

Watch the full film here on Youtube.

#14: Yen Tappu Illai

Behind the scenes of Yen Tappu Illai. (Source: GoodNews)

Yen Tappu Illai (not my fault), the debut film of Komalavasan  (or Vasan for short), tells the story of an Indian woman in her 20s – how she stood up to her abusive partner and tore down the walls of fear and shame built by a patriarchal, gendered society. It also highlights the tribulations of the LGBTQ society in Malaysian society.

Vasan did not want to just make movies; he hoped that his storytelling would facilitate the empowerment of women and individuals from the LGBTQ community.

I am a listener. And when my female friends would tell me their stories, I knew this needed to stop. Our society cannot keep placing the blame on women. Yen Tappu Illai is my perspective of this harmful reality. – Komalavasan, filmmaker[9]

Catch the film here!

#15: Bukak Api

Meaning ‘open fire’, Bukak Api is a documentary about Malaysian mak nyahs or male-to-female transsexuals. Made by Osman Ali in collaboration with Pink Triangle Foundation Malaysia, the film explores the real lives of Malaysian transsexual and transgendered sex workers as honestly as possible to cultivate public awareness of HIV and Aids.

The film originated as a project by Pink Triangle Malaysia to make a safe-sex video for the benefit of the transsexual, transgendered and sex-worker communities of this fair land. This changed when Osman, who’d then recently graduated from filmmaking, decided to turn it into something more than just a simple documentary.

Through his creative lens, Osman turned the Bukak Api into a full-fledged, 80-minute fictional drama very much rooted in the culture and lingo of the community it seeks to represent and empower, with much of the cast being played by real-life drag queens[10].

#16: The Tree Remembers

Source: MUBI

Derived from the proverb “The tree remembers, the axe forgets,” the film covers the racial tensions in Malaysia, tackling the origin of racism in the country and a taboo subject for most Malaysians, the racial riots of 1969. Special focus was given towards the racial conflicts of the May 13th Incident, a dark day which marked the beginnings of the racial discrimination policies and the practices where victims of this racism were silenced.

The film was shown at the Singapore International Film Festival 2019 and the Taipei Film Festival 2019.

Watch the trailer here.

#17: Malaysia’s Underground Skin Trade

Source: Mongabay

Poaching continues to be one of the biggest threats to Malaysia’s endemic wildlife. Our native snakes and lizards, in particular, are threatened by the illegal trade of their skins for use in making bags, wallets and other accessories.

This 30-minute documentary delves into the dark underground of the Malaysian skin trade and the economic and social reasons for why people fall into poaching.

Watch it here.

Inspiration To Change

#18: Fibrenation Stories – Pak Su: A Helping Hand

Sujana Mohd Rejab or ‘Pak Su’ carrying Muhammad Ziqri Ramadan, one of the children who received a prosthetic arm from the former teacher. (Source: Malay Mail)

This short documentary follows the story of Pak Su (real name Sujana bin Rejab) a former teacher in Kampung Gajah, Perak who taught himself how to make prosthetic limbs thanks to information from the internet.

Thanks to his unorthodox training, Pak Su has created over 50 types of prosthetic limbs for locals and people worldwide, improving their lives and giving them a chance for inclusivity[11].

Catch his story here.

#19: Sampah Merata, Alam Merana

Rijal Rozman is the executive producer of the environmental documentary ‘Sampah Melata, Alam Merana’. (Muhammad Rabbani @ FMT Lifestyle)

A non-governmental organisation called Belia Prihatin is using the power of ‘creative arts’ to raise awareness about nature conservation, with the goal of encouraging the younger generations to act decisively now rather than later in order to protect our natural environments and ecosystems.

As part of this project, they released a documentary titled “Sampah Merata, Alam Merana”, highlighting the issue of plastic pollution, especially in Malaysia.

The group’s president Luqman Hakim Md Zim, told FMT Lifestyle that the documentary is only one part of their “Cabaran Jaguh Bumi” campaign.

Although the focus is garbage pollution, our main agenda is to spread awareness about being responsible consumers. For example, can we choose to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic in our lives? – Luqman Hakim Md Zim, Belia Prihatin president[12]

According to Rijal Rozman, 29, the executive producer of the documentary and secretary general of the NGO, it took over 150 hours to produce the 27-minute documentary, which had footage filmed in Melaka, Penang, Johor, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur and involved a 20-member production crew[12].

The documentary can be watched here on Youtube, but do note it is in Bahasa Melayu.

#20: Bukan Nelayan Gila

Belia Prihatin has over 7,000 registered members aged between 18 to 35. (Source: FMT)

The second documentary made by Belia Prihatin is “Bukan Nelayan Gila” which focuses on the importance of the country’s mangrove ecosystem to the environment and the fishing community.

The documentary follows the story of Illias Shafie, a fisherman from Penang who has planted over 180,000 mangroves over the past three decades.

The documentary is part of the organisation’s “We Be-Leaf Together” campaign. Launched in February last year, the campaign focuses on tree planting, namely mangroves, to help combat climate change.

It’s our way of contributing to tackling global warming. One of the causes is carbon dioxide trapped in the atmosphere, and how trees can absorb carbon dioxide. – Luqman Hakim Md Zim, Belia Prihatin president[12]

The documentary can be watched here. Like the above documentary, it is in Bahasa Melayu.

Explore our sources:

  1. F. Fong. (2021). [Watch] Malaysia’s Own Planet Earth? New Documentary series On Malaysia’s Most Awe-Inspiring Biodiversity. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  2. Gibbon Conservation Society. Link
  3. Bernama. (2023). Regent: Wang Kelian project will help boost ecotourism. The Star. Link.
  4. T.A. Yusof. (2023). Finding Wang Kelian’s treasure trove. The Star. Link.
  5. Bernama. (2023). Bornean elephants: Balancing biodiversity conservation, sustainable development in Sabah. The Borneo Post. Link.
  6. S.T. Raju. (2021). After more than 10 years, local filmmakers complete documentary on Malaysian tigers that pinpoints their extinction. Malay Mail. Link.
  7. D.K. Maganathan. (2020). Simply wau: Malaysian documentary ‘High In The Sky’ chases the story of traditional kites. The Star. Link.
  8. T. Thiagarajan. (2017). 14 Critically Acclaimed Malaysian Films Everyone Should Watch. World of Buzz. Link.
  9. (n.d.). The Filmmaker With A Vision. Link.
  10. Malaysiakini. (2001). ‘Bukak Api’ and feel the heat. Link.
  11. M.R. Raj. (2019). Inspiring and heartwarming Malaysian stories in documentaries on how the internet has touched and changed lives. Malay Mail. Link.
  12. S. Vijayan. (2023). Youths go behind the camera to highlight nature conservation. FMT. Link.

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