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8 Malaysian Filmmakers Harnessing The Power Of Film To Tackle Social and Environmental Challenges

It is undeniable that films have, in one way or another, shaped us individually and as a society. Data from the Department of Statistics (DoSM) indicated that Malaysians have high access to digital services across various platforms and devices: 95.5% on internet browsers, 99.6% on mobile phones and 99% via television[1]. Malaysians spend a huge amount of time engaging with media content, making it a great platform to bring to attention issues that matter. Films have the power to educate, challenge perspectives and to connect people through a common cause, expanding their imagination on what is possible and inspiring them to take action.

Recently, the Malaysian film industry has been gaining steady traction and recognition. Malaysian filmmakers and actors are making their mark in the industry: Michelle Yeoh, for example, had just become the first Malaysian to win an Oscar. Apart from Hollywood hits, socially conscious filmmakers are also creating waves in the impact industry, telling stories through their lenses, reaching the masses and prompting action, especially amongst the youth. 

Here are some Malaysian filmmakers to look out for: 

#1: Anna Har: Exposing Injustice and Raising Awareness On Human Rights 

Anna is the co-founder and director of Freedom Film Network (FFN), an NGO 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 (UDHR) in Malaysia[2]

We cover human rights issues in Malaysia – too many to mention – but in general it would be about democracy, freedom and non discrimination. – Anna Har[3] 

Source: Malaysiakini

With a background in broadcasting and visual anthropology, Anna is active and passionate about exposing injustice and shedding light on human rights issues in Malaysia. Under her helm, FFN has not only produced many thought-provoking documentaries that highlight the unseen, unheard and unknown but have also mentored and supported budding filmmakers in producing ‘social films’, which FFN believes can return the power to the disenfranchised and marginalised in the society.[4]

Video was one of the creative mediums that we could use to enhance education, awareness and advocacy of human rights. We also use other creative methodology and media such as cartoons, role play, photos and creative writing.  Anna Har[3]

Perhaps the most well-known event held by FFN would be the Freedom Film Fest, Malaysia’s first and only international human rights film festival since 2003. Featuring films such as Gadoh, Bangsa: Manusia and most recently Pandemic Dua Darjat, the Freedom Film Fest has not only been the go-to platform for aspiring social filmmakers to showcase their talent but has also provided the unique opportunity for filmmakers to attend capacity-building sessions and masterclasses by renowned documentary producers and filmmakers.[4]

Anna shows no signs of stopping or slowing down and is actively working on ensuring that Freedom Film Network remains independent, and provides a safe space for Malaysian stories to be told. She believes that such a space must be defended, ensuring that all voices can be heard for a more inclusive Malaysia. 

Source: The Vibes

We work together as a team and form a model where social filmmaking will be sustainable. It is important to defend a space like this where you can talk freely about human rights issues and important issues that cannot come out from the mainstream media. – Anna Har[4]

#2: Myles Storey: Highlighting Malaysia’s Biodiversity through Documentaries

Source: LinkedIn

Myles is a budding British-Malaysian wildlife filmmaker, with a background in Zoology and Filmmaking. Based in both Bristol and Malaysia, his love for wildlife and filmmaking were cultivated by his parents, who themselves are creatives. His mother, Sabahan Jennifer P. Linggi, is the author of The Kampung Legacy, which documents and celebrates the art of weaving traditional North Bornean Baskets, and is also the deputy general manager of the Sabah Cultural Board.[6]

Both my parents are creative people. I would not be where I am today without their support and encouragement. Seeing my mum pursue her interest in traditional crafts and eventually writing and publishing her book was also very inspiring to me at a young age. – Myles Storey[6]

Myles’ recent documentary, Finding Solo, captures his journey in tracking down what is believed to be the last white-pawed gibbon residing in the urban forests of Serdang Hill. It was also recently selected as part of the 46th International Wildlife Film Festival in the US, a film festival that champions wildlife filmmakers and challenges conventional expectations about the conservation of wildlife and habitat.[7]

Source: YouTube

Despite only being 15 minutes long, Finding Solo is a film that has captured the hearts of many with its universal themes, and one that will definitely start the discourse on enforcing wildlife protection, highlighting the urgency of taking immediate measures to address such issues before precious animals go down the irreversible path to extinction. 

Solo’s story is ultimately about loneliness, something we can all relate to, especially in recent years. I believe that in order to get people to care about nature and wildlife, we first have to reach their hearts and I hope Solo’s story will be able to do that for some people. – Myles Storey[6]

#3: Ash Raja: Rekindling a Love for Malaysian Small Towns

33-year-old Ash Raja is the founder of Smalltowns Malaysia, a page that features unassuming, quaint towns in Malaysia. Ash and his co-founder, Jon Dexter are videographers with a long friendship that dates back to their university years and have delved into the world of documenting Malaysian small towns unexpectedly in the middle of the pandemic, where the pair was left in Tioman Island for three months. 

Source: The Star

What they discovered within those three months was how the full-time residents of Tioman truly valued each other. 

People in these small towns don’t really care about race, skin colour, or religion. It’s so wholesome that we would like to capture and share it with the country. – Ash Raja[8]

The duo’s short-form videos on TikTok and Instagram do more than just showcase the beauty of Malaysian small towns. Ash also sees them as an opportunity to bring visibility and hopefully more livelihood opportunities for small businesses. 

Source: The Star

Because of the pandemic, a lot of people couldn’t go back to their hometowns, and the people who relied on tourism for their work as their primary source of income were suffering. I realised that using this skill that we acquired and we were blessed with — why not use it for something good? – Ash Raja[8]

Ash has big dreams for SmallTowns Malaysia. More than gaining international recognition, he wants to inspire people, especially Malaysians to explore their own country. 

We hope our videos will generate more patriotism and love for our country. –Ash Raja[9]

There is still a long way to go on how we can help further promote local tourism. But these videos are getting people interested in exploring Malaysia, especially smaller towns. It has helped many people realise that our country has so much more to offer. – Ash Raja[9]

#4: Lily Fu: Amplifying the Voices of Malaysia’s Elderly 

Gerontologist Lily Fu produced her first documentary, Meniti Senja: the Twilight Years, at the age of 72. Proving that age should not be a hurdle for one to take action on what they believe they were meant to achieve, Lily felt it was her mission to tell the stories of elderly, abandoned citizens and to debunk ageism one stereotype at a time, she spent hours teaching herself the basics on videography during the pandemic and filmed Meniti Senja in 2020. 

Source: Amazing Seniors

I realised that passion combined with action breaks down the age barrier at any time. An instance is when I decided to go back to school. I realise that if I were to dispense advise on dementia, who would listen to me without the credentials? The best way to get things moving was to get a relevant degree so people would listen to what I have to say. – Lily Fu[10]

Meniti Senjar recounts the stories of seniors who are left to care for themselves in a care facility located in the suburbs of Puchong, abandoned by their children and far from the comforts of home. 

Source: IMDB

In a society where cash is King, destitute elderly have no power, no voice and no rights. – Lily Fu[10]

Lily has long been a passionate advocate for ageing well, and the secret to that is to constantly acquire new skills or undertake new experiences to stay healthy and active. She is also the founder of Seniors Aloud, an online community that aims to provide seniors with an avenue to network online and share their life experiences.[11]

Busy at work with making a new film, a community book project and setting up a permanent learning centre, Lily hopes that older Malaysians would pay more attention to their well-being and free themselves from limiting beliefs.

I hope older Malaysians pay more attention to their health and finances, be more open to new learning, and remove the limiting”I am too old to…” mantra. Conversely, seniors must also voice their needs. If they don’t have a united and strong voice, who’s going to hear them? – Lily Fu [10]

#5: Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli: Breaking Negative Stereotypes of the Orang Asli

Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli is a collective of young Orang Asli women that strive to tell stories of their people through film. These filmmakers, such as Sherry Tan, Yaliyana Lenab, Eliana Tan and Maranisnie Mohsin saw the need to create visibility around their people through film. With modern media platforms such as Youtube, they started creating short films that showcased their people and told their stories in a narrative that was representative. 

Source: Freedom Film Network

We’re producing short films with powerful messages for all Malaysians. – Yaliyana Lenab[12]

The young women of Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli have produced multiple short films together, such as Klinik Ku Hutan and Selai Kayu Yek that explore the unique relationship between nature and the Orang Asli. 

We want to tell Malaysians that the forest is important to us. We preserve the biodiversity of the forest and its treasures so we can maintain our beliefs and practices, and we’re able to pass on the traditional knowledge and practices to future generations. Yaliyana Lenab[12]

Apart from making short films, the ladies also produce YouTube videos that feature their individual tribes, alongside their unique customs and traditions. 

The short videos we produced are about our communities and specific to each tribe. For example, I am from the Jakun tribe, so I produced content about what our traditions, language and food are like, and the traditional concepts we practise. – Eliana Tan[13]

#6: Mohamad Alshatri Bin Abdullah: Advocating the Abolishment of the Death Penalty

Mohamad Alshatri Bin Abdullah is an aspiring filmmaker passionate about making films that highlights human rights issues, especially that of the death penalty. An activist since his youth, he helped organise multiple students movements rallies and also conducted workshops to encourage his fellow schoolmates to get involved in the fight against injustice. Upon graduation, he started working with Suara Rakyat Malaysia(SUARAM), an NGO dedicated to defending the ‘universality, interdependence and indivisibility of all rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural’.[14]

His work, Peluang Kedua, which was chosen to be screened at the Freedom Film Festival in 2022 explored themes of the death penalty, and how it affects not only the incarcerated individual but also their families. A strong and moving work, it has gained him recognition and he has been currently focused on police and prison reform in Malaysia. 

Source: Freedom Film Network

With the recent abolishment of the death penalty in Malaysia, Mohamad Alshatri hopes for reforms in the way Malaysia tackles the problem of addiction and drug use. 

I hope our politicians will use reason and hope to break our main chains and take the first step toward solving the problem of addiction and drug use in Malaysia. It also brings closure to thousands of inmates who are waiting for their fate, uncertain of their future. – Mohamad Alshatri on Twitter[15]

#7: Mien.Ly: Speaking Up for ‘Silenced’ Voices in Malaysia

Yew Min Lor, who goes by Mien.Ly, wears many hats: not only is she a filmmaker, but she is also a lecturer, a Chevening Scholar, and a partner at the Srikandi Seni, a creative arts and media company dedicated to making content that empowers marginalised voices in Malaysia such as women, girls, and indigenous peoples.[16] 

Source: Srikandi Seni

With a MA in Gender Studies from the University of Sussex, Mien’s films often explore ‘silenced’ themes surrounding the female gender, such as child marriages and sexuality. She is also passionate about empowering other NGOs and communities in video-making for advocacy, education and community-building.[16]

#8: Ineza Roussille: Bringing Malaysian History to the Big Screen

A partner at Srikandi Seni, Ineza’s first feature documentary, M for Malaysia, which she directed and co-produced, explores the historical Malaysian election of 2018, where the newly minted Pakatan Harapan toppled one of the longest-ruling governments in Asia, Barisan Nasional. M for Malaysia was screened at film festivals all over the world, including the US, New Zealand, and Korea. It was even Malaysia’s official entry for the 2020 Academy Awards.[16]

Source: Srikandi Seni

Ineza is also the granddaughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Initially reluctant to shoot this documentary, she soon realised that she had the privilege of providing unique access to many behind-the-scenes moments of the historical election. 

It was obviously a hugely important moment, I needed to use my access because nobody else would be able to do that. – Ineza Roussille[17]

Apart from M for Malaysia, Ineza has also worked with local and international NGOs, such as UNICEF, the Joint Action Group on Gender Equality(JAG) and Justice for Sisters to produce documentaries that focus on LGBT, Women and Children’s rights.[16]

Explore Our Sources: 

  1. Soya Cincau. (2022). The definition of “Watching TV” in Malaysia is taking on a new meaning today compared to yesteryear. Link. 
  2. MPAFast Track. (2022). Anna Har Bio. Link
  3. Engaged Media. (2012). Featured Filmmaker: Anna Har, Komas. Link.
  4. Freedom Film Network. Link
  5. The Vibes. (2023). Freedom Film Network announces 2023 Fellows. Link
  6. Issu. (2023). Myles Storey. Link.
  7.  IWFF. (2023). Link
  8. SAYS. (2023).  Videographers Capture CharmingVisuals Of Small Towns Across Malaysia Bursting With Beauty. Link.
  9. The Star. (20230. Two Malaysians make videos on small towns to highlight their hidden gems. Link
  10. Amazing Seniors. Lily Fu: A loud voice for seniors. Link
  11. Seniors Aloud. Link
  12. Freedom Film Fest. 2021. The Orang Asli women’s journey.  Link. 
  13. Eco-business. (2023). Our own narratives told: Through the lens of young Orang Asli filmmakers. Link
  14. SUARAM. What does Suaram mean by human rights? Link. 
  15. Twitter. Link
  16. SriKandiSeni. Link
  17. Prestige. 2019. Cover story: Saying it like it is with Datin Dian Lee and Ineza Roussille. Link. 

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