PETALING JAYA, April 30 ― Banning the screening of documentaries keeps Malaysians inside their “cocoons” instead of learning more about the world, a local activist has said.
Lena Hendry said screenings of human rights documentaries ― generally not shown on television channels ― are important to create greater awareness for a better society.
“So how do we actually show these films to society, to actually say there's something happening in your backyard. The indigenous people are being persecuted; the plantation workers are evicted from their homes; there is an urban poor community. How is society going to know when these films are not going to be allowed to be screened?” she asked at a public forum on film censorship last week.
From her personal experience, Hendry said there were multiple obstacles that impeded the local screening of documentaries that presented an alternative to the accepted portrayal that made it seem as if such screenings posed a “threat to national security”.
“But these screenings are for the betterment of the society. It's for us to know what's happening, instead of all of us living in cocoons, working and going back home and not knowing what's happening around us. And when things get worse, we go to coffeeshop and sit down and complain until the cows come home and nothing happens after that,” she said.
Hendry questioned who would actually be protected when there is censorship by the Film Censorship Board (LPF), noting that such measures could end up protecting those with certain interests at stake and who lodge complaints against films.
“But are we actually protecting the society?” the former Pusat Komas programme coordinator asked, asserting that society’s interests are ultimately not protected by censorship if it seeks to control people’s thoughts and ideas.
Hendry, who was fined RM10,000 for screening No Fire Zone without the LPF’s prior approval, said a scrutiny of the banned list shows many contain certain ideologies that “may not be wrong, but it's wrong for certain individuals or certain groups”.
She related that she and two others were arrested four years ago after the Sri Lankan embassy here complained about the private screening of the war documentary that presented the final weeks of the decades-long civil war there.
While others have subsequently screened the same documentary here, only Hendry was prosecuted and found guilty in the end. Hendry is currently appealing against her conviction while the public prosecutor’s office is seeking a heftier penalty, her lawyer New Sin Yew confirmed to Malay Mail Online.
Hendry urged the LPF to provide clearer guidelines and broaden their perspectives on films.
Films as educational tool
Film producer and educator Brenda Danker highlighted the role of films as a teaching tool that provide voice to communities such as women, children, workers and even facilitate conversations on environmental issues.
“In classrooms, films are used to spark discussion, especially topics that may be difficult to grasp or are unknown to them. And in our screenings we found the audience curious but yet they are sceptical, they don't just accept what we present in the films, they ask questions.
“Through films and discussions, we are building a critical and thinking society. So we find that films are essential in building a progressive society where we can find diverse views and we also have this capacity to form an analysis and where we have a space where we can ask questions,” the Freedom Film Network director said.
Danker said academics and screening venues were increasingly wary of documentary screenings after Hendry’s conviction.
“They have started feeling a little nervous and they feel they too are at risk, so they ask us, 'Do you have a permit for this film? Did you have a permit while you made this film, who made this film?' So it seems we are moving towards self-censorship,” she said.
To strike a balance between the need to ensure national security and the protection of freedom of expression, she advocated “ethical principles and best practices” as the solution.
Such best practices would involve the LPF being independent and having clear indicators to evaluate a film, as well as the practising of responsible filmmaking with journalistic institutions acting as watchdogs and with academics going back to their purpose of educating, she said.
Independent filmmaker Tan Chui Mui said Malaysians have to keep pushing back against censorship to prevent society from regressing.
“It's really because no one will offer freedom on a plate to you. You really have to fight it, defend it and push it. Because we keep on stepping back, I think maybe it's being very mild and polite to say we are not progressing, we are actually regressing a lot,” she said.
Another local filmmaker, Nadira Ilana, said filmmakers should make a stand against censorship as they shouldn't have to skirt around the LPF or live in a culture of fear and resort to releasing their films online.
“To me as an independent filmmaker, I'm also wondering, does that mean the future of my films is going to be on YouTube instead of cinemas? What happens when you kill that atmosphere of watching the films together, of going to festivals, of going to cinemas; and everybody wants to watch Youtube at home or stream films, contributes to piracy instead?” she asked.
Tan was among the panel speakers at last Thursday’s forum on “The Future of Cinema and Censorship in Malaysia”, which was jointly organised by Pusat Komas, the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights and the Freedom Film Network.