Celebrating freedom and sharing social concerns through films

AUG 20 — If film is a medium to raise social consciousness and at the same time entertain, then concerned and curious Malaysians are promised a visual and intellectual feast of documentary films in the 14th FreedomFilmFest that will be held from today until August 27 in Petaling Jaya.

Blind to elements of ethnicity and language, this festival will — as is the usual case — screen films that revolve around the issue of human rights from all over the world, including our very own home-grown ones.

This film festival, organized by non-governmental organization KOMAS, is not the typical glitzy event that is graced by performers in their outlandish costumes to accompany the movies that they appeared in.

Instead, the razzmatazz of this particular festival manifests in the offering of 30 films that conform to this year’s overall theme of What Lies Beneath and address contemporary and pressing issues of national and international import such as food security, refugee crisis and the increasing threat of terrorism.

There are documentaries that put the spotlight on the war in Syria, Germany’s open-arms refugee policy, Indonesia’s six-religion administration, as well as rare views into Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Kenya and even Estonia.

On the home front are three documentaries that will be premiered at the festival: Kisah Pelayaraan ke Terengganu (Voyage to Terengganu) is a travelogue film that is based on the scathing observation of Munshi Abdullah regarding this north-eastern state. This documentary was co-directed by Amir Muhammad and Badrul Hisham Ismail.

Second is a documentary directed by Nova Goh; Unlocking Bengoh tells of three families who lived in Sarawak’s Bengoh valley and were then evicted from their ancestral land so as to allow for the construction of the Bengoh reservoir dam.

This relocation is indeed a high price to pay in the name of development, which other indigenous groups are also facing in other parts ofthe country.

Furthermore, the displacement of natives has other serious implications such as land erosion. Incidentally, a documentary (The Borneo Case) in the festival deals with the destruction of the Borneo rainforest which certainly has wide-ranging consequences on the environment, while another (The Disappearing Hills) examines the deforestation of Cameron Highlands and pollution of rivers there.

Third, Stories From My Father, under the direction of Ashleigh Lim, is about a father, who was detained for six years under the draconian Internal Security Act, and shared his experiences during detention with his daughter. He was caught for his involvement with the Labour Party which was later outlawed because of its pro-communist tendencies.

This film, which also recorded the father’s experience after detention and his life with the family, should serve as a grim reminder of the law’s gross violation of human rights that can cause untold damage to one’s life.

True to its underlying objective of educating the general public via films, KOMAS has introduced in this year’s festival a series of five interactive forums called The Freedom Talk Series. This is to give an opportunity for the audience to deepen their understanding of a particular major issue that comes under the selected themes of the festival.

And as promised by the organiser, this festival will witness video activists dealing head-on with issues that are vital such as religious extremism and terrorism. Hence, for instance, we’ll get to see a documentary (Among the Believers) about a Pakistani firebrand cleric, an ISIS supporter and Taliban ally, who is bent on imposing Shariah rule in the country. In his missionary zeal, he recruits children as young as four years old.

But not all is negativity with religion as documented by video activists, as demonstrated by director Norhayati Kapriwi in her documentary, Bangkit Dari Bayangan (Rising from the Shadows). In this film, the wife of an Indonesian religious leader rises to prominence as a leader of her pesantrean in this patriarchal society, battling various challenges in her endeavour to push for gender equality and inter-religious harmony.

Challenges were also felt by a group of American nuns who were deliberately put under the supervision of conservative bishops after they tried to court “radical feminism." In this documentary, Radical Grace, the Vatican ruled that feminism is incompatible with Catholicism. 

To reiterate, this festival not only aims at showcasing the best of the films concerned but also to educate in more ways than one. Hence, there is also a slot, i.e. Video for Change (V4C) forum, that intends to build capacity of video enthusiasts and activists in South-east Asia through sharing skills and experiences.

Given that the countries in our region share some similarities in the area of human rights, the event will culminate in a regional panel on censorship and freedom of expression.

To add to the excitement of this event, the festival will also be attended by film-makers Marcus Vetter (Germany) and Sean McAllister (United Kingdom) as well as film-makers who are based in South-east Asia. The festival will also feature masterclasses.

These films go a long way towards promoting the important elements in our very existence: human rights, freedom and compassion.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.