KUALA LUMPUR, May 17 – Honesty and balance.
These are the two points that Ineza Roussille and Dian Lee have stuck to throughout their making of the documentary film, M for Malaysia.
Tall order for the two women who have close connections to the topic of the film, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Roussille is his granddaughter while Lee is a close family friend — her father is business tycoon Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew.
M for Malaysia is directed and produced by Roussille and Lee.
The candid documentary film highlights the intense drama of last year’s general election and the historic takedown of Barisan Nasional by Pakatan Harapan.
It has made its way into two international film festivals — Caamfest in San Francisco and Academy Awards-qualifying DocEdge in New Zealand.
“We both are fully aware of our position. Hence, when we decided to turn the footages into a documentary, we agreed that we have to be honest about it,” Lee added.
“The intention to make this film has always been for the people of Malaysia, and to make a film that the future generations would watch and be inspired of what we can achieve together.
“We believe that if we make this documentary with the right intention and with all honesty, it will make a good film.”
Lee also hoped that the documentary would serve as a reminder to all governments that the power is ultimately with the people.
“It should also be a reminder to all Malaysians that we could achieve a peaceful change of power through the ballot box. This is democracy,” she added.
Commenting on PH’s performance over the past year, Lee said she thinks the government still needed more time to turn around the economy.
“I think it’s an unprecedented uphill task to correct what has been wrong for 61 years,” she added.
“It’s not easy to get past race and religion because we were divided since the British colonial times where the practice was ‘divide and rule’.”
Interestingly, its idea was triggered with just a phone call two weeks before the watershed election day.
Recalling the days leading up to GE14, Roussille said the idea surfaced when Lee called her mother, Marina Mahathir, asking if there was anyone following Dr Mahathir with a camera to document his efforts for the country.
“Since nobody was doing so, Lee put together a small crew, and my mother called me asking if I’d like to help out, considering I could be by my grandad’s side and ask him questions while filming,” she added.
That was the beginning of Roussille’s and Lee’s 16-day expedition to record 90 hours of footages surrounding the election.
“We initially didn’t have much of a plan on what to do with all the footages until Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the elections and we realised the importance of the documentation we had done,” said Roussille.
Shortly after PH’s landslide in the election, the production crew moved on to conduct additional 20 interviews with various politicians, civil society leaders and other Malaysians to put together a narrative of what has become a 93-minute feature documentary film.
“It is a decades-long, complicated story that we had to squeeze into 93 minutes, but I hope we’ve done a good job in telling a balanced story of one of the most significant moments in Malaysian history,” she said.
Although Roussille admitted that she was reluctant to do the project as she did not want to be that close to the political machine, she said she was surprised at the positive reactions of Malaysians towards her grandfather.
Having had unprecedented access to Dr Mahathir throughout the campaign, Roussille said she was overwhelmed by people’s support at the rallies, especially in Melaka, where she got to sit in the car with her grandparents on the way to the rally.
“The traffic was quite bad getting close to the rally, and the car was almost static, so my grandad rolled down his window and started shaking hands,” she added.
“As we got closer, the crowd around the car just grew and grew until we were completely engulfed. The noise, and emotions of everyone surrounding us was just so overwhelming.
“It then took us almost 10 minutes to walk from the car to the stage, through the crowd. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment and feeling.”
Breaking onto the international scene
After about a year of post-production works, the documentary was recently showcased at Hong Kong International Film and TV Market (Filmart) and also premiered at Caamfest, which has received an overwhelming response from the audience.
A massive shoutout to all the Malaysians who came last night. You guys were the best audience! 🇲🇾♥️ Let us a note to tell us what was your favorite part of the film in the comment below 👇🏻 #caamfest37 #mformalaysia . #mformalaysia #mformaruah #mformasadepan #mformultiracial #womendirectors #womenfilmmakers #asianfilmmakers
Promising a story of power, reconciliation and hope, Lee said the audience can expect a uniquely Malaysian political story.
“We touch on some of the political history and baggage of the main PH players, as well as the people’s movements like Bersih.
“It will also feature Dr Mahathir’s journey through the ups and downs of the campaign, including intimate moments of him and his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali,” she added.
With an overall production cost of about RM2 million, Roussille said most of the post-production work took place in Kuala Lumpur.
“We also spent about three weeks in Hong Kong with Oscar-winning filmmaker Ruby Yang for the editing works.”
“Considering we have two cuts of the film (local and international cut), Yang’s assistance was invaluable in helping us see the edit of the international cut through a foreign perspective – what would and wouldn't make sense to a foreign audience who might not know anything about Malaysian politics,” she added.
Lee also highlighted that a big chunk of the budget went into procuring all the archives that build the film’s background and context leading up to GE14.
“We knew we wanted to submit the film to festivals, and have it in Malaysian cinemas, therefore a lot of the cost went into making the film cinema-worthy,” she added.
Other members of the team include Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir (executive producer), Los Angeles-based music composer Rendra Zawawi and Sebastian Ng (editor).
The film is scheduled for screening at DocEdge in New Zealand on May 30, in Auckland on June 2 and in Wellington on June 14 and 16.
Roussille hinted that the film is currently securing a release date for screening in Malaysian cinemas.
“We are working on obtaining a release date for Malaysia, but, it has been harder than we thought trying to convince the [cinema operators] that Malaysians will want to see a political documentary in the cinema,” she added.