(This article o' mine appeared in The Sun in a Merdeka pullout, where various people speculated on how Malaysia will be like in 50 years' time).
14 films were released in Malaya in 1957; they included the first Pontianak (which has since been lost) and the first Bujang Lapok. Both films spawned many sequels, imitations and tributes.
Over 30 films will be released in Malaysia in 2007. In contrast to the class of ’57, they will be in several languages and shot with different formats (ranging from consumer-level video to traditional 35mm).
On the one hand, it’s futile to talk about what Malaysian cinema should be in 50 years’ time. Firstly, because I will most likely no longer be around and will therefore not give a toss. Secondly, because technology would have changed so much that the shape of film-making and film-watching will be quite inconceivable to our contemporary selves.
Who would have thought, even a decade ago, that an irreverent Internet video that riffs on our national anthem can be viewed and discussed by more people than the RM3.5 million failed blockbuster Diva? This shows that the paradigm of film reception has shifted under the noses of bureaucrats and market researchers alike, and this can only be a good thing.
But if I were to put on my pointy wizard’s cap, I would say that the main change would be that Malaysian cinema will become plural: Malaysian cinemas. Like in India, there will be a diversity of languages and experiences. But hopefully, unlike in India, there will be interaction between the various camps. Because, after all, it’s good to talk.
In 2057, everyone will be a film producer, because everyone can produce their own environments and contexts in which film is made and received. There will be a proliferation of voices, from the libertarian to the fascist. There will be the crassly mercenary, the nobly altruistic, the shamelessly narcissistic and combinations thereof.
If you don’t like something, you just switch to another channel, and by ‘channel’ this will include media forms we have not even begun to imagine. The censor will become increasingly irrelevant because there will be no economic imperative to maintain content control. And when there is no economic imperative, things tend to disappear.
This also means that films in various languages will qualify as Malaysian films, unlike in the present, where films not in Malay are taxed as foreign productions. This has less to do with the forces of bureaucracy getting all benevolent on us, but because there will be economic benefits to making and exporting stuff in many ‘Truly Asia’ languages, including English.
There would have been many other Malaysians who have screened at the Cannes Film Festival by the time of its 110th year. There will even be Malaysians who have been nominated for Oscars, albeit for working on American films. These Malaysians (depending on how politically pliable they are) will get Datukships and rake in the moolah by conducting motivational workshops. This, more than anything, will persuade middle-class parents to send their kids to film school and scream at them if they choose medical school instead.
But even film schools will be redundant. Broadband and piracy will have become so efficient that a Felda kid would have watched all the world’s classics by the age of 20. And she would have read all the necessary texts for free somewhere, as a Felda kid has to be nothing if not resourceful.
Although I would have most likely kicked the bucket, I wish I could watch the films made by the children of fresh immigrants who now wait on our tables and fill up our petrol. The best stories will come from them, as they will see the country in a way that we, who have lived here for generations, take for granted. They will help us see things that we literally do not see. Along the way it will help break up the tiresome Malay/Chinese/Indian hegemony that we have been saddled with all along.
In 1957, most of the films were directed by expatriate Indians and Filipinos. In 2007, there are also expatriate directors working here, although they are now in the minority. In 2057, the notion of the nation-state and national identity will become so fluid that these distinctions cease to matter; everyone can contribute depending on talent, which includes the talent for survival. After all, that is how Hollywood started – and continues to flourish.
Of course all this sounds very roseate. For all we know, we could end up with a Taliban-style system which bans films altogether, in which case any discussion of its possible shape would be moot.
But film, among many other things, is an act of love. The very fact of recording something is also an act of faith: You believe that this will survive somehow, and be seen. So that is why we are children of hope.