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Muting a film and covering the subtitles is censorship.

When the Malaysian film board said that it will mute five parts of the dialogue in a film, and cover the subtitles, isn’t that censorship?

According to the censors,  the film, ‘The Story of Southern Islet’ will be screened uncensored (Lulus Bersih). You and I may disagree.

So when is muting or covering the dialogue not considered a form of censorship?

At last month’s 57th Golden Horse Film Festival in Taipei, 42-year-old Chong Keat Aun, won the Best Director award for the film which he wrote, and was the actor-director.

The semi-autobiographical film, ‘The Story of Southern Islet’ was inspired by his childhood memories of living amongst the Malay padi farming community, in Alor Setar. It explores the various spiritual beliefs amongst the main ethnic communities in Kedah.

The film has also won four other awards. The International Critics Prize (FIPRESCi Prize) at the Golden Horse Awards from The International Federation of Film Critics. The Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema (Netpac) award. The Observation Missions for Asian Cinema Award from the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Executive Committee. Last September, the film was awarded Best Picture or best film at the Istanbul Film Awards.

When contacted by telephone, Chong said, “When I was in Taiwan, they were fascinated with the wayang kulit, which I had portrayed in the film. They wanted to know more about its origins and why I used this theme in the film.

“In Malaysia, the censors were more interested in censoring the film.”

On the day ‘The Story of Southern Islet’ won awards,  Chong received congratulatory messages from FINAS and the Communication and Multimedia minister, Saifuddin Abdullah. They said his film would be featured at the closing ceremony of the 4th Malaysian International Film Festival (MIFFest), which has been scheduled for early next year because of the Coronavirus lockdown.

However, on the following morning, 19 November, Chong received a telegram from the Malaysian Censorship Board, saying that 12 cuts would be made to the film.

Chong said, “My interest is in our cultural heritage, the arts, dialects and why we should preserve these and not let people forget about them. I am an anak-Kedah, and I am keen to tell the whole world about our (Kedah) wayang kulit Gedet, which is different from the Kelantan wayang kulit.”

The third-generation Malaysian Chinese said that he was inspired to make the film, by an incident in his childhood in Kedah. He said, “My father had an illness that was difficult to explain and treat, when I was 10 years old.

“My mother sought the help of doctors, and various medicines to cure him. She even consulted various shamans and this film is about my mother’s difficulties and sacrifices to help treat my father.

“It is not a horror story, but there are many tearful incidents throughout the episode of trying to find a cure for my father who is now almost 80 years old.”

Chong has successfully weaved his childhood experience with the agricultural and cultural aspects of Kedah’s folklore and history. He was keen that cinemagoers should learn about the Gunung Keriang legend and he said, “Anyone who visits the mountain, which is a limestone outcrop that rises out of the surrounding flat padi-fields can see that the hill is shaped like an elephant.”

Keen to inform others that he is not trying to promote supernatural beliefs or be anti-religion, he said, “I am trying to promote the rich culture of the Malays of Kedah, their legends and history which few people talk or even know about. Close to the border with Thailand, the cultural inheritance of the people has been influenced by the Thai and Malay traditions as well as the traits of the ancient Langkasuka kingdom.”

Chong was keen to discuss the rituals of those who grew padi and revered the “semangat padi” and the manner in which farmers prepared for the harvest and erected a jelapang padi, which is a small structure beside the padi fields for the padi deity. These are no longer seen in Kedah, as most farmers have moved their jelapang padi structures to the backs of their houses.

It is common knowledge to many Malaysians that gods, humans and shaman coexist. The film is a fantasy film and is not about religion.

The irony is that Chong a Chinese, is keen to promote Malay culture.

He is using modern film techniques to showcase the wayang kulit, a thousand year old tradition of telling stories.

The other irony is that viewers are interested in the cultural inheritance and diversity of that particular community of Kedah, in the 1980s, but the censors are more interested in silencing him.

Hopefully, the decision to mute ‘The Story of Southern Islet’ will be reviewed.

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