Staff Blog

Why Film Festivals Matter

Freedom Film Festival

In today’s era of accessible streaming of films and videos at home and the decreasing domestic movie theatre audience, one may wonder on if film festivals have become obsolete.

If you were able to attend any session during the recently concluded Freedom Film Festival in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, and were exposed to the harsh realities and struggles of people from other cultures, it is hoped that you think otherwise–that film festivals continues to act as an eye-opening bridge among cultures in this increasingly polarised world.

For 16 years, the Freedom Film Festival has remained as the only independent human rights film festival in Malaysia. It has been a platform in showcasing issues and ideas that cannot be mass-communicated due to local laws and cultural taboos.

In a recent interview with EngageMedia, Anna Har and Brenda Danker of the Freedom Film Network explained the objective of this year’s festival through its theme “Mend the Gap”. According to Har and Danker, the festival did not only show films but also engaged the audience during screening discussions. These discussions encouraged dialogue among the audience, filmmakers and the families of the subjects of the film. As a result, members of the audience were emotionally motivated to campaign and work towards a solution. This sharing of energy and emotions acted as a catharsis for people who, being compartmentalised in their own society bubbles, are usually not aware of or have a different view of the problems of the sufferings of the marginalised people around them.

On 29 September 2018, the opening day of the festival, a film from Lao Democratic Republic, “the Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone”, a documentary dedicated to victims of state-enforced disappearances worldwide, was screened. It narrates the life and work of Sombath, a development worker from Lao Civil Society, who promoted sustainable development in poor rural communities in Lao after returning from the US completing his studies. He went on to receive the 2005 Magsaysay Award for Community Development.

The documentary highlights the tragedy of Sombath’s disappearance on 15 December 2012, and its chilling aftermath. His wife Shui Meng Ng obtained a CCTV footage which vividly shows the Sombath’s abduction from a police station in downtown Vientiane but the government subsequently denied any involvement after international pressure. People are still asking, “What happened to Sombath Somphone?”

Sombath's niece and Anna Har

After the screening, Sombath’s niece came from Laos and went on stage to contextualise the film and engage with the public. Also present in the discussion were Thomas Fann of Engage, a citizen action group based in Johor, Malaysia, and Susanna Liew, the wife of Malaysian Pastor Raymond Koh who was mysteriously abducted in February 2017. To many members of the audience, it was surprising to learn that Malaysia also has its history of enforced disappearances. In fact, it was known that at least four people, social activist Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmi and his wife Ruth, have disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the past few years.

Where are they?

Enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity. Worse, the victims’ families and their communities are faced with distressed and anguish not knowing when and if their loved ones will return.

Another notable mention is the film “Menunggu Masa” (Waiting For Time) which was directed by S-Ploited. It was screened on 6 October 2018, the last day of the festival. The film highlights the highly controversial topic of the abolition of death penalty in Malaysia. Malaysia’s criminal law provides for death by hanging in several types of offenses including murder, drug trafficking, treason, and waging war against the King.

A 2012 public opinion survey by the Death Penalty Project (DPP), in association with the Malaysian Bar Council, found that “Malaysians believed in the death penalty but were not willing to mete it out”. To add, there is the apprehension about mistrial and injustice because of perceived corruption in different sections of the police and the judiciary.

FFF Screening

Menunggu Masa (Waiting For Time) talks about a Tamil Malaysian named Mainthan, who has spent the last 14 years on death row, along with three other suspects, after being convicted of a murder he claims he did not commit. The film revolves around his family, sons and daughters showing their struggles to make ends meet and how they found hope in different stages of the judicial trial. There were various questions raised in Mainthan’s case:

“One is who is this victim? The identity of the victim was raised at the first review application made by Mainthan and it was dismissed. Subsequently, a person who claimed that he was the only victim turned up in late 2016, but the new evidence was also dismissed by the courts. A total of 19 different judges have heard Mainthan’s case since 2004.”

But Mainthan remains behind bars and awaits the death penalty along with 1,266 other prisoners waiting to be executed any day. More worrisome, Malaysia, according to Amnesty International, has a reputation for meting out death sentences in secrecy.

After the screening, the family of Mainthan was present for questions, which later became an emotional moment for the audience. Some Malaysians in the audience admitted that the case was unheard of. At the same time, they were faced with the realisation on the repercussions of death penalty– there is a possibility that an innocent person may face the gallows due to loopholes in the trial. With this, the audience agreed to highlight and advocate the abolition of death penalty in Malaysia and committed to help the family in this troubling time.

Coincidentally, within days of the screening, on October 10, 2018, the Malaysian cabinet announced that it would be tabling a bill to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia. In addition, the Government has imposed a moratorium on all pending executions until the death penalty is abolished.

FFF Registration

This change shows that film festivals do not only serve as a platform to screen films to a wider audience, but can be a starting point to influence an impact. These help in highlighting and distributing filmmakers’ work and inform and engage with the audience about issues on a larger scale. This is why the world needs more festivals such as the Freedom Film Festival: to inform and inspire a wider audience, cultivate an interest in independent films, and become a place of discovery for struggles that our neighbors face which we often fail to see.


Growing Ecological Perspective in Movements with WALHI Jatim

Gold mine

WALHI Jatim is the East Java regional executive of the biggest environmental movement in Indonesia. Founded in 1982, WALHI Jatim began as a pressure group fighting for rights of community groups and environmental awareness, consisting of non-government organisations and independent collectives within the province.

In July 2018, EngageMedia had the opportunity to join one of the movement’s initiative involving the residents of coastal village in Banyuwangi, a regency located at the easternmost tip of Java. Dubbed as “School of Ecology”, the initiative produces informal learning circles in villages and urban poor areas. These learning circles are also accessible in other pockets of settlements where there are environment and human rights crises; mostly due to development projects and pressure from the manufacture and extractive industry.

People who joined the School of Ecology at the time of EngageMedia’s involvement were villagers who rely mostly on the capacity of land and sea for farming, fisheries and beach tourism. There were also guest students from Laskar Hijau, a community-based organisation known for their resistance alongside farmers against destruction of forests by big companies. Laskar Hijau will host the next learning circles in their area, following the initial design of knowledge exchange among student-participants.

Moun T Pitu

Afandi, WALHI Jatim’s Head of Advocacy explained that the initiative stemmed from a criticism that the perspective of ecology is often overlooked in developing curriculum for victims of environment destruction and natural exploitation. Afandi said in front of the class:

We tend to focus on the anthropocentric impact which can mislead our movements to how much companies or government can compensate the victims. Enriching our perspective in ecology means that we as humans are part of the nature’s equilibrium. Even without companies and government destroying our natural surroundings, an individual already has the power to cause destruction with as simple as regular use of synthetic fertilizers.

The hosts for the current round of the learning circle are victims of a massive mineral exploitation in the coast of Banyuwangi, who were involved in the resistance of mining activities around Mount Tumpang Pitu. The mining company uses the Heap Leaching method to mine gold which poses a very high risk of damaging the environment, which includes the humans. The Heap Leaching method requires the use of cyanide.

The curriculum includes lessons and discussions on the residents’ previous practice in organising protests, training in statement writing, and identification of action steps when legal repercussions.

Previously student-participants were also introduced to basic skills especially for simple write-ups such as press release or protest statements.

Staff Blog

Singaporean Artist And Activist Seelan Palay Convicted for Art Performance

Seelan Palay

Artist and activist Seelan Palay was convicted by a Singapore court for taking part in a public performance.

Last year, on October 1, Seelan Palay was arrested outside the Parliament House in Singapore for displaying his performance art piece “32 Years: The Interrogation Of A Mirror”. The authorities deemed the performance was in tribute to former long-time political detainee Chia Thye Poh in commemorating his first arrest in 1966 for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities against the Singapore government. However, Seelan maintains that “32 years” refers to his age at the time and it was merely a peaceful, harmless performance.

Seelan’s application seeking permission for the performance was approved by the National Parks Board (NParks) of Singapore but they restricted the permission to the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park. The court convicted him for the offense of continuing his performance beyond Hong Lim Park at the National Gallery and Parliament House. On October 3, 2018, he was sentenced to pay a fine of $2500 or in default to serve a jail term of 2 weeks. He chose not to pay the fine. He is now serving his two weeks in jail.

According to Teo Soh Lung at The Online Citizen:

“In 2009, parliament enacted the Public Order Act to further restrict free speech, assembly, and expression. In 2016, it enacted the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act which further restricts free speech and expression. In between many laws have been amended to restrict freedom of the people.”

During British rule, an unlawful assembly was deemed comprised of five or more people whose intention was to commit an unlawful act. However, in 2009, the Singaporean parliament ruled that even an individual could constitute an unlawful assembly and an unlawful procession.

Freemuse, an independent international organisation advocating for and defending freedom of artistic expression wrote in an open letter to Ms. Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth of Singapore, and mentioned:

“The Constitution of Singapore states that “every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression” and that “all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms”. However, a concerning trend has emerged where Singaporean authorities are criminalising protests of all magnitudes and punishing dissenting opinions that are expressed through art, such as those expressed by Mr. Palay.”

Amnesty International has issued a statement saying that the conviction of activist for art performance is an attack on free speech.

Note: Seelan Palay was a staff member of EngageMedia from 2012 -2017.