Quality? Restrictions are not the way to go!

cinema

This report by The Rakyat Post has been making its rounds on soclal media since yesterday. It concerns Finas (National Film Development Corporation) and its plans to enforce a new rule in July next year where “low quality” films will not be eligible for “wajib tayang”. For those not in the know, “wajib tayang” requires all local films to be given a compulsory two-week theatrical run.

When I met and interviewed Datuk Kamil Othman, the director-general of Finas, early this year, he told me of the idea, and I thought it was a good one.

But now, I’m having second thoughts about it. There are huge problems that I foresee.

Originally, “wajib tayang” was put in place as a form of protection for local productions against foreign ones such as Hollywood blockbusters. It was a good move, of course. Other countries have employed screen quotas to protect their domestic productions – South Korea, Brazil, France, Italy. The UK started its screen-quota system way back in 1927. And most infamously,  China had its “protection month” which allowed only local films to be screened in a two-month peak period.

While it wasn’t exactly superbly effective, what happened with “wajib tayang” was that all and any local film was given this privilege. It would seem Finas – and Kamil, in particular – felt that “wajib tayang” could also be used to ensure that local films are of a certain quality. Hence, starting in July next year, the quality of a film would be a criteria to determine whether a film is eligible for “wajib tayang.”

But what exactly is the definition of “good quality” is anyone’s guess. That’s just one problem. Another, which has been pointed out by various parties, is just who will be sitting on the panel that evaluates a film’s quality. This particular one is the most worrying problem for the industry practitioners.

But I also see more problems with this new rule.

Cinema-1

Firstly, and I doubt anyone has noticed yet, allowing only “good quality films” to be given “wajib tayang” (otherwise, you go work out a deal with the exhibitors yourself, or go straight to a DVD or Blu-ray release) is akin to a second censorship, as a friend of mine pointed out. First, the Censorship Board determines the content of your film and whether it is suitable for viewing by Malaysians. With this new Finas rule, it means that even if your film is passed by the censors, it won’t necessarily get a theatrical release. If Finas determines that your film is not up to standard, then you’re screwed.

Two layers of censorship.

Already, we have to put up with the censors telling us what we can and cannot see with our own eyes, and here we have Finas telling us what we should and should not see. Something is not right here.

I think the right thing to do is to let audiences decide what is “good quality” and what is “no quality”. Let the market forces of supply and demand determine that. After all, there have been bad films that made a lot of money. Audiences loved them. Finas is taking away the audience’s right to choose.

And how do you determine good and bad qualities anyway? There are films made with small budgets that trump even Hollywood blockbusters that look sleek and stylish. And big-budget films that did nothing for anyone. Take, for example, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Love is Colder than Death (1969). At first glance, it looks like a really bad film. But there’s more to the film that meets the eye. Take a look at any of Robert Bresson’s films, and at first glance, the acting looks horrendously stilted … until you understand what Bresson was trying to do.

That is why you need to just let the audience decide. Some might get what a certain film is trying to do, some might not. That is infinitely better than playing gatekeeper and telling people what they should see.

Another problem I foresee is that financiers and investors would be more cautious than they need to be. If you’re going to put a lot of money into a product from which you expect to make an ROI, you sure as hell won’t want to play Russian Roulette with it. If I were an investor, I would go for tried and tested formulas and filmmakers. That means established filmmakers and production companies would get richer and have more opportunities, while the smaller and newer ones would fall by the wayside.

And also, you’ll probably get the same kinds of films, with no one daring to challenge the industry with untried ideas. This will lead to stagnation. At the end of the day, you end up no better than when you started.

I really think Finas should study this further and think it through more thoroughly. There are other ways to ensure that Malaysian films improve in quality. I always like to point to South Korea as an example (ya, again!). The Korean Film Council started the Korean Academy of Film Arts in 1984 as a training ground for creative professionals, at the same time that South Korea also had its screen quota. They never had to determine the quality of a film. They simply started from the ground up, that is, with the filmmakers themselves. If you notice, all South Korean films have a certain quality to them, and you can sit through even the bad films simply because they’re so good to look at. To me, it shows the importance of training.

Kim-Jee-woon

And it’s not about inviting foreign professionals to hold workshops and labs and whathaveyou, like what Finas is doing now. It’s having a proper learning and training institution that produces highly qualified professionals. The Korean Academy of Film Arts website says:

Within KAFA’s creative and unique educational atmosphere, the students are put through arduous programs to become the best in their field.To date, KAFA has produced more than 600 graduates who specialized in directing, cinematography, producing and animation, and the graduates now serve a central role in Korean cinema.

And that’s how you ensure the future quality of your industry and cinema.

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