Something I read online this morning prompted me to write this post. Filipina filmmaker Bianca Balbuena, one of the producers of Singing in Graveyards, the acclaimed debut feature by Malaysian filmmaker Bradley Liew (she also co-wrote the screenplay with him), lamented about the Malaysian censors demanding eight cuts to the film.
Anyone who’s been paying attention would know that there’s an upcoming local film festival, awkwardly named MIFFEST (Malaysia International Film Festival), happening from Feb 28 till March 4, and culminating in the even more awkwardly named Malaysia Golden Global Awards (who comes up with these names?!).
Singing in Graveyards is one of the films selected for the festival, and with the eight cuts demanded, it’s uncertain how the filmmakers will respond, Balbuena’s upset online response notwithstanding. There’s word that another film has been removed from the festival because of cuts, but I cannot confirm that.
This is the situation faced by every single film festival that has ever been organised on these shores, and censorship is also the main reason why Malaysia has never had, and can never have, a proper film festival.
Some would still remember the time when Tsai Ming-liang’s sex musical, The Wayward Cloud, was selected for competition at the (shortlived) Kuala Lumpur International Film Festival, in 2007 if I remember correctly. Everyone knew there was no way the film would ever be screened to the public, and the final decision was to only screen the film behind closed doors for the jury. I believe this was the first time in the history of film festivals that a competition film wasn’t allowed to be screened for the public. As ridiculous as it was, it really did happen.
I’m not going to argue about the evils of censorship and how censors will ruin the human race. But when you allow censorship to dictate what people can or cannot see, you’re simply saying you do not trust your own education system to create a mature society that can tell right from wrong. Then the proper thing to do is to fix that education system, not have a select few dictate how the masses should consume art. A thriving film culture begins with education, too.
If you look at the top film festivals around the world, they are all in countries that have no censorship. The top three international festivals are in European countries. The Busan International Film Festival in South Korea is recognised as Asia’s biggest film festival. The Singapore International Film Festival has seen a lot of growth because censorship has been more and more lenient over the years. Eric Khoo’s erotic film, In the Room, was selected for the 2015 edition, and last year’s edition had Sam Loh’s erotic thriller Siew Lup.
But things don’t seem to be have moved forward much over here in Malaysia. While the Film Censorship Board, to its credit, has tried to relax the rules a little bit, at one time allowing even bare buttocks on screen – and I also remember watching Kick-Ass in the cinema with the swear words and masturbation scene intact – it looks like we still have a long way to go. When I interviewed the Censorship Board’s chairperson some years ago, he told me that he wanted to move things forward, but he said our society might not be ready and that was why he had to take it one small step at a time. He also said sex and gore were a definite no-no. (I can understand that, because we don’t even have proper sex education here.)
(There’s a new form of “censorship” being practised now though. It involves zooming in during scenes that involve nudity, and avoiding showing any skin. Apparently this was how they avoided having to cut the crucial shower scene in Gone Girl.)
But when it comes to film festivals, looks like it’s still a tough job for organisers negotiating censorship. One of the reasons why I no longer attend those “film festivals” organised by the cinema chains is the dreaded “blackouts” that occur during scenes of sex or violence, where the projectionist would hold a piece of cardboard in front of the projector for the length of said scenes. It is much, much worse than cutting a film, and feels much more insulting. I remember being excited about seeing Kitano Takeshi’s Hana-bi on the big screen, only to have the violent scenes blacked out. Sometimes it gets quite funny with the sex scenes, when you can still hear the moans and screams and squelching kissing sounds.
A film festival needs to gain the trust of the filmmakers and artists. No filmmaker wants her or his work to be butchered, for whatever reason. (I was told the filmmakers of Toni Erdmann have a strict no-cuts rule, so I have absolutely no idea how the film is going to be screened at Miffest.) What more if you’re a new festival, you cannot be so arrogant as to impose your regulations on a filmmaker, especially an established talent. A festival needs world premieres, and for that, it needs to build a solid reputation of respect for art and its creators, and an understanding of the creative process. By censoring a film, you’re already showing a lack of that understanding, respect and appreciation of the artistic process.
How do you aim to build a good, respected and admired film festival then?