Tanda Putera director lashes out at critics

Shuhaimi Baba speaks to FMT in a brief e-mail interview about her upcoming controversial film that will depict the May 13 bloody race riots. 

Teoh El Sen, FMT

Filmmaker Shuhaimi Baba has declared that she is open to a debate to discuss her latest controversial movie “Tanda Putera”, provided that such talks be held after the movie is screened.

The award-winning director, whose movie retells the story of Malaysia’s second prime minister, the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and deputy prime minister, the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, amid the bloody May 13, 1969 race riots, said in an e-mail to FMT that she would not mind sharing views as long as it was done in a “mature” manner.

The director, who has received open scorn from critics lately, has also called on all Malaysians to just “cool it”, stressing that she and her crew have put in a lot of love into their work and are not about “peddling hatred and propaganda”.

Even before it has hit the silver screen, Shuhaimi’s movie, which is now re-scheduled to be screened on Nov 15, has been criticised for allegedly providing only a one-sided view of history.

Shuhaimi had denied accusations that the movie promoted a pro-Malay agenda. She also had to douse accusations that it featured a character based on DAP leader Lim Kit Siang in a negative light.

Another controversial aspect of the movie was that the RM4.8 million cost was fully funded by the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) and the Multimedia Development Corporation (Mdec), with questions raised over whether a movie that did not gel with the “official version” would receive such support.

The film, according to critics, demonises early leftist movements, with its trailer allegedly showing scenes of Chinese groups marching through the streets of Kuala Lumpur city after the success of the opposition parties in municipal elections carrying the Labour Party flag and other banners bearing anti-Malay slogans.

However, despite all the “unexpected and upsetting” response she has received, Shuhaimi maintained that she has done her legwork.

“I looked as far back as confrontation to understand the deep psychological resentments at that time until May13. But the catalysts were – the ‘hooliganism’ – the choice of words and insults thrown at the Malays, the over-the-top celebration by the opposition parties.

“The movie is not about judging and blaming any side in particular. Touchy as it may be, we needed to drive home the point of the trauma of May 13 (that we should not let it happen again) and how Tun Razak and Tun Ismail succeeded in making the country overcome the trauma and forget May 13. The movie sets out to do that as we share the journey taken by the two heroes,” she said.

Tanda Putera – rated PG13 – stars Rusdi Ramli (Tun Abdul Razak), Faezah Elai (Toh Puan Rahah), Zizan Nin (Tun Dr Ismail) and Linda Hashim (Toh Puan Norashikin). The film, a joint production by Pesona Pictures together with Finas and Mdec, tells the story about the friendship of the two national leaders and their struggles in healing the nation after the riots.

Below are excerpts from the e-mail communiqué:

FMT: Firstly, the meaning behind the title “Tanda Putera”, if you could elaborate more on the choice of words?

Shuhaimi: Tanda Putera means “Mark of a Leader”. This is the closest my team of writers and I could draw from our original title “Incurable Hero”. It was written for a documentary drama in English. However, after several friends read the documentary script , they convinced us to do justice by writing it as a screenplay and a feature-length movie. The thought was scary at first, the amount of research, detailing and design work and most of all the budget needed gave me sleepless nights. But then after going through several material, I thought: ‘Yes, why not? The two heroes deserve this tribute’.

Could you share with us your feelings so far, are you perturbed by the controversy the movie had courted?

Controversy, well, I think it comes with the territory. You know, it’s only the movies after all! Expect anything in film-making – there are always issues to deal with. There was my first horror film ‘Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam’ – after 30 years of horror films being banned. But I went ahead and it opened doors for the industry. There’s also the first feature-length movie on local folk lore ‘waris jari hantu’, the tigerman and the boy-girl character (hermaphrodite). They were contentious and controversial – only because the ideas were fresh and unexplored . But the ‘restless’ and ‘opinionated’ [ones] settled down anyway and cinema goers accepted the film.

So yes, I didn’t expect the May13 scenes to go through without the usual noise. But I didn’t expect the attention from people who don’t watch local movies. They have no idea what movie-going culture is about and rant over the movie trailer! Aiyooo… what to say. Attention from politicians are much worse, I can say that much. Their reasoning is simply: ‘See it my way or no way’.

I have a team of young people managing the Facebook for the movie and it turned into a ‘battleground’! I had to keep reminding the admin team to keep their cool and it was tough for them to manage the racial slurs and hate-mongers. But you know, like other times, I told them these are people who need to get things off their chest and they will tire. I briefed them on the background of the country’s history especially from Konfrontasi onwards so that they are confident and they know what they are up against.

Other than the threats, obscene language, racial slurs and hatred – I think although it was very unexpected and upsetting – we managed to calm everyone down reminding them this is nothing, we must deal with it as cool as possible.

Why was this movie being done? What prompted you to take up the challenge of such a touchy topic?

Difficult question. But I will try to answer. Malaysia was the only country in a unique dangerous situation – where the prime minister and deputy PM were facing critical illness at the same time – in a critical fragile situation. Their brave sacrifices needed to be told. It captured my imagination – I believe it would ‘capture’ others too. It’s only touchy if you don’t respect someone else’s views and creative expression.

When I first read Dr Kua (Kia Soong’s) book, I thought what came out first and shining through was his prejudices against Malays and his resentment against the office of the prime minister then. His accusations – alluding to who was responsible for May 13- that is, Tun Razak, was not only atrocious but irresponsible. But then he knows that, I am sure, since he’s more intelligent than most men, and he does it for effect and propaganda and to rile up Chinese sentiments. It was too easy for him. As a writer, he preferred to be biased and did not shed any light on the riots but even considered the communists had nothing to do with it.