Lee Myres (2007) says “an independent film was one that was made outside of the conventional studio system, be that Hollywood, Bollywood or Pinewood.” Wikipedia also stated “An independent film, or indie film, is a film that is produced outside of the Hollywood studio system, a series of oligopolistic practices by several major American film studios”. These are American’s film context. However in Malaysia, the contexts are quite different “independent film in Malaysia refers to directors that move in silence, former students who have enthusiasm in making film with their own money and not depending to popular producers or big film companies” (Berita Harian, 2008). In addition, according to Khoo Gaik Cheng (2004), “most indie films are made without consideration of being screened in the censor-ridden mainstream cinemas and are meant to provoke critical audience engagement by not underestimating the intelligence of its viewers”.
Basically in America, independent filmmaking consists of low-budget projects made by young filmmakers with a strong personal vision away from the influence and pressures of the few major conglomerates that control tightly the American film industry (Yannis Tzioumakis, 2006; p.1). Film critic Emmanuel Levy (1999, p.2) wrote, “ideally, an indie is a fresh, low-budget movie with a gritty style and offbeat subject matter that express the filmmaker’s personal vision”.
Industry practitioners however have different assume completely different meaning for independent film. Yannis (2006, p.2) wrote, “independence has nothing to do with low budget films with gritty visual style and offbeat subject matter. Instead, an independent film is any film that has not been financed, produced and/or distributed by a major entertainment conglomerate (Sony Columbia, Viacom Paramount, AOL Time Warner, MGM/UA, ABC Disney, NBC Universal, News Corp. Fox and Dreamworks SKG)”.
The history of American film started along with mainstream film industries in early 1900. “The roots of independent film can be traced back to filmmakers in the 1900s who resisted the control of a trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company or “Edison Trust.” The Motion Picture Patents Company, founded in December 1908, was a trust of all the major film companies (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Star, American Pathé), the leading distributor (George Kleine) and the biggest supplier of raw film, Eastman Kodak.” (Wikipedia, 2008).
During the forming of The Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC), Thomas Edison at that time owned almost every patents related to film many filmmakers were fined. As a respond, independent filmmakers started to built their own camera and moved to Hollywood, California because MPPC headquarters located in New Jersey and MPPC difficult to reinforce the patent. The Edison Trust ended in 1912 and 1915. These results became the glory and celebration of independence for independent filmmakers.
For Eileen Bowser (1994, p.4), “The discourse of independent cinema appears for the first time in 1908-9 with the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC, also known as the Patents Company or simply the Trust) and its antagonists, which became known as independents. The company was established on 1 January 1909 by ten film manufacturing outfits – led by Edison and Biograph – in an attempt to license all three branches of filmmaking (production, distribution and exhibition) in the United States and, thereby, control the American film market”.
The MPPC sought to become the main holder of various patents associated with cinematographic technology and put an end to long legal battles about who had the right to use the said technology (Benjamin B. Hampton, 1970; p. 67). Hampton (1970 p.66) added, “By controlling the patents involved in the manufacturing of cameras, projectors and other necessary equipment for the production and exhibition of motion pictures, the MPPC proceeded in charging a fee for the use of this equipment. It also made a deal with Kodak to provide raw film stock exclusively to members and its licensees, and, as a result, made it impossible for other companies to successfully photograph, develop, print or exhibit a film without its consent”.
Resistance began one month after the formation of MPPC, in February 1909. These ‘rebels’ refused to respond to an initial deadline to abide by MPPC regulations, and decided to continue business through any means. They used illegal equipment, imported film stock from abroad or relocated their companies to certain geographical areas where the Trust’s representatives would find it difficult to reach them and therefore bring legal action against them. By 20 February 1909 an exchange appropriately called The Anti-Trust Film Company of Chicago was already established. These ‘unlicensed outlaws’ attached the label independent to their practices and, to a certain extent, became responsible for the failure of the Patents Company to monopolize the market (Aberdeen, 2000; p.25).
Yannis (2006, p.23) concluded that, “independent filmmaking in these early years of American cinema was mainly a reaction to any attempt towards monopolization of the film industry. In this respect, independence is defined here by a production company’s refusal to succumb to the pressures applied by one or more organizations that actively seek total control of the film market”.
In Malaysia, Malay film veterans such as P. Ramlee, Jins Shamsuddin and Sarimah are the first in to formed independently owned Malay film companies in 1974 (Khoo, 2006; p.91).
Although some of the Malay filmmakers are indirectly supported by the government through scholarship, grants and sponsorships, the film industry itself received no government support or incentives in the early 1970s despite the National Economic Policy being already in effect (Hatta, 1997; p.146). Hatta (1997, p.91) added “a commission of inquiry on the local film industry was formed in 1974. A report produced to identify the problems faced by the industry and proposing the formation of a National Film Development (which eventually became FINAS). FINAS was established in 1981 under the Ministry of Trade and Industry”.
According to according to Khoo Gaik Cheng (2006, p.123), “the growth of digital video technology has permitted a parallel low-budget independent cinema to develop after year 2000”. Khoo Gaik Cheng (2006) considered that independent cinema wave directors ignore the multiple barriers for inclusion into Malay cinema meaning to say that there are self-produced, self-funded, low-budget, avant garde, or at least artistic films that may not be shown in local cinemas.
Tom Vick (2007, p.227) wrote “Malaysians film are becoming more presence on the international film festival circuit. Amir Muhammad released well accepted films in 2005, Year of Living Vicariously and Tokyo Magic Hour. In 2006, he made two documentaries investigating politics and history, The Last Communist and Village People Radio Show, which combine interviews with a painter’s eye for lush Malaysian countryside”. Tom Vick (2007, p.227) added “Muhammad is a part of a tightly knit community of young filmmakers who often work for another’s film and have fully embraced the potential of digital video technology”.
Study will be done on Amir’s films that contained current issues, sensitive issues and political scenario in Malaysia. Most of his films are related to the Malaysian society and politic scenarios. As an example, The Big Durian (2003) was recognized internationally. According to Kam Raslan (2003), “The Big Durian’s starting point are the events surrounding Private Adam’s amok and then it expands out to become nothing less than a distillation of Malaysia’s recent history – a street level history. And from the perspective of the Malaysian street we are always left looking over the heads of those in front of us as we attempt to make sense of our times. The Big Durian shows how perceptions of events, facts, the media and the government muddy our ability to understand what is happening around us and we invariably fall back on the one thing we know we can always trust – rumour”.
Through The Big Durian’s blog, Amir himself wrote the juries praise during Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival on October 2003, “While taking up a historical incident of superficially little relevance, the film reveals a deep social consciousness through a non-serious filmic style. The director uses his eccentric imagination and variety; full means of expression to reach a politically apathetic young audience”.
Film entitled Village People Radio Show (2007) was banned in Malaysia because of the controversial content. Amir wrote in his blog regarding the ban, “The theme of this film seems to portray the crusade of the United Communist Front in Peninsular Malaya back then as a noble one which should be acknowledged. Therefore the film’s message sides with these people especially the ethnic Malay communists. Criticisms against the Malaysian Government are blatantly shown in this film for offering unacceptable rehabilitation terms as opposed to the Thai government which was willing to provide land, houses and basic amenities to support them after they stopped being communists. Aside from criticizing the government, the monarchy and the Malays are also insulted and this film is not suitable for public viewing because of its correct (sic) facts and it also touches on the sensitivities and bitter memories of security forces and members of the public who had been victims of communist violence”.
Various media have made coverage on Amir’s film entitled The Last Communist (2006). In Mingguan Malaysia (April, 2006), “The documentary directed by Amir Muhammad has received official approval from the Malaysian Film Censorship Board (LPF) for general viewing. The approval, however, is only for three screens run by Golden Screen Cinemas in Mid Valley and One Utama, Kuala Lumpur; and Gurney Plaza, Penang”. “Even though the documentary is about the former leader of the banned Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng, it will not cause any negative effects. He said that the documentary did not propagate communism but merely used facts that are readily available in history books” (Mingguan Malaysia, 2006).
According to Associated Press (April, 2006), “The Last Communist by Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad played at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Singapore International Film Festival and is set to be shown at the Seattle Film Festival and Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. Amir said he has no intention of making a hero out of Chin Peng but made the film because he wanted to tell the story of a man who has virtually ceased to exist in Malaysia’s official history”. The country’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, said documenting the life of Chin Peng was tantamount to communist propaganda. “This is an extremely sensitive issue. I don’t think the people who have fought for our country will appreciate such a movie being shown, and I’m sure there will be protests,” said Azimi Daim, the information chief of the United Malays youth wing (Associated Press, 2006).
Other than that, according to Star on (April 2006), “The Last Communist may be a Perak story but it will not be screened in cinemas here. Cinemas in the city here did not have the projection facilities needed to screen the documentary. The film, which has drawn opposition from Umno Youth, documents the life of Chin Peng, exiled leader of the banned CPM, from 1924 to 1957”.
The Bangkok Post (April, 2006) stated that, “Partly shot in Betong, Yala province, Amir Muhammad’s latest documentary is as humanly sociological as it is sharply political, and as refreshing in its historical re-examination as it is whimsical in its colours. It is as much a loose-limbed travelogue as it is a tight-assed historiography. It plays for and against leftists and rightists, royalists and jacobins, communists and capitalists, pro-and anti-colonialists. It dallies with controversies, indulges in good-humoured diversions, and yet manages to maintain the heft worthy of an academic discussion”.
On May 2006, Bernama reported, “The banned musical documentary The Last Communist is not offensive, said Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. “The plot isn’t controversial and there’s nothing that could be deemed as offensive from the cultural viewpoint,” he said. The facts portrayed in the documentary could be read in the book about former Communist Party of Malaya leader Chin Peng sold in book stores, he told reporters after joining Members of Parliament to watch the film at the National Film Development Corporation (Finas)”.
The purpose of this study is to evaluate his Amir Muhammad independent films and the industry itself in Malaysia. The study is conducted to fulfill the following objectives:
To analyze Amir’s films based on film theories by Siegfried Kracauer. Siegfried Kracauer’s theories are theories of realism and divided into raw material, methods and techniques, forms and shapes and also purpose and value.
To examine the effectiveness of Amir’s films locally and internationally.
To identify the techniques and philosophies used by Amir in his films.
To determine the issues behind Amir’s films.
Based on the problem of statement, the ban of the film really shows that independent films have big influences in societies and politics. These elements made the researcher questioning how Amir gained the ideas and inspiration to produce the film.
How do he get the idea of his film, is it through his experiences or observation?
What were his philosophies in making the films?
What other Malaysian independent filmmakers trying to convey and express in their film?
How Malaysian mainstream filmmakers think about local independent film scenario?
What kind of technique did he use?
Why he use that kind of technique?
Did he applied the film theories as same as commercial film?
All of these questions will be carefully answered along the research of Amir’s films.
In this research, few limitations will be encountered. Until now, the researcher has limitation in terms of reading materials related to independent films. Most of the reading materials such as thesis, journals, books and articles are very limited. Resources from the internet can be used as references but it will be enough and always change.
Other than that, independent films are difficult to find because most of it are not for sale and premiered only in selected theaters. Cooperation between researcher and independent filmmakers are crucial in obtaining the films. Interviews will be conducted with Amir Muhammad and other independent filmmakers and also mainstream filmmakers. Limitation will occur if the interviewee reluctant to be interviewed or time to spend with the interviewer is not available.
Film analysis and interviews will be used as the method in this research. Film analysis will be done on five samples of feature films and six samples of short films. The feature films are Lips to Lips (2000), The Big Durian (2003), The Year of Living Vicariously (2005) Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (2006) and Village People Radio Show (2007). Meanwhile, the short films are Lost (2002), Friday (2002), Mona (2002), Checkpoint (2002), Kamunting (2002) and Pangyau (2002).
Studies on the films are divided into few categories based on Siegfried Kracauer’s realism film theories. According to J. Dudley Andrew (1976), “the medium of film, in Kracauer’s theory, is mélange of subject matter and subject treatment, of cinematic raw material and cinematic technique”. J. Dudley Andrew (1976) added, “cinema exists most profoundly and most essentially when it presents life as it is”. “Kracauer’s material aesthetic blends two domains: the domain of reality and the domain of the technical capabilities of film”, (J. Dudley Andrew, 1976). Every film can be categories with raw material, methods and techniques, forms and shapes and also purpose and value.
Raw material is a relationship to reality, photography and illusion that using time and space or consist of colours, sounds and makeup in the film itself. Every element that existed in the cinematic processes include in this category.
Methods and techniques in cinema touches on all creative processes which formed the raw material in terms of technology development for an example, shots were used. This category also involved filmmakers’ psychology or the economic situation of the film production.
Forms and shapes are category that questioning type of films. The strength of cinema to adapt work of arts will be questioned, as well as genre and audience perception.
Purpose and value will show bigger scope of life. Cinema’s purpose on humanity will be questioned in this category.
The qualitative research interview seeks to describe and the meanings of central themes in the life world of the subjects. The main task in interviewing is to understand the meaning of what the interviewees say (Kvale, 1996). This method is used as an instrument because there are more personal and easier for respondent, especially if what are sought are opinions or impressions.
General interview will be conducted to Amir Muhammad and other local independent filmmakers. Other than that mainstream filmmakers are also being interviewed to enable researcher obtain more views or opinions. It involves flexible questions to uncover of each filmmakers thinking towards independent film industry in Malaysia.
For the independent filmmakers, the questions are focused on their early involvement in independent filmmaking and intention to produce each of their film. Also the ideas, missions, issues and philosophies of the film are questioned. Views from them regarding the censorship of their film and acceptance by the public audience before and after one of the film recognized internationally are added in the interview.
The mainstream filmmakers will be asked more on their views of the independent movement in Malaysia and how their reaction towards the movement and the films. For the recognized and award winning independent film, how do they accept the film. Each sessions of interview will be recorded or videotaped and a full transcription will be used for the analysis.
Five feature films and six short films will be used as research sample. The feature films are Lips to Lips (2000), The Big Durian (2003), The Year of Living Vicariously (2005), Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (2006), Village People Radio Show (2007). Meanwhile, the short films are Lost (2002), Friday (2002), Mona (2002), Checkpoint (2002), Kamunting (2002) and Pangyau (2002).
The samples for interviews are independent and mainstream filmmakers in Malaysia respectively. The independent filmmakers are Amir Muhammad, James Lee and Deepak Kumaran Menon. The mainstream filmmakers are U-Wei Haji Saari and Prof Madya A. Razak Mohaideen.
Significance of study
This study will add to the body of knowledge that by analyzing the works of Amir Muhammad’s films. The study will provide researcher an in depth review of the Malaysian independent film industry that is not big and well accepted compared to the mainstream film industry. Other than that, this research will add the knowledge for future filmmakers and filmmaking students the ideas and guidance in local independent film industry. This also will support the filmmakers, filmmaking students and the community in understanding, assessing and developing independent film.