Short-films project shakes up media status quo

Malaysia’s top independent filmmakers created 15 political short films for the project 15Malaysia and have caused a sensation in a country where critical political commentary is generally impossible.

Some 14 million people watched the package on project’s website during the first two months it was up, and multihyphenate Pete Teo, who produced the pics, says the films are creating a stir among Malaysia’s power echelons.

“People are watching ’15Malaysia’ and talking about it,” according to Teo, one of Malaysia’s top songwriters and performers, who also composes film scores and produces features.

“It’s relatively easy for peddlers of youth culture like myself to gain attention,” he adds. “The project put more ammo in the hands of the reformists in government — look at how a little indie thing like this has taken over the country.”

“15Malaysia” was privately funded and cost $150,000, including publicity expenses.

Media is tightly controlled in Malaysia, but this series owes its success partly to the fact that its movies were shown only online.

“The project went out without going through the state media, so it was not something they could control,” Teo explains.

The pics are varied in tone, but many have political messages.

In Khairil Bahar’s “Healthy Paranoia,” a pair of public relations consultants offer increasingly ludicrous advice to the health minister, Dato’ Sri Liow Tiong Lai, on how to encourage healthier lifestyles in Malaysia. The health minister plays himself in a relevatory way.

Khairy Jamaluddin, the controversial head of the youth wing of UMNO, which is the core of the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia since it became independent in 1957, plays a taxi driver who is asked his views on some current Malaysian issues. He too shows skills that should prove useful if he chooses to leave politics.

A number of the films in the project highlight growing racial tensions in Malaysia, but also celebrate multiethnicity.

Around 59% of the country’s population of 28 million are Malays, while ethnic Chinese account for 26%, Indians make up about 7%, and the remaining 8% is divided into small numbers of Indonesians, Thais, Europeans and Australians.

“We’ve said nothing that people did not know about before, about segregation, about racism and corruption. Race relations are getting worse and not better, after 50 years of independence,” Teo asserts.

Some of the films offer a hilarious take on the country’s ethnic makeup, such as Ho Yuhang’s “Potong Saga,” in which a Chinese boy goes to extreme lengths to open an Islamic bank account.

Other pics make a more straightforward plea for tolerance. In Amir Muhammad’s “The Tree,” the country’s influential Islamic leader Nik Azi gives advice on the ethical way to conduct commerce.

Yasmin Ahmad’s “Chocolate” is a sorrowful take on the lack of communication between ethnic groups.

The next step will be to release a DVD version of the project, as online penetration in Malaysia is relatively low despite the fast-growing economy.

“A lot of antiliberal or conservative elements are not on the Net, so it’s a bit like preaching to the converted,” says Teo. “That’s why we’ll do the DVD — to make sure they all see it.”

Despite a lot of interest in a follow-up project from politicians who see political capital in allying themselves to something so youth-oriented, and from companies who see the commercial possibilities, Teo is holding off.

“Next time, the politicians will be queuing up, and we might lose the edge,” he says.

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