AFP: Rebel film-maker defies efforts to silence him
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Subject: [malaysian-cinema] AFP: Rebel film-maker defies efforts to silence him
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Rebel film-maker defies efforts to silence him
Mar 29, 06 4:35am
Singapore film-maker Martyn See says police must have been trying to send him a message when they seized his camera last August: Don’t make another political film. He did anyway.
See is hoping his second self-directed film, “Zahari’s 17 Years”, will be screened at next month’s Singapore International Film Festival but whether it is or not depends on the city-state’s censors.
See’s troubles with the law began last year after he submitted his first film “Singapore Rebel” to the film festival but was asked to withdraw after censors ruled that it was political.
They said the 26-minute documentary about Chee Soon Juan, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, violated the Films Act because of its political content.
Chee has been one of a very few opposition figures in Singapore prepared to speak out against the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) which has tightly ruled the city-state since 1959, before independence, and has imposed limits on dissent.
See says Singapore police have questioned him three times since last May about the film, most recently last week. But he has not been charged. Making a political film is a crime in Singapore and carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail or a S$100,000-dollar (US$61,850) fine.
“Maybe they just want to hang the sword of Damocles over my head so that I don’t make another one, but I did,” the unassuming See, a youthful-looking 38, told foreign correspondents recently.
About Said Zahari Singapore police confirmed See was interviewed last week but they declined further comment because of the ongoing investigation.
Filmed with a borrowed camera to replace the one held by police, See’s new 49-minute film is essentially an interview with Said Zahari, 78, a former political detainee.
Zahari was among more than 100 alleged communists rounded up in February 1963 in Singapore, which was then a self-governing state.
It joined the Malaysian federation in September that year and became independent in August 1965. Singapore released Zahari from all restrictions in 1979, 17 years after he was first detained. See says that while he was in Malaysia last year for a screening of “Singapore Rebel”, Malaysian friends talked about Zahari and sparked his interest.
“When I read his book ‘Dark Clouds at Dawn’ I thought that, my goodness, this is probably the only ex-detainee that’s willing to speak about his experiences and is not in exile,” See says.
Zahari maintains his Singapore citizenship but has lived in Malaysia for about 10 years.
See says he went ahead with the new film despite being under investigation for “Singapore Rebel” and regardless of any possible repercussions for himself.
“I feel that this man has to be interviewed no matter what because his story is just so powerful and … no ex-detainee has ever spoken on camera to a local film-maker, so I feel it’s important.”
He expects “Zahari’s 17 Years” to be screened in Malaysia where Zahari is “really an icon for press freedom”.
The former editor led his Kuala Lumpur-based Utusan Melaya newspaper on an unsuccessful strike against a government takeover attempt in 1961, See says.
When the strike failed, Zahari was banished to Singapore where he was arrested, he says.
‘A landmark case’
Similar to “Zahari’s 17 Years”, See’s first film features an interview with his subject, Chee Soon Juan, interspersed with newspaper headlines to help tell the story. It is a portrait of Chee at work, with his family, and in his battles with authority.
The most startling image of “Singapore Rebel” is footage of Chee being arrested by a crowd of police and hustled into a police van for holding a rally without a permit, See says.
He suspects that footage might have been “the most objectionable” part of the film but he does not know because, he said, nobody has told him why “Singapore Rebel” is deemed a political film.
It makes no mention of Chee’s Singapore Democratic Party, he says.
“It’s arbitrary, the way they term a political film, what constitutes a political film.”
See calls it “a landmark case” but says he thinks most Singaporeans do not care.
In an interview with Time magazine published last December, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years and continues to hold a cabinet position as Minister Mentor, was asked about the banning of “Singapore Rebel”.
“Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, ‘to hell with it’. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change…” Lee was quoted as saying.
His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister who came to power one and a half years ago promising to encourage debate in the society.
The opposition in Singapore plays only a marginal role, its leaders hounded by lawsuits and their activities curbed by strict laws against protest rallies. Opposition figures also complain about lack of access to the mainstream media.
“I feel let down, primarily because I made this film right after Lee Hsien Loong took power and he was promising an open, inclusive society,” says See, dressed in a subdued short-sleeve grey zip-up shirt.
His hair hangs over his ears and down to his collar.
The filmmaker declined to be photographed by AFP, saying he wants the focus to be on his subjects.
Last September the prime minister denied backtracking on his promise to encourage political debate, saying the trend has been towards opening up.
“But that doesn’t mean the laws don’t have to be enforced,” Lee said.
Cultural hub ambition
Singapore is intent on turning the city-state into a regional arts and cultural hub and has relaxed censorship on sexual and violent content of imported films.
In 2004 the city-state announced a three-year US$5.9 million scheme to showcase its appeal as a travel destination by encouraging foreign film-makers to shoot and produce movies and television programs here.
See questions how vibrant the city could be as a cultural hub.
“I have doubts that people would be free to create because of the whole climate of fear, of not wanting to over-step boundaries,” he says.
That said, See admits he has grown up in the PAP era and although he opposes restrictions on basic freedoms, he says he is not against one-party government “if it provides the stability and efficiency in government services which we have today”.
See did not attend film school and has earned his living for the past decade as a freelance editor, working for other directors doing television documentaries, features, and corporate videos.
After interviewing Zahari, he says he is keen to document the experiences of other ageing former detainees, particularly Chia Thye Poh who spent more than 20 years in detention followed by another nine when he was restricted to Singapore’s tourism island of Sentosa.
First, the filmmaker would like to get his camera back. He says police told him it would be returned on completion of the case. “I came to the conclusion that basically it’s a subtle warning to me: don’t make another one.” – AFP