M'sia film censorship stifles optimism after overseas glory
KUALA LUMPUR – It was a stellar 2023 for Malaysian filmmakers with awards at Cannes and the Oscars, but signs of heightened censorship at home and death threats have fuelled worries about whether the optimism built off the back of the global success can last.
Muslim-majority Malaysia typically restricts content seen as offensive or infringing upon religious, cultural and moral values, but last month, rare criminal charges were levelled at two filmmakers for "wounding religious feelings" through their film "Mentega Terbang".
Filmmakers fear such moves could stifle creative expression and hurt investments, undermining the impact of 2023 successes like a top critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Malay-language film "Tiger Stripes" and a Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards for Malaysian-born Michelle Yeoh.
"This is a very good time ... where people around the world are really looking into Malaysian filmmakers. If we do not tap into that curiosity now and then we lose that moment, it will be quite hard for us to get that back," said Khairi Anwar, one of the filmmakers charged for the film "Mentega Terbang".
"Mentega Terbang" follows a teenage Muslim girl exploring different religions while dealing with grief. It was released in 2021 on the online streaming service Viu. Online platforms are not covered by film censorship rules in Malaysia.
Viu, however, stopped streaming the film in February 2023 amid an uproar from some Muslim groups over scenes perceived to be going against Islamic teachings.
Malaysia's home affairs ministry, which oversees the Film Censorship Board, then banned all screening and publicity of "Mentega Terbang" in August for being "contrary to public interest", local media reported.
Khairi and others involved in "Mentega Terbang" even received death threats at the time, media reports show.
The director of Malaysia's award-winning "Tiger Stripes", a horror film exploring cultural taboos around female puberty, disowned the production's local release after it was screened last year with extensive cuts.
"Creative licenses and creativity in filmmaking cannot override the truth of Islam and the essence of faith," Zabidi Mohamed, who describes himself as a "sharia-compliant scriptwriter and film activist", said in a Facebook post last year around the time "Mentega Terbang" was pulled.
He had criticised the film as "blasphemous to Islam."
Khairi, who declined to comment directly on the case against him, said Malaysian films risked losing interest from domestic and global investors due to the possibility of conservative backlash or heavy government censorship. – REUTERS