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I Love Malaya filmmaking team (part 2)

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Read part 1 of the interview here.

Once filming got under way, the filmmaking team made several trips to Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Muar, and the various villages in southern Thailand where the exiles resided. “When we first began, I didn’t realise there would be so much travelling,” Christopher admits sheepishly.

However, as they travelled in search of information, they found themselves being politely redirected from one place to another, and yet another, and so on.

At the end of the day, the documentary and the making of it resembled more of a road trip than anything else. Altogether, the filmmaking team clocked over 5,000 km of travelling and collected more than 60 hours of footage in about one year.

“Shooting overseas, you have a lot more things to worry about, because of the logistics involved,” says Choon Hiong. The remote locations of the villages and camps in Thailand meant that their flights were often accompanied by long, sometimes uncomfortable, bus or taxi rides to their destination. In addition, contacting the interviewees became a challenge when phone numbers didn’t work, or when there just was no way of contacting them.

When Kah Mei recalls a particularly lengthy drive in Malaysia, the others groan and chuckle in light-hearted dismay at the memory. They had just left Thailand by crossing the border at Kelantan and were due to return to Penang. However, because they were unable to get a flight, they ended up taking a lengthy five-hour taxi journey through a forested road across northern Malaysia.

In what can only be described as a quirky twist of fate, it turned out that the road they were travelling on was a popular spot where Communists would ambush government officials during the Malayan Emergency.

What made their overseas shoot more challenging was the fact that not all of them were full-time filmmakers. Every little delay could affect the timing of their return to Singapore, where their day jobs were waiting for them.

But in some cases, like Kah Mei’s, the juggling of the demands of filmmaking and her day job turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As a research associate with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), she had to take frequent leave in order to shoot I Love Malaya, resulting in her curious ISEAS director asking after her whereabouts.

When ISEAS learnt of the documentary, they were very supportive of the project and even offered to provide the team with a small amount of seed money to aid the making of the film. And so I Love Malaya became the first film to be partially funded under the ISEAS Film Programme, which aims to explore the potential between filmmaking and academic research.

The filmmakers themselves believe the timing is right to bring Southeast Asian history to the silver screen for a larger audience. “I think all of us were quite clear that the textbooks already feature one aspect of the history, and we just wanted to give a voice to the MCP,” Choon Hiong says. “We don’t want to sell their ideology. We just wanted to hear about their story and their role in our history.”

With the publication of Chin Peng’s memoirs, the group felt that the time was right to bring the issue into the open for discussion. If they had tried to do it in the 1980s, Christopher says, the film would not have been made.

But with the gradual development of the film industry in Singapore and an increasing openness to discuss local and regional history, it’s an ideal time to re-examine these issues. Christopher also emphasised the importance of capturing the voices and stories of the Communists before they passed away.

As for the sensitive subject of how the film dealt with the Communists’ violent history, the general mood of the group is one of reconciliation. “I think it’s a fight that is long over,” says Christopher. “These are people who don’t want to fight anymore, and they just want to go home. Personally, I’m not their judge.”

Kah Mei adds, “I think we just gave them a chance to say what they have to say. We all have our own histories; it’s difficult to judge them by what they’ve done.”

“In some way, this is an oral history. What we’re doing, interviewing people, getting oral histories from different characters during that period,” Christopher says. “We narrowed it down to a 45-minute film, but who knows? Someone out there might want to go further learn more about these people.”

I Love Malaya will be screened at the 2nd Singapore Indie Doc Fest on March 7 at 7:30 pm at the Substation.

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  1. […] Read more about the filmmakers’ journey into southern Thailand in part 2 of the interview. […]

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