"Gelap. Apa yang aku lihat hanyalah kegelapan. Mata ini untuk melihat, tapi apa yang nak dilihat jika semuanya gelap? Ini cerita aku, cerita kami, cerita kita yang hidup dalam kegelapan."
Khalil in Gadoh (2009)
"Malays are stupid," said a Chinese colleague of mine a few days ago, just out of earshot of every Malay person in the vicinity. "Malays are lazy, and they are stupid."
I do not recall what we were talking about which ejected such a response from him, but I remember what I said to that. I said, "You are racist," and my outburst was loud enough that a few Indian and Chinese colleagues nearby stopped what they were doing and listened.
"But what I said is true," he defended his racist slur lamely, a little less sure of himself this time. It's evident that he did not expect someone to call him out on what he said. He had believed that every and any Chinese Malaysian - including me - to wholeheartedly concur with his point of view.
"No it's not," I told him, and named several Malay colleagues of ours who are demonstrably smarter and more hardworking than he is. "You are racist, plain and simple," I reiterated with finality. He lost that battle, and said no more.
I am someone who would not compromise my values if I believe I can demonstrate that I am in the right, and I would voice them no matter how many people I have to defend my opinions against (which is especially true when I speak in support of gay rights, which often comes down to me versus everyone else in the room). It's a character trait I acquired after I shed my belief in religion, that last thing which divides us most strongly as human beings. Yes, there was a time long ago when I was just as screamingly racist as the guy I argued with above, and I admit that I too have said the exact same things he said before. Even after I've discarded my racist ideations, I preferred to just laugh politely whenever anyone goes on a blatantly racist spiel and I maintained this stand-offish attitude for the longest time. It takes courage to stand for what is right and it takes extraordinary courage to do it when you are vastly outnumbered.
I'm just glad I found my voice.
Gadoh is a film about that courage, and I have no doubt that many would have complaints about it. They would say that it is tasteless and offensive. It ignores political correctness. It demonises figures of authority and encourages disobedience. It brings up issues considered to be taboo. It might give our country a bad name if an outsider watches it. The high school kids in it smokes and drinks. There's racial slurs in it. The mentor of these kids lights up like the Marlboro Man in every other scene. What they would fail to see is that Gadoh is also completely truthful (even the underage smoking and drinking bits). It's a testament to the reality that every Malaysian has to deal with everyday.
This is a movie about you and me, and that is why you must see it.
This is the full-length feature film, available in its entirety for free.
Gadoh follows the story of two groups of students - one Malay and the other Chinese - in the aftermath of a brawl between them that gave their school a whole load of unwanted attention. In a bid for counter-publicity, the principal authorised the establishment of a theatre club on the suggestion of a Cikgu Anne so the kids can put up a show for the benefit of a politician from the Ministry of Education and for the press. Cikgu Anne then enlisted the help of a Azman (played by scribe and co-director, Namron), an unconventional, non-conformist "theater activist" to train the reluctant delinquents. It's not hard to guess how the movie would unfold after this: a quarrelsome, ragtag bunch of teenagers set aside their differences and learn to work together through the Power. Of. Theatre! It reminds me strongly of 2007's Freedom Writers in which a young English teacher unites a class of racially diverse teenagers during the LA Race Riots of '92 using the Power. Of. Creative Writing!
It is, however, not that simple. I am pleased to say that Gadoh is a far more ambitious film than that. The film is not about where it goes, but how it gets there.
A problem native to Malaysian filmmaking is bad acting and poor production values, and I'll admit that this film resembles a made-for-TV movie more than it does a theatrical feature - so it helps if you can pretend you're watching a stage production instead. But I'll also admit that some of the actors' performances truly impressed me. Mohd Zahiril Adzim, who played the leader of the Malay gang, Khalil, was especially good - and believe me, I'm not judging by local standards here. He even looks like that Malay boy who beat me up back when I was in high school.
The script, credited to Namron and R. Cong, is also well thought out, realistic and unapologetically bilingual. The soundtrack has its moments though it could have been transcendental if they had chosen to include some Chinese music as well, considering the film's aesop. I particularly liked Bin Jidan's Garisan Abstrak and the song in the credits, The A.C.A.B.'s Angkasa.
Would it help if I also tell you that this is by far the best Malaysian-made film I have ever seen?
The film does not pull its punches and at times, I found myself flinching. In Gadoh, the Chinese students say that the Malays do not respect the Chinese people, say that the Malays are oppressive, lazy, stupid and useless. The Malay students in turn say that the Chinese are deceitful and greedy; insist that the Chinese are merely squatters in their country; claim that they do not shower in the morning or wash their arses after shitting; and pronounce that all Chinese people will go to hell after they die. They also repeatedly call the Chinese "babi" (which is a racial slur that means "pig" in the Malay language) and hates the fact that the Chinese consume pork.
I won't speak for the Malay's side but I can attest to the fact that each and every last word the Malay students said about the Chinese in Gadoh are real-life insults I've had hurled at me before by Malay kids both in school and in my neighborhood. As a Chinese guy, I would like to point out that they are derogatory remarks which can be applied to individuals from any race and are all untrue as far as I am concerned - except that part about eating pork, of course. I maintain that pork is fucking delicious.
We can all deny that such inter-ethnic demonisations doesn't happen in society. We can all pop the blue pill and sip the
There are small, subtle touches within the Gadoh which I would never associate with Malaysian directors before now. I like how the school canteen in the prologue fight scene serves a variety of food native to the different Malaysian race. In fact, right before the titular brawl started, some of the Malay boys were eating Chinese food. The Chinese gang, on their way to the canteen, swaggered past a public service advertisement for Thalassemia depicting a crowd of students of various ethnicity with the headline "Kita Serupa" ("We are Alike") in big, bold letters. In what I consider to be the most poignant and powerful scene in the film - when Khalil met his Chinese archenemy, Heng, on the streets at night - there's a part where Khalil watched as a stray dog root through garbage. If that's not symbolism for Khalil's anagnorisis or revelation which follows, I don't know what is.
It also amused me that one of the least racist characters in this film is the Chinese gangster, Shin - a villain with virtually no other redemptive features. One of his enforcers appear to be an Indian guy, and he would happily do business with Malay thugs pushing stolen goods onto him.
Still, as much as I love the film, there are some nits I would like to pick at. While the Malay versus Chinese aspect was well fleshed out, Gadoh's treatment of Malaysian Indians is less than flattering. The token Indian guy in the film is this weedy kid who got pushed around a lot, but is still masochistic enough to want to befriend his tormentors. If I had made this movie instead, I wouldn't be able to resist exploring the Indian side of the story - and perhaps this is why I might make a poorer filmmaker in comparison to the artists behind Gadoh. The story should always take precedence, and trying to say too much (like Jack Neo, for example, is wont to do) might burden the narrative. The story Brenda Danker et al. wanted to tell is the rivalry between the Malay and the Chinese in Malaysia, considering that the most rabidly racist rabble-rousers are found within these two groups.
There are plot threads which got resolved too conveniently and unnaturally. It's almost as if the actors are going through the motions of an ideal world where racism isn't so intractably entrenched as to be ineliminable. The cynic in me believes that if the film's story was allowed to proceed organically, the delinquents would all drop out of the theatre club after the first meeting. An ideal world will not come about if things are allowed to run their natural courses. An ideal world is a conscious choice, an active choice. It's a choice which we need to fight for.
Or at least, that's what one can gather from a meta-reading of Gadoh.
Do you know that FINAS - the government body responsible for the regulation and development of the film industry in Malaysia - refused to approve Gadoh for screenings in theatres? Do you know that FINAS have, on several occasions, employed the police force to shut down private screenings?
This is what the current regime truly stands for. This is why 53 years after our Independence, we still have not exorcised the ghost of racism which divides us. Our country and goverment is obsessed with political correctness and enforces an atmosphere of silent tolerance between the races when what we urgently need to do is not to continue tolerating one another, but to start accepting one another.
This is why our film industry will always flounder, and it will do so under the inane weight of impossibly bad, cancerous Senario type comedies, terrible horror films and other tasteless miscellaneous et ceteras which FINAS does approve of while real films of substance like Gadoh never sees the light of day. They have failed to recognise genuine, un-neutered art and have mistaken the truth for subversion. They have failed their charge and our people. They have failed our country.
From left to right:
Gadoh will never be projected on the big screen or broadcasted on television so it's up to us to give a big fat middle finger to FINAS by seeing it anyway and by making sure all our fellow Malaysians see it too - they are the people who need to see it most. I am indulging in the idealist in me here when I say I believe that this film has the power to make a difference in our country because of what it has to say. This nation will not change through logical debate or on the strength of our rhetorics alone. The battle for Malaysia's soul will not be won in the mind, but in the heart.
It's a long hard road to a country I know all true Malaysians want. So, walk with me.
P.S. I watched Gadoh on vimeo and then saw it a second time through a copy I got off BitTorrent (which was not subtitled, unfortunately), and am planning to purchase a DVD of it from Pusat KOMAS just so I can lend it to my friends. I wonder if they would object to selling me a subtitled digital copy which I can propagate more easily. The only DVD of a Malaysian movie I own is Yasmin Ahmad's Sepet.
P.P.S. Here's a negative review of Gadoh by TMBF which brought up a lot of points I agree with - but which I did not express to preserve the economy of opinion. It's quite unlike his review of The Losers which I violently, viscerally and vitriolically disagree with. Anyhow, he disliked Gadoh and if you're interested, I posted what is essentially a whole blog post in the comment section of his review, bringing up a LOT of things which I couldn't fit into this post of mine.
Anak bangsa Malaysia,
k0k s3n w4i