When Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui heard about protests against Lynas Corporation’s construction of a rare earths refinery near her hometown in Gebeng, Pahang, she rallied the film community to produce an online video campaign. Launched in November 2011, Survival Guide Untuk Kampung Radioaktif (Survival Guide for Radioactive Village) comprises short films that complement activists’ efforts in raising awareness about the health and environmental hazards posed by the factory’s radioactive waste, challenging the government’s claim that the Australian company's foreign direct investment promotes national economic interest.
With one exception, the films use comedy to raise awareness. Without overt references to Lynas, humor allows the films to broach a politically fraught subject with their target audience. In the Malay language and deploying kampung folklore, such as Yeo Joon Han’s use of orang minyak as an allegorical device, the films appeal primarily to Gebeng's Malay kampung residents who are directly affected, yet remain disinterested in the protests because of alleged bribery and threats. Furthermore, as parodied by Liew Seng Tat’s pieces, Lynas criticism has been censored in the government controlled Malay press. Explains producer, Foo Fei Ling, protestors have been undermined as protecting ethnic Chinese and political partisan interests, the latter impression further fueled by Opposition MP, Fuziah Salleh’s appearance in Woo Ming Jin’s film.
Whereas humor engages an alienated audience, Tan’s poignant documentary about a 1980s incident at Mitsubishi's rare earths plant in neighboring Perak demonstrates the common stakes involved for Gebeng’s residents. Emphasizing a mother’s sacrificial love for her son, born severely disabled due to radioactive waste exposure, the film bridges cultural divides, with subtitles reaching multilingual audiences.
Although tailored to a specific demographic, the films have traveled widely, hinting at the medium’s potential in reframing a local issue into a transnational one. At community screenings elsewhere in the country, they have prompted conversations about local environmental concerns, although subtitles posed a barrier to audiences unused to reading while watching. The films are also available on Tudou.com, the Youtube equivalent of China, the world’s biggest rare earths manufacturer, and will be screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Ironically, the films have yet to reach its target audience, who have limited Internet access, although plans are afoot to distribute DVDs to them, packaged as free entertainment.
Humor as a transnational tool?
I'm struck by the powerful use of humor in these pieces -- verging on the grotesque and the absurd in some cases. I wonder why the filmmakers decided on this kind of shocking humor as the main tone of the series. Or is it just a coincidence that they all do? You say that they want to reach an alienated audience and I wonder why they are alienated and from what? And why is this kind of over-the-top humor considered the most effective way to alert them to environmental destruction -- why not more straightforward, series films like the last one with the mother and the son?
Yes, that was my follow-up question: how does the humor help translate the film, and its political commitment, to similar cultural contexts. Is there such a thing as transnational political humor and if so, through what avenues does it impact this particular filmmaking group? Is it a glocalized form of expression, a mix of indigenous and borrowed traditions? I'd love to read anything else you may have on these questions.
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