Reading the Transnational in the Local. Or, How the Local Travels: The Case of Survival Guide Untuk Kampung Radioaktif

Curator's Note

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, 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.


Hi Fiona, 

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?

Aniko, I too was struck by their humor and wondered about their effectiveness when I first viewed these films. To clarify on the "alienated audience" bit, it refers to the Malay kampung residents as described in the second paragraph. Based on my conversations with a few of the filmmakers, the humor was intended to broach the fraught topic with this group of viewers, who were facing various kinds of pressures to not participate in protests. Though the effectiveness of the videos with this audience remains to be seen, I think the humor works in light of the particular context and, in effect, lays the groundwork for the more straightforward message of Tan's mother and son film. What is interesting to me is how these films might translate to other audiences. Note also how the humor tends to be visual (i.e. not language bound) so as to traverse the multi-lingual communities of Malaysia.

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.

Aniko, yours are certainly important questions and I'm still working through them myself. I think you're on to something about linking humor and translation. The risk of humor is that it allows the films' entertainment value to potentially overshadow its more serious and urgent aims. Yet, for its intended audience, the filmmakers deemed it a risk worth taking, appropriating humor as a means of couching what cannot otherwise be discussed overtly. Thus, translation is not something that just happens across national borders, but within it as well, for it is translating a politically loaded issue into comedy that the filmmakers hope to engage a Malay kampung audience. Also, the fact that non-Malay filmmakers are making Malay language films is not insignificant given that this is not generally the case in the national film industry (the representations of racial and linguistic diversity being a related but a whole other topic altogether). My point here is that what we're calling "local," by way of noting both its particular context and its transnational movement, is itself a dynamic if not highly contested construction. 

Of course, as the films travels to more varied audiences, one wonders if viewers in Malaysia laugh at the same thing as, say, those at the Rotterdam Film Festival or someone watching them on in China? Does it matter? As you point out regarding Secret Years, the stakes are very different depending on its audience. 

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