Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Remembering Memali: a Freedom Film Fest 2009 Competition winner

Thursday, 24/09/09 - 14:50PM Filed in Blog by zedeck Views: 972 Comments: 0Tags: KL, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Freedom Film Fest, documentary, history

Past winners of the Freedom Film Festival (FFF) Film Competition include some stellar work. Look at Fahmi Reza's rousing Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, which explores a pre-Independence independence movement so buried most of us didn't know it existed.
Don't know whether the 2009 winners are any good, yet - but they certainly look intriguing. The poet, artist and dreadlocked Rahmat Haron's Al-Fatehah Memali, for example, has a great premise: it's a memorial of the 1985 Memali Massacre, through the eyes of two singer-songwriters.

Hang on. Memali?

Pay attention: on 19 November 1985, hundreds of police personnel, under then- Home Minister Tun Musa Hitam, laid siege to Memali, Kedah, on the grounds that a deviant Islamic sect, lead by one Ibrahim Mahmud, had infected the village.

The authorities wanted to arrest Ibrahim - a scholar who had previously appeared on national television to lecture on Islamic matters - under the Internal Security Act (ISA). He resisted. Revered by the local population, the confrontation between the police and Ustaz Ibrahim's followers ended in bloodshed: 14 civilians and 4 policemen dead.

Sound interesting? We got Rahmat to tell us more about his film:
Where did the idea for Al-Fatehah Memali come from? Why, out of the many forgotten Malaysian histories, choose Memali in particular?

I still remember watching RTM, when I was 8 years old, on that day. The images were so strong. They made me think: why were there heavy police deployments, with armoured vehicles, M-16s, the FRU? Were Ustaz Ibrahim Libya (as he was known) and the villagers of Memali so dangerous?

The government accused them of being deviant Islamic militants who wanted to overthrow the government. But this was without evidence. The police wanted to arrest Ibrahim under the ISA - as if there's no other way to detain him but to use the ISA. That means the government of that time had no valid reason to charge him in an open, free and fair trial.

Does your film intend to address the fact that so little of us know what happened there?

For me, I'm looking at Memali from the human rights perspective. The fact is they were not only religious martyrs, but martyrs who died in defence of human rights and democracy - to oppose ISA, even they have to sacrifice their own lives in the hands of the powerful.

There has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the incident. There was a Parliamentary White Paper and an RTM1 documentary about the event - to present official versions as the only truth. The court case following the massacre was settled out of court, after they wanted to subpoena Tun Dr Mahathir Muhamad. The family of the 14 who died were given some RM20,000 - that was the price of their dignity.

Looking at Memali again will test the seriousness of the Najib administration - or any future administrations - that pledge to serve the interest of the people.

Why is the film angled from the perspective of singer-songwriters Meor and Black?

For me, this was the easiest way to put things together. They are my personal friends and I'm a big fan of them. Black wrote a song about Memali, titled Syuhada Memali. Meor composed the music. I like this song very much.

Even though the song was already completed before the idea of Al-Fatehah Memali came about, in this film I'm trying to tell the story of how Black and Meor unraveled the incident, while composing their song.

In the course of making this film, you spoke to residents of Memali. What was the most interesting personal story that you heard, while working on the film?

The story told by Puan Solehah Husin, the wife of Ustaz Ibrahim Libya. She told us about what happened, moments after Ustaz Ibrahim was shot. She didn't get emotional while telling us the story, at all - without a single teardrop.

I think that was amazing. Maybe her religious convictions taught her to be patient and calm. If I was a survivor of that event, I'd be crying and howling about all those grievances.
(Want to hear Puan Solehah's story? Al-Fatehah Memali premieres at Freedom Film Fest 2009 on Saturday, 3 October, 7pm, at The Annexe Gallery in Central Market. The FFF's KL leg runs from 2 to 4 October.)

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