A soldier ran amok in Kuala Lumpur in October 1987. Nine days later, more than 100 opposition leaders, activists, educationists and environmentalists were detained under Malaysia's Internal Security Act in Operation Lalang. But the event created an impact on filmmaker Amir Muhammad, who said: "After the amok, I got one day off from school. This was the first time I felt the impact of national politics on my daily routine." It left an indelible mark and he decided to make The Big Durian because "I was curious to know if other people remembered the same things I did."
Big Durian (NC16) was screened as part of the 16th Singapore International
Film Festival on April 30.
On October 18, 1987, a soldier ran amok with an M16 in the area of Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur. His name was Private Adam. Due to the thorny circumstances of the time and place, his amok triggered a citywide panic. People thought it would be the start of a racial riot, the likes of which Malaysia had not seen since May 1969. Nine days later, the government arrested over 100 people without trial under the Internal Security Act.
No, gentle reader, I was not involved in any of these events at least not directly. I was not yet 15 then. I had never even been in the same room as any of the people whose names kept popping up in the news: Najib Razak, Lee Kim Sai, Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, or Adam himself, whose very name had a mythic resonance.
But October 1987 was a formative period. After the amok, I got one day off from school. This was the first time I felt the impact of national politics on my daily routine. What did the actions of a lone soldier have to do with national politics? Well, you have to understand that the mood at that time was (as the papers put it) "tense."
Our parents, who had lived through May '69, feared another violent episode of parang-wielding. The supermarket shelves were bare as people stocked up and stayed at home. This was also the first time I remember disbelieving what I read in the papers. All these saber-rattling politicians: some of them had to be lying, or at least concealing the whole story. But who was lying?
Some context: There had been a host of corruption allegations against the government. The Prime Minister had just narrowly defeated his rival Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah for the presidency of UMNO and therefore the leadership of the whole country. There was also a brewing controversy over the issue of Chinese education. This last issue in particular received great play by politicians from both the government and the opposition.
Since politics in Malaysia is build on ethnicity, these political responses inevitably took on a racial flavour, with each opportunistic politician taking on the mantle of communal pride. All sorts of rumours swirled around the events then, not least of which was Private Adam's amok. Why did he do it? Some rumours were more persuasive than others, but until today none have been officially verified.
I decided to make The Big Durian because I was curious to know if other people remembered the same things I did. We held open auditions and spoke to over 80 people. I got some to tell their own stories. I got others to improvise dramatic monologues based on people they knew. So some of what's on the screen is real, while some isn't. That's the best way that I knew of to convey the edgy mood of the time: we didn't know what to believe. "Anything happens in Malaysia and you speculate," says one of the people in the movie, "because the truth never comes out."
I wanted this mix of languages, characters, places, names, events; a "documentary" that also questions the objectivist assumptions of non-fiction story-telling; something that can jump around, make connections, even at the risk of seeming foolish or brazen. So we've got stories not only about the amok or the politics, but about race, electrocutions, lice and Tommy Page, the popularity of whom was one of the most disturbing things in '80s Malaysia.
Politics have never taken centrestage in Malaysian cinema, which obviously has other concerns. But this is a political movie. It's also a comedy. The two have to go together. We need the laughter to retain our sanity. Otherwise, we'd all run amok.
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