Morality and the arts
|Aidil Rusli loves rock 'n' roll, still believes in the words "indie" and "underground", and after all these years still sings in his band Couple myspace.com/couple. You can get in touch with Aidil by emailing: [email protected]|
FEB 25 — I notched up another first last weekend when I was invited to be a panellist on a monthly dialogue series called “Dialog Orang Muda” (roughly translates as “Young Person’s Dialogue”), in which I and two other panellists discussed the topic of “Morality In Film — Who’s Responsible?” I’ve participated in debates in high school, and a couple of years back I was also involved in a debate that was aired on TV about the whole indie vs mainstream thing back when the Malaysian indie scene first started to breach the mainstream, but a dialogue is a much more cool-headed environment compared to debates so this was a definite first for me.
My fellow panellists were Azharr Rudin, an indie filmmaker I’ve known personally for quite a few years already, and the recently quite famous Ali Atan, film columnist for Utusan Malaysia who set the local cyber world relatively alight with his review of “Ombak Rindu”, in which he questioned the film’s morality and responsibility in representing Muslims the right way.
I was glad that the dialogue didn’t turn into a debate, and I found the opinions voiced and the questions that were asked by the audience to be quite enlightening. And the general feeling I got from everyone in attendance was a sort of blanket disappointment in most local films in terms of quality and basic competence, which is also a feeling that I share, although I’ve never stopped hoping that we will produce something great someday and maybe even consistently! But that’s just the optimist in me talking, of course.
My position when it comes to the dialogue’s topic is quite simple. To me, film is an expressive tool, which is to say that it’s just another form of art, like music or painting or writing. If the artist wants to put in or send out a message with his art, then he’s free to do so. But he’s also free to make art that has no message whatsoever.
When it comes to something with endless possibilities for human expression like film, the room for interpretation is even more. A film can contain the most repulsive and immoral of content (like the notorious “Salo, or the “120 Days of Sodom”) but be in no way an immoral film, because the repulsive content were simply used to strategically provoke the film’s audience into deciphering its actual intended message.
A film can also be a simple act of observation (like the films of Lisandro Alonso and Pedro Costa) with no obvious story, let alone a moral message, yet can still be a beautiful and profound work of art. It really is up to the filmmaker what sort of film he or she wants to make.
Of course, if a film purports to be a religious film, and gets its facts wrong, then it deserves all the spanking that comes to it. But if a film is quite clearly being made and marketed as a Malay melodrama, or your run-of-the-mill idiotic dumb Malay comedy, then it’ll only deserve a spanking if it utterly fails to live up to what it wants to be.
And this is also exactly where my insistence on reading everything according to its context comes into play. If you’re selling nasi lemak, then it wouldn’t be fair to have customers complaining to you that your nasi lemak doesn’t taste like a ribeye steak, would it?
Having seen “Ombak Rindu”, and admittedly quite enjoyed its melodrama, I find it strange that so many people (especially a few serious film fans that I know) have been bashing it for things that I’m pretty sure the filmmakers never intended to do.
Some have bashed it for portraying an ustaza who was tricked and forced into becoming a prostitute as unIslamic, more have bashed it for its overtly melodramatic plot mechanics, and some (quite rightly so in this case, I might add) have laughingly pointed out some of the film goofs (like a clip microphone transmitter) that was there for all to see.
Maybe the fact that it was so successful (almost equalling the record RM12 million that “KL Gangster” pocketed at the box office) made it even more of a target than it would’ve been if it wasn’t so successful. But using my nasi lemak analogy, even if it might only be an above average nasi lemak that a lot of people are buying when there are better nasi lemak out there, it’s still kind of missing the point to complain about it not tasting like ribeye steak.
As Muslims we may have the urge to apply morality to everything under the sun because as people often put it, Islam is a way of life. And we do have every right to do so when it comes to our personal lives because we have the right to practise our own beliefs. But to insist that other people also do the same? I just don’t feel that it’s my place to do so.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.