Mat Kilau: How important are films in shaping a society?

Mat Kilau: How important are films in shaping a society?
By Zan Azlee

Malaysia has always been almost like a powder keg ready to explode when it comes to racial and religious tension. The way systematic racial politics work in the country has caused us so much detriment and every ethnic and religious group is just so apprehensive of each other.

One statement by a politician that is deemed racially or religiously insensitive and it sets off a whole chain reaction of anger, frustration and disappointment. The same goes when a social media posting that is similarly insensitive (or even just a valid social critique but offends someone) goes viral.

So, even though I believe that there should be total freedom of speech, I also believe that the people who are making the speech need to have a strong sense of responsibility and an awareness of the environment where it is being made. Context and situation are very important considerations.

Then there is the recent film that has been getting so much attention in the media and currently looks set to break the box office record, ‘Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan’. It is directed by well-known box office record-breaker Syamsul Yusof, who also broke records with his previous films ‘Munafik’ and ‘KL Gangster’.

It tells the story of the real-life Malay hero Mat Kilau from Pahang who fought the British colonisers in the late 1800s. Even though Mat Kilau is real and part of Malaysia’s significant history, the film itself is a fictional telling of his fight and fighting for the country’s independence.

It stars quite an array of established actors like Adi Putra, Beto Kusyairy, Rahim Razali, Wan Hanafi Su, Fattah Amin, Shaharuddin Thamby, Namron and Jalaluddin Hassan. But I am not going to go into a full-on review of the film here. For that, you could visit my YouTube channel if you are so inclined!

(Watch the review)

Propaganda, good and bad

What I do want to discuss here is the fact that aside from being an excellent form of entertainment for people, it also plays a very effective vehicle for propaganda and influence. Now, this can actually be both a good or a bad thing, depending on the intentions of the filmmakers.

Mat Kilau is being promoted as a film that pushes nationalistic and patriotic pride. How can it not? He fought for our independence and we learn about his exploits in history lessons in school. It also pushes forward Malay pride since he is a Malay warrior, kind of like the legendary Hang Tuah.

And because of this, the audience who are flocking to the cinemas to watch the film is definitely taking it very seriously. I was invited to the premiere screening at the Alamanda Putrajaya mall and more than half of the crowd there were dressed up in Baju Melayu, songket and tanjak.

Now, there is nothing wrong with feeling pride like this. In fact, it can be very inspiring. There are lots of Star Wars fans who go to the cinema dressed up as Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader. It is totally fine. However, it would be considerate if they took off their tanjak in the hall because it could block the view of those sitting behind them.

Okay, now back to the point of discussion. Although the film is being promoted the way it is, when you watch it, the sense is totally different. In my opinion, as a person who reviews films (and makes films too), I left the cinema feeling very uncomfortable and a little bit dirty!

The film is full of Malay pride, and it is also full of Islamic and religious pride too. Every five minutes, there is dialogue that repeats the importance of how they need to fight for their bangsa and their agama, and how if they lose these two elements, they lose everything.

Again, I stress that there is nothing wrong with being proud of who you are. I am also Malay and Muslim and very proud of it. However, the film is so one-dimensional that there is nothing more to it than just a group of Malay warriors who are fighting foreign forces (those who are not Malay and Muslim) because they are considered a threat to their bangsa and agama.

The warriors are so single-track in their objective of fighting this threat that everything else is disregarded, from their relationships with family and even how they perceive their fellow Malays. There is even a scene where Mat Kilau and his gang get angry and sarcastic at the kampung folk for being too scared to pick up arms and fight.

There is no consideration of any other way to fight the enemy other than engaging them in battle and killing them. Neither do they have any kind of internal conflict or even discourse among the characters and in the storyline of any other elements than just wanting to physically fight and kill.

The subtext that I got from the film is that you can remove the British colonisers and replace them with any other “enemy” and it would not make a difference. It also seems to send a message that there is no other channels to solve conflict other than going to the extreme of violence and killing.

Importance of diversity

I know that some of you will probably say that it is a war movie. What do you expect, right? Sure, I am aware that it is a war movie. That’s why I raised the issue of the characters having internal conflicts or even having the narrative explore the fact that everyone is only human and has to deal with emotions, morality and beliefs.

Films like ‘Mat Kilau’ and other mainstream blockbuster films tend to have a very high level of influence on society. My fear is that if the subtext is negative and extreme, it could normalise this among the people. But then again, this is just my own personal opinion and my own subjective takings after watching the film.

With that being said, I also believe that the filmmakers have every right, because of freedom of speech, to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. After all, film is an art form and a form of expression for the artist. So, good on Syamsul and gang to exercise their right to do so.

And also with that being said, because it is a subjective form of expression, it is very important that there is diversity in film. What this means is that there should be other films that portray other and different opinions, thoughts and ideas out there. Then, society will be presented with many alternatives for them to make a better decision.

In Malaysia, where, as I have mentioned earlier, we are in an environment that is high-strung when it comes to racial and religious differences, it is even more important that society is presented with different ideas that can promote multiculturalism and pluralism so we can pour a little bit of cold water over a hot keg.

Since we’re talking about films, we need a film industry that encourages this diversity. More filmmakers should be making more films that explore way more issues and ideas to help create awareness among the people and also to give representation to every layer of society.

Not only that, the governing bodies of the industry should also play a role in promoting and encouraging an environment for all of this to happen. This can be in the form of creating the right policies and systems that will allow for diversity to exist and thrive in the industry.

Majulah filem untuk negara!

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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