Bridging the Culture Gap Through Film

30 November 2017

In East Malaysia, a group of filmmakers are teaching the indigenous and rural communities of Sabah how to tell their own stories through film.

In a world filled with noise, the voices of indigenous and rural communities are often drowned out by larger urban populations. Rather than speaking for the minority, the Suara Community Filmmaking programme teaches the native people of Sabah to narrate their own stories through the art of filmmaking.

The annual free programme begins in March and continues throughout the year with four intensive workshops conducted by Malaysian documentary filmmakers like Zan Azlee and Harun Rahman. During the training sessions, the participants learn the fundamentals of filmmaking, which include storytelling, film production and video editing. By the end of the programme, the completed films get to be screened at the Borneo Eco Film Festival (BEFF).

Since 2011, Suara has produced more than 40 short films from 23 rural communities across Sabah. Although the programme is a key component of BEFF, the vision for Suara is to ultimately be an independent project managed by a network of indigenous groups.

Nizam Andan, who joined Suara five years ago as a participant, is now the programme coordinator. Having worked with over 100 rural communities during his stint with an NGO, the Semporna native understands the significance Suara has in bridging the gap between the urban and rural population.

"A lot of stories go unheard and we want to provide the orang kampung with a platform to share what's important to them,” says Nizam. “We don't choose their stories or tell them what to do with their films. Some of them wanted to use their films to advocate human rights issues while others preferred to create cultural awareness."

Suara’s policy of giving participants free rein over their films is a conscious decision to allow the locals to tell their stories in the way they want it to be told. Some NGOs may have made socially conscious films about rural life in Sabah, but as Suara participant Adzmin Fatta explains, the impact isn’t the same when an outsider drives the narrative.

Suara participant Adzmin Fatta.

"We have a lot to say and sometimes there are barriers to our voice reaching the intended stakeholders,” he says. “Most of the time our stories are highlighted by outsiders and told in their point of view – it's never really just what we want to say.”

“By learning how to make our own films, we get to decide what we want to convey."

Since its inception, the Suara Community Filmmaking programme has welcomed participants with varying levels of technical abilities. According to BEFF Programme Director Melissa Leong, some participants didn’t even know how to use a smartphone, but went on to learn how to shoot with drones.

"Our participants have different levels of technical capabilities, but they rise above whatever inadequacy you might think they have. I've never seen them experience a hurdle that they couldn't overcome,” says Leong. “They have such a strong desire to learn. They are so dedicated and passionate about telling their stories.”

Suara participant Pinru comes from a small village that relies on a diesel generator for power.

Rajimah Kasran, better known as Pinru, is an example of that. The Tidung native comes from Kampung Dagat, a small village by the Segama River that relies on a diesel generator for power. The villagers only have four hours of electricity a day, which makes it difficult for Pinru and other local filmmakers to edit their films. Despite this obstacle, they always manage to pull through.

"If we want our films to be ready in time for BEFF, we can't make any excuses. We just have to be smart in managing our time. Although I'm happy that our films were screened at the festival, I can't be contented with that. There's still so much for me to learn and improve on."

The Suara Community Filmmaking programme is open to all aspiring indigenous and local community filmmakers in Sabah. To support the programme, email Contributions in cash or kind are welcome.

By Rozella Mahjhrin
Photos by Danielle Soong and Eco Film Festival

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