Malaysia and film censorship-NY Times

November 8, 2010

Film Pushes Malaysian Censorship Boundaries, but Not Too Far

Liz Gooch

The New York Times: October 28, 2010


By Hollywood standards, the movie sounds rather tame: a love story with no kissing, no nudity and no sex.

Given that the two lovers are both men, however, “Dalam Botol,” or “In a Bottle,” hardly seemed likely to win over the censors in this Muslim-majority country, where stories dealing with sexuality, politics or religion are deemed sensitive.

With that in mind, the film’s producer, Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, was ecstatic to learn last month that it had been approved by the censors.

“Dalam Botol” — which some have dubbed Malaysia’s “Brokeback Mountain” in reference to the Ang Lee film about a romantic relationship between two men in the American West — is one of the first Malay-language films to focus explicitly on homosexuality. It is scheduled for theatrical release in Malaysia and Singapore on Feb. 10.

Its approval came after guidelines were eased earlier this year to allow the depiction of gay characters. But there is a catch: Those characters must either repent or come to a bad end.

While some critics have welcomed the exploration of gay relationships in “Dalam Botol,” they say that the new guidelines remain problematic and that censorship continues to curtail filmmakers’ independence and has fostered a culture of self-censorship.

In Malaysia, all films, whether locally produced or foreign, must be approved by the government’s Film Censorship Board before they can be shown in theaters.

While the final version of “Dalam Botol” was approved without further cuts, Ms. Raja Azmi said she had made several changes earlier after meeting with the board.

The film’s original title had been “Anu Dalam Botol,” or “Penis in a Bottle,” but Ms. Raja Azmi said she changed it after the board objected. She said that, in response to suggestions by the board, she had removed a scene from an earlier version of the film that showed a man in his underwear. She said she had agreed because it was not critical to the story.

Before she started shooting, Ms. Raja Azmi submitted her script to the censorship board, which advised her not to include intimate bedroom scenes, she said.

Ms. Raja Azmi described “Dalam Botol” as a “tragic love story” involving two men, one of whom undergoes a sex change to become a woman. The film, which cost about 800,000 ringgit, or $250,000, to produce, is based on the experience of a friend.

When asked about the requirement that gay characters must repent or be shown in a negative light, Ms. Raja Azmi would only say that the characters “indirectly” express remorse.

Mohammad Hussain, chairman of the Film Censorship Board, said in an interview that, under new guidelines released in March, films dealing with homosexuality would be dealt with on a “case-by-case basis,” although the theme was not encouraged. Sodomy, even consensual, is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Malaysia.

Mr. Mohammad said there must be some “good intention” on the part of the filmmaker to show people that homosexuality is “something that’s not normal — at least in our culture.”

“It may be a normal thing outside our country,” he said, “but here in our society, it’s still considered taboo.”

Mr. Mohammad said filmmakers were encouraged to consult with the board before starting production, adding that this could help the filmmakers develop a product able to win approval. That way, he said, “they know already what they can portray in the film and then they shouldn’t blame us if we have to cut certain scenes.”

For example, he said, Malaysian-made films cannot include sex scenes or show their characters kissing. Locally released foreign films are treated somewhat more liberally than Malaysian films, because “in any Hollywood film, kissing is part of the culture,” he said. “We don’t go on kissing in public so we don’t allow that to be portrayed in our local films.”

Regarding “Dalam Botol,” Mr. Mohammad said the board had raised concerns about the original title because some Malaysians would consider it obscene. He said he could not recall the board suggesting that the underwear scene be removed.

Although “Dalam Botol” has yet to be released — a news media showing is not scheduled until Nov. 10 — it is already attracting comment on Malay-language blogs, according to Yeoh Seng Guan, a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at Monash University in Malaysia. While many bloggers are supportive, others have denounced the film as “anti-Islamic” and depicting “deviant sexuality,” he said.

Critics are expecting the film to do well at the box office, though. Forty theaters have agreed to show it in February.

Mr. Yeoh said he welcomed the approval of “Dalam Botol” because homosexuality was rarely addressed in Malaysian film. “I think it’s quite a big step for the subject matter to be in mainstream cinema,” he said.

Gaik Cheng Khoo, a Malaysian academic who teaches gender and cultural studies and Southeast Asian cinema at the Australian National University, voiced reservations about the requirement that gay characters repent or face negative consequences.

“It’s great that there are some queer representations out there, but at the same time if you have an ending that reaffirms heterosexuality, then it hasn’t made any strides for accepting people who are not heterosexual,” she said.

Mr. Yeoh said the current censorship guidelines simply encouraged people to seek out uncensored, possibly pirated copies of films.

“Those kinds of censorship guidelines are in keeping with the government’s moralizing, but it’s out of date,” he said, adding that some Malaysian filmmakers preferred to release their films abroad or show them locally at private screenings to avoid the censors.

Amir Muhammad, an independent filmmaker who has had two films banned in Malaysia, said that in order to get films approved, many filmmakers practice self-censorship. He said his films “The Last Communist” and “Village People Radio Show” were turned down because the authorities considered them “Communist propaganda.”

Despite the publicity surrounding her film, Ms. Raja Azmi insists she is not trying to make a political statement.

“I’m just trying to tell a story about a friend,” she said. “It’s all about love.”


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