|Village People Radio Show
Reviewed by: Vinita Ramani
In their preface to the book Tense Past – Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, editors Paul Antze and Michael Lambek state: “Our basic premise is that memories are never simply records of the past, but are interpretive reconstructions that bear the imprint of local narrative conventions, cultural assumptions, discursive formations, and practices, and social contexts of recall and commemoration.” 
A little over ten years after it was written, the premise may sound like a moot point; furthermore, with its postmodern undertones suggesting the contingent nature of “truth”, it may leave filmmakers and theorists alike yawning and flipping the page.
Nonetheless, the point bears repetition because memory and testimony become deeply controversial and powerful when they enter the public domain and influence the outcome of legal, or political proceedings – something the authors care to point out. What then, are we to do with the subjective nature of truth and more critically, with selective confessions and partial testimonies? What indeed, is the whole truth?
On the first day of a two-day conference and workshop titled Asian Cinematic Practice – Towards an Alternative Paradigm, organised by the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute (6-7 March 2007), Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad screened his latest documentary film, Village People Radio Show, which was followed by a discussion session on this subject.
Amir’s latest film is in many ways, a follow-up to his self-described “semi-musical documentary”, The Last Communist. Whereas the latter was an almost whimsical and satirical romp through Malaysia while ostensibly tracing the life trajectory of the Communist Party of Malaya’s only living leader, Chin Peng, this new film is – in the filmmaker’s own words – much more site-specific. Exclusively shot in southern Thailand where roughly seventeen Malayan ex-communists live in exile, the filmmaker and his crew of four spent several weeks with about ten of them, conducting interviews with an aging Pak Kassim (Idris Yusof), Pak Budin (Chunsun Sewei), Awang Ismail and others. Both Pak Kassim and Pak Budin passed away soon after: Kassim in September last year and Budin in January this year.
If there is an audience out there – composed of academics or otherwise – who approach Amir’s works as “ethnographic films”, or even burden his oeuvre with the ambiguities and struggles that define that practice, they would be in for a disappointing experience, which became quickly evident during the discussion session after the film.
If it’s confessions of adherence to ideology and political associations an audience wants, there is very little of that in Village People Radio Show. The documentary begins with an interview with 86-year old Pak Kassim, who recalls his life during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya (1941-1945), his brief tenure in the Japanese police force (the army, he says, was too violent for his tastes) and – in his opinion – the hypocrisy of the British who returned and condemned people like him for being “collaborators”. Thereafter, scenes of idyllic village life are interspersed with interviews.
There are at least two devices that Amir turns to in this film to underline the contingent nature of these recollections, without undermining their worth. One – somewhat akin to the aesthetic mood and aura of his 2005 experimental film, Tokyo Magic Hour – is the sudden flashes of blue-white light that intermittently interrupt an interviewee’s recollections or in some cases, simply leave these testimonials unfinished. If these visual “electric shocks” (aurally, that is precisely what it resembles) are anything like their predecessor in Tokyo Magic Hour, they hint at what cannot be said, what was not said, or what constitutes a kind of blip or lapse in memory: in the case of his experimental film, the unspeakable is in the realm of the heart and touches on love. In the case of Village People Radio Show, we are in the realm of political choices, nationalist sentiments and colonialism. Either way, all confessions are coloured by the unsaid.
Amir may not have delved into Greek etymology to shape his modus operandi, and neither have I in thinking about his film, but the one thing I do recall learning about is the term aletheia. It means “truthfulness” and yet, within the word is another, lethe, which means “forgetfulness” or “concealment”. That the two are so inextricably bound says something about how much more that word captures the essence of things than standard ideas of “confession” and “testimony”. These flashes, therefore, are very much a feature of the documentary, rather than an appendage or afterthought to round off the filmmaker’s approach to the subject of history (personal or otherwise). 
The other feature is the Thai radio play of the title. In the Q & A session after the screening, Amir characteristically took a humorous approach to rationalising some of his choices for the film: in the case of the play, he had apparently always wanted to include a Shakespeare play somewhere within his works. But the choice of the play A Winter’s Tale – as obtuse as it seems at first – is spot-on. In brief, it is about the deteriorating relationship between a king and his queen, involving a close friend: the king of another kingdom. Convinced that he has been cuckolded, the paranoid protagonist orders for his friend to be killed and for the queen (his wife) to be imprisoned. He refuses to accept the child that the queen has given birth to and misfortune reigns, despite the efforts of the various aides and handmaidens to reason with their lord.
Interspersed with serious, poignant and at times, nostalgic or impassioned recollections of the history of Malaya and the anti-colonial freedom struggle, the subtitles for the radio play suddenly take centre stage on screen, like the typewritten words of a script. On one level, they capture the spirit of life in the village, where Thai soap operas – Amir told his audience – were a regular feature that caused all activity to be halted. That such epic soap operas, for all their over-dramatic gestures, become useful as metaphors and as tools on moral conduct, is hardly surprising. But the particular structure of A Winter’s Tale is an intriguing metaphor for the political context of the film.
As much as it seems like a stretch, it’s an interesting proposition that the nation (the newborn child of the play) is the product of several forces, including the people (the queen), and communist forces (the “friend” of the king, who quickly becomes the “enemy”). A paranoid king (the government) of course, rejects both queen and child (the people and the nation forged by forces other than itself). Both devices lend the film the same whimsical tone of its predecessor, The Last Communist, but tone aside, they constitute an important factor for why the film works: in summation, they suggest that history is partial and life is a hybrid of tragedy and comedy.
Visual irony also abounds: when one interviewee recounts how the communist guerillas moved across the border to southern Thailand, the screen is occupied by a close-up shot of a swarm of large ants marching over rocks – some carrying “supplies” of food. Pak Kassim passionately says he felt the Sultans were “subservient” to the British as we see a shot of a Rhesus Macaque monkey collared and chained to a tree; vignettes about skirmishes are juxtaposed with shots of fighting cocks. The humour – while it may shock the serious – has a dark and emphatic undertone to it: at best, for all our political motivations, primal instincts and “nature” play a role as well, it seems to suggest.
But what is it that offends some audiences about the film? The Malaysian government’s response aside, in the context of the conference, it was something about the apparently incomplete confessions and ambiguous, obtuse admissions regarding one’s role in history that irked a couple of viewers.
Pak Kassim’s statement in the film in particular, caused this sense of frustration. He summed up his initial involvement in the communist party by stating that he went into the jungle to live and fight and never knew who the Central Committee members were, only that he was part of an “anti-British organisation”. Many of the interviewees recall with a sense of irony and wry humour that their role in the struggle was forgotten or written out of history and that propaganda was spread to portray Malay Muslim communists as undertaking “un-Islamic” practices (eating jungle meat or not following proper rituals to marry). But they never come out to say that they ascribed to an ideology and the ideology was inadequately realised, or that it indeed failed. 
To require such admissions seems ludicrous at best, largely for two reasons: one, as I’ve stated above, Amir’s film is not an ethnographic work in the strictest sense of the word and does not purport to document confessions by communists on their role in the party and in the anti-colonial struggle. Two, it’s arguable that rational decisions were carefully made to ascribe to communist ideology and realise its theoretical aims. Cases elsewhere (such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) prove the contrary; to assume that in the Malayan instance, lower level guerilla soldiers had carefully worked through the theoretical underpinnings before making a sound decision on their political position is contestable at best. 
Take a situation where getting a proper confession – no holds barred – may in fact be a viable reality.
In the opening shots of Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh’s 2002 documentary, S-21 – The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, a former cadre of the Khmer Rouge who had tortured and executed innocent civilians at the notorious S-21 prison (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), sits mute and glassy-eyed, while his aged mother bemoans his actions and its karmic consequences. At first, she begins by asking him – in desperate and yet resigned tones – to repent for his sins and beg the spirits of the deceased for forgiveness. But afterwards, she tells the filmmaker that her son is a good, quiet, soft man: a man incapable of committing such horrific acts. She directs all her anger and her desire for a rational explanation on Pol Pot – the ruler of Democratic Kampuchea from 1975-1979 and the driving force behind the Khmer Rouge.
Recently, I had a conversation with a Cambodian friend on the topic of confessions and admissions of guilt: that particular scene, she said, went down like bitter medicine for her. In fact, she was unable to swallow it and accept the explanation that one’s actions could be justified by blaming it on ideology, brainwashing techniques and extreme duress. In other words, it was like saying that my heinous acts were out of my hands, I did not know what I was doing.
“There’s always a force within oneself: what about this?” she asked me, tapping hard at her chest. “I cannot trust that…you have a heart, you have to take responsibility.”
It was an intense moment, particularly coming from a girl of nineteen years, whose parents were survivors of the regime and who lost everyone else to the wrath of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal experiment with a supposed communist utopia. But even then, she did not necessarily want an admission of guilt. She did not want shame and self-loathing. She wanted acceptance of responsibility because family members had died. Truth, for her, is more than academic and semantic. As she said, it is the only road to freedom for people like her who don’t know why these things happened.
Yet, she is fully aware that the “truth” – even if it is thoroughly documented and archived – may prove to be inadequate, incomplete and plainly unsatisfactory. It won’t bring back the dead and as she pointed out, there are always hidden details, mysteries that people are not privy to.
The Last Communist and Village People Radio Show are raw and have within them, the marks of a visionary who is engaged in a process, rather than a complete work that tackles all its questions and provides easy answers. To critique it on this basis is one thing. To demand that the filmmaker or his interviewees must produce set film texts that can be read, situated and utilised to fill historical gaps is another issue altogether.
After all, aletheia means “un-forgetfulness” or “un-concealing”. So even while these films undo and unravel, they will always point to that which remains hidden and forgotten. For Amir to assume he can do otherwise would only be hubris.