Saturday, August 18, 2007

Village People Radio Show (2006)

Village People Radio Show (Amir Muhammad, 2006)
Malaysian Title: Apa khabar orang kampung

Midway through Amir Muhammad's Village People Radio Show, Pak Kassim, former Malaysian independence fighter turned Communist guerrilla, says that despite the fact that they're Communists, they still need religion. It's not an entirely paradoxical proposition, especially after learning the man's history through the relaxed conversation pieces he has with Muhammad.

Village People Radio Show, along with its companion piece The Last Communist (2005), was banned in Malaysia for its Communist content, which I think is quite silly. Although the documentary tackles the communist fighter, it neither espouses or supports the cause, or at least not enough to evoke a rousing conviction from anyone who would view the film. Instead, the documentary paints an earthly portrait of these exiled communists who are living in a Thai village bordering Malaysia. There's a discernible humility in Muhammad's filmmaking; you can sense a profound respect for these former freedom fighters who are not able to relish in the freedom they have spilled blood and tears for, simply because of ideological differences.

The documentary is structured uniquely. Interspersed between the many conversations are excerpts from a Thai radio drama, adapted from William Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The conversations themselves are backdropped with sights and sounds from that Thai village: little children playing, the adult folks in their daily trade, the forests that cover the village. Muhammad shows an effectively wry sense of humor, as when Pak talks about how the first Malaysian president went to England to discourse talks about liberation and in return foregoing further talks with the communist fighters, he shows us a monkey on a leash; or when he starts discussing about their unfortunate exodus out of Malaysia, he shows us a colony of ants on a straight disciplined line.

The documentary itself is constructed like a public announcement radio show, complete with an upbeat opening song that invites casual listeners. The invitation is of course short-lived, every now and then, the film stops into an irritating formation of moving lights accompanied by the distorted sounds over the airwaves, usually heard when one is changing the frequency to catch other radio stations. It's as if Muhammad is already parodying his film's current predicament; there's a funny sense that Muhammad is censoring those conversations with the village people; successfully intercepting the radio frequency to a harmless radio play, but is transported back to those soundbites of Pak Kassim's stories that are considered harmful and much political.

In a way, Village People Radio Show is not a mere documentary about a forgotten freedom fighter living his last days outside the nation he fought for, it is also a commentary about Malaysian politics and how most Malaysians opt for the simple pleasures of trite entertainment instead of complexing their lives with the plight and tales of the overtly marginalized. When faced with a depressing tale of a nationalistic man detached from his country, and such tale obviously hinges on a very sensitive aspect of governance and politics, they tend to turn the dial and hope something remotely entertaining is on the air, to pass the time.

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