Tribute to Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysian filmmaker (1958-2009)

How do I explain how gaping a hole Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad’s sudden demise has left behind in the Malaysian heart, soul and consciousness? Where to even begin to explain the phenomenon and personality of her work and Yasmin?

Yasmin Ahmad, fondly known as Kak Min to young fans, passed away on 25 July 2009 after a stroke and brain hemorrhage. She was 51. She shot to fame with her first feature film Sepet (2004), an interracial teenage romance between 17-year old Orked, a Malay girl from a liberal loving family, and Jason, an 18-year old pirate DVD seller from a Chinese working class family. She followed up the film with Gubra (2006), Mukhsin (2006), Muallaf (2008) and Talentime (2008). Prior to Sepet, Yasmin had ‘trialed’ her talent with a teledrama Rabun based on the story of her parents. She was motivated by her father’s collapse and felt she needed to make a tribute to her parents’ loving relationship: indeed she portrayed them as a couple who continued to bathe together and who teased each other even in their 70s. The characters of Mak Inom, Pak Atan and their daughter Orked were to appear as main characters in the Orked trilogy (Sepet, Gubra and Mukhsin). At the time of her death, Yasmin was working on two film projects, Wasurenagusa (Forget-Me-Not) and Go Thaddeus.

Her award-winning films, much like her Petronas commercials, conveyed the universal message of love and compassion underlined by humour and sometimes pathos. Who could forget Mukhsin’s pain of rejection and isolation as he stands outside Orked’s house looking in to see the family embraced in a slow dance to Nina Simone’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’? Or in Sepet when Jason’s Peranakan mother tells him she welcomes his Malay girlfriend and wanted to meet her without knowing that they had just broken up (and Jason responds by laying his head on her lap wordlessly)? In fact, the recent commercial she made for the Singapore Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports about the importance of family, entitled “Funeral” might be said to be an apt eulogy that we can express for her: it is a message about acceptance of human imperfection and interracial love.

Her works touched us and reminded Malaysians that diversity and difference were our strengths and not the liability ethno-nationalist purists and racist bigots wanted us to believe. One could say that her films in detailing the impossible were idealistic and maybe even a tad naïve. For our 50th anniversary of Merdeka which most Malaysians found little to celebrate under Pak Lah’s troubled leadership, she gave us the gift of “Tan Hong Ming in Love” to remind us that despite the racialised politicking, our children were colour-blind.  Only a naïve person would write as she had on her blog a week before she collapsed, “Someone please wake me from this nightmare and tell me that this did not happen in my country and that Teoh Beng Hock is safe at home with his family” (Thursday 16 July 2009). Only the naïve or the very sheltered would believe there was any substance behind our national slogans like ‘1Malaysia’. Yet, where would we anak-anak bangsa Malaysia be without the shared dreams and hopes of cosmopolitan togetherness her films envisioned for us, both in the past, present and future? Before Yasmin came along, there was only Malay cinema. She represented a multicultural Malaysian society on screen and unlike her other independent filmmaking cohorts, was arguably the most successful in projecting her indie ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ sensibilities onto the local mainstream film industry.

In a 2007 panel discussion about the controversy over Namewee’s rap, Negarakuku, Yasmin said she didn’t know anything about politics yet spoke only nothing but a politics and philosophy of love, not realizing that it was love that was perhaps the hardest dream (though the simplest in her mind) for her critics and naysayers to overcome: hard and impossible for those who beat up others and abuse their power of authority, hard for those whose corrupt souls no longer have room for compassion. Hard for those who have forgotten what it means to be a humble human being and merely one of many of God’s creatures. After all, an ad she made for SPCA about an autistic child who could not be drawn out into the world except by a dog was banned by the censors. Yasmin made loving seem so easy: enough to dissolve the bitter kernel in most cynics. Yet only narrow-minded repressed bigots could make that love so impossible and so dirty. Only bigots would perceive the instances of acceptance of diversity, her embrace of hybridity and human imperfections (the bilal and his wife who are friendly to the two sex workers in their neighbourhood in Gubra) as ‘culturally polluting’ and ‘morally lost and corruptive’.

So today it is my turn to ask, “Someone please wake me from this nightmare and tell me that this did not happen in my country and that Yasmin Ahmad is safe at home with her family.”

Go in grace, rest in peace, Yasmin. You will be sorely missed.

Khoo Gaik Cheng is a Lecturer in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at the Australian National University.