Does gender matter when making films in Malaysia? What can we learn from female filmmakers in Malaysia about their experience in the film industry?
When we published this piece on what Malaysian directors suggested you should do to get your work noted internationally, we unwittingly hit a bump in the road. Out of six directors, we didn’t strive for a perfect gender balance, leading a reader to raise the matter.
This article aims to present the opinions of Malaysian female filmmakers on how they are perceived as filmmakers; whether the stage is fairly set for them to shine and their views on having their gender in the spotlight instead of their artistry.
Min Lim, the head of production at Double Vision, a leading KL-based production company, doesn’t consider herself to be a “minority” or “disadvantaged”.
“I’ve never really felt that being a woman was a disadvantage in our industry,” said Lim, who’s behind not one but two series of “The Bridge”, the first landmark Asian adaptation of the Scandinavian TV series “Bron/Broen” (2011) on streaming giants HBO Asia and Viu.
Her upcoming project is the TV serialization of “Gun Honey”, a brand new American comic book written by Hard Case Crime’s head honcho Charles Ardai, and inked by the very promising Ipoh-based Malaysian comic book artist, Ang Hor Kheng.
Lim is comfortable in her role as producer. “I think there are probably more women producers in Malaysia than men,” she told Eksentrika.
“I try not to see something that I can’t (and don’t want to) change as a disadvantage, but I think that being a woman in a world that is embracing diversity can only help.”
“Frankly speaking, I look forward to the day when we are all addressed as a filmmaker rather than being labeled as a woman filmmaker,” said Vimala Perumal, the director of, among many others, the 58 episodes of the second season of “Tamiletchumy” screened by Astro in 2021, the talk show “Pengirl Rock” (2021) and feature films like “Vedigundu Pasanga” (Rowdy Folks, 2018) and “Vetti Pasanga” (Useless Folks, 2014).
“Simply put, a filmmaker is a filmmaker because that’s the designated call for anyone who works in making films,” said Vimala to Ekesentrika.
“We should not differentiate each gender as the struggles of making a film are the same. Filmmaking is not just tough for women, but also for men.”
Vimala believes that undeniably, male domination and differential treatment in certain professions do exist, “but if we are unable to handle or tackle that, I think we can never truly succeed in achieving our goals in life,” she told Ekesentrika.
Elise Shick Chong is a producer at Kuman Films, a horror and fantastic-focused production house based in Kuala Lumpur, who frankly stated that she only feels like a “woman” for five days a month.
“I want to bring up how problematic and reductive it could be when we talk about the ‘edges and disadvantages’ of being a filmmaker of a specific gender in Malaysia,” said Chong in responding to Eksentrika’s interview questions.
“In 2019 there was a prestigious short film competition held by a prestigious brand (I won’t mention the name here) presided by a row of female judges that outcast the male finalists not because of the quality of their films, but because of their gender. In this era that champions women, no one dared to point out this outright discrimination towards the male filmmakers to the organiser,” continued Chong.
“From my personal experience, in my earlier days the perception of females playing assistant roles was very strong,” said Lee Yve-Vonn of Afternoon Pictures, producer of the film “Oasis of Now” by Chia Chee Sum.
The film won an award at Southeast Asia Fiction Film Lab and tells the story of a Vietnamese housekeeper who pretends to be a local in Kuala Lumpur and secretly visits her daughter adopted by a local family.
Lee gave us some concrete examples of this cinematic “macho” world.
“To those who are not familiar with the industry’s designations, I will be considered the assistant to my male director, usually from people who don’t know about producers or are not aware of the responsibilities of a producer. Or when I represent a project as a producer, there are people who will assume that I have a boss, and that boss will naturally be presumed to be a man,” said Lee.
“Even once when a gangster came to the set to get money and when I answered I’m the person-in-charge, he teased me and only shut up when I sat across from him waiting to negotiate in a serious manner.”
Lee also says that fast-forward to the present day, even though she believes there are still not enough female players covering many roles in the industry, she is happy to see the progress of more women taking up responsibilities as a producer, director, cinematographer (and camera dept roles), sound recordist, production designer, art director, post-production key roles.
“Men are also being judged less when taking up professions of wardrobe stylist, make-up and hair artist, continuity and other roles deemed feminine,” said Lee.
For Penang-born director Nadiah Hamzah, who worked with Spike Lee and whose debut thriller “Motif” (2019) was praised by the Hollywood Reporter, “it is frustrating when female directors can only exist within the realms of independent cinema, where the audience is much smaller and niche, when outside of Malaysia – e.g Hollywood – there is a clear paradigm shift in pushing forward female voices in cinema. This directly affects the kind of female portrayal in Malaysian film, because the female gaze is NON EXISTENT.”
“I strongly believe there is an abundance of amazing female talent here – producers, scriptwriters, actresses, and so many others – but when it comes to female directors, they are just completely overlooked. It is an absolute crying shame,” said Nadiah Hamzah, who believes that even female actresses deserve more.
“They deserve better roles to play, as opposed to being sidelined in the corner, playing cheerleaders to their leading men.”
Producer, Sheril A. Bustaman says, “commanding respect is definitely a big challenge.” She said she had to step up her game to gain respect from the crew members, and in some situations, people insisted to refer to her male partner, instead of speaking directly to her, just because she is a woman.
“A con is definitely that there aren’t enough of us in the industry. Everything said and done, the Malaysian film industry is still a very male-centric environment and we have to fight very hard to get our voices and our stories out there,” she said.
Her debut documentary “Come Hell or High Water”, a 15-minute-long account of 24 years of interracial marriage in Malaysia, went to the Bangkok International Film Festival and was the opening film at the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival in 2015.
Sheril currently produces documentaries focused on countering violent extremism (CVE) under Fat Bidin Media, her latest work being “Perempuan Radikal”, the story of the ex-wife of a Malaysian ISIS fighter, directed by Nora Nabila.
Sheril however, believes that the tight-knit community of female filmmakers in Malaysia “definitely makes it a pro.”
“Veterans and pioneers like Lina Tan of Red Communications, director, actress, and producer, Susan Lankester and Low Ngai Yuen, director of “WOMEN: GIRLS” among many others, are all very supportive of up and coming female filmmakers, and always willing to provide industry insight or help give opportunities to young aspiring females.”
Min Lim of Double Vision remembers that not too long ago, the highest-grossing Malaysian film was indeed about a woman who married her rapist. “But I like [the fact] that we are living in a time when we can tell all kinds of female stories – not just the ones where the woman is reduced to a stereotype,” said Lim, hoping to become instrumental in helping young girls to see their stories and struggles “being accurately represented and told.”
Sheril Bustaman says that thanks to the pioneering work of Lina Tan (both versions of “Gol” and “Gincu”) there’s good hope for the future. “Producers like Susan Lankester are changing the mainstream scene, with the way the female characters in her show ‘Keluarga Baha Don’ are portrayed.”
“Either men or women, most people are misogynist,” said Tan Chui Mui.
Tan Chui Mui’s latest film “Barbarian Invasion” (2021) won the Jury Grand Prix, one of two top prizes, at the Golden Goblet Awards in conjunction with the 24th Shanghai International Film Festival, and also screened recently in Kuala Lumpur. The film stars the director herself, who plays a retired actress and new mother who needs to go through grueling martial arts training to act in her comeback film.
“We only have a prejudice against women, who we see either as the holy mother, or a whore.”
Tan remembers an episode when she was working as a film extra together with the late Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad in a short film by Liew Seng Tat. They were acting as two prostitutes, sitting in a cheap motel with heavy make-up and bizarre clothes.
“An old European man peeked from the glass window, got interested, and opened the hotel door,” remembers Tan. “He looked at us, and then at the film crew, got really embarrassed, and went out again.
“It was quite a thrill, to be seen as a prostitute,” said Tan. “Yasmin then suggested to me, that we should try to prostitute ourselves there, just to study [the situation]. I can understand what she meant, for she had this deep empathy towards mankind.”
Indrani Kopal, a documentary filmmaker, educator currently based in Sydney, and also the founder of the Far East Documentary Centre, reminded us that in the past two years of COVID–19 pandemic, the struggle to make films has been indiscriminative towards both men and women.
“It’s fair to say that it transcends gender to include ethnicity, religion, class, language, and social relations in Malaysia when it comes to filmmaking challenges,” says Indrani.
She believes that even if on one hand the country now has many gifted female filmmakers who are “courageous, confident, fearless, and ready to confront the real affairs of women through their films,” on the other, it’s also true that “not all female directors always want to make ‘feminist films’ – they too have desires to make any films of any kind, without any labels or specifications.”
The problem is that, when they boldly touch on real issues of identity, religion, sexuality, divorce, abortion, single-motherhood, interracial marriage, conversion, and abuses, then “they hit a brick wall with unwieldy bureaucracies and censorship.
Indrani believes that in this day and age, “Malaysian audiences are mature and ready for these contents”.
How easy is it to portray women in films for Malaysian female filmmakers? Our second question wanted to explore the dynamics of bringing up a female POV in the local film industry.
“The guiding questions I always ask myself when portraying women in films are, ‘Is this true?’, ‘Is this harmful?’, and ‘Is this contextually & culturally accurate?’,” said Sarah Lois, a filmmaker of Indian and Kelabit descent.
Lois had wonderfully represented the Kelabit identity of Sarawak by making the video of “Warrior Spirit” by Alena Murang, which was awarded the Best Asia & Pacific Music Video and Honourable Mention for Best Costume awards at the International Music Video Awards in the UK.
“I think it is important that we explore these questions in relation to how it all serves the story we are telling,” said Lois.
Unfortunately, this is not always easy to accomplish, according to Kuman Film’s producer Elise Shick Chong. “When we employ the dichotomy between the two genders (or more) to dissect and discuss gender inequality in the film industry, no matter how we portray either gender in films, this process itself is already another reproduction of discrimination,” she said.
For Chong, out of 230 films released theatrically in Malaysia between 2016 and 2020, only less than 10 portrayed women in less bigoted, sexualised, or fantasised ways.
“Representation and the lack of respect towards the entirety of humankind are [the reasons behind this],” said Chong.
For Min Lim, the hardest part for a woman, especially for wives and mothers, is the grueling schedule of the film world.
“On top of that, our limited budgets, and a lack of strong unions means that you have to stretch yourself really thin to do what you love.”
Luckily, Malaysian female filmmakers are a bunch of very supportive people. Some of the women interviewed for this article have already started moving forward with projects aimed at helping other women in the business.
Sarah Lois started a platform called Sceptre South East Asia (@sceptre.sea on IG) to showcase work from female filmmakers from the Southeast Asian region who have done their jobs well.
“I wanted to do this so that it would encourage other filmmakers in Malaysia and surrounding countries that we can be great at our craft, that we have a unique voice, and that we all have a shared experience that can be channeled into our films,” said Lois.
“We should shift our focus from fighting for gender equality and act on the moral basis of respecting each other,” said Vimala Perumal. “Everyone just wants their voice to be heard, be it through verbal communication or through the cinema lens.”
For Indrani Kopal, some of the things that may help women filmmakers move forward in Malaysia are to allow for more female-led stories and roles to become eligible through mainstream funders and male-centric film productions, give space to more female filmmakers to teach film production and studies, and incorporating humanities courses such as sociology, gender studies, and cultural studies, and also promote independent film institutes or academies to offer short courses or industry certificates for mid-career professionals.
Cover image: Indrani Kopal (Photo courtesy of Indrani Kopal)