“The film experience is only complete when the audience watches the film and filmmakers get to see their response,” Anna Har tells Eksentrika.
Anna, who was part of the founding team at Malaysian human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO), Pusat KOMAS, started the FreedomFilmFestival (FFF) in 2003 to celebrate and showcase social documentary films. These films explore human rights values within the context of freedom of expression in Malaysia.
In 2017, Anna co-founded the Freedom Film Network (FFN) together with Brenda Danker, and their team took over the organising of the festival.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, Anna and her team pivoted online. In 2020, FFN had to organise FFF virtually, which turned out to be a blessing in terms of logistics. In 2021, her team didn’t organise FFF but did other film events online such as PESTA TUT.
Anna, however, felt that the real magic usually happens in a physical space, where filmmakers get to share and discuss their ideas with audiences.
“There’s a bit of anxiety there,” Anna, who is also a filmmaker, says. “We have a really great programme but will our supporters and audiences take the risk to turn up?”
The Covid-19 restrictions have loosened, but the impact of the pandemic still looms large.
This is especially so for filmmakers like Anna, who thrive on the interaction between filmmakers and audiences to explore the subject of their films.
“The FFF initiative is aimed at bringing people together; the films we make are about people who seldom get heard of. So when their voices come out on film and we also get to see them after, the support and solidarity for causes are strengthened. It reminds them (marginalised groups) that they’re not alone.
“This is why we’re reviving FFF physically now after two years of virtual events.”
“We started making community films (in 2003) and we noticed that there was no platform to showcase and talk about these films.”
In the initial years, FFF struggled to find venues for its activities.
“Mahathir was still prime minister then and with the Internal Security Act (ISA) looming over our heads, it was a different time altogether for us.”
Anna says her small team was treated like pariahs as they kept facing rejection after rejection from venue owners.
“We had to switch locations on a yearly basis because people were not comfortable with our group doing these kinds of screenings and having these kinds of discussions in their area.”
Regardless, FFF soldiered on. They opened their doors to filmmakers to create and submit their films.
Very quickly, Anna and her team also saw that not many were making social films.
In forming FFN in 2017, the team decided that the best way to encourage the creation of such films would be through collaboration with organisations that can help fund such causes.
“The films we show usually have a strong and important cause. The content we bring to the table crucially needs to be watched, even as the technical aspects of quality could be improved,” said Anna.
In an effort to raise the film standards, FFN began collaborating with seasoned film professionals to mentor and advise social advocacy filmmakers.
The mentors were able to guide filmmakers in upping their game and this overall, improved the quality of films screened at the festival.
“We got the films to be more character and story-driven.”
For Anna and her team, the most important factor in getting social films to be made is the impact.
“When we realised this, we began investing our efforts and resources towards curation of the festival. We now make sure that the right people are present among our audience, to be able to talk about the topics highlighted in the films.”
“FFN began supporting activists and filmmakers to strategically plan and implement ‘impact screenings”. This continuous effort to use films for impact is done by working in collaboration and supported by international arts and cultural institutions such as Goethe Institute, Alliance Francais and the British Council and (foreign) embassies based in Malaysia.”
“FFN’s current initiative, Social Films for Social Change, (aims) to build the capacity of civil society organisations and filmmakers to use films for impact (and) is funded by the European Union and the Goethe Institute since 2020.”
“Most of the filmmakers who apply for our film grants are actually activists and campaigners who want to bring their causes to a larger audience through the use of media.”
One such advocate is the founder of SeniorsAloud, Lily Fu. Lily has been a sole voice, championing for senior citizens in Malaysia and acrosss the causeway, to receive better community support through the sharing of information and emotional reinforcement.
Anna and her team worked with Lily to strategise the screenings of Lily’s film.
“We planned for the film to reach the most suitable target audiences. Knowing who a film is being created for and ultimately getting them to watch it, is a crucial part of the strategy. By the end of these screenings, Lily turned into a more recognised advocate for senior rights. She has become the first that comes to mind for her specific cause and now she has also been sought for in crafting policies to better aid aging populations.”
FFN is able to provide guidance, in the form of expertise and resources, even to individuals who wish to use film as a medium to highlight their cause but have had no prior training or experience in filmmaking.
“In the case of Lily who had zero experience in filmmaking, we supported her with an experienced director of photography, an editor, and story consultants from Germany and Taiwan.”
“We’re now trying to reach a standard where we can pay our mentors, artists, and filmmakers a decent fee for their work.”
Anna was first inspired after watching the 1991 documentary film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. The film had a huge impact on how she saw the world and she began thinking about making such films.
“With films, you might have an impression now and when you’re in a particular situation, that memory of that film triggers. The impact is latent and it’s something that stays on with you for a long time.”
Anna recalled shooting a documentary film on the customary practices in Maluku called Sasi Lompa. The age-old practice, forgotten among many communities in Indonesia, helped regulate marine resources in a sustainable manner.
When she screened it to a separate group that had forgotten about this ritual, many instantaneously recalled and remembered the practice.
“Film was part of the strengthening, promotion, and sharing of keeping this culture alive until today.”
Now, Anna and her team aim to do the same together with other films through the FFF.
The theme for 2022’s FFF is ‘Pandemic of Inequality’. From 9- 17 September, 2022, over 30 films, workshops, and talks specially curated to highlight the impact of the pandemic and lived experiences in the last two to three years will be explored at PJ Live Arts, Jaya One in Petaling Jaya.
This year, the festival has partnered with the British Council Malaysia to bring Malinda Wink, the Global Director of Good Pitch at Doc Society to deliver a talk titled ‘The Impact of Art and the Art of Impact‘.
Award-winning filmmaker Sean McAllister will be giving a talk titled, “Changing The World With Character Driven Films“ and the UK film “Sorry We Missed You” will also be screened at the 2022 festival.
“Support from the British Council Malaysia is helping us to explore new ways of collaboration. They are a crucial partner in enabling Malaysian filmmakers to be mentored by experts from Doc Society under Doc School,” said Anna.
Under the Doc School partnership programme that will begin early next year between FFN and Doc Society, various opportunities are underway, including masterclasses held by producer, writer, and director Pieter van Huystee and Chan Tau Chou, an award-winning investigative journalist.
“What I like is that the British Council easily fitted into what we’re doing and they are supporting Doc Society to attend FFF, and to collaborate with FFN on a series of capacity building and impact mentoring activities. The relationship is a long-term one as the British Council will also be sponsoring an impact grant for local filmmakers to be mentored by Doc Society.”
“I like this kind of long-term specific investment because it can take two to three years to create an impact, something which the British Council is deeply aware of. Creating an impact takes time and having the same organisation journey with us on it is important.”
Cover image sourced from the FreedomFilmFest / Facebook.