dari jemapoh ke manchestee

By Nazir Husain BigO #161, May 1999

A few days after the Muslim festival of Hari Raya, late one October evening in 1975, a figure stood on the banks of a river by the northern Malaysia frontier town of Golok. Thailand was just a five-minute raft ride across the shallow waters. It was nearing evening prayer time, perfect for a crossing.

Hishamuddin Rais, Malaysia's trendiest rebel and a student protest-leader, instructed the old boatman to take him across for 20 Malaysian cents. He didn't look back as they made their way to the other side. Hishamuddin was on the run from the authorities who had enforced a crackdown against reform leaders like himself who advocated change in the country's political system.

It was only when he stepped onto Thai soil that Hisham allowed himself that glance backwards. "I remember the bamboo of the banks and the old man taking the rakit back to the Malaysian side. The sun was setting. That was my first sense of freedom." Oliver Stone would have wept.

The funny thing about this cinematic moment in Malaysian history was that many years later Hisham would return to Malaysian soil to make a film that was possibly the first in the peninsula to celebrate hope, desire and freedom.

His film, From Jemapoh To Manchester (Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee) is essentially a road movie about two Malaysian "kampung boys" who dream about making the trip to North England to see their favourite English league football club in action. Their make their journey across the country in an abandoned red Volvo to a seaport to board a freighter that would bring them to Southampton. Along the way they meet various characters who enrich their cross-country experience as well as some who prove to be obstacles.

The film, shot on 35mm film, had its world premiere at the 11th Singapore International Film Festival in 1998 where it was warmly received by local audiences. It also has the distinction of being the first Malaysian made film to be screened at the 9th Stockholm International Film Festival where it was given two nights screening as the mid-week attraction.

From Jemapoh... has also travelled to Germany and the United States for festival screenings. Unfortunately as part of the conditions for Hisham's return to Malaysia, he is not allowed to travel and had to give the festival screenings a miss.

Although he no longer professes any interest in Malaysian politics, Hisham is still being watched by the powers that be. During the height of unrest in Kuala Lumpur, Hisham was arrested and accused of being the mastermind of street demonstrations by Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed. He was released from lockup after just one day because of lack of evidence.

Dr Mahathir's suspicion was based on Hisham's association with sacked deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. In the '70s Anwar led university students in protest against the government of that time, while Hisham was among the student leaders who supported him. When the government cracked down on the student movement, Anwar was incarcerated under the Internal Security Act (which allows detention without trial) while Hisham fled the country. Hisham's return to Malaysia was facilitated by Anwar, who gave him the assurance that the government would not harass him if he stayed out of politics.

From Jemapoh.. makes some barbed comment on social concerns, for example, the tendency of people in authority clamping down on youth culture and expression, and the hypocrisy of censorship and suppression of dissent. These themes would certainly strike a chord with ordinary Malaysians who have lost faith in the country's institutions of administration and justice as a result of the ongoing trial of Anwar Ibrahim for charges of corruption and sodomy. Many Malaysians believe the charges are fabricated as part of a conspiracy to oust the popular ex-DPM.

Hisham laughs away such suggestions saying his film was conceived and shot before the recent demonstrations became a part of Malaysia's political landscape. While this is factually accurate, it is easy to presume where Hisham's politics lie.

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