WALKING around Bangsar one balmy night six years ago, I bumped into filmmaker Amir Muhammad and film academic Khoo Gaik Cheng sitting with a rather foppish Mat Salleh man. It took less than an hour of my being introduced before all of us banded together to bully the hapless Australian Mat Salleh to prove that he was no film elitist by reviewing Lady Boss, a film starring Ning Baizura, for Kakiseni.com.
That Australian was Benjamin McKay, who was then doing a thesis on 1950s and 1960s Malayan films. It was mid-2005 and Benjamin had just moved to Kuala Lumpur, a city whose ironies he was happy to embrace. He was proud to call Kuala Lumpur home until his demise, alone in his pad, on the evening of 18 July 2010 from cardiac arrest.
As former Kakiseni editor, I like to think that I was the first ever to commission him for a review for a Malaysian publication, thus launching his career as the darling critic of the Malaysian film scene. Rarely has there been a film critic more beloved by an even more elitist bunch of independent filmmakers. And you can see why, when he hijacked his review of the above-mentioned commercial film to appeal for more representations of local independent films:
“I will say, however, that my criticism of this film and more broadly the mainstream Malaysian commercial cinema is based on a genuine love and respect for this country and her people. Malaysia is so much more than a land of clichés, and from my experience the Malaysian people are far more intelligent, complex and engaging than many of the so-called mainstream Malaysian filmmakers would have one believe.
“So having said all of that, I can hear my detractors asking: ‘What then, Mat Salleh, is the real problem lah?’
“It is simple, really. You in fact already have a dynamic and challenging local film industry if only you were exposed to it. The commercial exhibitors need to take charge here. The time is right for the good films that Malaysia makes to be properly publicised, screened and viewed in the spirit in which they were made – that is, with intelligence, grace and a respect for their audience. Many of these independent filmmakers make very amusing films – indeed hilarious on occasion. Free up your screens to show a more representative array of what this country can produce. That process has started and I applaud the tentative steps that the cinema chains have embarked upon, but it needs to go further.” (Source: The Taming of Ning, Kakiseni.com, 14 June 2005)
Benjamin even managed to win the friendship of none other than the late Yasmin Ahmad, who was famously suspicious of academics and intellectuals; perhaps she had been accused of being sentimental and manipulative one too many times. But Benjamin was the sort of intellectual who shamelessly gave his heart over for art that is emotional and manipulative, as long as the manipulations were for the good. This he implied in a Love Letter he wrote to Yasmin for Criticine after she passed away in 2009:
“You might have thought that ‘intellectuals’ were a suspicious lot, but in your public and cinematic engagement with those detractors you were in a sense something of a public intellectual – a sentimentalist, yes, but a thinker as well. On matters sentimental I have always loved the way you embraced it rather than apologised for it. In a country that often finds it hard to weep for itself, you cathartically spun magic. In a land of many races where mistrust and stereotype have become ingrained as false truths, you made your audiences weep and laugh and miraculously empathise with ‘their other’, the ‘other’ who dwells within. If that occasionally required some sturdy manipulation, then so be it.” (Source: Love Letter, Criticine, 15 Dec 2009)
It was when manipulations were less benign, as in the cases when imposed by the state through censorship guidelines or laws that prevent the public from accessing information, that Benjamin became outraged. But even so, observe how he turned his outrage into a Martin Luther King Jr-like appeal, always ready to believe in the best of humanity:
“I am privileged to have the opportunity to teach a diverse array of young Malaysian university students here in Kuala Lumpur, and never in my teaching experience anywhere have I encountered a group of people more ready for the challenges of a democratic and engaged society. They are intelligent, critical and creative and they honour their country and show great hope and promise for the future of it. If the visions and sentiments at the heart of Dr Mahathir Mohammad’s Vision 2020 are ever to be fully realised, I believe it will happen because of the talents and creativity of this generation of young people. It will be those young people – of all races, religions and political allegiances – who determine whether the 9th Malaysia Plan will indeed herald the dawn of a new Malaysia.
“But those young people, with all their talents and all their critical faculties and intelligence, will be impeded in that struggle if they are deemed to be unworthy of the truth and are told that they need to be protected from information. Their capacity to engage globally and to strengthen Malaysia’s place within an increasingly competitive and intelligent global environment will be stymied if they are not allowed to critically engage with their culture, their politics and their society.” (Source: Silencing The Lambs, Kakiseni.com, 5 May 2006)
Of course, his renown exceeded beyond my claim to his fame. Benjamin went on to contribute essays to books published internationally, and wrote reviews for Criticine, Cinemaya and elsewhere. Locally, he was also invited by Jason Tan to write for the esteemed Off the Edge, where he penned the column Fringe Benefits, as a commentator on culture, pop or otherwise. In Off The Edge, he applied his wit and wisdom on subjects as varied as ethnic relations in Malaysia to male underwear models in the Philippines.
Benjamin was completely egalitarian, not afraid to apply his observation to everything from Ning’s to our politicians’ bad acting. He believed a thinker’s role was not to be confined to subjects sanctioned by committees within ivory towers. As a matter of fact, he believed he could make thinkers out of everyone, thinkers with the capacity to feel and love just as deeply.
For Benjamin, it was a must that the tools for reflection were made available to all. It was equally important for him that we all learnt to be ready to accept each other’s reflections. Writing for Kakiseni in celebration of Malaysia’s 49th Merdeka, he said:
“In remembering my own path and the way it has crossed with Malaysia I am constantly struck by how random it all seemed to have been, but with time, I see a pattern emerging. Nations, too, can be tracked that way – distance and reflection allow us to apply order to what appears to have taken place without any apparent rhyme or reason. Heartbreaks personal and national can then be healed in an open engagement with each other’s memories. But if either prison guards or autocrats had the capacity to remove memory, chaos would surely and ultimately triumph.” (Source: The Freedom To Remember, Kakiseni.com, 18 Aug 2006)
Goodbye, Benjamin. Thanks for the rainbow!
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