Reading the Transnational in the Local. Or, How the Local Travels: The Case of Survival Guide Untuk Kampung Radioaktif
by Fiona Lee — CUNY Graduate Center
January 25, 2012 – 00:00
When Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui heard about protests against Lynas Corporation’s construction of a rare earths refinery near her hometown in Gebeng, Pahang, she rallied the film community to produce an online video campaign. Launched in November 2011, Survival Guide Untuk Kampung Radioaktif (Survival Guide for Radioactive Village) comprises short films that complement activists’ efforts in raising awareness about the health and environmental hazards posed by the factory’s radioactive waste, challenging the government’s claim that the Australian company’s foreign direct investment promotes national economic interest.
With one exception, the films use comedy to raise awareness. Without overt references to Lynas, humor allows the films to broach a politically fraught subject with their target audience. In the Malay language and deploying kampung folklore, such as Yeo Joon Han’s use of orang minyak as an allegorical device, the films appeal primarily to Gebeng’s Malay kampung residents who are directly affected, yet remain disinterested in the protests because of alleged bribery and threats. Furthermore, as parodied by Liew Seng Tat’s pieces, Lynas criticism has been censored in the government controlled Malay press. Explains producer, Foo Fei Ling, protestors have been undermined as protecting ethnic Chinese and political partisan interests, the latter impression further fueled by Opposition MP, Fuziah Salleh’s appearance in Woo Ming Jin’s film.
Whereas humor engages an alienated audience, Tan’s poignant documentary about a 1980s incident at Mitsubishi’s rare earths plant in neighboring Perak demonstrates the common stakes involved for Gebeng’s residents. Emphasizing a mother’s sacrificial love for her son, born severely disabled due to radioactive waste exposure, the film bridges cultural divides, with subtitles reaching multilingual audiences.
Although tailored to a specific demographic, the films have traveled widely, hinting at the medium’s potential in reframing a local issue into a transnational one. At community screenings elsewhere in the country, they have prompted conversations about local environmental concerns, although subtitles posed a barrier to audiences unused to reading while watching. The films are also available on Tudou.com, the Youtube equivalent of China, the world’s biggest rare earths manufacturer, and will be screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Ironically, the films have yet to reach its target audience, who have limited Internet access, although plans are afoot to distribute DVDs to them, packaged as free entertainment.
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