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WORKING AROUND MEDIA CENSORSHIP TO TELL OUR STORIES.

When someone mentions censorship, I'm reminded of a scene in an Iranian film I watched many years ago in which a mother gives her adult son a hug. I remember watching it and thinking, "What an odd angle for a hug. So artsy!" Later on, I read that in Iran, you can't depict physical contact in films between men and women who aren't related. The director worked his way around that restriction by making it look like the actors had physical contact, when in fact they were many inches apart. This fact amazed me, because the story remained intact while complying with censorship requirements.

That workaround remained at the back of my mind when, in Malaysia, I started writing LGBT-themed songs that got the message across in a hater-friendly manner.

Our stories matter because we've been silenced for too long. Our stories add colour to Malaysia's tapestry, and they will continue to shine long after we are gone. The arts shape society's cultural identity, and LGBTIQ+ people continue to contribute to the cultural development of the country even though we aren't acknowledged for who we are. We exist even though we've been told we don't, which is why it is important to share our stories to say "Hi, we're here and we're queer". With all the restrictions in Malaysia it may be difficult, but it is not impossible.

As a band, Shh ... Diam! has had a lot of doors close on us, whether it's for funding, events, radio play, or show spaces, because we're openly queer. We've had to turn down shows knowing we could be harmed. Our entire n-year existence is one big workaround.

Censorship of LGBTIQ+--related music material is very vague, so we take full advantage of it. Sometimes, organisers will ask us to play without researching any of our songs or background. When this happens, we don't tell them we're queer and bring out the rainbow tunes when we get on stage. By then, it's too late to reject us.

When coming up with a setlist before each show, we decide if it's safe to play songs such as our hits, "Lonely Lesbian" or "I Woke Up Gay". Most of the time, we throw caution to the wind and play all the gay songs. It never ceases to amaze me how some people react. In the beginning of the song their arms are folded across the chest, and they're frowning, but by the end they're laughing and singing along. I hope that when they go home, they'll think about the absurdity that inspired the lyrics and start talking about it with their friends.

It's probably a lot tougher in film, though, where the restrictions are more specific and more people have access to the material. The film censorship board (Lembaga Penapisan Filem) removes any Scenes--or entire films--deemed to be "promoting" LGBT culture.

In 2018, then deputy home Minister Datuk Mohd Azis Jamman was quoted as saying, "These aspects are related to national security and public order, socioculture, decorum, morality and religion. LGBT issue (sic) falls under socio-culture, so the board will remove and will not approve any scene and dialogue that promotes such culture in films and dramas."'

Azis added that the scenes would be kept only under the condition that there was a lesson to be learned. The "lesson" is usually death, or repentance framed in a cheerful heteronormative marriage scene. Maybe both. It's ok to defy logic as long as the gays are punished in the name of entertainment.

This type of censorship poses unique challenges that force artists to be more creative in finding alternative ways of telling our stories.

The makers of the soon-to-be-launched YouTube channel Songsang (Inverted) have their work cut out for them. The channel alms to portray everyday lives of Malaysian LGBTIQ+ folks, countering the predominantly negative narratives in the mainstream while bringing serious Issues to the forefront. It's the first of Its kind in Malaysia.

"The worsening situation over the years for LGBTQ folks in Malaysia, especially the constant politicisation and policing of the community, demands that we respond by telling our own stories and lived realities. The main target audience would be queer folks as an avenue of building solidarity and community. As the videos will be made public, they will be accessible to a broader audience as a means of creating awareness," says cocreator Ineza Roussille.

YouTube was chosen as the platform for the show because the government and censorship board have less control over its content. YouTube can also accommodate the crew's small budget* and is accessible to all.

I say 'less' control and not 'no' control because the government is full of surprises. For example, there is a law that requires anyone who produces videos to obtain a RM50,000 film license. The law was passed in 1982 (National Film Development Corporation Act 1982, Section 22(1)) which says "no person shall participate in any production activities, distribute and exhibit films or any combination the activities specified in Section 21(1) unless a license is issued authorising him to do so."

What's baffling is Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah's application of an outdated law from a time when only rich people had camcorders, to today's age of social media. There is no stopping the government from pulling this law out if they don't like what you're putting out on the web. There's an assortment of laws that can and has been used to arrest people for their posts and comments, and LGBTIQ content is no exception.

In creating Songsang, Ineza and co-creator Mien Ly, with the support of queer collective Nose Nest, put out a call for queers interested in participatory filmmaking. People were keen on joining or helping out, but it was a challenge to find Malay Muslims who were willing to be visible on camera.

The writers had to find a way to present serious issues in an entertaining and educational way, while keeping in mind religious sensitivities, potential political offence and the safety of the cast members. The possibility of a backlash is always there, regardless of how well prepared the Songsang team is.

Religious authorities get away with anything because you can't question the word of God. To defy them is to defy God, even if you don't believe in God. If you're Malay, you're a Muslim forever even if you're an atheist. Apostasy is punishable under shariah law and you can't escape.

The team knows this, and they've put various measures in place in anticipation of a possible backlash. "We will only be putting folks on camera who are already out, on top of doing risk assessments for all participants and providing support systems," says Ineza.

The challenge of creating characters and scenarios that achieve just the right level of visibility in a way that circumvents restrictions is bound to produce some creative shots, and I can't wait to see what they come up with.

Notes & References

* Government-run and most private funding programmes will not fund LGBTIQ+ arts activities, so content creators source from outside Malaysia where there is a higher chance of securing funding. This probably encourages the conspiracy theory that the LGBTIQ+ lifestyle is a Westem/Jewish agenda.

(1.) Malay Mail/Bernama article: Censorship board to cut LGBT content from films, home deputy minister says, Dec 10, 2018. Malay Mail Online, https://www.malaymail.com/news/ malaysia/2oi8/i2/io/censorship-board-to-cut-lgbt-contentfrom-films-deputy-home-minister-says/1701876.

By Faris Saad

Business journalist and member of queer band Shh ... Diam!

Email: farisg9saad@gmail.com
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Title Annotation:in our own words
Author:Saad, Faris
Publication:Arrows For Change
Geographic Code:9MALA
Date:Mar 1, 2020
Words:1235
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