So a couple of weeks ago I went to The Actors Studio at Lot 10 to see Jalan Pintas, a film by Nam Ron. It was the opening night so we had the chance to have Hassan Mutalib, a renowned Malaysian film critic, in the audience.
The film was... okay. It's a very Aronofsky-esque film with some Memento feeling to it, and visibly low budgeted. The leitmotiv of the film is choice and the ever-popular quandary of "what if?", only with a slight twist: sometimes no matter which path you choose to take, life decides to be funny and fucks you up anyway.
Like every indie Malay film these days, it's ridden with other subplots such as the unemployment of fresh graduates in Malaysia, nepotism, xenophobia and of course, gangsterism. And since it's an indie movie without a FINAS license, expletives are in order, so much so that sometimes the actors just yell out a big fat 'babi!' for absolutely nothing which makes it seem forced and out of place. I know that Scarface is a thousand times more ribald, but Al Pacino expresses vulgarity in a way that is believable and even necessary while in Jalan Pintas, sometimes it just seems like the raison d'être of some of the swear words is merely to give a big 'fuck you' to the Malaysian censorship board.
Seriously, whatever happened to simplicity? I found that so-called 'smart' Malay directors today try too hard to educate, and forget all about entertaining. I'm all for ingraining smart subtexts in movies but please, not at the expense of the storyline and entertainment. Jalan Pintas seems to have one subplot too many, so sometimes it seems out of focus. I however applaud its efficient use of nonlinear narrative because very few Malay films have succeeded in doing this and most of the time it's just a big incoherent mess (Hati Malaya by Shuhaimi Baba, anyone?). I'd also like to praise the use of Snorricam, the kind of camera you mount on an actor's body during physical scenes (usually when the actor is running from/after something) which makes the actor look stationary while the world around him tumbles around. For some reason this technique gives more intensity to the scene.
After the movie, Hassan Mutalib gave a piece of his mind about the independent film industry in Malaysia, how it is changing the game, and how mainstream film directors could learn a thing or two from young filmmakers. One of the things he said bothered me deeply though. A student filmmaker (or was it a journalist) told Nam Ron that he could have replaced those swear words with something else because it was too much, prompting Hassan Mutalib to add: "Yes, when you make a film, you also have to think about the religious consequences. Remember, you have to explain yourself to God one day. How would you explain the use of these swear words in your film? A lot of people don't think about God when they do something, and these people are called existentialists. Freethinkers. They just don't believe in God."
Well excuse me, Mr. I-Failed-7-Papers-in-my-SPM, but the earliest existentialists were mainly Christian. Just because Sartre and Nietzsche are atheists doesn't make existentialism anti-God. That would be too simplistic a logic.
Existentialism and religion are not incompatible, in fact, they just don't have anything to do with one another. For me, being an existentialist means doing things for yourself and not letting other people tell you what you should do and who you should be, all the while being responsible towards your surroundings. It's about creating your own path in life and not being condemned to what you're born into. In fact, the Quran said, "Surely Allah changes not the condition of a people until they change themselves", and that's exactly what existentialism is all about: you, and no one else, are responsible of your own destiny. If an Indian untouchable wants to have a better life, he'll have to work hard and be the nicest person so he'll be reborn as a Brahmin in the next life. If a Indonesian trishaw peddler thinks he'll be better off working without a legal permit in Malaysia, he must have the courage to take one of those dodgy boats in the middle of the night and battle mother nature just to arrive safely at the Malaysian shore. If someone is born into a family of drug lords and prostitutes, that doesn't mean he cannot crawl his way out of it. If he wants it bad enough, he will succeed. Your existence should not be defined by the world you're born into.
And that has nothing to do with renouncing God. You can be a pious Muslim and an existentialist at the same time. As long as you don't succumb to the hedonist idea of philosophy, then you and your faith should be just fine.