“The songs that we sang back then really reflect what was happening in Malaysia at that time. The hardships we went through,” explained, Madam Hong the protagonist of the documentary, Five Tigers after its screening at the Freedom Film Festival the previous weekend.
Five Tigers unfolds the story of five women who were part of the Labour Party in the 60s however, the film focuses on the three women who could tell the tale that was made more personal to co-director, Dr. Por Heong Hong (the film is also co-directed by Victor Chin and produced by Seong Foong) because her own mother was one of the “tigers”. “Many male comrades were disappointed that they were not in the film. I had to tell them sorry, get your children to make a film,” Dr. Por Heong Hong joked when asked for the reason of specifying a whole movement on these women.
The women told how it was difficult to come out to the streets and risk their safety during protests against post-colonialism in Malaysia but rather than seeing the large scale of activism in that period, we were allowed to see it through the “five tigers”. They explained how instead of braiding their hair or tying them in pig-tails, they all had to cut their locks short to prevent from being pulled away by officers whenever a demonstration collapsed into detentions and arrests and it was through songs that they could entertain themselves in a time when TV and radio is still lacking. Loh Siew Imm, Luo Mu Lan and Chen Shu Jin who has a friendship spanning almost five decades toured Penang with the film crew and showed them where they had their protests in the streets and even gave a performance of the songs that they sang in Hokkien as activists which were windows to their struggles but also for their escapism under tough circumstances.
Somehow the lives of these women in Penang connected with another group in Indonesia; a choir called, Dialita whose story was filmed by director Shalahuddin Siregar in the documentary, Rising From Silence also featured at the festival. The film gave insight on members of the choir who are survivors, family members and supporters of those prosecuted during Indonesia’s purge against communism which began in 1965 and now the choir are in the midst of promoting their debut album titled, Dialita: Dunia Milik Kita which can be streamed and downloaded for free here. The songs recorded were not allowed to be released previously because of the relation to the incident in 1965 which was considered taboo to a point that any media presenting such history will receive backlash as seen from a scene in the documentary.
Much like the women in Five Tigers, music did play a role in Dialita’s expression of activism and some who were imprisoned (without knowing the charges made against them) for suspicious activities even wrote music in their prison cells while counting down the days for their freedom. The two documentaries showcase the strength of these women fighting so much more than the complications in their own lives but for the betterment of the people against the oppression of the state and we could see this in the early progression of the Five Tigers who demanded that Malaysia would recognise International Women’s Day on 8th March. There is also the use of their creativity and passion for music that led to togetherness of the members in these groups thus, forging a relationship that is still ongoing since sharing a tumultuous and perilous moment in their lives which acts as a reminder to the audience that warmth can be found even during the darkest of times when people decide to make things out of love.
Featured image is of the Five Tigers and images are from the Freedom Film Network. Freedom Film Festival are holding talks, workshops and film screenings at PJ Live Arts from 29th September to 6th October and you can join them here.