Interview with Dato’ Kamil Othman: A conversation on the future of FINAS and Malaysia’s film industry
A respectable figure among film-makers, Dato’ Kamil Othman was the Director-General of National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) for two years. However, his tenure ended quietly and abruptly. Now with a new government, many artists are optimistic about what lies beyond the horizon – and some feel that optimism includes reinstating Dato’ Kamil Othman into a position of leadership.
Although Dato’ Kamil Othman comes from a background of accountancy and finance, it’s no real secret that if if it weren’t accountancy he would have picked up film-making. Several films in his days drove his love for the medium, “It was the net effect of a few films that I saw in the early 1960s. Mutiny On The Bounty was one of them, and so were Kubrick‘s Spartacus and Peckinpah‘s Guns in the Afternoon. The early P Ramlee comedies were instrumental because while they were funny, I could identify with many of the situations that were depicted. Then there was also Hussain Haniff’s Hang Jebat which to me is the greatest Malay language film ever made”.
After awhile, dabbling in films took a stall and Dato Kamil continued a finance path as the senior finance manager of Shell Malaysia, eventually becoming the Vice President for MDEC (Malaysia Digital Economic Cooperation). It was only much later that he took on the reins of FINAS. The moment he held the reins, he already had plans to move full speed ahead – ready with a game plan to create a sustainable and lucrative Malaysian film industry.
Some of those plans included increasing accessibility to filmmakers who are often bogged down by the bureaucracy. “[One of my plans] was to review the SPP process (Sijil Perakuan Penggambaran). We should now make it easy for anyone to make films and we should have a database up an d running on this. No more about having to be memberships of all sort of associations to get the SPP. Anyone who makes a film must register with us. Not for control but for the statistics”.
“We are supposedly afraid of putting out our dirty linen to dry in the public. The way I see it, we CAN and SHOULD exorcise the demons of our past”
Dato’ Kamil Othman’s other plans include: relaxing the paid-up capital condition for first timers applying for a Production License for 2 years, improvements in our archiving system for film preservation, making FINAS self-funded and replacing key staff with those who actually love cinema. The latter suggestion was made by a lot of practitioners in the industry as well, in response to alleged political appointees or film-illiterate government officials that often populate the FINAS board.
A testament to Dato’ Kamil Othman’s passion and deft for film is his reinstatement as Vice President of the Asian Film Commission Network in Korea back in October 2016, making it even more quizzical why his term as Director-General of FINAS was not renewed then.
When asked about the effects of censorship in media, he provided a progressive take on the matter. “In this day and age, film censorship may no longer be a useful tool to regulate what people can and cannot watch. Education is the answer I think, so that we can all make learned decisions. That said, there is still a need for some form of regulation for films for public screenings although the regulatory aspect is best decided by a cross section of the Malaysian public instead of a small group looking at a laundry list. I believe the best thing that can happen is for film censorship to evolve into film classification, so that people will know what they are expected to see”, he said.
“We are supposedly afraid of putting out our dirty linen to dry in the public. The way I see it, we CAN and SHOULD exorcise the demons of our past if any through a healthy interpretation of those trauma or fears in the movies. Movies only provide perspectives which reasonably educated viewers can take as a point of view of the film-maker and not necessarily the full truth. That’s why education is still the best solution.”
On his last day in FINAS back in 2016, Dato’ Kamil Othman mentioned in a speech that he has ‘planted the seeds for change, and it was up to the next leadership to make sure it grows’. So does he feel that the industry has grown as it should?
“Like anyone who has been tasked to inculcate positive changes in an institution, the challenge has been about maintaining continuity once when you go. We are not expected to be there forever anyway so efforts must be made to ensure that the next in line could carry on. They are not obliged to continue with everything the predecessor did but at least the ones that made sense should continue and be perfected by the successors until the objectives are met”, he remarked. “In my case I was saddened that the continuity for what I’ve put into place like internationalizing FINAS, focusing on exports, reviewing monopolistic policies like the SPP (Sijil Perakuan Penggambaran) and SWT (Skim Wajib Tayang), instituting audit-friendly financial processes, SOPs for grants applications, etc – was not optimized simply because it was I who instituted them. That is not the right attitude”.
His outlook isn’t all bleak as he reserves hope for the young ones in the industry. “So the seeds planted are still there growing, and I am confident most of the younger staff in FINAS are ever ready to embrace the change”, he said, “But it is the middle management (and intervention by some of the Associations and Board) that I believe has prevented the transformation from taking place properly. Why? Because it disturbs all the comfort zones and the goldmine”.
“I believe for most policy makers,Intellectual Property protection is only a state of mind”
“That said, I am confident still that FINAS can be transformed because it has an Act of Parliament backing it – all it takes is the political commitment to restructure it properly and only then it can regain its role as an industry development body. If anyone can still remember, before I left, we were 80% ready to turn FINAS into a self-funding and industry development focus body under a new label – Content Malaysia Corp – leveraging on some tweaks in the FINAS Act 1981. But when I left, I knew it was going to be stalled. My last word on this is, on the day I finished my contract at FINAS, a kind soul told me I shouldn’t have made any changes to the system when I was there. I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry”.
The major problem in the industry & calls for reinstatement
“I believe for most policy makers,Intellectual Property protection is only a state of mind”, said Dato’, regarding the lack of enforcement in the film industry when it comes to royalties, copyright infringements and other laws meant to protect creators of creative output. “We are all very familiar with other types of property like real estate or a vehicle. Unless one is close to any artist, musician, singer, performer, writer whose main source of income is the royalties from works they have done or performed, it’s hard to understand the importance of IP (Intelletual Property) protection. This is reflected in the way we hear reports about our artistes being exploited, producers who got millions yet couldn’t pay their cast and crew on time, and so on.
“My view is that because the Film & TV industry is so subsidized, the only ones benefitting are those who know how to get the grants and usually these are the producers. Not the cast and crew unfortunately. Remember the producer is the one who hires the cast and crew, yet very little attention is paid to the ethics of the producers. To fix the problems, I would suggest the setting up of legal services who will work on a pro bono basis, and also for contracts to be made mandatory for all hires so that working conditions and payments are decided upfront. And no small print either. This is where legislation can support the film industry by making inferences that no matter what a producer might insert into the contract, the essence of the contract in terms of work conditions and pay is defined by the Law”. Dato’ Kamil Othman has endorsed an organization that was established last year for this very purpose called PIKDM (Pertubuhan Industri Kreatif Digital Malaysia)
All of these great ideas would only be ideas if Dato’ Kamil Othman wasn’t in a position of authority, which is why petitions are circulating to reinstate him as Director-General of FINAS. However, does Dato’ actually want the role?
“The short answer is yes, because I haven’t finished what I started out to do. Frankly I am flattered that there are those who knew what I had to endure during my tenure there. They also knew what I was trying to do and it was not about building empires but to make FINAS function in the way it is SUPPOSED to – to be the beacon of hope for the Malaysian Cinema and to become an economic engine and a contributor to the GDP.
“Well if the government of the day has been pumping millions into the industry from RMK8 onwards, the objective is to see both Returns on Investment (ROI) and Returns on Social Investment (ROSI). So what’s wrong with turning FINAS into a business instead of letting it falter as an ATM for the same old same old film makers and producers who can’t even get their works exported outside Malaysia or get awards at international festivals, and who depend on Wajib Tayang for their films to be screened?”
At the end of the day, Dato’ Kamil Othman’s hope for the future of Malaysian films is simple. “That the industry can be seen for what it really is, an economic powerhouse that can also be the conduit for our Culture Exports and Tourist attractions. More importantly I hope they will not see it neglected, but actually see it as an integral part of the Creative Industries”.
If you wish to sign the petition to reinstate Dato’ Kamil Othman into FINAS, click here!