Yesterday I went to White Screen Cinema in Sungai Hanching for a special screening of Brunei’s first film, Gema di Menara (1968) translated as Echoes from the Minaret, and it was amazing. The screening was arranged by a colleague, who has watched the film 3 times, and I’m already jealous. As soon as I left the cinema I wanted to watch it again. This October will be the 50th anniversary of the film, and I understand that Regal Blue will be hosting a bunch of events leading up to the anniversary.
The film (originally shot on 35mm and digitized by Regal Blue Productions) was commissioned or at least purpose-made for the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It opens with two official statements by a Bruneian official and then I assume the British High Commissioner at the time, who reads a Malay statement. Both of them emphasize that it’s explicitly a dakwah film, meant for the edification of Bruneian Muslims and the ummah in general. I loved this framing of the film, just because it reminds me so much of Victorian lit, in which every novel opens with a very defensive moral justification of its own existence. Art for art’s sake? No no no.
The story itself is pretty simple: it’s about three siblings, Azman, Noriah and Nordin. Azman is a Good Son (anak yang sempurna) who has been educated in the West but still follows the “teachings of Islam” (SHADES OF SITI NUR), and Noriah and Nordin are Bad Eggs. We see them for the first time dancing on the beach (Muara beach?), Nordin in a skimpy pair of bathing short-short-shorts, and Noriah sporting cat-eye glasses. Both think that Azman is an Enemy of Progress and Modernity, what with his unfortunate tendency to bring every conversation back to Religion. Their parents lament Noriah and Nordin’s waywardness, but it all comes to a head when the Father goes off to Makkah for Hajj and leaves his property in Nordin’s hands.
Observations (I will try to keep this spoiler-free, but no promises)
- It was so so so fascinating to see “Brunei” of the 1960s! The tactic of this movie is to warn people away from Vice by SHOWING ALL THE VICES (gambling, alcohol, zina) and it is AMAZING. You could never see any of this stuff on Bruneian TV today – the girls in swimsuits! The bared shoulders covered only by a sheet when someone is caught post-coitally lounging in bed. The GAMBLING scene. The drunk driving scene!!!
- The choral performance that opens the film is INCREDIBLE. You know how back in Victorian times, the sign that a girl was getting older was that she would be permitted to let down her skirts? I.e longer skirts = older? I was wondering if that applied to Malay boys in the 1960s because schoolboys wore shorts while men wore long trousers. Also, the sinjang “length” on the boys!!!! I am not exaggerating when I say they were almost belt-like in their brevity. And the performers!!! They seemed so put-upon – no smiles, just singing.
- I counted maybe 3 instances of someone wearing the tudong the way we do today i.e covering the entire head, no fringes or neck showing. Everyone else, even the ustazahs preaching Islam, had sort of a cursory selendang.
- THE ISLAM AWARENESS ROADSHOWS – everything about them. The content of the speeches, the complete lack of performativity. Sin leads to Death and Destruction.
- When the Father comes back from the Hajj (that whole scene at the airport with the MSA plane is incredible), he’s dressed like a Full On Sheikh, flowing white headpiece secured by a band, robes, two hard suitcases.
- EVERYONE wears sunglasses indoors
- At Nordin’s birthday party, the camera continually cuts back to these 4 wallflowers, whose only job is to bop their heads along to the music (the LIVE PERFORMANCE)
- RIPAS – nurses in skirts and stockings and white heels. I just found all the female costuming amazing. And an interesting commentary on just how and how much the sartorial landscape and our cultural interpretation of modesty has changed over the last 50 years.
As a modern-day viewer, I found Azman’s speechifying on behalf of Islam incredibly unconvincing – Nordin’s repeated question, “But what good can Islam do for my life?” is never answered properly. Azman almost doesn’t seem to understand the question. His argument is that “Islam is correct so it must be good.” The film answers the question by saying, Sin leads to Death and Destruction – it’s a Stick answer, and the Carrot seems pretty tasteless, it’s a lack of punishment rather than an actual reward or an explanation of how living according to the tenets of Islam can make your life better, happier, more fulfilling. I mean, Azman was kind of a bore, to be quite frank. He would have turned me off virtue as well, what with his prosifying and his handlebar moustache quivering in righteous indignation all the time.
There is so much to do with this film – the plot, the cinematography, its place in Bruneian cultural history. I’m going to start digging into what’s already been written about it, and will link up any interesting finds – I can’t wait! In the meantime, here are some pictures of White Screen Cinema, which is so so interesting – I can’t believe there’s an arthouse cinema in my neck of the woods, and that the studio has been there for like 15 years. I literally drive by this studio all the time and have never once thought it was anything other than a regular house.
I would love to hear your thoughts, or any interesting leads or knowledge you have on this film!