Casting a social revolution

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“I love nasi lemak!”

It all started innocuously enough at a “short film casting” — a favour I did for a friend. The plot was that they purportedly needed normal public folk for a Malaysia Day video.

The executive producer, Chow Chun Son of Reservoir Production, sat me down on the couch to have a chat, get to know me and run some warm up lines. All unrecorded, of course (the red blinking light for the camera was covered with tape).

That set the scene for a viral video that has been making its rounds on social media and news outfits — one of which decided to show its support by purchasing the video  this past week, with its attention-grabbing title: Are Malaysians Racist?

In the “casting technique” social experiment, we started with several gung-ho phrases that can be seen in the video’s introduction. The next line I was told to repeat, however, literally silenced me.

“I love all Malaysians ... except the Malays, because they’re lazy.” Chow stared levelly at me as my brain processed the biting line I just heard, no retort coming forth.

“What’s wrong? Isn’t it true?” he pressed.

Rather than focusing on what I replied, he continued down a similar, inciting vein about other ethnic groups in Malaysia. What I took home from the incident was one of extreme discomfort, which lead to indignation and finally outright exasperation, wishing he would just shut up.

The emotions that the experiment roused are easily identifiable, especially with the pervasiveness of racial issues on social media and in the news of late.

In fact, I was told, the very seed of the idea rooted from frustration, during a “pitching” session late on a weekend evening on the current issues that Malaysians are facing.

The four-man team from advertising agency Naga DDB were on a tight cut-off date for the highly competitive Merdeka Day season, which has long become a golden window of opportunity for commercial films.

“We were brainstorming about ideas on how to tackle [current] issues and talk about unity in general,” said creative group head for the team Leong Sook Leng. “Of course, it was very apparent that racial issues were at the forefront.”

Senior writer for the team, Vix Chandra, chipped in that they weren’t really hitting the right spots. “So we just asked each other questions, which led to this [idea]. We then realised this was something that we could run with.”

Speaking to The Edge about their intent to bring out the positive, executive creative director Alvin Teoh said that it was a gamble that clearly paid off.

“We realised, especially since the GE13 last year that there was so much more hate online, so much so that alternative media users would feel depressed,” he pointed out. Teoh attributed the anonymity of the Internet and prevalence of “keyboard warriors” to the magnified “reactive” chain that spawns and cycles fear and hatred.

The team decided to go ahead with the social experiment independently, although they ultimately pursued a different concept for their client.

Garnering more than 289,000 views and upward of 60,000 online shares to date, as well as hitting the second-most viewed video on YouTube on the day of its release, all four cited that the reward for them was behind the one-way mirror, as they watched the reactions and expressions of most of the 55 people who participated unfold.

“It makes me proud. We feel there is hope because most of the interviewees were very real, it’s really encouraging,” said Leong.

Creative director Chan Woei Hern agreed, “They were constantly surprising us, again and again,” while Teoh pointed out the obvious risk involved: “Sometimes you don’t get what you think you want ... but when you get it right, it becomes a really powerful piece of film because nothing beats real.”

There have been comments on how the experiments oversimplify racial sentiments, with its statements not accurately reflective of how things really are. Teoh is unperturbed.

“This video doesn’t represent all Malaysians, we were never pretentious about it. The intent is as sincere as can be”, said the experienced creative director, who quipped, “Racism exists in Malaysia, and one video will never, ever eradicate that... but if the focus is on that, does that mean we ought to shoot a video that is out to prove that Malaysians are racists?”

The aim, he added, was to give a balanced view, and to highlight the opinions of mature, well-brought up people of reason with strong principles and universal views. “We need to tell these stories too.”

As for being contrived, Vix said, “It’s one thing to not want to say [the lines], but it’s another to actually stand up and be angry about it,” emphasising that many were vocal with their views, “It goes beyond being uncomfortable saying it, but they very much stood up and defended their fellow Malaysians, and that was what blew us away.”

Those fixated on the racist lines may have missed the point, reiterated Teoh.

“They felt angry, insulted and that it was not right. Even a nine-year-old girl who came said, “That’s just rude!”. It’s these little acts of defence.”

But, Teoh says: “If you can have the other person defending your people (ethnic group) and vice versa, it introduces humanity back into the particular group or race that has been vilified. And then what happens is that you may see that person is just like you — with the same desires, hopes, wants, dreams, fears ... The more people can see that, the more conversations can happen and that’s how unity starts.”

Ultimately, success lies in any conversation, dialogue or discussion that may be sparked by those who watched it, as Chan explained, giving an example of the opposing sides of the political divide that shared the video.

As for the team, they hope to continue in this direction to create windows for openness and a chance to inspire others to do their part in finding a way to fight for the same things, to help each other, beyond one’s own race or community. The plan is to start with releasing selected post-interview clips of the participants next week.

“If everyone goes out there and serves each other, then there’s no reason to hate,” concluded Teoh.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 11, 2014.