In celebration of Independence Day & Malaysia Day, National Geographic has several documentary series & vignettes in store for those looking to find knowledge and inspiration. One of which is Uncover Malaysia, where human stories are told through the Portrait of Malaysia series. The series itself covers many aspects of our Malaysian identity, namely its people, culture history and, of course, food.
If you haven’t checked it out the series yet, it is available on Uncover Malaysia’s website!
We managed to talk to some of the dedicated people behind this project, photojournalist Rahman Roslan and director, Faizul Jais. Their experiences and insight as they dig deeper into the unsung heroes and the hidden histories of Malaysia leaves a lot for us to ponder.
“National Geographic is like the Oxford or Harvard [of photojournalism]. Even if there are others that are better, probably one or two, they are as well known to the public. Everybody knows the yellow frame border magazine associated with it”. Rahman is a considerably decorated photojournalist himself, and working for National Geographic has been an entirely different experience for him.
His work has been published extensively in various publications including Reuters, TIME magazine, and New York Times. In his free time, he investigates the relationships between Islam and its impact on cultures around South East Asia. “As a photographer stand behind the lens, but for this project I have to be in front of the lens. I have a story that I need to tell verbally rather than with my pictures. It’s a very challenging first time. Also you have to be really fit *laughs*“.
Faizul Jais on the other hand is a TVC director with over a decade of experience in the broadcast industry across Asia. Raised in the United States, he picked up the filmmaking bug from a very young age but instead found his way into television. His commercial work has led to successful campaigns for a client list that includes HSBC, Standard Chartered, Maybank, CIMB, and National Geographic Channel. “Documentaries are way different. It’s a more reactive medium. Like when you’re asking a question to me now, you kinda know what kinda answer you want from me, but you might not get that answer. But whatever I answer, you still kinda have to push and pull to get me down that route”, Faizul said, “it’s kind of the same with documentaries”.
Football, unity & the rat race
There are many documentaries out there that talk about Malaysia through its icons and landmarks; or by conveying the tale of a specific era or major event (many of them at the mercy of our censorship boards, e.g. The Last Communist & Malaysian Gods). Very few of them talk about your everyday people of Malaysia. “When travelers come in, they see Kuala Lumpur, they see Johor, they see Penang. All of the touristy spots in the urban areas. They don’t see Kuala Terengganu or Kulim in Kedah. I’ll be honest with you, I’m a city boy, but I love going to these small towns and interacting with these people. For them, their goal in life is not to drive a fancy car. It’s about living the good life. It’s good to just see people in their small little world, and how they make the best of their lives”. According to Faizul, it’s not just observing people, but also learning from them. “We’re all in the rat race. But if you take the essence of how these people live, it doesn’t matter whether you have the biggest car or the flashiest phone; at the end of the day, all of these are just tools. It’s about making the best out of your quality of life”.
At the end of the day, we just want to have meaningful conversations – Rahman Roslan
Due to the multi-faceted nature of our country, choosing which angle to start from is definitely a huge challenge. “As someone coming from Malaysia, the dream has always been to shoot our own backyard and that’s the most difficult thing to do anyway. It’s very easy to go to Indonesia and shoot the place because everything looks exotic. But in our own backyard, everything looks mundane because we see it every day. But the stories always excite me, especially when you get your firsthand experience. The most impactful story for me is by Dr. Khoo Kay Kim”.
Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim is an Emeritus Professor of History from University of Malaya and is featured
prominently in the History episode of Portraits of Malaysia as he talks about the history of Stadium Merdeka and Dataran Merdeka. “He is a walking encyclopedia”, said Rahman, “Malaysians nowadays are almost always ignorant about our own history, but I got to spend a whole day with him just talking about history. One of my favorite stories that he told is about how Stadium Merdeka was built for football, because Tunku Abdul Rahman was a huge fan of football. He was thinking that using football, he could unite people. It’s that kind of multi-layered thinking that made me think of Tunku from a different perspective. Personalities like him [Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim] in our country are getting fewer in Malaysia, so this documentary gave us another gem to unearth”.
Yong Tau Foo
They also recounted many other candid experiences, such as meeting the head cook of a yong tau foo stall who can’t speak proper English or Malay and whether or not they needed a translator for her. With a big smile on his face, Rahman talks about how he had to speak broken Malay to her. “I thought it’d be interesting to actually show how Malaysians talk. Even if I had to speak to her in broken Malay, I think that’s really beautiful because at the end of the day it’s how Malaysians are. We improvise upon other languages as we please *laughs*. And you can’t get that anywhere else”.
“And none of their answers are doctored. At the end of the day it really is their genuine & unique answers”. Faizul expresses his mild frustrations about having to edit some of them out for the sake of video length, as the conversations he’s seen were more than meaningful and substantive. His conception of the Malaysian identity is also revamped, especially as a person who lived abroad for most of his years. “When I was younger, there was never even the need to reaffirm racial harmony and all that stuff. It’s weird, I come here and learn about all of this [effort to create] unity like 1 Malaysia. For the people we talk to, things like race doesn’t even come to the equation. We’re all Malaysians. However way they communicate it’s up to them, and I’m not gonna judge them on the language they use. At the end of the day we just want to have meaningful conversations”.
No story is truer in reflecting racial harmony than the story of Bee Hwa Cafe in Pulau Pinang. “In front of the shop is a police headquarters. It’s a Chinese shop but typical of Penang, it’s got all sorts of people. The police are mostly Muslims and they all line up to tapau char kuey teow. There was this policewoman wearing a tudung who looked like she had something to say, and we asked her whether she wanted to be interviewed and she agreed. *laughs* It’s not just about getting to be on TV, Malaysians also have opinions and stories to tell”, said Rahman.
Uncover Malaysia: Creating a legacy of stories
One of the amazing submissions for Uncover Malaysia
Keeping true to the human-focused nature of Uncover Malaysia, National Geographic opened up slots for picture submissions, so that people from across all backgrounds in Malaysia can share the way they see things. Rahman, who has judged several other photography competitions, were astounded with the quality of some of these pictures. “Of course, some of them are just pictures of people with their kids. The quality of the photos are quiet amazing. You have art students doing conceptual work. They put a lot of effort into it. It makes me feel like such a lazy person *laughs*”
Faizul also welcomes this kind of open submissions via social media as it helps people develop their creativity. “To have someone look at your photo and give you constructive criticism is unheard of, unless you were doing a degree relating to it in university. Imagine a kid in Kulim borrows his dad’s phone and snaps a great photo. I mean, say it’s a 10-year-old kid who took a great photo. And we don’t care whether he’s Malay, Chinese or Indian. It’s platforms like this that almost everyone to share. It also gives people something to aspire to. And there’s a hidden agenda too *laughs*. [As a person in the industry], it’s a great way to find new talent”.
Uncover Malaysia is only three-minutes per episode, which makes it accessible viewing, but also implies that there are hundreds of stories left out. “If you were to ask for our preferences, that are too many that were left out. But the plan is to inspire other people to continue the legacy. Make their own documentaries. Tell their own stories”.