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A scene from The Tree Remembers. Freedom Film Festival

“AS a second-generation family member, I’ve always wanted to do a story about the trauma that my family went through. However, the time never seemed right,” says Tham See Hau.

With this year being the 50th anniversary of the May 13, 1969 riots, the video producer decided on a 90-minute documentary, 50 Years of Silence.

“In March 2017, it was reported that the Sungai Buloh burial ground for the May 13 victims was to be bulldozed to make way for a parking lot. I finally convinced my mother and her siblings to pay a visit to the burial ground for the first time in 48 years.

“For decades, they had turned down my suggestion to look for the tombstones of loved ones,” says Tham.

Her mum is part of the Ngs, a family of 10 living in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur that fateful year. Five of them died in the May 13 riots.

After the tragedy, the surviving family members never spoke to each other about it, for 48 years actually, until Tham interviewed them individually, piecing together fragments of a buried memory.

She says: “They did not pray for the five during the Qingming festival. They had also always assumed that they did not have any keepsake of the five. Because of this, the five lost family members remained faceless and nameless, even in our family itself.

“But from the visit, they slowly opened up about their memories of the incident. I managed to find out how the five family members were like when they were alive.

“Among the four surviving siblings, my mother was the most open one, perhaps because of her trust and love for me. The most difficult person to interview was my aunt, who still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“All these years, no family member had the courage to bring up the May 13 topic with her because of the pain that it might cause her.”

Tham says her documentary is not about race and politics. “It’s about violence and trauma. It’s about the pain May 13 brought to a family.

“Trauma and pain are universal. Hopefully, with that, we will never allow a tragedy like this to happen again.”

Tham chose to tell her story on the Freedom Film Festival (FFF) platform in her personal capacity, and is grateful for its “very solid technical support and consultation to independent filmmakers”.

As an organisation that champions human rights, FFF is “just right” for this film’s premiere, she adds.

50 Years of Silence, narrated in English and Chinese with subtitles, is one of more than 30 films from around the world under the 17th FFF banner set to run from tomorrow until Sept 28 at the PJ Live Arts, Jaya One, in Petaling Jaya.

The Tree Remembers by Lau Kek Huat, meanwhile, tackles the 2019 FFF theme on wealth inequality.

“Derived from the (African) proverb ‘What the axe forgets, the tree remembers’, the first half is about Orang Asli history in Malaysia while the second half tackles the 1969 riots.

Lau became interested in doing the documentary when filming Orang Asli issues.

“An Orang Asli friend asked me why they were so despised by certain Malaysians who seemed to think they were uncivilised. That triggered me to find out more.”

Lau, born in Sitiawan Perak and a National University of Singapore graduate, was a teacher before he went on to study filmmaking in Taiwan.

Currently based in Taiwan, Lau’s first feature film Boluomi won him the Tokyo Talent Award 2015.

The Tree Remembers has been nominated for Best Documentary at the 21th International Taipei Film Festival, and will be shown at the DMZ Documentary Filmfest (S.Korea), Asian Competition.

Other FFF 2019 documentaries to be shown include When We Are One, A Fisherman’s Prayer, My Life, The Last Printing Press and For Paymitra.

The last was filmed by Azreen Madzlan, 37, who was inspired by the FFF 2019 theme to delve into urban poverty.

“UNICEF released a study of urban child poverty in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur last year and I wanted to put a human face to these statistics by doing a documentary about it,” she said.

As a mum herself, she is concerned about the effect poverty has on children’s cognitive development.

She says the report led her to Projek Perumahan Rakyat Desa Rejang, Kuala Lumpur.

“Initially, I wanted to document a family of 12 staying there but they declined. So I asked the residents to help me look for another Indian family. I specifically looked for an Indian family because income inequality is highest in the Indian community compared to other ethnic groups, and malnutrition was even more severe among Indian children.”

The search led her to Paymitra’s parents.

“I hope this documentary will spark dialogue among the public as well as the policymakers and private sectors about the impact of rapid urbanisation on vulnerable and marginalised groups.”

The film festival will also offer workshops, talks and screenings in the community including at PPR Lembah Subang 2. Tickets for screenings are RM12. For details, visit https://freedomfilm.my.

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