November 4, 2009

Prisoners in their own land

SOMETIMES, we miss the forest for the trees. Often, we fail to humanise those different from us; something that must be reflected upon after watching Prisoners of a White God which was shown at the FreedomFilmFest KL 2009. In this documentary, Czech researcher Tomáš Ryška investigates wrongdoings against the Akhas – a small mountain ethnic tribe in the Thai and Laotian mountains.

The film documents the change experienced by the Akhas over two years and their reality with forced relocation, cultural genocide and many other unjust violations by certain missionaries and developmental projects. These were dramatically captured and narrated, giving an insight into the realities faced by indigenous people and marginalised groups.

However, concerns with issues of objectivity and dramatic techniques used in this film were raised during its post-screening discussion, with some misgivings over the accuracy of its title. While it is good to be discerning and critical regarding the reliability of certain scenes in the film, perhaps the more pertinent issue to be discussed was about religious aid, or developmental projects in relation to the reality faced by people they are supposed to be helping.

Prisoners of a White God is an apt title, because it beautifully encompasses the gist of the film by also referring to the capitalistic and western development that the mainstream all aspire to. It is essentially about bigotry and how sometimes so-called good intentions can cause harm. The relevance of this film giving insight into the reality faced by indigenous or marginalised groups is so much more urgent than, say, whether the way it was filmed was too dramatic or not.

It would be unfortunate if this insight were to be understated, as public opinion is such that it is so easy to overlook the rights of indigenous peoples, and how convenient it is to accept the justification of "development" without consideration of how marginalised groups are harmed in the process. Common simplistic assumptions that indigenous groups just do not want "progress" or that they do not know what’s good for them, are still very much alive. Malaysians are no different in this indifference, and we need all the help we can to awaken our public consciousness to truly understand why some are "prisoners in their own land".

This film is also a reminder of how we ought to be careful in the charity that we do, or with making public or private entities accountable for what they preach. Planting trees, being "green", and using popular lingo like "sustainability" and "unity" not only makes good advertising under the guise of corporate social responsibility or campaigns, but also distract us from the reality of any wrongdoings that may occur; if a company publicly appropriates an environmental cause, are its business practices really green and are they committing or allowing human rights violations to occur? Entities, be it companies, politicians or governments, that appropriate and ride on popular causes for cheap publicity, while performing hypocritical or unjust acts on the other hand, are deceitful to the public and further restrict our democratic space by usurping and diluting the language used for a cause.

Prisoners of a White God is a beautiful documentary to be appreciated for its ability to engage and the honesty of its agenda, which is the well-being of the Akhas, and in doing so exposes the dangers of bigotry or the perceived infallibility of certain organisations. It is also an important reminder that perhaps we should all be more critical about our own perceptions of how things "should be" and the nature of help that we support or give others.

The writer believes that police and state resources should be used to fight crime instead of monitoring film screenings. Prisoners of a White God is found online licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Published Tue, 03 Nov 2009 Freespace, The Sun,