Our war sur­vivors

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By SHEELA CHANDRAN en­ter­tain­ment@thes­

IT was ex­actly 70 years ago to­day – Feb 15, 1942 – when Lieu­tenant-gen­eral Arthur Per­ci­val, the Bri­tish Gen­eral Of­fi­cer Com­mand­ing Malaya dur­ing World War II, took the dras­tic step of sign­ing the sur­ren­der doc­u­ment that en­abled the Ja­panese to rule over Sin­ga­pore and Malaya.

His much crit­i­cised move, which for­mer Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill de­scribed as “the worst dis­as­ter and largest ca­pit­u­la­tion in Bri­tish his­tory”, not only un­der­mined Bri­tain’s stand­ing in the Far East but also turned life into a nightmare for Malayans and Sin­ga­pore­ans for three and a half years.

The Ja­panese ruled with an iron fist, of­ten be­head­ing those who stepped out of line. Thou­sands of young women were forced to work as sex slaves while many Malayans ended up as labour­ers on the no­to­ri­ous Death Rail­way in Burma (which claimed the lives of over 100,000 Asians and Al­lied pris­on­ers of war).

Malayans strug­gled for sur­vival and lived in poor con­di­tions. Dur­ing the grim pe­riod, tapi­oca, sweet potato leaves, yam and por­ridge were about the only food that kept peo­ple alive.

To com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of the fall of Malaya and Sin­ga­pore and to cel­e­brate the courageage of sol­diers from around the re­gion, the His­tory Chan­nel (Astro Chan­nel 555) is air­ing WWII: Asia Oc­cu­pied, a se­ries of doc­u­men­taries that be­gins tonight and con­tin­ues ev­ery night un­til Fri­day, chron­i­cling the Oc­cu­pa­tion and re­sistence against it.

Tonight (9pm), there is Bat­tle­field: The Fall Of Sin­ga­pore fol­lowed by Ris­ing Sun Over Malaya (10pm). To­mor­row, view­ers can tune in to The Sook Ching Mas­sacre (9pm) and Fight­ing For In­dia: The Woman Who Dared (10pm). On Fri­day, there’s Three Years And Eight Months In Hong Kong (9pm) and Philip­pine Re­sis­tance: Re­fusal To Sur­ren­der (10pm).

From the lips of sur­vivors

Ris­ing Sun Over Malaya takes view­ers into the dra­matic story of how the Ja­panese swept into Malaya on tanks and bi­cy­cles, push­ing de­mor­alised Bri­tish forces aside with ease.

The doc­u­men­tary was com­mis­sioned by AETN All Asia Net­works, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Malaysia’s Na­tional Film De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (Fi­nas), No­vista (headed by hus­band-and-wife doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers Harun Rah­man and Lara Ariffin), and Prime­works Stu­dios.

Lara was in­spired to work on the his­toric doc­u­men­tary be­cause it presents an im­por­tant story about Malaya’s past, one that in­flu­enced our sub­se­quent path to­wards in­de­pen­dence and growth.

“Events that tran­spired dur­ing the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion were cru­cial in na­tion-build­ing. Sadly, the younger gen­er­a­tion have min­i­mal knowl­edge about it. Hope­fully, the doc­u­men­tary will draw their at­ten­tion to a dark yet vi­tal pe­riod of Malaya’s his­tory,” said Lara, 45, dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view in Kuala Lumpur.

The hour-long doc­u­men­tary fo­cuses on vivid eye­wit­ness ac­counts and in­ter­views with war sur­vivors who ex­pe­ri­enced the Oc­cu­pa­tion first hand. It also ex­am­ines the still lit­tle-known two-week in­ter­reg­num pe­riod, be­tween Ja­panese sur­ren­der and Bri­tish re-oc­cu­pa­tion, when the col­lapse of the Ja­panese or­der made way for clashes be­tween lo­cal po­lit­i­cal and so­cial forces.

Harun says the doc­u­men­tary’s sell­ing point was that it fea­tured sto­ries of or­di­nary Malaysians who hero­ically re­sisted Ja­panese rule and lived to tell the tale.

“There are many state­ments about the war from the de­fend­ers (Bri­tish) but hardly any re­ports from the op­pressed (Malayans),” he points out, adding that “this doc­u­men­tary tells first-hand sto­ries of war sur­vivors who suf­fered un­der Ja­panese rule.

“Al­most ev­ery­one has heard sto­ries about the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion from their par­ents, who heard it from their par­ents. It is al­ways sec­ond-hand. This time, we spoke to sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans and oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans who shared their hor­ror sto­ries about how dif­fi­cult life was un­der Ja­panese rule. In that sense, we spoke to the man on the street who doesn’t have a voice. That makes it re­lat­able to view­ers,” says Harun, 47.

No­vista, set up in 1991, is noted for sev­eral renowned TV doc­u­men­taries in­clud­ing The Malayan Emer­gency, The Smart Tun­nel and Among The Great Apes With Michelle Yeoh. In 2010, the com­pany won two awards at the Malaysia Doc­u­men­tary

Awards for Best Wildlife Film for Among The Great Apes and Best Script for The Malayan Emer­gency. Last year, No­vista re­ceived the Highly Com­mended award at the 2011 Asian Tele­vi­sion Awards for its doc­u­men­tary, The

Sto­ries to make you cry

Lo­cat­ing war sur­vivors to in­ter­view was akin to look­ing for the prover­bial nee­dle in a haystack; the doc­u­men­tary-mak­ers used ev­ery av­enue to find them, in­clud­ing go­ing to World War II me­mo­ri­als and us­ing word-of-mouth and Face­book. They also trav­elled to places known to have ex­pe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent as­pects of the Oc­cu­pa­tion and war, in­clud­ing Kota Baru and Grik in Ke­lan­tan; Ipoh, Kam­par and Taip­ing in Perak; and Segamat in Jo­hor, to ob­tain per­sonal sto­ries from the vic­tims. “We also spoke to friends who led us to war sur­vivors in far-flung places. We trav­elled more than 1,600km over six states to in­ter­view 11 sur­vivors. We in­ter­viewed a mas­sacre sur­vivor in Serem­ban and a death rail­way sur­vivor in Segamat. Their poignant sto­ries tugged painfully at our heart­strings,” says Lara.

One such vic­tim was Pe­tal­ing Jaya-based food stall op­er­a­tor Seow Boon Hor, 78. He was only seven years old when he wit­nessed his par­ents and brother’s death at the hands of Ja­panese sol­diers in Kuala Pi­lah, Ne­gri Sem­bi­lan.

Seow re­called dur­ing a phone in­ter­view: “My fa­ther, mother and younger brother and I went to the town cen­tre to col­lect rice. In­stead of dis­tribut­ing rice to peo­ple, the Ja­panese sol­diers took out their bay­o­nets and stabbed in­no­cent vic­tims, in­clud­ing my­self. The pain was un­bear­able to the point that I fainted. When I woke up, I re­alised my en­tire fam­ily had per­ished and I had be­come an or­phan.”

And although it has been over seven decades, Seow says the wounds have not healed.

“I was one of thou­sands of young chil­dren who be­came or­phans due to the bru­tal­ity of the Ja­panese sol­diers. It was tough to grow up with­out parental guid­ance and love,” says Seow, his voice crack­ing with emo­tion.

“The younger gen­er­a­tion might find it hard to com­pre­hend as they, for­tu­nately, did not have to live un­der Ja­panese rule. Hope­fully, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will be en­light­ened af­ter watch­ing the doc­u­men­tary,” says the fa­ther of eight.

While sto­ries told by sur­vivors are price­less, Lara ad­mits that one of her big­gest chal­lenges was hav­ing to ask sur­vivors to re­call their pain. The worst was when vic­tims shed tears as they told of the hor­ror they had ex­pe­ri­enced.

“When Harun and I were edit­ing, we couldn’t help but tear up as we lis­tened to their sto­ries. Although we may have seen the record­ings over 100 times, it re­ally gets to you when you lis­ten to these sto­ries,” says Lara about the five months it took to fin­ish the doc­u­men­tary.

For Harun, edit­ing also proved to be a huge hur­dle.

“The most frus­trat­ing part was try­ing to com­press ev­ery­thing into the one-hour slot while keep­ing it in­ter­est­ing for view­ers. Although this is a doc­u­men­tary about our own past, it is still not easy to at­tract view­ers, as they might pre­fer to watch other in­ter­est­ing pro­grammes on the many dif­fer­ent chan­nels avail­able nowa­days,” says Harun.

In ad­di­tion to per­sonal rec­ol­lec­tions, the doc­u­men­tary fea­tures ad­di­tional footage and pho­to­graphs from many archival sources, in­clud­ing the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in London, broad­cast­ing ser­vice NHK in Tokyo, Filem Ne­gara in Pe­tal­ing Jaya, and crit­i­cal­past. com, a royalty-free archival footage col­lec­tion.

Lara hopes the doc­u­men­tary will pre­serve im­por­tant mem­o­ries for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and serve as a re­minder of the price paid for the free­dom we en­joy to­day.

“There are many doc­u­men­taries about mas­sacres that have hap­pened through­out his­tory. But the dif­fer­ence with this doc­u­men­tary is it con­tains lo­cal sto­ries with a fresh per­spec­tive from the peo­ple’s point of view. The hand­ing over of Malaya and Sin­ga­pore to the Ja­panese dur­ing World War II has gone down in his­tory books but it is in­ter­est­ing for lo­cal as well as in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences to hear sto­ries from a lo­cal per­spec­tive.

“It is equally im­por­tant for the younger gen­er­a­tion to watch this, as it is, af­ter all, part of our his­tory. And the bot­tom line is, if we don’t learn from his­tory, we are doomed to re­peat it,” says Lara.

Ris­ing sun over malaya

pre­mieres tonight at 10pm on the His­tory Chan­nel (Astro Ch 555). For more de­tails, find No­vista at face­

Tough child­hood:

High­land Tow­ers Dis­as­ter.dis­as­ter An early work – Te­meng­gor: Bio­di­ver­sity In The Face Of Dan­ger – re­ceived the best doc­u­men­tary award at the 1998 Malaysian Film Fes­ti­val.

War sur­vivor Seow boon Hor was only seven years old when

Ja­panese sol­diers killed his par­ents and younger brother

dur­ing the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion of Malaya.

Power of the past:

Lara Ariffin and Harun rah­man were in turns in­spired and driven to tears while mak­ing and edit­ing ris­ing­sunover­malaya.

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