I get excited about durian. Whether it’s eating durian, talking about durian, or reading about durian, I love durian. I also like saying the word durian (durian!) So imagine my excitement when I discovered this documentary film titled The Big Durian.
No, it’s not about Jakarta, although the admittedly stinky city is often known by that moniker. It’s about politics and racial relations in Malaysia, based on public reactions to a 1987 shooting in the Chow Kit neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur, nowadays one of my favorite places to eat durian.
That’s about the strongest connection this film had with durian. I just want to get it out there: despite it’s title, this film had nothing to do with durian. Any connections that can be drawn are purely metaphorical, unless you count the narrator’s slightly annoying overuse of the word “thorny.” Maybe the adjective has some cultural significance that I don’t understand, but it didn’t work for me.
|D24 served at Chow Kit.|
That doesn’t mean that the documentary isn’t interesting. Any foreigner who spends a considerable amount of time in Malaysia enjoying the to-die-for durian might want to consider watching this film to get an understanding of the political and racial tensions in Malaysia that run just under the surface of an impressively cheerful, relaxed nation.
The Big Durian (2003) is the work of Amir Muhammad, and independent film maker based in K.L. with a penchant for controversial topics. Two of his more recent films, The Last Communist (2006) and Apa Khabar Orang Kampung (How are you Village People?) (2007), have been banned by the Malaysian government. For the rest of us, they are available in full on youtube. I watched The Big Durian on Amazon Instant Video.
|Private Adam Ja’afar|
What makes the film so edgy isn’t the details of the shooting, about which we learn almost nothing, but about the political atmosphere in 1987 that caused citizens to panic and shut down schools for days. The shooting itself was a pretty minor event, at least in today’s world of recurrent school shootings. That only one person was killed and three others injured makes me almost laugh with relief.
What the documentary is really about is what happened before and after the shooting: race riots, tensions between the Chinese and Malaysian ethnicity, dissatisfaction with the sultanate, and in particular a controversial government crackdown called Operation Lalang. Nine days after the shooting the Malaysian government cracked down and arrested over 100 citizens, mostly opposition leaders and Chinese educators, and shut down four independent newspapers.
About the killer himself, the film shares very little. In fact, there is very little information about him on the internet. The event is so obscure (or covered up? Just kidding. Sorta.) that there’s not even a Wiki page about it. What I did find out is that his name was Private Adam Ja’afar, not to be confused with the assassinated Nigerian Imam Ja’afar Adam. This Adam was from Penang.
The only website with information about Private Adam is this Malaysian military source, which I read via google translate. When
I visited this site, I got a friendly pop-up message from Malaysia’s
Military, Police and Security Agency. It makes me nervous for no reason I
can think of.
claims that Adam suffered from a mental illness that ran in his family. The same source
says that before he ran amok on October 18th, unsuccessfully trying to burn down a gas station and shooting at buildings, he wrote this phrase on his hotel room
mirror, of course in Malaysian, not English: “Damn Night To Adam. Murder, Murdered or Suicide: (The Night is cursed for Adam. To Kill, To Be Killed or to Kill Myself.
I looked up information about the killer not because he is important, but to satisfy my own morbid curiosity. In The Big Durian, the shooting itself is of secondary concern: Not so much why Adam did it, but why people freaked out. Featuring the many quirky personalities that inhabit the Malaysia, the film seamlessly mixes the three dominant languages in a way that is really endearing, lah.
|Choosing durian in Chow Kit Market|
Now I need some real durian.