Ineza Roussille and Dian Lee on making the documentary ‘M for Malaysia’ – a tribute to Tun Mahathir and people power

By Mohani Niza

In May 9, 2018, Malaysians made history by kicking out the government of Barisan Nasional (BN) – the coalition that had been leading their country for decades since Independence in 1957 – and replacing it with Pakatan Harapan (PH).

For the past few years leading up to the 14th General Election (GE14), BN had become embroiled in a scandal where the then-Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of siphoning over RM 2.67 billion (nearly USD700 million) from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) to his personal bank accounts.

The star leading this victory was Tun Mahathir (affectionately known as Tun M to many), who once again became Prime Minister. He had previously served as PM from 1981 to 2003.

However, the history of Tun M’s leadership is not without controversy: In 1987, he ordered a crackdown called ‘Ops Lalang’ where he detained up to over a hundred people – mostly activists, intellectuals, students and opposition politicians – without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). In 1998, he sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy which many say was a politically-motivated move.

The documentary ‘M for Malaysia’, released in selected theaters last month, showcases the strengths, follies and contradictions of this man whom many have hailed a hero – or a villain, depending on who you ask. Created by filmmakers Ineza Roussille (his granddaughter) and Dian Lee (his close family friend), the documentary shines a historical light on the moments leading up to PH’s victory, showing generous amount of footage of Tun M during his campaign trail. It also offers an intimate look at him as a family man – both funny and affectionate.

The Culture Review Mag recently had the opportunity to interview Ineza and Dian about the making of the documentary.

Can you tell me how the idea to make the documentary began?

Ineza: It was Dian’s idea initially. She thought that, regardless of who won, it was historical that a 92-year-old man was running for Prime Minister. So she rang up my mother Marina Mahathir, and within 24 hours they’d put together a crew to follow the campaign. It was only a week after elections that we decided to make a feature documentary, considering the precious footage we had.

Dian: The initial idea was just to document everything about Tun’s campaign. I thought it was quite incredible to have a 92- year-old man running for PM in an election in order to change the government and I wanted to preserve his efforts and maybe have enough material to inspire Malaysians for GE15.

What were some of the major obstacles you both faced in making the documentary? How did you manage to overcome them?

Ineza: Following the campaign wasn’t an easy task in and of itself, especially when it came to the huge rallies with thousands of people. Constructing the narrative was also a big challenge. Our political history is such a complex story, so deciding what to put in to tell a cohesive, balanced and engaging story was not easy and took many months. Thankfully we had a great team, especially our editors Sebastian Ng and Nick Seah, together with our mentor and creative producer Ruby Yang. Another big challenge was the distribution of the film. We had to constantly convince people that a Malaysian documentary was worth a space in our cinemas.

Dian: I really can’t think of anything that was easy in making this documentary a reality. I didn’t have the experience or the background to produce and I had to learn very quickly how to put everything together. The biggest challenge for me was to put myself out there and to be seen doing this. I wanted to just take on the producer role and work in the background but Ruby our mentor rightfully advised that because we were the ones that followed the campaign, I should be co-directing it with Ineza. In the end, I decided to dive right into this because this film was so much bigger than me and it’s a Malaysian story that needs to be told.

There were many footages in the documentary – the one that you both filmed as well as from archives. In sifting through them, what specifically did you both look for ultimately to include in the documentary?

Ineza: Well we knew we wanted to give some context to GE14 because it didn’t happen overnight. Part of what helped construct the film was also what we had access to, in terms of the politicians who were able to be interviewed, as well as availability of archives to support the story. We were lucky enough to be able to get YB Lim Guan Eng and Wan Azizah, so it made sense to talk about their experiences during Ops Lalang and Reformasi. Especially considering that reconciliation was such a big theme of PH and GE14, it was important to show the decades-old struggles that led to May 9 2018. Of course it’s not just about the politicians, so we felt it was also very important to include Bersih in there to represent the people’s movements over the years. Our intention was really to show that it’s not about one person, but that we all did it together.

What has been some of the best feedback to the documentary? What about the worst?

Ineza: The feedback from people who have seen the film have been overwhelmingly positive. I think generally people have certain expectations going into it, and thankfully we have managed to defy a lot of those expectations. Thankfully people also understand the significance of being able to see Ops Lalang and Reformasi in the cinema. People also love the behind-the-scenes bits, and especially the relationship between my grandparents. Overall the feedback seems to be that the film is a good reminder for everyone, government especially. We’re also delighted that so many young Malaysians have been so receptive of the film.

There is also a lot of refusal to give the film a chance because of the current sentiment about PH, and because of us, the filmmakers. Some people seem to think that watching the film would be an endorsement of PH. Of course it also says a lot about our political history that people cannot fathom a political film, especially one made by family members of politicians, to be anything but self-serving propaganda. We knew this would be the perception from the start, but I’m glad that we have managed to break that mold at least a little bit.

I also feel that awareness about documentaries isn’t very high. We have gotten a few comments, even from PH supporters that feel we are being vengeful or disrespectful towards Najib. That is absolutely not the intention. The film is a documentation of the reality of what happened then, and we’re certainly not going to censor history for anyone’s sake.

Dian, can you describe to me the relationship between your family and Tun’s?

Dian: My dad and Tun M have been friends for many years. The earliest memory I have of Tun was during his horse riding days at Country Heights Equestrian park. Growing up I’ve always had mixed feelings about Tun because of some of his controversial policies.  As I became more politically aware as a young adult, I would often be torn about joining family events with Tun M but I would end up going anyway because of how much I love Tun Siti. She is the epitome of grace and sincerity. She would tell me and my sisters about her travel stories and always share her passion for music. GE14 changes my perception.

I remember seeing a picture of him in the early days of GE14 climbing a ladder onto a lorry to speak. That photo touched me, because at 92 he really should have been enjoying his days with his loved ones but he was genuinely trying to do what was right for the country. When I followed him during the campaign, I really saw the human side of him. He is deep down a simple man with a great sense of humour. He is no doubt the hardest working person I know and hates being late. I remember one night he had to campaign at two locations when he was down with a high fever. He simply shrugged it off, took two Panadol and walked out into the rain to give his speech. I may not agree with some of Tun’s politics, but I am completely in awe of his commitment to the country and stamina at this age.

Ineza, can you describe your relationship with your grandfather?

Ineza: I’m not as close to him as I am with my grandma, but we have a lot of love and affection for each other. He’s been a very busy man for my entire life, so GE14 was the first time I really got to spend that much time with him, and to really see what a workaholic he is, even at his age. It’s also quite sweet to realise as I get older, that we’re both introverts who are terrible at making conversation.

Also, in your opinion, do you think that you managed to present your grandfather in a fair and balanced way? Did you face problems doing this and how did you attempt to counter this? Can you elaborate?

Ineza: I think considering who we are and the footage we have, we managed to be as balanced as possible. It is not the complete, encyclopaedic guide to GE14, because frankly that’s impossible to do in 90 minutes. The government and my grandad, had absolutely no involvement in the making of the film on purpose, so we didn’t face any problems from outside in terms of telling the story we wanted to tell. We thankfully had the freedom to be as honest as we wanted to be, and I’m quite proud of the film we managed to make. But also, and it might be surprising for some people, my grandad would never have told us what we could and couldn’t put in the film. He’s got bigger things to be concerned with to be honest. 

“I remember seeing a picture of him [Tun M] in the early days of GE14 climbing a ladder onto a lorry to speak. That photo touched me, because at 92 he really should have been enjoying his days with his loved ones but he was genuinely trying to do what was right for the country.”

Dian Lee

As his granddaughter, how would you describe Tun? And are there two Tuns – one as the country’s leader and one as a family man?

Ineza: Possibly, it’s hard for me to differentiate. I do see him more as the family man, who is loving and incredibly funny. His sense of humour can be very dry and sarcastic, which I love, but which sometimes also completely goes over people’s heads during public engagements. I think naturally, the idea of him has overtaken who he actually is, mostly because perceptions of him tend to be pretty black and white, whether you love him or hate him. Also, my grandparents are superhuman. To be doing what they are doing at their age is just a miracle, I have no other explanation for it.  

‘M for Malaysia’ is playing at selected cinemas. For screening dates and venues, click here. You can watch the trailer here.