The Team Behind

Here’s a fun fact for you:

Malaysia’s leading international human rights film festival only has one coordinator each year who orchestrates the whole thing.

What goes on behind the scenes is usually the determining factor of whether an event is successful or not. FreedomFilmFest (FFF) is known for being one of the largest film events in the country despite its small organizing committee. Organized by the NGO, Pusat KOMAS, the festival aims to create a platform for activists and filmmakers to showcase their works to the public.

On a Saturday afternoon, not too long away from FreedomFilmFest 2016, four of the former coordinators sat down with the founder of the festival, Anna Har, and together reminisced about the old times. These were Effa Desa, Mien Ly, Maisarah and Lena Hendry, four ladies who together have extensive experience coordinating what is one of the country’s most successful festivals.

The ladies gathered together in the KOMAS office, this being the first time in a while all of them were together in the same room, and together recollected some of their favourite memories from the times they helped coordinate the event.

From left to right: Anna Har, Maisarah, Effa Desa, Mien Ly, Lena Hendry

“Most festivals have like 10 people for publicity, 5 for mobilising and we’re like ‘ok so we have 2 people for [the whole of] FreedomFilmFest”

Lena Hendry

Coordinator of FreedomFilmFest

How it all started

Anna, founder and current director of the festival began by talking about the humble beginnings of what is now the most established human rights festival in Malaysia.

“We worked on the ground with communities and were involved in producing videos…”

“That nobody wanted to watch,” added Mien Ly. “We couldn’t screen it on major or mainstream TV and there was a lack of alternative places.”

“We needed to do something. So we had a film screening and we called it a festival, even though at the time it was just a small screening,” said Anna. “Before the internet days, it was really hard to spread stuff. So we would cover unknown issues and use the festival as a platform.”

Anna Har

Anna Har

Founder of FreedomFilmFest

How it all evolved

“It started off as 2 days, now it’s 10 days,” Lena said, evoking laughter from everyone in the room.

“It’s massive now,” Mien Ly said.

FreedomFilmFest started off as just a 2 day screening, during a weekend in November of 2003. Short weekends soon turned into a week, however, as the festival began to screen more and more films. The festival this year lasts 8 days, running from the 20th to 27th of August.

“Every year, we talk about bringing it down. Oh it shouldn’t be one week, it should just be done during the weekend. But it ends up being much longer,” Lena said.

“There are a lot of films to show,” added Mien Ly.

“But now we also have things like forums, workshops, talks…it’s not just screenings anymore,” Lena said.

As years went by, the festival began to have more than just one screening as well.

The festival first reached a wider Malaysian audience in 2009, when screenings were held in Penang and Johor. In the coming years, they had further community screenings in places like Perak, Sabah and Sarawak. There were even international screenings, organised by Malaysians living abroad or through connections with international film festivals.

“We provide support to people interested in doing it. The organizers in the states are important. We can’t be running around, so we support from here. Organizers from each state do everything and get involved in the whole process,” Lena said.

“We also got connections with international film festivals. We are part of an international network of human rights festivals,” Anna said.

In 2011, Hana Kulhankova, the festival director of One World International Human Rights Film Festival in Prague, the largest human rights’ film festival in the world, was FreedomFilmFest’s special guest and head judge. And in 2014, FFF films were screened at the Nuremberg International Human Rights Film Festival in Germany & the One World Film festival in Czech Republic, the largest international human rights film festival in the world.

“We still only have 1 coordinator though” laughed Anna.

“An amazing thing about it though, is how we get so much done with so little resources. A 10 day festival is organized by just 2 people, the coordinator and the director, and a few other volunteers,” said Lena.

“It’s a challenge but it’s pretty amazing,” said Effa.

Community screening in Pahang

Lena at a screening in Sarawak

Hana Kulhankova at FreedomFilmFest

The challenges they’ve faced along the way

“Ticketing and distribution is still a challenge. Although it looks very big and massive, we still cannot go public very much,” said Anna

“It’s often the same people who come back, and they bring their friends,” Maisarah said.

“Most malaysian brands don’t cover us. Because we don’t go through the film censorship board, it still feels like we’re an underground event,” Anna said.

“NTV7 once had a dedicated channel to talk about community issues, so they covered our event every year and interviewed filmmakers. However, that was just in the first few years. After some time, the people at the station no longer worked there,” Mien Ly said. “8TV also once invited us and specifically told us not to say the words ‘human rights’ but we said it anyway and got in trouble with the producers. Maybe that’s why we didn’t get invited back,” she chuckled.

“The press coverage really depends on the issues themselves. When you have so-called ‘sensitive’ films, journalists aren’t willing to cover our stories,” said Lena.

“In the alternative world, we are quite established but the thing is, I wish we could reach out to the general public,” Anna added.

FreedomFilmFest has had their fair shares of issues with the authorities as well. As Mien Ly jokingly put it, they are ‘semi-illegal’ and so give law enforcers a reason to misuse their powers.

They also reflected on their fears of being caught by the authorities in the old days. As Mien Ly jokingly put it, they are ‘semi-illegal’ and so give law enforcers a reason to misuse their powers.

“You think now is scary, those days were even scarier. There were only a few of us and if any of us kena caught, there wouldn’t be much of us left,” said Anna

Anna at FreedomFilmFest 2015



On what FreedomFilmFest is doing for the film industry

“The short film industry in Malaysia is still in its infancy stages, though there is some interest. FFF brings about awareness for more controversial issues that people are scared to talk about and that was the initial purpose of FFF; to tell untold stories. It was just a tool to create awareness for things that matter. The stories themselves are more important than the quality, though we have seen an increase in quality over the years. You will never see these films on mainstream TV, so it’s a necessary platform to help grow the industry,” said Effa.

“We got our first warning letter in 2009,” added Lena.

“And that was an indicator that this was a good thing. People are talking about it. That’s what you want. The fact that we’re still existing and we have support is great,” said Effa.

Their favourite parts of FreedomFilmFest

“The people you encounter, so whether it’s the volunteers or the filmmakers themselves…you meet very inspiring people,” said Effa.

“You meet very, very humble filmmakers and they’re really cool. It’s nice meeting people and going through the learning process together,” said Mien Ly.

“It’s the people that makes us want to come back to FFF,” Effa said.

“The appreciation you get is also really nice. FFF used to have workshops in colleges and I had students coming up to me telling me I made a difference in their lives and that I opened up their eyes. They would even offer to help organize FFF,” Maisarah said.

It was clear how much the women cared about the festival. Most of them, though not having been involved with it in years, were still willing to come back and help out with this year’s festival. Enthusiastic discussions began to surface when Anna suggested they all return as volunteers this year. So if you plan to attend the festival this year (which if you definitely should), be sure to look out for these lovely ladies.

Volunteers at FreedomFilmFest 2015

FreedomFilmFest will be held this year at the PJ Live Arts Theatre in Jaya One from August 20-27th. Different films, produced both locally and internationally, will be screened every day along with various masterclasses and Freedom Talks. Tickets are priced at RM20 per day or RM150 for the whole festival. Admission for students and senior citizens are free.

You can find out more information about the festival here.