Changing the world in our own little way

By Aidil Rusli
June 18, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JUNE 18 — I’ve never been a voracious reader, though I think I do read quite a bit compared to the average Malaysian. What I do read though is mostly non-fiction stuff, especially articles or interviews where artists I admire talk about their creative process or motivations.

You see, even if I do think of myself as an artist, I’ve never been the cerebral type who can explain exactly why I do this or that with my art. So, it’s pretty fun and revealing to read about what other artists have to say about their creative process because sometimes what they say actually does explain or help me understand how my own creative process works.

So this week I was reading an article about the late Arthur Penn, an American film director who directed a slew of 60s and 70s classics like Bonnie & Clyde, Little Big Man and Night Moves, when I came across a very revealing answer that he gave in an interview in which he explained that an artist is “someone to whom the world appears to be intolerable in reality. So he puts it together into another order with an imaginative cohesion, which is one he can live with.”

Reading that particular sentence made me think about a lot of other film directors (and even music makers) to whom the definition can be applied. And when applied, it actually makes quite beautiful sense.

For example, the late, great Yasmin Ahmad often got criticised for making movies that do not reflect the reality in Malaysia. Personally I’ve always thought that it’s lovely of her to make movies about a Malaysia that she hopes we can be, wherein a muezzin can live next door to prostitutes and still be a cordial and good neighbour, and be kindly to (and actually pats) a three-legged dog on his way to Subuh prayers.

Her movies are basically her hopes and dreams for this country she calls home, and judging by how well received her movies have been and still are on home video (her movies are, alongside some of the P. Ramlee and classic Malay movies, probably the only Malay movies still in print even after the first or second printing of their DVDs have long sold out), those dreams of hers are being shared by quite a lot of us Malaysians as well.

I’m sure I’m not the only who agrees with her and finds it intolerable that there are supposedly “religious” people out there who have no sense of tolerance at all, even if Islam is a religion that bases and prides itself in tolerance.

A few weeks back I saw a French film called Of Gods And Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, based on a true story about a group of Christian monks who lived in perfect harmony with Muslim villagers in Algeria, but who were then kidnapped from their monastery in Tibhirine and killed in 1996 during that country’s civil war.

I almost felt a lump in my throat during a scene where a Muslim rebel leader demanded that the Christian monks treat one of his men, which the monks refused because the medicine they had was meant for the villagers and in explaining his refusal, the monks’ leader asked the rebel leader “Do you know the Quran?” and cited a passage which says that the Christian faith is “closest in love” to Islam, after which the rebel leader respectfully leaves their monastery.

With another monk quoting Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”, it is quite clear that the film-makers find it intolerable how we tend to use religion to make enemies out of other people rather than be brothers in humanity.

Of course I’m not saying that an artist must have a “message” in his or her work. That would be a big mistake indeed as people react to what they think as intolerable in different ways. In fact, different people will find different things to be intolerable.

If, like me, you find artistic pretension (which some people may also call “lofty ambition”) to be quite intolerable, one of the ways we can put things together differently but coherently, in a way that we can live with, is to try and create our art without such artistic pretension, and revel in the power of simplicity and the ordinary. If you find simplicity to be intolerable, then of course you find value in technical virtuosity.

So even if I’ve never entertained lofty ideas about changing the world with my music, what Penn said made me realise we have also been trying to change the world. In our own little ways, of course.

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