In all my documentary adventures through some of the most amazing places across the region, I’m careful to even consider myself a humble electron in the world of research and documentation. A humble speck in the dusty air that swirls endlessly with the passing of time.
I grew up with three words burned into my mind.
The National Geographic Society.
The only magazines I had access to were worn copies from my distant uncle, who passed them on once he was done with it. Torn pages, missing inserts and phone numbers scribbled across pages didn’t bother me. Within each covers were the accumulated knowledge of the world. I saw and traveled the world through the words, and later pictures of those who dared venture beyond the unknown. I started with the oldest issues from the 1800s, which were filled with gorgeous, detailed illustrations of exotic birds, alien looking plants, foreign lands sketched out on yellowed paper.
Then came the photographs. Large colour photographs from the smooth pages of the magazine burned into my memory as experiences. I learned to look beyond technical perfection as the benchmark of a great photograph. I filled my mental Rolodex with my favourite images, imagining the frames before and after, hoping to get a glimpse into the process of both the photographer, the writer and the editor.
I looked up and saw the pictures move on the television screen. The birds were alive, the landscapes breathed life and the roar of predators shook my heart. I remember very clearly when my dad would summon all of us to the altar room, predictably when an episode had just begun. Prayer would usually take 10 minutes but YouTube had not been invented yet for me to afford missing any precious moment. I would stare at the fire on the altar but my ears were fixed in the living room. I would fidget endlessly and dash out of the prayer room, much to my father’s dismay but this was my religion.
I was hungry. My appetite for knowledge, to understand how the world worked, to know the name of each new animal and my thirst for new words to learn was kept preoccupied with a bi-monthly magazine called Quest, old books left behind by my grandfather and uncles, the fragile atlas which looked like it would disintegrate if I flipped two pages at a time and primarily, the yellow-bordered magazines.
It was the word ’Society’ that intrigued me the most.
I imagined a small group of academics, explorers, biologists, geologists and other wizards of ancient crafts huddled together in a small room with tiered standings. Attendance was strictly by invitation only. In the small centre space, lit by a well of sunlight, a lone explorer held up an exhibit, an exotic animal from the furthest reaches of East Asia, narrating travels in faraway lands and near-death adventures with headhunters. Although my curious imagination was largely influenced by woodcarvings of and paintings of visionaries who were persecuted for their blasphemous ideas, this was the cult I wanted to be a part of.
A group of people devoted to nothing more than exploring, documenting and sharing the natural wonders of the world through the microscope of their discipline. No insect was too small, no desert too far, no tribe too foreign.
What incentive was there for a man, dragging along 6 porters and hundreds of kilograms of equipment, to trek through jungle, swamps, mountains in humid weather, fighting against parasites trying to burrow in any accessible orifice, with the sole purpose of looking for an insect believed to be found nowhere else on the planet. There was no guarantee of discovery, let alone a return to civilisation.
The thrill of discovery is priceless. The sacred moment of bearing witness to something; a ritual, a natural phenomenon, a rare birth for the very first time. It is a joy that transcends all mediums, across time. For a researcher, it’s finding the missing link between two subjects he only believed to be connected for the past 25 years of his life. For the photographer, the moment the shutter snaps and the darkness of the viewfinder is followed by a quiet sigh of relief. For the explorer, it’s brushing through the last thick layer of vines, hard as a rock, revealing the foundation stones of a long-lost kingdom. For the biologist, neck deep in a parasite infested swamp, headlamp slowly flickering through the night, it’s the joy of discovering a new species of mosquito as it searches for a live vein on his skin.
For every one of them. the joy of discovery is almost certainly followed by a smile, often to himself alone, and for that one moment, nothing else mattered.
As i walked up the wooden steps into the house, creaking under the weight of what must’ve been the entire village, I struggled to keep a mental record of everything that was happening. The screeching violin of the bongai performance, the banging of the kompang, the question the old woman seated next to me was asking, everything. There was literally no room to move within the space with every inch taken up by family members, relatives, curious neighbours and a single functioning fan. I didn’t even have space to shift my feet.
The ritual of the day was called ‘kodim’, an ancient ritual where females from another suku (clan) is accepted into a family to be rightful heirs, perfected by symbolically mixing the blood from both families. (due to religious and cultural sensitivities, the blood has since been replaced with rose syrup.) The ceremony was officiated by the Undang of the district, one of the most important persons in the whole state of Negri Sembilan (literally meaning a state with nine parts) for without his presence, the ceremony would be considered null and void. The man conducting the ceremony repeated asked the Undang’s approval at every step.
Many thoughts raced through my perspiring mind at the time. ‘How did I end up here; documenting an ancient ritual in the middle of nowhere with every makcik insisting that we visit her house and help her finish her cookies?’ I was in a foreign land, speaking a familiar language. I expected someone to ask me which country I was from and how long will I be staying. I recognised none of the dishes, except for the tempoyak. Everyone played their duty as the host, visibly offended that we were not sharing their food and excited when talking about it.
‘The goat was just slaughtered yesterday, too bad you missed it. Wait here, I have a picture of it on my phone.”
‘That dish was made from the core of the coconut tree’ one of them casually mentioned while pointing at a recently felled tree.
That’s when I realised that nobody paid for anything here.
Everything at the feast came from one of the houses a few steps away. Hiring an outside caterer was considered unacceptable in a community where each family provided within their capacity. Every event in the village was a collective effort, ensuring that even the poorest family would have enough to hold a decent feast.
Such values were once part and parcel of life in Malaysia, even in larger towns. Today, it remains more a legend than a reality. We are constantly reminded of our ‘semangat gotong-royong’ though it remains elusive in an environment where neighbours stare at their smartphones more than they look at their neighbours.
I wholeheartedly admire the Adat Perpatih.
It is so much more than merely customs that favour the matriarch, as outlined very briefly in our history books. The law of the land, largely unwritten in literal terms and expressed orally through poems, reveals itself in very subtle ways that, for some reason, appeals to me.
When asked: ‘I would like to go out with my friends’
The elder of the home would say: ‘It looks cloudy outside, it might rain.’
For the untrained ear, this could be easily dismissed but read between the lines and you will hear a resounding ’No, I don’t think you should.’
When you visit a Minang family, as the honourable guest of the house, you will be treated with the utmost respect and hospitality. One is expected to tread lightly on the generosity of others, never overstaying your welcome or carelessly wording a sentence. Females are guaranteed shelter and a plot of land, even under the most tragic circumstances while the males are expected to ‘merantau’, meaning to leave the land in search of wealth and fortune, without ever having any property (especially land) to his name.
I remember someone telling me a story:
“You know, I couldn’t stop laughing at how ridiculous the situation was. It was a normal family and the wife had only just passed on and thus, in accordance to customs, the daughter owned the land. The father, being a ‘squatter’ in the family was then chased out of the house before being invited back into the house under the generosity of the daughter, reaffirming her position as the rightful owner of the land and matriarch of the family. I just couldn’t contain my laughter!’
I felt both happy and angry at the same time. Elated that such a symbolic gesture is still considered important and angry that I couldn’t be there to witness it.
I am reminded of Din, our host who lived on an island without a body of water (the village was referred to as islands since the paddy fields surrounding it routinely flooded when it rained heavily.), but I’ll save that story for another day.
The entire proceeding was documented into a short documentary that went through multiple revisions into what it is today. With each viewing, the name KODIM remained but the experience changed.
The final piece wasn’t entertaining enough nor did it make anyone cry enough to share it on Facebook. I didn’t care. I managed to document the ritual because I fought for it.
But it was a documentary through and through. This is the first time the 80 year old man had witnessed such a ritual, previously only mentioned in passing by elders and their elders before. I recorded history. Sure, it was only going to be seen by a handful of people on YouTube, perhaps stoned from drugs and somehow clicked the wrong link, destined to be ignored under 20 layers of cat videos, but I was happy that I recorded history, and no matter how small it was, it’s still history.
That was when I realised that my ambition wasn’t about working under the National Geographic. It was something much bigger. To be a part of something much larger than myself or any organisation. To put it simply, it was the desire to be a part of this invisible world of accumulated human knowledge. With every article I write, ritual I document, ideas I present publicly, I imagine myself still as the same speck of dust of before, but this time resting on the shoulders of giants who walked the earth before me.
KODIM was nominated for ‘Best Short Documentary’ at the 4th Malaysian Documentary Competition organised by the National Film Council, FINAS. I’m glad my piece got mentioned but I honestly believe that the other nominees are more worthy of the award.