By Mysara Aljaru
We have been taught from a young age to place our value on achievements. Every award ceremony, tuition class and examination, is tied to what the outcome will be. We celebrate when we have achieved the intended outcome. We are consistently reminded to work hard to ‘enjoy the fruits of our labour’.
But what exactly is this fruit of labour, and who gets to define what labour is?
Buah Dahsyat by Khairullah Rahim and TAMAN HUTAN Chapter 4: The Wound Response by ila—two films from the Singapore Shorts ’22 programme–critically look at the idea of mobility, knowledge, and labour. With past and present Singapore set as the backdrop, fruits and nature become an entry point to relook at power structures.
“Why is everyone so obsessed with this fruit?”
In Khairullah Rahim’s Buah Dahsyat, we are first greeted with shiny blue lips describing this fantastic fruit. It is like what we know it as. The fruit is described as great, shiny, solid and firm, however, the fruit is also depleted, evil and limited. The film takes us on a journey, with familiar images that we see around the neighbourhood—from the purplish pole on an SBS bus to pigeons taking flight from the HDB roof, which leads us to the question: “Why is everyone so obsessed with this fruit?” And what is this fruit?
A sparkly durian captures the audience’s attention, introduced as a magical fruit. Quintessential images of Singapore such as plastic trees in playgrounds, and LED lights cosplaying as trees remind us that beyond the bright colours, a layer of uncertainty lies. It is not enough to be a beautiful flower. What happens when the flowers fail to turn into fruit? We note that the fantastic fruit is a fruit of growth, or more accurately, a fruit desperate for growth and constantly on the move. Time is of the essence, the magical fruit reminds, with a haunting statement: time can be a foe. As we watch the hustle and bustle of people leaving the MRT station, we wonder what they are rushing for. Is time really of the essence?
Almost like a warning, we are told: “When survival is at stake, desire can easily turn into greed.” The shine that we celebrate is just oily sweat, we’re further reminded. The film almost serves as a reality check: the more we observe, the more reality unpeels itself, much like the skin of a fruit. Some of us bloom into the fantastic fruit and are seen as the pride of the plantation. We cheer them on, fist-pumping the air as “Tahniah!” (“Congratulations!”). It makes us think, about the grades we received growing up, with a gold star sticker pasted on it or the annual award-giving ceremonies—where does it all go now?
The film ends on a seemingly grim reminder—that not everything that shines will shine forever. Stark images of fallen fruit and decay tell us that even the best fruits will rot if left behind. As the extract from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs shows us, even the most beautiful, ripe apple can be poisonous, just like society’s vicious and toxic rat race. We watch as a young girl grips the magical sparkly durian under her arm, her ponytail swishing, and we wonder if she will loosen her grip anytime soon.
Those are the words we are greeted with at the start of ila’s Taman Hutan Chapter 4. A needle pierces the skin as a white thread is sewn onto the palm. Just as you are about to calm your nerves after watching that, a text is overlaid on the video–documents from colonial times.
The colonisers are reducing the pay of the labourers. “Reduction of unskilled coolies”, the heading of the document reads. A voice-over on the act of tapping rubber trees overlays a video of white thread being sewn on the palm. Do we appreciate and value manual labour? How did important manual labour come to be valued less?
We are then brought on a journey in the forest, while we hear an interview with Anuar, as he recounts the story of Rasimin, his grandfather who originated from Java and came to Singapore in the 1890s. Rasimin, as Anuar describes, was very knowledgeable when it came to nature. He had a deep knowledge of plants and animals which made him valuable to the British. But how valuable? Rasimin serves as pages of history books that were tucked in a corner waiting to be discovered.
Anuar tells us of his grandfather’s job. Rasimin’s knowledge was essential for the British colonisers to ensure fireproof plantations and forests. They depended on him to understand local wildlife. As he continues, it becomes clear Rasimin’s knowledge was not just knowledge, it was passed down by his mother who was a healer and Rasimin himself also had a deep love for nature. TAMAH HUTAN Chapter 4 reminds us that nature had always been a part of indigenous communities in the region. Malay proverbs are always connected to animals, trees and plants, Anuar explains.
The Botanical Gardens has long been a pride of this country, where the colonisers were recognised for building its reputation historically, all at the expense of their assistants and their labour, many unnamed and forgotten.
Anuar shares the relationship between Mr Ridley and Rasimin. We are taken on a walk in the forest, with tall trees holding witness to stories we might never hear about. Anuar tells the story of how Ridley built dependence on his grandfather’s knowledge, which was never equal. Despite Rasimin’s knowledge, his contribution is forgotten and attributed to the masters. Names of trees were erased and renamed to the liking of the colonisers–much like the erasure of the native knowledge.
The unequal power structures become even clearer when ila asks if Rasimin had ever attempted to give a suggestion to Ridley. It was not just about the blatant erasure of their contributions. Anuar lets out a laugh, one that blurs the line between despair and amusement. “That’s not possible, because he could have lost his job,” he answers. He goes on to share that no matter how close they were to their ‘bosses’, at the end of the day, they were just servants to the white men.
The film ends with photos of white colonialists with their servants, and you cannot help but remember what Anuar said. Despite the deep knowledge and intelligence, these assistants of the colonialists were recognised as nothing but servants. With their contribution erased, you wonder how deep this runs as knowledge of the region, of the land, of the city that we have come to understand was built on knowledge from ghosts of men who were barely acknowledged. You speculate on how the identity of marginalised groups had been formed by colonialists, through the erasure of native knowledge.
Ila and Khairullah’s films remind us how the power structures of the system have not changed over the years and how one form of privilege and class is built upon its historical precedents. It highlights how only certain types of labour and knowledge are appreciated and acknowledged, while the success of the colonisers is built on the labour of others who remain the ghosts of the past till today. That much of how we understand displaced groups today, is indeed a “wound response”.
About the Writer
Mysara Aljaru is a lens-based practitioner, writer and researcher. Mysara was previously a journalist and documentary producer and has also worked with various research institutions. An artist and writer herself, Mysara has showcased and performed at Objectifs, The Substation, ArtScience Museum and Singapore Art Week 2022.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.