by Gan Pei Ling / 7 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times
Mysterious fall. Open verdict. Suicide. It’s been three years since political aide Teoh Beng Hock was found dead at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)’s office in Shah Alam but the cause of his death remains contentious till today.
On Sept 22, a documentary based on the tragedy, titled “Rights of the Dead”, will be shown for the first time during the Freedom Arts Fest at the Petaling Jaya Live Arts Theater at Jaya One.
The 25-minute film is directed by Tricia Yeoh, who obtained a RM6,000 grant from Pusat Komas in May to make it.
She raised another RM6,000 from public donations to complete the film.
Yeoh, a well-known newspaper columnist and policy researcher, was working as a research officer for the Selangor Menteri Besar when the tragic incident occurred.
She subsequently became the state government’s liaison officer for the long-drawn case.
The 30-year-old has since left the Selangor government in April 2011 to join a private marketing research firm as its director of business development.
She shared with Selangor Times in an interview on Aug 27 why she decided to take time off from her job to make the documentary, the challenges she faced as a first-time filmmaker and what viewers can expect from the film.
Why did you decide to make a film about Teoh Beng Hock?
I think it was important to record what happened. He died when I was still an officer in the Menteri Besar’s office. I was kind of like the liaison officer for the case, representing the Selangor government. I dealt with the lawyers, [state-appointed forensic pathologist] Dr Porntip [Rojanasunan] from Thailand, the family…and I always felt there was no real conclusion to the case.
It’s been three years since he passed away, his death still affects the family and friends. But you know the general public has short memories, they eventually forget. I wanted to capture some of the moments in time, to have something for people to watch, maybe for his own son to watch when he is older.
When I left the Selangor government, this was one of the things that was still unresolved. This is also my own way of coming to a resolution, dealing with the emotions that I was going through when I was working on the case.
I applied for the grant from Komas last year but I didn’t get it so I applied again this year. It’s been something that has been on my mind for a long time.
Did you know Teoh Beng Hock personally?
I only knew him in passing. I’ve seen him at press conferences, at the lift (at the state secretariat). We would say “hi” to each other but we never really spoke. So even his boss [Selangor executive councillor] Ean Yong [Hian Wah] was quite surprised that I had taken such a big interest in the case.
I think I was very affected by it because I thought it could have happened to me, as one of the officers [working for the Selangor government]. I felt very bad for the family members who were forced to be thrust into the public sphere as a result of what happened.
Is this your first film?
Yes, I’ve never done anything related like this before. It was quite stressful. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. Compared to writing about policies, there’s a lot of creative processes involved in making a documentary.
Pusat Komas gave me guidance on what roughly needs to be done but I still needed to seek my own help and advice. On the technical part, I had to completely rely on my cameraman and sound person. I didn’t know the names of the equipment, for example the difference between a mixer and a recorder but now I do. (Laughs) I had a video editor as well, and someone to do the graphics, audio tracks. (Local artist) Jerome Kugan wrote a song for the film.
I had a really good team of people and I’m really thankful.
What’s the angle of the film?
Originally I wanted to make the film from the son’s point of view, but we realised that would be very difficult. Who becomes the voice? If he was older maybe I could get him to talk but he’s too young now. (Teoh Er Jia, now three years old, was born after Beng Hock’s death. His fiancé Soh Cher Wei, 31, was already pregnant when the tragedy occurred.)
So eventually I decided to tell the story from the point of view of someone who was there, who was working behind the scene to find out what happened. It’s a personal journey of investigation and exploring, so the viewers will have a glimpse into my thought processes.
We explored the institutions that were involved, the MACC, the police, the forensics behind it and the judiciary. I looked at these four institutions and how they may have been compromised in order to come to a certain conclusion. I talk about the political context but I’m looking more at the flaws of the institutions, that we’re subjected to weaknesses in the system because these institutions are not independent.
I also look at the personal perspectives of the family as well. But I do want to drive home the point that it’s because of this flawed system we have that somebody died. We’re all part of the system. We as Malaysians, it could have been anyone of us. If you don’t have a fair and independent judicial system, who can you rely on at times of trouble?
Did you manage to interview representatives from these institutions for your film?
I got to speak to the MACC. I actually requested an interview with everyone, the police, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the MACC lawyers, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into Beng Hock’s death…I contacted everybody but only MACC agreed to an interview. I was pleasantly surprised and I’m quite glad that I got them.
I had also tried to speak to the head of the RCI, Tan Sri James Foong, but he declined to give an interview and said everything [to be said] is already in the report. That’s a fair statement. It’s his prerogative. The rest didn’t respond to my [interview requests].
Apart from the difficulty of getting hold of the authorities, can you share other challenges you faced in making the documentary?
One of the challenges was that there was just so much information but I couldn’t put everything in. That’s the process in filmmaking but as a researcher I found it quite frustrating and sad that I had to leave out several things that I felt were important because of the time limit.
If I have more funds in the future I might do a longer version, a different cut, maybe an hour long. I already have the footage, I have so much material.
The other challenge was to find a fresh perspective because this is a case that everybody has read or knows about. I want to bring something new, different to the table, so I tried to do this by putting in things people may not have known or have forgotten. For example, there was an SMS (Short Message Service) sent by a MACC officer to her senior, telling the senior to tell other officers don’t lie anymore, this is a big case. This came out in the RCI. If you’re asking people not to lie, the implication is that people have been lying.
What were some of the important details that you had to leave out?
There were a lot of questions raised on the evidence found on his body, I couldn’t focus on every single thing, for example the drag marks on the shoes. And the fact that he didn’t have a defensive wound on his wrists. Usually if you fall from height, the person will suffer a colles’ fracture because it’s a natural reaction from the body to break the fall, even if it’s a case of suicide. But in this case, there wasn’t any fracture so it raises the question of whether he was conscious when he fell. There was an anal injury as well, which Dr Porntip said was unusual for any fall from height. These are some of the details that don’t gel with the fact that he committed suicide that I couldn’t look at in the film.
And then there was the window that he was said to have fallen out. It was not tested for DNA and the reason the police gave during the inquest was that they had done fingerprint dusting first, but because the window surface too dusty, they couldn’t get any fingerprints out of it either. When we asked Dr Porntip what’s the first thing you would do when you look at this crime scene, she said the first thing is actually to look for DNA.
You really have to decide what are the best things to put in the film. I had to leave them out because there was no time. It’s a huge case.
And you interviewed the family as well for the film?
Yes. The wife, the sister and the parents.
How are they?
I don’t talk about how their life is now in the film but I think the sister is still very much affected. She’s the one who’s the most emotional about it still. I think it’s very hard for her to move on because she was the closest to him…The parents are still hurt, the mom thinks they’re still waiting for something to happen, some answers.
They’re still hoping for some answers?
I’m not sure “hope” is the right word to use. They’re quite burned out. I think all of them are very cynical (by now) about whether there can be any answer (to the cause of his death). What else can they do to get answers? They want explanations. Obviously they can’t accept that it was a suicide. They want answers but they can’t expect it realistically, so they’re left in this conundrum.
I’m not just talking about their family. Other people have died in custody as well. My documentary didn’t talk about the other victims but I want people to think about them also. This is just one case, one story, there are countless families whose children have also died in custody, and because of what? It’s because the system is too highly politicised and there’s no independence.
It’s ridiculous when you think about it. Innocent families are suffering because of the way our institutions are being run. (Lapse of silence)
You speak to the colleagues as well?
I spoke to his colleagues at the state (secretariat) and former colleagues at Sin Chew Daily, the lawyers, I also went to Bangkok to interview Dr Porntip.
Are they still affected?
I think when you talk to them, you can still sense that they are angry. It’s not just anger but dejection, a sort of dejected anger. Even for me, if you were to ask me am I angry? Yes I am, but it’s a sort of tired anger. It’s very emotionally-draining for anyone who has followed the case through.
When it happened, when you were following the case, you would feel emotionally or psychologically affected by it. It’s quite haunting. Even during the research for the documentary, you get drawn in and you remember what happened in the past.
I mean, of course everybody has to move on, the lawyers have to take on new cases, people have lives to lead, but when you think back, maybe we can move on but the family will never do.
Do you think your documentary serves as some sort of closure for the case?
I don’t know whether it serves as a closure. I’m not seeking to give you answers in the documentary. I don’t want to say who was at fault, who was in the wrong politically but I do want people to realise for themselves what’s the real issue here.
I want the film to serve as a reminder that this case is part of a bigger problem. People who are not politically-conscious yet should realise that it’s because of politics, our system of governance, that this sort of tragedy has happened.
The film trailer is available on Facebook at http://bit.ly/TBHdocu. Freedom Arts Fest, formerly known as Freedom Film Fest, is an annual event organised by Pusat Komas. This year’s theme is “Democracy: Who’s the Boss?” and Yeoh is one of three local filmmakers who won a grant to make a documentary based on the theme.
Find out more about other human rights films and the screening schedule at freedomfilmfest.komas.org.