DEC 7 — I refer to the government’s latest plan to curb video piracy — “Armed to fight piracy” (Sunday Star, Dec 6) where Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that the government was considering a proposal to take action against the private owners of even one pirated video.

Tell you what minister, if you agree that you will enforce the law across the board, consistently and without exception, then I will support your proposal and stop buying pirated DVDs. May I propose that you start enforcing this new strategy by raiding the homes of all your ministry staff (including your own — think of the photo opportunity) as after all I am sure you would like to set a good example by cleaning your own house and ministry first before going to the homes of private citizens.

I would even wear a 1 Malaysia badge and salute you if you are able to extend the raid to cover the staff of the other ministries as I am sure they too would like to support your endeavour.

Did I hear “no”? You don’t plan to raid homes? Surely you are not suggesting that you plan to snoop and arrest only those devious individuals caught in the act of purchasing pirated DVDs? But wouldn’t it be easier to just shut down the DVD shops instead of targeting the individual buyers? Has it crossed your mind that perhaps the ineffective enforcement drive against the retailers has been largely due to corruption?

In any event, the thrust of this article is not to belittle your latest strategy but to point out that when it comes to video piracy in Malaysia, the situation may not be as simple as say curbing video piracy in the UK or other similarly developed states. There is basically less demand for pirated DVDs in these states, simply because they can afford to buy the originals due to their higher purchasing power based on the prices and earnings. For example, a primary school teacher in London earning US$31,300 (RM106,000) net per annum will be able to afford a newly released DVD at £20 (RM116) while a similar teacher in Kuala Lumpur earning US$8,400 net per annum will unlikely pay RM70 for the same DVD. Therefore, lowering the prices of DVDs to match earnings would be a good first step.

That is not to say that I support wholesale piracy as long as the prices of the DVDs remain beyond the reach of average Malaysians. I would grudgingly agree if cornered, that exceptions may be made for legitimate local business concerns — where the pirated materials affect local movies (we should support them no matter how bad) or movies that are currently being shown in cinemas (we should support them as the prices are still affordable).

But what about circumstances where there are no legitimate local business concerns i.e. movies that are not being shown or available locally on DVD? I think we should thank our very enterprising video pirates for bringing otherwise unavailable and unaffordable DVDs to our shores as if not, where are we going to watch such wide-ranging movies? And here I am not referring to the sleazy stuff (you can ban them for all I care) but all sorts of movies — from all film eras, genres and sub-genres, high or low brow, critically acclaimed or panned, from all over the world — that are not shown or available in the country and do not hurt any local business interests.

Why do you care if we watch say, for example, DVDs of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Pierre (and Luc) Dardenne, Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir or even Jean-Claude Van Damme? With the exception of JCVD (which incidentally is also the title of his 2008 film which was surprisingly inventive and funny — who would have thought!), none of the films by these great directors will see the light of day in Malaysia as they are certainly unlikely to pass the twin evils of censorship and the business bottom line.

Speaking of films that never see the light of day, if we can just look at the Cannes Film Festival listing over the last couple of years, how many of them actually made it here whether in the cinema or on video? “Hunger”, “Che”, “Three Monkeys”, “Better Things”, “Il Divo”, “Lorna’s Silence”, “Thirst”, “The Class”, “Gomorra”, “Synecdoche”, “New York”, “Of Time and the City”, “A Christmas Tale”, “Looking for Eric”, and “Waltz with Bashir” — all critically acclaimed or award winning but yet none of them made it here. But guess what, I have seen them all and they were great.

Okay, occasionally films like “Inglourious Basterds” do make it here but when I do watch them at the cinema, I am invariably disappointed as obviously there will be cuts — what’s the point of having ratings 18PL, SG, PL, SX, PA then? I will be further annoyed by the subtitling — usually bad and lost in translation that ruins the frame. So I guess in order to appreciate fully the genius of Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering, I will then have to wait patiently for a good DVD copy.

The only recent exception I recall was the brilliant “There Will Be Blood” where it was shown uncut (and proudly advertised as such) to an empty cinema, an unsurprising reception I must say. I can only guess that the local distributor showed the film because it was nominated for the Academy Awards and thought that might be enough to attract cinemagoers. So, pardon me if I don’t have high hopes that uncensored art-house and independent films will soon feature regularly in our cinemas.

And let us not start with the Film Censorship Board. Really, who are these old men (probably repressed) who decide what the rest of the country can or cannot watch? How are they chosen and who are they accountable to? How can the board, which saw fit to censor the kissing scene at the end of “Slumdog Millionaire” (when the star-crossed lovers were reunited), in this day and age be taken seriously? Do they mean to say that Malaysians do not kiss or do not have access to kissing scenes? Or do they mean to state that Malaysians will start kissing at railway stations and then start dancing Bollywood-style and therefore incompatible with Malaysian culture? Isn’t it absurd that that as an adult, one can vote, get married, start a family, purchase a property, drive a car, work and travel anywhere but is still being told what to watch?

I can bet that if you conduct a survey among Malaysian filmmakers, all of them will have a decent collection of pirated DVDs. So, far from harming the local movie industry, I would even venture to state that the recent successes and recognition accorded to several local productions at international film circuits were to an extent due to the wide availability of films that otherwise would not be accessible to them.

So pardon me if I don’t feel like going to the cinemas tonight; now showing: “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”, “2012”, “Ninja Assassin”, “Love Happens”, “Couples Retreat”, “Phobia 2” and “Scenario the Movie Episode 2: Beach Boys”.

Hmm, how tempting; or I could just stay home and put on a DVD.

Eric Paulsen is a cineaste.

This article was first published in Malaysia Insider.