Young Orang Asli women are using social films to advocate change and tell indigenous communities about their rights

Films are a very powerful tool for good, for society, education and empowerment.

AKWOA and FFN members with film professionals on the set of Tekukur Kuk! Kuk! Kuk! in Kampung Petoh, Pahang (Photo: AKWOA)

For Eliana a/p Tan Beng Hui, “If not me, who?” is a statement, not a question. “If we don’t speak for ourselves, who will?” she says, emphasising a point that knots action and purpose.

By “we”, Eliana, a Jakun from Kuala Rompin, Pahang, refers to her community and a handful of others that have banded together under a collective called Apa Kata Wanita Orang Asli to highlight social issues that affect them directly and push for change. 

As a child of the land who has walked the ground with other tribes — the Temiar and Semai of Perak and the Temuan and Semelai of Negeri Sembilan — Eliana knows first-hand the problems indigeneous people face, such as land rights,  identity, statelessness, citizenship for their children, rivers running dry, and the lack of infrastructure, education and healthcare. Therefore, she is able to claim, “This is what the communities say, and this is my own experience.”

When AKWOA started in 2018, members struggled to speak out about what they see and know. Now, empowered from finding their voice and being heard, they have begun to approach different stakeholders, like public and private bodies, in the hope that with facts in hand, those with the authority and means to determine policy can do something to help them.

“If there is no voice and representation, people will drop the issues,” adds Eliana, the group’s activities coordinator. What also boosts her confidence is that when she visits schools to conduct programmes, students say they want to be like her when they grow up.

“She has become a role model for young Orang Asli women,” Brenda Danker says of the 23-year-old. She and Anna Har are co-founders of Freedom Film Network, a non-governmental organisation that promotes and develops social filmmaking in Malaysia, within the framework of freedom of expression. FFN is the organiser of FreedomFilmFest, the country’s only international human rights documentary film festival since 2003. 

AKWOA is FFN’s community-based media programme that began in 2018, under which they work to together to create and use media to empower and advocate.

“We believe films are a very powerful tool for good, for society, education and empowerment. We explain what’s happening in a narrative style, so it’s more personal. Then, the emotions come in and audiences begin to understand the people [featured] and their needs,” Danker explains.

They get funds from various sources, such as partners, embassies and aid organisations. Consistent support ensures continuity, crucial when working with young women who are speaking up and running their own programmes. “They’re leaders and it’s really amazing to watch them grow. When funders stay with us over a long period of time, you can see change and impact, on the issues and the girls, ”she says.


(From left): Eliana, Danker and Har with a poster highlighting the right to education (Photo: Shahrin Yahya/The Edge)

Growth has been organic, with girls coming forward and stepping back under the FFN-AKWOA collaboration. Eliana joined in 2021, after studying accountancy at UiTM Pahang. Older sister Diana, a member before her, now works with other organisations.

AKWOA uses YouTube and TikTok to feature, among other topics, the traditions, food, herbs and way of life of various tribes. “We document them so they won’t be lost,” she says. A competition asking youth to show something about their tribe that they are proud of gathered videos shot using mobile phones. “And you see why the land is so important to them.”

Their films on the realities faced by native communities have been screened at indigenous festivals abroad. They meet with headmasters to talk about access to education and communities to explain initiatives and facilitate discussion. “We tell them we are asking for our rights, not charity.”

Eliana is a part of Weaving Hopes for the Future, an art and culture response to climate degradation and injustice that kicked off three years ago. Four short documentaries about their impact on Orang Asli communities produced under this initive were screened at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

In 2022, she and Diana were participants at COP27 in Egypt, where indigenous delegates demanded that their lands, knowledge and cultural rights are recognised and respected in all processes.

“The girls are being called to the table,” Har notes. Eliana has attended a meeting with the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development and taken part in conversations on Orang Asli land rights, education and infrastructure. This year, they aim to connect with regional movements for indigenous women.

Collaborations begin with members asking what kind of stories they want to tell, then going into the kampungs to shoot. “Ownership is high because, in essence, it is their film. Empowerment results from making all the decisions and having a say, and believing the community can do it. And they do.”

It is a kind of progress lab, Danker thinks, starting with an understanding of human rights, indigenous rights and women’s rights. Then they learnt how to use content media to reach a wider audience and engage with communities and the public.



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“Every step of the way, we always ask: Is this the story you want to tell? The representation comes from the team itself and they decide who plays what role. Ours is basically support, putting in the soil so they can grow. I can say before this, work on indigenous communities was either male-dominated or [undertaken] by some senior women. Here is a fresh group that has come out of nowhere.”

Now that they are at the policy level, the girls are “proud of their identity and community, and can see the future”, Har adds.

Eliana never imagined she would, or could, be a “community representative and voice for young women”. Hailing from a family that counselled her to study hard and get a job after graduation, it was enlightening to turun padang (go down to the field) and hear about people who have to do without or are unaware of their rights.

Starting a class with Diana and a cousin to teach kids who did not go to school planted the seed of advocacy in her. From there, it was not difficult to gather women to talk about their rights and what needs to be done to claim them.

A lot of women turned up at the pondok to listen, these “heads of family who worked in the fields and  took care of their children. Women are important in the community but they don’t get heard. Then I thought of continuing to work as an activist and pursuing issues concerning women. If we young ones don’t do it, no one else will,” says Eliana.

Not everyone is taken by AKWOA’s endeavours and men, especially, often “cut us off”. But the gals are not afraid because “we are doing the right thing”.

The team is working on its fourth short film, titled Tekukur, Kuk! Kuk! Kuk!, in Bahasa Jakun. It is about a  young woman of Jakun descent who lives up to her father’s legacy of defending the family’s customary land — a release fittingly scheduled for August as World Indigenous Day falls on the 9th of that month.

This article first appeared on May 20, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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