Contemporary Bruneian Cinema in the Context of Sharia Law

in Seen and Unseen: Visual Cultures of Imperialism
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Many Asian cinemas have de-territorialized, obsequiously promoting the secular, democratic norms of mainstream Hollywood, but the Sultanate of Brunei, with its national philosophy of Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy) and its recent implementation of Sharia Law, would, some western critics apparently expect, push Islamic ideologies for its state-sanctioned media, including traditionally repressive, misogynistic expectations of the “authentic” Muslima (Ahmed, 2003). As with several Middle Eastern countries, such Western critics might suggest, Bruneian women will be forced to cover themselves demurely; abstain from driving, education or other means of self-empowerment; and submit to harsh, court-imposed punishments for sexual promiscuity; with the media duly promoting such norms. At the very least, Brunei’s entertainment media might soon resemble Islamic Turkey’s “Milli cinema,” which “brought Islam back into the movies and showed respect for Islam [and in which a] ‘common theme […] was to show characters that had adopted western values but who became unhappy and unsatisfied by those values” (Yorulmaz and Blizek, 2014, p. 8). What then of Yasmine (dir. Siti Kamaluddin, 2014), a Brunei government-funded film from a female director about a martial arts-obsessed Bruneian schoolgirl who gleefully defies her father, rarely wears a veil, enthusiastically chases boys and drives a racy, eye-catching car? I ask how this national cultural artefact sits within the theocracy’s attempts to maintain its citizenry’s adherence to the tenets of Islam, given its foregrounding of a narrative promoting female self-empowerment? Furthermore, this paper asks why Brunei has failed to ride the digital film-making revolution, to the extent Lacaba states “Brunei has no film industry to speak of” (2000). In conclusion, I propose this recent advance stems from a benevolent monarch’s commendable efforts to modernize, rather than historicize, Islam in Brunei generally and Melayu Islam Beraja, including Sharia Law, specifically.

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