FFF2023 film grant winner delves into drag artists’ resistance against sexuality policing


The infamous raid at REXKL last year reminded FFF2023 film grant winner, Zinc Chew of her own brush with the law and its ominous presence in private spaces. Especially the way it is used to police the identities of an already marginalised community. It made her curious about the stories of the drag artists who had organised the event and how they would continue pursuing their art in the face of such repression.  

Poster of 'Why Freedom?', an initiative under Social Films For Social Change.  Along with a mixed media graphic of grant winner, Zinc Chew.

Late on 30 October 2022, Zinc got word that the police were raiding a Halloween party organised by Shagrilla, a drag artist collective. Zinc rushed to the venue, only to find that the party had been shut down. The looks on the party goers’ faces, surely joyful only moments before, reminded Zinc of a traumatising personal experience.

In the past, Zinc had been threatened with Section 377D of the Penal Code by the police. The law refers to “outrages of decency” and applies to: “Any person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any person of, any act of gross indecency with another person”. The vague wording could apply to a wide spectrum of intimate acts, even kissing, between consenting adults.

Through her film ‘I Want To Break Free’, Zinc hopes to show how the drag artist community navigates through this ambiguous law in order to maintain a semblance of freedom in their artistic pursuits. 

FFF2023 grant winner, Zinc Chew along with the judges; Zurairi A.R, Nadia Khan & Jason Wee posing together with fellow grant winner, Joshua Inberaj Dewet.

They are standing next to each other with a Social Films For Social Change bunting between them.
Zinc with the judges; Zurairi A.R, Nadia Khan & Jason Wee
together with fellow grant winner, Joshua Inberaj Dewet.

Get to know Zinc Chew

We asked Zinc more about how the story caught her attention, how she’ll keep her subjects safe in a hostile climate and what she brings to the table as a journalist. 

1.  What attracted you to telling this story? Do you have a personal connection to anyone involved in the event?

I was once threatened by police officers to be charged under Penal Code 377D “outrage of decency”. I later came to realize that it’s a manifestation of state imposed sexuality policing. Yes, it was traumatizing, but what really lingered in my mind was what that officer said, “nasib baik bukan Melayu, if not pergi ke Makamah Syariah”. 

It hit hard, I felt like throwing up. I realized that even as a non-Muslim cis-woman, I had to face such humiliation. What more do the Muslim LGBTQ community face under Malaysia’s harsh sexuality policing laws?

When the REXKL raid happened, I saw some posts reporting the scene live on Twitter and I hurried to the venue and the party was already forcefully ended. The expressions on people’s faces felt all too familiar to me.

That’s when I had the idea of making a documentary. Fortunately through friends, I got to know the drag artists and discovered deeper layers within the community— the resilience and passion that drives them to keep the community alive, how this close-knit group of people supported each other so that they can still have space for self-expression and continue to exist unapologetically.  

Zinc Chew during the Freedom Film Grant pitch 2023.  She is standing next to a TV screen where a page from her deck is visible and reads 'Why This Story, Why Me, And Why Freedom'
Zinc during her pitch to the judges

2. Why do you think this is the right time to tell the story?

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure if it’s ever the right time. Yet with the recurring incidents of sexuality policing, like the government seizing the Pride collection watches from Swatch and canceling the Good Vibes festival, I feel that it is a story that needs telling. 

Previous stories about Malaysia’s drag communities often portray them as victims or simply ‘exotically’ inspiring, but they’re way more than that. Hopefully, we can tell the story in a way where the complexities and vividness of their lives shine through.

3. The political climate shows no sign of warming towards LGBTQ community, have you thought about how to ensure the safety of your profiles? 

We’ve reached out to an NGO for legal guidance. At the very least, we’ll keep the venue confidential, brief the profiles about potential risks, and make sure they’re genuinely comfortable with being featured. 

4. Is there a specific look or style you envision for your film?

We are going for a mixed media direction, incorporating photographs, illustrations, different camera and visual formats. And since the drag artists are incredibly creative, we want to incorporate their ideas into the documentary! It will be like a collaborative creation (wee exciting!)

5. Are there any documentaries that you are looking to for inspiration?

The classic – Paris Is Burning, and films by Yorgos Lanthimos, Julian Klincewicz, Yang Li-chou, “Small Talk,” and “Endless Poetry”.

6. How will your skills and experience as a journalist help you in making your film?

As cliche as it may sound, I’d say it’s empathy— the ability to see a piece of myself in the soul of the person in front of me and understand where they are coming from. Of course, technical skills are a great bonus.

7. What skills do you hope to grow through this experience?

The ability to trust the process, even when everything seems chaotic and when the script has no linear process. I tend to rely too much on an outline or a specific story angle. But the reality is complicated.

I hope to be more at ease with the discomfort of navigating complexities. Allowing the story to unfold itself, listen carefully and focus on how to best support its flow through different story-telling techniques. And who knows, maybe I’ll pick up a few dance moves from the drag artists by the end of the shoot? 😛

8. How do you think this film represents the theme “Why Freedom?”

Freedom finds its voice through art, and drag stands as an art form. We should be free to express our sexuality without the fear of a sudden raid. Laws are often expected to have our backs and offer a sense of security. But there are existing laws that enable the authorities to invade our private spaces and unjustly target already marginalised communities.

What is freedom, really, if we cherry pick who has the access to freedom of expression?

Zinc’s film ‘I Want To Break Free’ will premiere at FreedomFilmFest 2024 along with two other films that received the grant.

Words from FFF2023 judge, Jason Wee

Architects of Diversity

“Zinc’s exceptional editorial skills and creative eye will be able to pull in audiences of all backgrounds towards understanding the personal tales around the REXKL raid last Halloween. I look forward to hearing untold stories of the victims of state violence brought to the big screen.”

Every year the festival calls for proposal entries from interested filmmakers and activists across Malaysia & Singapore who have a story to tell. The two selected proposals will win a film grant of RM15,000 / SGD5,000 each to produce the film.

The selection was based on the 20th edition of the FreedomFilmFest theme ‘Why Freedom?’, answering the questions why freedom is crucial for us to be fully human? And what happens to our environment when our freedom is curtailed?

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