Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar for a new life in Malaysia only to suffer continued violence in the film, “Aqerat (We the Dead)”, which paints a complicated portrait of a young woman caught up in human trafficking.
The flood of Rohingya migrants into Bangladesh has grabbed headlines in recent months, but it was the plight of the Rohingya “boat people” two years ago that moved director Edmund Yeo to make the film.
Yeo said the news of mass graves of people thought to be mainly Rohingya victims of human traffickers discovered near Malaysia’s border with Thailand in 2015 drew his attention to conditions for migrants from neighbouring countries.
“It inspired me to explore more what really happened,” Yeo told a question-and-answer session after the film’s world premiere in the main competition section at the Tokyo International Film Festival on Saturday.
“I realized that as they tried to run away from their own country, many of them came to Malaysia for a better life, but the truth is, life isn’t better for them,” said Yeo.
“Aqerat” follows Hui Ling, played by Malaysian actress Daphne Low, a young woman painstakingly saving up for a move to Taiwan – until her roommate and the roommate’s abusive boyfriend make off with her savings.
Desperate for money, she begins working for a human smuggling ring, but the job takes a heavy emotional toll as she witnesses severe beatings and death.
Yeo chose the title “Aqerat” after learning it meant “afterlife” in the Rohingya language, similar to the Malay word of the same meaning, “Akhirat”.
“They’re trying to escape from Myanmar, they’re trying to look for an afterlife,” he said. “Is Malaysia their afterlife?”
“Aqerat” screens next at international film festivals in Singapore and the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Yeo is no stranger to the Tokyo International Film Festival, where his debut feature, “River of Exploding Durians” premiered in competition in 2014.
He also has a documentary about Malaysian film director Yasmin Ahmad, called “Yasmin-san”, premiering at this year’s festival.