Friday, May 9, 2014


By Mansor Puteh

(Mansor is visiting his alma mater Columbia University in New York City and traveling around America. He plans to go on an expedition later this year called, ‘Eating Wind…Across America: Malaysia-America Friendship Tour 2014’, other than to be able to finally produce a feature film called, ‘Malaysian Snow’ which is also his master’s thesis film to submit to the university so he can finally graduate with his Masters of Fine Art in Film Directing degree and to create an unusual American academic history and a record, after Columbia had readmitted him, even after he had left the university for so long.)


I am now back at Columbia University (1 April,2014) having just flown into John F Kennedy Airport in Queens, and it is the first time I returned to the city flying into the airport after 36 years. But it seemed like it was yesterday.

I had returned to the campus and to the city two times before, but after flying into Los Angeles to attend film festivals that had invited my earlier works.

The three years I lived in New York City including some months in Boston, saw how John Lennon got killed outside of his Dakota apartment; how the then President Ronald Reagan  and how Pope John-Paul II got shot and survived. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat got killed while attending a parade outside of Cairo.

I am sitting here in the lawn where the Columbia Commencement (Graduation Day as it is called in Malaysia) is held on 13 May each year. But in 1981, it was postponed to a day later, because Pope John-Paul II was shot on that day, so the Commencement was held on 14 May.

And this is also the place where I hope to finally receive my Masters of Fine Art in Film Directing degree from Columbia next year, after re-registering with the university since 2006 as a student working on his master’s thesis film, and also take part in the Student Academy Award with the thesis film.

If this is not life-long learning, I don’t know what else is…

I remember seeing prominent Palestinian leader and English scholar at Columbia, Edward Said walking into the campus, after the Commencement was over. 

I also remember how an American classmate of mine, Ron Nyswaner had called to ask if I would like to come to the location of a low-budget feature film called ‘Smithereens’ he and his friends were making. But I had to tell him I was not able to do so.

I regretted it very much in later years, after I found out that the film had been invited as an official selection by Cannes Film Festival to make it the first non-mainstream film from America to be given the honor, and I later found out that Ron had won an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for the film ‘Philadelphia’ for which he did not win it, but it won an Oscar for its lead actor, Denzel Washington.

I remember the late Frank Daniels, co-chairman of the Film Division who I gave some hard time by not submitting my final term paper for his Screenwriting 1 course, which is in the form of the writing of a script of a short film, which I only did two years later!

I was shocked when I saw his photo in the ‘Memoriam’ segment in the Academy Awards, which is to indicate that he was a prominent person in the film industry in America. And unfortunately, too, I would see every now and then photos of my instructors at Columbia passing away and being announced in this way.

He gave me a lot of consolation because he and everybody at the Film Division knew I had been diagnosed for a Giant Cell tumor of the upper left tibia for which I had to be operated on three times and at two hospitals, the St. Luke’s Hospital and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which left me with a permanent knee prosthesis in my left leg leaving me having to use a pair of crutches for fifteen years, for which the university insurance company had to pay US$80,000 (RM200,000 at the rate then).  

So I can say how lucky I was in New York City at that time when I had the tumor so I was able to get the insurance coverage as a student totaling US$100,000 for paying only US$40 per semester, and the best medical treatment they could have anywhere in the world.

The other co-chairman was Milos Forman who won Oscars for best director for ‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ and ‘Amadeus’.

But one interesting fact concerns American President Barack Obama, who I later discovered was also studying at Columbia when I was still there. I could have seen him on campus as it was not such a large one being in the city; also because there were so few African-Americans or Asians studying there.


I am not ashamed to say that I have yet to graduate with my Masters of Fine Arts degree in Film Directing from Columbia because I have not been given the opportunity to produce my master’s thesis film called, ‘Malaysian Snow’, which I thought could be used as a bridge to forge better relations between Malaysia and America through the medium of the cinema.

I could have taken the simple way by producing a short film on campus and be done with it, but why bother?

Because I thought I wanted to be smarter and come up with a full-length feature film from Malaysia that can be accepted by a prestigious university so that it can also help launch Malaysia’s attempt to capture the imagination of those in Hollywood, other than in the academic circles, using the only opportunity I was given which I did not want to simply use.

However, since I returned to Malaysia in February, 1982, I was not given any encouragement to produce the film, and without financing, no film can be made even if one is highly qualified and has won numerous Oscars, that would also allow my master’s thesis film being able to participate in the Student Academy Awards, too.

I did not expect to be given such horrible treatment by the very agencies and ministries in Malaysia that had been entrusted to develop the film industry.

And the best qualified people in film and the only Ivy League-trained scholar and filmmaker cannot be absorbed into the industry, whose experience and expertise can be used to benefit the industry and country which suffers from image problems without anyone knowing much about its history and multiracial composition of its society and colorful history all of which can be successfully portrayed in many interesting Hollywood-class films.

Many of them were ‘condemned’ to teach film at the local universities and film academies and not encouraged to produce and direct films either. 

Malaysia has therefore lost the only opportunity it had with the direct connection at the highest possible level with Hollywood whose experience and setup that Malaysia could benefit from.

MARA had threatened to sue me on countless occasions, despite the fact that I had paid them whatever I owed them for the study loan they gave me, except perhaps for a small amount which they did not bother to ask for so long.

And I was also sued by another bank which wanted to terminate an agreement I made with the then ministry of information, communications and culture or Kementerian Penerangan, Komunikasi dan Kebudayaan (KPKK).

Worse, even lawyers of Columbia threatened to sue me in the courts in New York City, after I reapplied with them to complete my studies, which I did not go through.  

KPKK and its minister and senior officials then did not show any eagerness to see that my master’s thesis film called ‘Malaysian Snow’ was produced.

They preferred to give grants to producers and directors who did not have impressive backgrounds, so no wonder none of the film they financed had been selected by international film festivals, much less win any artistic recognition for it.

It is therefore, a shame that I had been subjected to such torture by simply getting into an Ivy League University and the very agencies and ministries which are supposed to help develop the film industry had chosen to belittle, bully and also sue me. 

I have created another history of sorts for being the first and only Malaysian student to be sued by an Ivy League University.

I knew I had created academic history for the School of Mass Communication, Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM) as it was known then, for being able to gain admission into such a prestigious university even before I had graduated in 1977.

It was also amusing how my applications to do the same program at the few other non-competitive universities in America were rejected.

I also created history for ITM which had never ever got any of his graduates who had managed to get such a recognition then, and chances are there was no other student or graduate from the university who had got places to study in any of the eight Ivy League university in America, or ITM would have shouted themselves coarse bragging about it in the media and for the public to know, how the university had been given such recognition from those universities.

I also created history for MARA, for being the only student of ITM who got a place to study at such a university, in which their officials had chosen to reject my application for a scholarship. 

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