CAMERAS are to roll soon on the dark days of World War II in North Borneo.
The Sandakan Death Marches are the subject of a movie to be produced by award-winning director Roger Christian of the original Star Wars fame in collaboration with the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas).
The production is expected to cost US$5 million, according to Finas chairman Datuk Mohd Efendi Datuk Hamdan.
And for the production, an academy will be set up here to train the supporting crew, local actors and actresses, he disclosed.
The celluloid project has drawn kudos from a local scriptwriter Abdullah Yusuf Randiman who also hopes local talents will be considered as part of the film crew.
He pointed out that numerous war-time stories could be sourced from the local populace whose parents or grandparents may have had experienced first-hand the deprivation and suffering during World War II.
“The experiences of these elders can be used as the basis to flesh out stories on the war. Their recollections can go a long way to ensuring that the movie script is written and acted out authentically.”
Abdullah said his family has always lived at Mile 7 near Singai Kayu, quite close to the airport and a prisoner of war (POW) camp.
“The villagers, including my parents and their parents, had told us about what they had gone through during the war – and also about the atrocities they had seen committed by the occupying forces,” he said, adding that his mother – Sairah Mardi who was 16 then – had seen and been through the distresses of war enough to last a lifetime.
Relating what his mother had related to him and his siblings, Abdullah said: “Before the war, it seemed that a Japanese couple had arrived in our village.
“They lived on the Pamaguan Peninsula which was uninhabited. Villagers went there sometimes to collect clams and edible
snails but there was no village there.
“The Japanese couple, however, was very friendly but seldom mixed with other people. They would usually attend weddings or some festivities, organised by the villagers. The Japanese man would always carry a notebook with him while his wife seemed very retiring and shy.
“Several months later, they disappeared and nobody knew where they went. And it was not long after that the Japanese landed in Sandakan and burned the seaside town to ashes.”
Abdullah said his mother told them the Japanese landed in Sandakan without any protest or resistance – it seemed they just landed and walked in.
“She also told us that two batches of prisoners were subsequently shipped in through Sungai Sibuga (Besar).
“My mother used to sell foodstuffs like bananas and tapioca to the POWs. They barter-traded with clothes, blankets, forks and spoons as well as other stuff until they had nothing on but loincloth.
“They were that desperate for food. At times, when my mother and her friends passed by to sell their wares, the POWs – all thin and hungry-looking – would shout ‘sugar, sugar’ or ‘salt, salt’. But, of course, the locals did not understand what the POWs were saying and were usually left to wonder what the words actually meant.”
Abdullah said his mother also related how she and her friends had to bow low to a big pole inscribed with Japanese writings. Those who forgot to do so would be beaten by the local ‘kempatais’ who were locals working for the Japanese army.
“My uncle, who used to work at the airport, said he saw caucasians working there, filling up holes and repairing the aerodrome.
“They were thin and tired, staggering while they worked. By mid-day, they would look like fried prawns and sometimes, one of them would collapse and be dragged to the side. If they died, they would be taken away and buried.”
Abdullah remembers his uncle telling him that the dead POWs were buried in shallow graves and at times, the boars would dig up the earth to get at the remains – flesh, bones and all.
He said his grandfather, Pengiran Abdullah, an imam or religious man, used to drive the locomotive, serving the airport, to Sungai Sibuga.
“When the allied bombardment began to regain Sandakan, my mother suffered chest pain and took shelter in Libaran Island but she and the family were suffering there too. There was no food and the people were suffering from sores due to malnutrition.”
After the war, Abdullah’s father helped the Australians dig up the graves, placing the remains recovered in woolen blankets before burning them.
His father also made crosses and painted them white over the graves. The dead captives were identified by their dog-tags, among other means.
“These are just one of the many stories about war atrocities told to us by our parents – and the little historical facts that make up the whole war-time scenario. I’m sure there are many other locals who have information that can be of value to history,” Abdullah noted.
He revealed that two Australians had been to his home before his mother died three months ago.
The Aussies, known only as Bob and Mitch, spent considerable time talking to his mother and recording her voice.
“They were in the army but probably only joined after the war,” Abdullah shared.
He believes these facts could be fleshed out and used in movies about the death march.
He appeals to those wishing to make films on the war years in North Borneo to highlight the ‘local angle’ and use local acting talents.
Abdullah, a keen writer, is also involved in a non-governmental organisaton (NGO) called Berasabah Organisation.
Meanwhile, Roger Christian is hoping to put together a movie on World War II atrocities by September with assistance from his crew of film-making experts.
He said those who attended the academy and are able to meet the criteria such as tenacity and discipline will have a chance to work in the film.
He believes the production can be of great interest not only to the Australians and the British, who were directly involved in World War II in this part of the world, but also to international audience as he will be exploring the humane side of the story.
Christian, who has been here for the last three months, said he learned of the dark episode in Sabah history through reading and speaking to people who have been told about it or who have lived through it.
The forced marches in Borneo – from Sandakan to Ranau – resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 allied POWs during World War II.
Only six Australians survived after escaping with help from the locals.