A film by a Malaysian director is giving audiences in Japan food for thought on one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes -- the exodus of Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing Myanmar only to find more hardships elsewhere.
Edmund Yeo said in a recent interview with Kyodo News that he was inspired to make the film "Aqerat (We the Dead)," so that he can "explore" the plight of the Rohingya and implications for modern-day Malaysian society.
The film is his home country's entry into the main competition section of the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival, which began on Oct. 25 and runs through Nov. 3.
The plight of the Rohingya -- a stateless, impoverished Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar -- has been in the international spotlight since renewed violence broke out in the country's restive Rakhine State in late August.
Since then more than 600,000 Rohingya from Rakhine have crossed the border into Bangladesh, joining over 200,000 people who had sought safety there following previous outbreaks of violence.
Malaysia, which is also a Muslim-majority nation, has also over the years become a haven for the Rohingya refugees, and is now hosting more than 100,000 of them.
Sometimes dubbed "boat people" for having fled to Malaysia and other countries of the region over the years on rickety, overcrowded boats, many Rohingya endured perilous voyages on the open seas under the worst possible conditions.
After reaching land, some ended up being exploited by human trafficking syndicates, particularly those transiting through Thailand.
In the film, the heroine, Hui Ling, loses her savings and gets caught up in human trafficking near the Malaysia-Thailand border, where she witnesses the mistreatment of refugees arriving on boats.
Yeo said he was "shocked" when he heard about news reports of the discovery of bodies of the Rohingya migrants in the forest in northern Malaysia two years ago because "we were the bad guys, we were the traffickers."
The 33-year-old director said he found "some parallels" between Malaysians and the Rohingya in their search "for a better life."
"I found the plight of the Rohingyas to be...kind of a reflection of us, as Malaysians. So many of us leave the country," he said.
The film's title means "afterlife" in the Rohingya language, similar to the Malay word "Akhirat," with the same meaning.
Yeo believes the crisis is a call for action to go beyond indifference. The ordeal of the Rohingya has been going on for years, with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein branding Myanmar authorities' recent treatment of them "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing."
"Many of us are living in a bubble, like we don't really care that much about the immigrants," said the Malaysia-based director, who was visiting Japan.
"We always preach about being compassionate and loving one another and we complain about how authorities are mistreating us, but yet we do not have the human decency to care about the plight of these people. And so is that a price that we have to pay, like to develop as a country to lose our humanity?"
Yeo is also careful not to "exploit" the Rohingya people in depicting their plight in his film.
"I didn't deliberately make a film to be timely or topical," he said, adding, "I wanted to make sure that I'm treating this subject in a very respectful manner."
Along with "Aqerat," Yeo's documentary "Yasmin-san" is also being screened at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival, his second time here after his debut feature film "River of Exploding Durians" was shown in the competition section in 2014.
"Yasmin-san" was supposedly a documentary showing behind the scene footage in the making of "Pigeon," a film shot in Malaysia by Japanese director Isao Yukisada, but it turned out to be Yeo's personal "film essay" paying tribute to the late Yasmin Ahmad, a celebrated Malaysian filmmaker whose international breakthrough at the same festival in 2005 paved the way for other compatriots.
While Yeo has never met Yasmin, he found a "connection" among Yasmin, Yukisada and Malaysian actress Sharifah Amani, who appeared in "Pigeon" and has worked with Yasmin.
"It's my love letter to Malaysian cinema," Yeo said.