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Disciples - Malaysian skinhead culture
14-year-old Martin, a member of Malaysian skinhead group SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice)Jess Kohl

Photos of the opposing factions of Malaysia’s skinhead subculture

Filmmaker Jess Kohl shares behind-the-scenes photos and the story behind her new Dazed documentary Disciples, which explores rising tensions between the subculture’s contrasting ideologies

While shooting her 2018 Dazed documentary Anarchy in the Philippines – a close-up of the country’s DIY punk scene and the kids living under Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal draconian rule – filmmaker Jess Kohl came across an article about Malaysia’s skinhead subculture. Interest piqued, the following year Kohl split her time between Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, capturing the lives and outlooks of Malaysian skinheads, documenting the opposing ideologies within the scene, from anti-fascist to neo-Nazi. 

Skinhead culture began in Britain in the 1960s, a working class style subculture with non-violent origins, inspired by mod fashion and Jamaican music, renowned for its distinctive look – shaved heads, lace up boots, braces, and Harrington jackets. In the 1970s, a second wave of skinheads emerged, with the look adopted by violent, far-right, white supremacist members of the National Front, and skinheads became split into different factions, with the culture migrating to other countries.

Kohl has a fascination with global youth culture and people around the world who live on the fringes of society. Her body of work includes documentaries about the Jewish queer community in the UK, drag artists with Down’s Syndrome, and LGBTQ+ people in India – beautifully shot stories that resist any urge to put herself at the centre of the story.

Disciples is Kohl’s latest documentary, a Dazed film commissioned by Bec Evans that predominantly focuses on 14-year-old Martin Izlan, a member of S.H.A.R.P (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), a group of anti-fascist Malaysian skinheads whose outlooks sits in direct constrast to Malacca Stompers, a group of Nazi supremacists. The film explores the rising tensions between the two groups during the build up to Maskad, an annual skinhead banquet and festival held in Malaysia which welcomes all ideologies of skinhead.

Disciples offers a way to observe the role fashion and aesthetic acts as a conduit for ideologies around the world and how it is possible for such polar opposite perspectives, existing in a subculture, to take hold of young people,” says commissioner Bec Evans.

Through candid shots in tower block apartments, on the streets, and in mosques, the film explores the tensions between the different factions; while both groups are decked out in denim and Doc Martens, their view of the world couldn’t be more different.

Here, Kohl shares behind-the-scenes photos she took during her time filming, and talks about the making of Disciples.

How did you become aware of this subculture in Malaysia, and what made you think ‘I have to make a film about this’?

Jess Kohl: I first became aware of this subculture after making Anarchy in the Philippines in 2017. Making this film was the first time I’d realised how my interests could come together in my work – looking at different microcosms of youth culture, and how fashion and identity politics are used to navigate coming of age.

After Anarchy... I began researching other pockets of youth culture in this part of the world, and read an article about skinheads in Malaysia. I started reaching out to members of the scene in 2018, and had a really open response from people who were interested in contributing to the film. This motivated me to pursue making it.

How long has skinhead culture been prevalent in Malaysia?

Jess Kohl: The skinhead movement came over to Malaysia in the 1980s, along with early punk and metal scenes. 

“I wanted to focus on Martin, as 14 is such an emotive and pivotal age – that teenage period involves so much growth and quest for identity, it’s a fascinating time to document someone” – Jess Kohl

Martin has such an aura about him and has such wisdom for a 14-year-old – what did you learn about Malaysia and the culture through him?

Jess Kohl: Martin definitely has a very mature energy for his age. He surrounds himself with people much older than him, and I think whilst enjoying being the youngest in the group, he also feels a pressure to present himself in a self-assured way, in both his appearance and beliefs. I wanted to focus on Martin, as 14 is such an emotive and pivotal age – that teenage period involves so much growth and quest for identity, it’s a fascinating time to document someone.

Did you find it difficult documenting the Nazis and were there any specific challenges you faced?

Jess Kohl: Seeing the reappropriation of violent symbolism and beliefs by lost youth, used as a language of identity to feel a sense of community and express dangerous beliefs felt quite shocking. 

I want to clarify that the far-right skinhead community is very small here – the antiracist left are far more prominent. What I found from spending time with the Nazi kids is that, when challenged, their ideologies fall apart quite quickly. They’ve adopted elements of Nazi fashion and ideology, though would have been targeted by this same group. Perhaps this shows humanity's recurring need to ‘other’ those different from them – to band together through fear and hatred, both isolating themselves and feeling a sense of belonging in the process, which is something we can see re-occuring globally.

Were they aware that you are Jewish and if so, did that bother them?

Jess Kohl: They never asked about my Jewish or queer identity, but they may have been aware of it through my online presence. I imagine they haven’t met an openly queer or Jewish person before – perhaps my identity felt so removed from them, and the kinds of people they are rallying against, that a Jewish person would be almost too abstract to feel like a threat to them. 

Did you notice a real difference in energy when shooting S.H.A.R.P as opposed to Malay Power? Did you have to approach anything differently as a filmmaker?

Jess Kohl: Tackling extreme ideologies and racism is extremely challenging as a filmmaker. It’s such a controversial topic, there’s no perfect way to approach it and throughout the process of making this film I’ve been concerned with if I’m tackling the topic in the most sensitive way – of course there’s an argument that these harmful ideologies shouldn’t be given any screen time at all, but I feel a more powerful approach, and the way we approached the Malay Power group in this film, was to almost let them dismantle their own ideologies. Through nuanced observations – like the conversation between Hakiem and his parents towards the end of the film – the characters contradictions and fragile belief systems start to fall apart. To be questioned and critiqued by your own parents, feels like a more meaningful approach than by myself as a filmmaker, who comes from a different socioeconomic background.

“What I found from spending time with the Nazi kids is that, when challenged, their ideologies fall apart quite quickly” – Jess Kohl

You’ve documented a lot of subcultures around the world – LGBTQ+ communities and punk scenes in the Philippines. What draws you to these sorts of stories?

Jess Kohl: I’m interested in telling stories about people and groups who lack representation, whose voices would otherwise be hidden. Using microcosms, such as the punk scene in the Philippines, or the trans community in India, I’m able to tell wider stories about different societies, and humanity at large. We can learn a lot about societies in how the most vulnerable members are treated, so focusing on the margins teaches me a lot on a personal level, which hopefully comes through in my films too.

The reaction to the trailer has been huge. Are you surprised by how much interest it’s generated? What kind of messages have you been getting from Malaysian kids?

Jess Kohl: The response has been really good so far, particularly from S.H.A.R.P kids in Malaysia and from the anti-racist skinhead/punk scene in general. I think it’s exciting for them to see themselves represented on screen, and it feels like there’s a real desire for more of this kind of representation of global youth culture.

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