Sun, 05 Jan 2003

Malaysian filmmaker ready to challenge viewers

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Singapore

The seven-minute film is called Checkpoint, a story about what it feels like to travel in a post-Sept. 11 world, where you receive extra attention just because your passport contains stamps from countries considered to have a connection with terrorism.

The film is drawn from an actual experience independent Malaysian director Amir Muhammad had at the Woodlands train terminal that connects Malaysia and Singapore.

Shot entirely without actors and provided with English subtitles instead of narration, the film is included in Amir's collection of short films called 6horts, released last year.

Checkpoint comes across as a witty essay on film, which not only presents the post-Osama situation but also describes the relationship between the two often bickering countries, where, as Amir puts it, there is a gap in the economy and IQs.

He underlined the issue of intellectuality.

"The IQ of Malaysian audiences has really deteriorated. When I screened the film, some people in the audiences were busy guessing the location where it was shot. They were saying, 'It's Penang, isn't it? Or Kedah, Kedah right?,'" he said, shaking his head.

"They (audiences) have to be given too much. Everything must be explained, must be shared. If not, they don't get it. They are becoming more impatient and less curious.

"But I guess it's a worldwide phenomenon, not just in Malaysia. I might sound like an old man but people are not keen on reading anymore. They watch TV all the time. They don't even want to watch a TV show if the pace is slow," said the 30-year- old director.

Given the situation, Amir said he had to be satisfied just making a film that he is pleased with.

"The audience is important, but only those who are clever. It's OK if the rest of them don't like the film."

Amir may sound a bit self-conscious, with all his talk of intellectuality. And though, speaking on the sidelines of a digital film conference at the recent Asian Film Market & Conference here, he hopes the short film will "show the intellectual side of me", Amir is not an intellectual snob.

In fact, he is nice and sincere and is prone to laughter. He lavishly praised Eliana Eliana, a 2002 film by Indonesian director Riri Riza, saying the film was very impressive and "one of the best movies I've ever seen".

At another time he said he really wanted to direct music videos, "but nobody is offering" -- which was followed by laughter.

In Malaysia, Amir is known as a writer (newspaper columns, sociopolitical commentary on the Net, TV scripts, plays, books) with a witty, humorous and, of course, intellectual style. A contributor to the Malaysian print media since the age of 14, he earned the nickname the King of Irony from one publication.

As a filmmaker, he became a leader of the digital filmmaking movement with 2000's Lips to Lips, Malaysia's first digital-video feature, which he wrote himself.

The film was groundbreaking in many senses: its budget (about US$60,000, which is "cheap but still a lot"), format, distribution (never released commercially) and theme (a sardonic exploration of the relationship between sex and food).

"Lips to Lips is meant to be fun, funky, colorful and kinky. It was made with not a cent of public money, nor with the intention of ever submitting it to our famously censorious Censorship Board. "It is independent in all the important senses of the word," said Amir about the comedy, which has traveled to over a dozen film festivals worldwide, including in Hawaii, Fukuoka and France.

Among the scenes in the film is one of a female actor reading aloud from a traditional Malay cookbook as if aroused.

Many young Malaysian filmmakers are now going digital not only to save money, but also for the freedom of being able to bypass the censorship rules, which prohibit Malaysian films from dealing with sex, race, politics and religion.

A mixture of Islamic fundamentalism and authoritarianism even moves the Censorship Board to enforce an unusual variety of social taboos, from revealing chest hair to showing the underside of a car (it can lead to reckless driving).

This censorship, according to Amir, contributes to the worsening Malaysian film scene, which he said is like rubbish.

"It has always been the same over the past two years. There are only around 10 films per year and they are similar: starring singers whose albums have become hits, and the stories are based on the singers," he said.

There have been no more films like Layar Lara (Screen of Sorrow), which was released five years ago. Layar was a smart parody that really took on the Malaysian film scene, with its singer-stars and strict censorship.

"Filmmakers make a film like crackers: fast making and fast selling, but it doesn't last for long. They also live in their own world, don't bother to learn from other people's films," said Amir, who has a law degree but veered into filmmaking and took a short course in New York.

The Indonesian film scene, he said, is much better technically and content-wise.

"You have Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sand), which is cinematographically very impressive. And then there is Eliana Eliana and (director) Garin Nugroho's movies. I like all of Garin's movies. Malaysian filmmakers don't dare to make story- driven films. They are always based on stars, songs, action ... just like Bollywood."

The government does not offer much support either, he said. Besides the strict censorship, the government prefers to support foreign filmmakers who shoot their films in Malaysia, like Anna and The King and several Bollywood movies.

"Because the budgets (of foreign films) are big, unlike local films, the government benefits as well. The government chooses to be indifferent to its own children."

As a result, most of the work of young Malaysian filmmakers can only be seen by limited audiences or at foreign film festivals.

After Lips to Lips, Amir went on to make 6horts last year, which received critical praise and prizes at the Singapore Film Festival, the Cinemanila International Film Festival and the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, among others.

Besides Checkpoint the other five shorts that comprise 6horts are Lost, Friday, Mona, Kamunting and Pangyau. The shorts are jokingly called the Amir Muhammad Film Festival, through which you see Malaysia through Amir's eyes. All of the shorts are shot without actors, and three of them come with subtitles.

"I don't like my own voice," Amir said about the subtitles with a laugh.

"It's also a strategy to force people to read. We force them to read with their own voice, making it their own story. Because as we read, it's as if we are telling the story ourselves."

Amir is currently working on his second feature, a hybrid of fiction and documentary called The Big Durian, which is slated to premiere in April 2003. The film is about a surprising event in Kuala Lumpur back in 1987.

"It's sort of like Puisi Tak Terkuburkan (Unburied Poem), but not that serious," Amir said, referring to Garin Nugroho's film about an Acehnese poet.

Do Malaysian filmmakers still see Indonesian filmmakers as reference points?

"Not anymore because many Indonesian films are not screened in Malaysia. Only those tacky horror flicks, through video. Reference points come only through personal acquaintance," he said.

For the time being, with such obstacles, Amir is still opting for digital video format, for the low budget and also the artistic freedom.

"The important thing is creating a new audience. Hopefully the DV format can also become a stepping-stone for young filmmakers. Maybe many (filmmakers) will stay (with DV) as we don't have to give in to the wishes of producers and investors; we don't want to be cuffed."