Thursday, July 29, 2010

David Teo

Today I am highlighting an article that appeared in our sun newspaper today.
It is an exclusive interview with successful box office producer in Malaysia. One of the most memorable quote in this article is Selagi ada manusia,syaitan tak akan pupus (As long as there are humans, the devil will never fade away)

Title: Box-office king opens up

Film producer David Teo talks to BISSME S about his controversial appointment to the Finas board and more.


The Malaysian Film Producers Association recently sent a memorandum to the information, communications and culture minister over your appointment as Finas (National Film Development Corporation) board member. They see a conflict of interest as you are an active film-maker. What is your comment?

I was appointed three years ago. Why is the issue being brought up now? Why protest now? Why not three years ago? I am on the board as an adviser. I do not make any decisions. I am there to give them some advice after they have made their decisions. Before becoming a Finas board member, I had done 37 films and had several box-office hits. I had never taken any government grants to make my films.
My early years in the industry were not easy. My first three films were flops and I lost more than RM3 million. But I didn’t give up. I picked up the pieces. I didn’t resort to any kind of government loan to recover. My failures have taught me to be careful with my finances. I have always stood on my two feet and I am proud of it.
The only benefit I get being a board member is that each time I attend a Finas meeting, I am given a RM500 allowance. So where is the conflict of interest? There are producers who have taken government loans, which happen to be people’s money, to make films and they do not repay these loans. They claim they do not have the money but they live in big houses and drive luxury cars. Nobody points a finger at them.
I am also a member of the association. They could have approached me and discussed this issue. Instead, they held a press conference. But what upsets me most is that my appointment came from the minister. When they hold a protest like this, they are insulting him. Indirectly, they are telling him that he doesn’t know what he is doing. But he has been in the cabinet for many years and he has experience. So please give him some credit. Please trust him a little. He has the best interest of the local film industry at heart.
I feel certain quarters are using the association to attack me. They have their own agenda.

What is their agenda?

Selagi ada manusia, syaitan tak akan pupus (As long as there are humans, the devil will never fade away). When people see power and money, they get greedy … they get easily corrupt. People are envious of other people’s success. They also have their own tracks to cover ... Recently, I was asked to look into the government funds given to filmmakers. This is making some people nervous. Like I said earlier some people have been taking loans over loans and they have not repaid these loans, and they do not have any valid reasons.

Why did you accept the position to be a Finas board member?

One of my principles in life is that you must never be stingy with your wealth and your knowledge. If my movie was a box-office hit, I would not hesitate to give a bonus to my staff. I have done well as a producer and I wanted to share my experiences. So when the position came to me, it was a blessing in disguise. I was hoping that by sharing my experiences, I would be helping other filmmakers to be successful and helping the film industry to grow.

Will you resign to stop tongues wagging?

Why should I? I have done nothing wrong. I have not abused my powers. If you quit whenever a problem hits you, you will not be successful.
If you want to be successful and make changes, you must have perseverance. As long as the minister has faith in me, I will carry out my responsibility as a board member. If there is anybody who should resign, it is those people in the associations who have their own agenda. My conscience is clear.

There are also complaints you are in the appeals board of the censorship board.

The ministry appointed me to be on the appeals board. The appointment came from a different ministry (home). So you cannot assume that some kind of favouritism is going on here. So far I have not been called to make any decisions. They will only call me if a local movie has been banned and so far no local movie has been banned. So my expertise was not needed.
I believe the industry should be happy that there is someone from the film industry on the censorship board. At least I could persuade them to draw up rules that benefit us ... That will allow us to be creative. I think some people are jealous because they cannot sit on the board. So they are angry with me.


There are people who say that your movies are not of high quality. What is your comment?

Only certain individuals say that. My movie, Adnan Sempit (shown early this year), made more than RM7 million at the box office and it is the highest grossing local movie this decade. More than 10 million have watched the movie. If my movies are so bad, people will not fork out money to watch them.
I have a team of people who monitor websites. From what I have gathered, 90% of patrons are happy with the movies I have produced. It is impossible to satisfy everyone. I produce movies for the masses not selected individuals. Now my brand (his production house, Metrowealth Movies Production) is established. Whenever people see my brand on a film, they know they are going to be entertained.
I always have five-year plans to improve the quality of my movies. I have been in the industry for 10 years. The first five years I put my full attention on making money. The following five years I put my full attention on improving the quality of my movies. Over the years I have invested in expensive cameras and film sets so the quality of my movies would improve too.
There are award-winning film-makers who make two films in 10 years. But in my 10 years in the film industry I made 47 films. I have created many jobs in the entertainment industry.
I have created many new faces in front of the camera as well as behind the camera. I have given many young talents a chance to sit in the director’s chair. I have done a lot for the film industry. But not everyone sees my contributions. They are too busy pointing out my weaknesses.

Some people say you are not passionate about films and arts, and films are only money-making machines to you.

I am not one of those producers who sit in air-conditioned offices, give money to their directors and let others run the show. I look into the production side of my movies from the sound editing to the posters. I do all this because I am passionate about the films I produce. But I also understand the importance of the money. I do not live in a dunia khayalan (fantasy world). The reality is you need money to survive. You need money to make a movie. You need money to last long in the film industry.
I want Metrowealth Movies Production to be around for a long time. I hope I am still producing movies even after your hair has turned grey and you have retired as a reporter.
Look at Shaw Brothers. They (the brothers) are no longer around. But Shaw Brothers is still producing movies. I want to do the same. I hope when I am not around, Metrowealth is still producing movies.

Shaw Brothers literally started the local film industry. Are you the new Shaw Brothers?

That is not for me to say. (Laughs)

Do you face any discrimination because you are a successful Chinese film producer in a Malay dominated industry?

In the early years when my movies were making money, I heard that some people had said: "We must stop this orang asing (foreigner) from taking over the local Malay film industry." Nowadays, I hear less of this kind of nonsense. But not everyone in the industry hates me. They have come to accept me as one of them.
Only a small section of them still hate me for being in the film industry. It is not because I am Chinese. It is because they cannot accept their failures and digest my success.
I am a Chinese with a Malay soul. I am more Malay than most of my Malay friends. I grew up in a Malay kampung (Segamat, Johor). I had more Malay friends than Chinese friends. Even some of my Malay friends will jokingly say I am not David Teo but Daud bin David (laughs). When I first entered the film industry, many of my friends, including my Malay friends, told me that I had to be prepared for anything because there would always be people jealous of my success.

What changes would you like to see in the film industry?

We must always create new and young talent. Only then will the industry grow, prosper and become more competitive. That is why I always give a chance to new talents to direct, act and go behind the camera.

Where will we see you in five years?

I have produced 47 titles in 10 years in the film industry. I hope in five years’ time I will have 100 film titles under my banner. That is not a difficult dream to achieve.


Tell us about your childhood?

I come from a poor family. My father was a small-time contractor and had seven mouths to feed. He used to make kampung houses and most of his clients were Malays. I came to Kuala Lumpur to get my diploma in architecture to become a draughtsman. But I didn’t have enough money to complete my studies. So I went into direct selling. The first product I sold was tinted films.

What made you get involved in the Malay film industry?

I was involved in direct selling (Malay traditional medicines) and I had many agents under me. Then I heard there was good money to be made in movies. That is when I entered the film industry. But my first three films (Syukur 21, No Problem and Mendam Berahi) were flops. I lost about RM3.7 million. But I did not want to quit as a failure. I was determined that I should make a profit even if I wanted to say goodbye to the film industry. It was then I learnt from my mistakes and changed the style of my film-making.
Now I am happier as film producer. I get a certain satisfaction when I manage to entertain my audience. Last year, I had to give up my direct-selling business and put all my attention on my film production house. As a film producer, I feel I could leave a legacy. My legacy will be my films.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Anwar Ridhwan

Today I am highlighting an interview with Malaysian National Laureate who speaks about the literature scene in Malaysia.
The article appeared in the sun dated Oct 8 2009

Headline : A Man Of Letters

Datuk Dr Mohd Anuar Rethwan, or Anwar Ridhwan, was announced the 10th Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate) last month. The Dean of the Writing Faculty of National Heritage, Culture and Arts Academy spoke to Bissme S about his dreams and hopes for the Malay literature scene.

Some people felt you have not produced enough literary work to deserve the Sasterawan Negara title. What is your comment?
(Deputy Prime Minister) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (who chaired the panel that selected this year’s Sasterawan Negara) answered this question perfectly. He said the panel was more impressed with the quality of my work.

What is your opinion of the Malay literature scene and what kind of changes would you like to see taking place?
I am happy that a few young writers such as Faisal Tehrani, Nisah Haron, Mawar Shafie and SM Zakir are still producing serious literature but I would like to see more youngsters doing so.

Why do you think youngsters stay away from writing serious literature?
That is the influence from the popular culture. Today, people want recognition fast. People want more royalty. So they prefer to produce popular rather than serious literature. When you write serious literature, you have to be patient before recognition comes your way.
It is also related to our school system, our reading habits and the level of discussion in society. All of them have not come to an intellectual level where it stimulates good writing. So it is difficult to get writers who can think seriously about life, people, the environment and culture.

So what is wrong with our school system?
It is exam-orientated. Students memorise to get better grades. They use less of their creativity to discuss issues. We have to move away from being too exam-orientated. I believe the Education Ministry realised this mistake and is seriously looking into rectifying the situation.

You are opposed to teaching maths and science in English. So what do you have against English?
I have nothing against English or any other language. I have always said the Malays must not only learn English but also learn Arabic, Mandarin and Tamil. Then, they must try to master other languages such as French and Spanish.
I believe Malaysians should learn as many languages as they can and it will be good for them. But in any country, there must be one national language that is used by everybody ... used in the school system ... used to unite people.
In many rural areas, many students cannot understand English. So I think it is better for lessons to be taught in their mother tongue and national language.
Most people think I am ultra Malay because I fight for this cause. I fight for the Malay language because it is our national language and it should have a proper place in our society. A few months ago, I read in Harakah that my chances to get the Sasterawan Negara title was slim because I was constantly criticising the government over the teaching of maths and science in English. But as a writer I felt I have to express my opinions, no matter what the consequences.

Why do you prefer the term Bahasa Melayu instead of Bahasa Malaysia?
Bahasa Melayu has been around for a thousand years. I do not see any valid reason for changing the term. Look at English. The language has gone into many countries. You do not hear the language being called differently. You do not hear English being called Australian English, German English or New Zealand English. It is still known as English, no matter where it goes.
The term Bahasa Malaysia was coined more for political reasons. I think the government copied what was happening in Indonesia. They (The Indonesian government) called Bahasa Melayu Bahasa Indonesia for political reasons. They wanted to use the term to unite their people as their country has a huge geographical area and has more than a hundred ethnic groups. But we are not so huge and our ethnic groups are not so diverse. Therefore we do not need to change Bahasa Melayu to Bahasa Malaysia.

Why do you think there are so few non-Malays in the Malay literary scene?
If you want the non-Malays to master the language, it has to start from school. You must be playful with the language ... You must be creative with the language, so that students of all races would like to express their emotions, their feelings and their intellectual thoughts in Bahasa Melayu. But this is not happening in schools.
Certain individuals such as Uthaya Sankar SB, Jong Chian Lai and Lim Swee Tin have taken an extra effort to master this language of their own accord and I applaud their effort.

Some people say there is discrimination and as a result the non-Malays prefer not to dabble in the Malay literary scene. What is your comment?
I do not believe any discrimination exists. I was with Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka (DBP) for more than 30 years and we have organised many literary contests. We read all works that came our way regardless of race, religion and ethnicity. Lim and Jong (a well-known Chinese poet and novelist respectively who write in Malay) got The S.E.A. Write Award (Southeast Asian Writers Award), and all the judges in the panels were Malays. DBP even formed a inter-ethnic writing committee to work with non-Malay writers.

You say there is no discrimination. Yet no non-Malay has won a Sasterawan Negara title. Why?
There is a movement by Uthaya Sankar SB (a non-Malay writer who writes Malay short stories) to nominate Lim Swee Tin for the next Sasterawan Negara. It is not impossible for a non-Malay who writes in the national language to get this title. We have many talented writers and we just have to wait our turn.

Serious literature from India and China has been gaining international recognition. Do you think Malay literature can appeal to the international market?
We have very good Malay literary works. But producing good work is not enough. You need to translate these into English and other foreign languages, and most important of all, you need to promote and advertise these works. We have been translating some works but we have not been promoting these books aggressively outside the country. Mark Twain said, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

Some people feel DBP is not playing an active role in promoting Malay literature. What is your comment?
To be fair, DBP is trying to be effective. But most of their staff are young and inexperienced. I believe they should work with outside publishers so the quality of their books can be improved.
They should not only work with Malay publishers and distributors. They must also work with Chinese and Indian publishers as long as these publishers are willing to publish books in Malay.
I have worked with DBP and I know the responsibility put on DBP is very heavy. They must have good in-house training for their staff. They must also learn to work fast. When they get a manuscript they must publish it within three to six months. But this is not the case. Some writers have to wait from one to two years to see their work published.
The ministry is going to abolish PPSMI (teaching of maths and science in English) from 2012. So DBP has to prove it can be an efficient book publisher and produce many science and technology books in Malay.
The government is indirectly telling DBP: “Look, we are giving you a second chance so you better deliver the goods, otherwise we have to go back to teaching maths and science in English.’”

People say we are not a reading society. Do you agree?
Yes. Reading is not cultivated in our society. In Europe, they have a long reading history before pop culture and electronic media entered the scene and dominated their minds. So the reading habit has been deeply rooted in their souls.
In this society, our reading history is rather short before pop culture and the electronic media entered the scene and dominated our minds. So the reading habit has not been deeply rooted in our souls. The reading habit must be cultivated from home. If the parents are not reading, how can you expect the children to be readers?

What is your advice for young writers?
I hate advising young writers. But if you want to be a serious writer, you must read a lot. The writing techniques are always changing, becoming more modern and complicated. A writer must always keep up with the changing writing styles. Most important of all, the writer must always be alert and sensitive to phenomena in society, which can be projected in literary works.

Do you believe writers should write stories with the aim of changing the world into a better place?
Yes. But literature alone is not enough to change the world. It is just one of the elements. There are other factors involved, from political situations to the education system which need to change if we want a better world.

What is your main message in your work?
I try to defend the positive culture and the good values we inherited from our ancestors. With the emerging global cultural tsunami, positive culture and good values are fast disappearing from our society.

Tell us more about yourself and how you got the reading habit?
I was born in Sungai Besar, Selangor. It is a remote place. Only in the 70’s my town had electricity and piped water. My father was a farmer. I had four brothers and a sister. I am the youngest in the family. My brothers read a lot and my mother loved reading syair (Malay poems). That is where I got my reading habit from.

Did you always want to be a novelist?
I wanted to be a writer since my primary school days. It began when I was in the school library, looking at all the books on the shelves. I said to myself if I write a good book, it would be in the library forever – to be borrowed and read. It is like I am leaving behind a legacy.

What do you think of the 1Malaysia campaign?
1Malaysia is a good concept for our society. But so far, it seems that the jargon is only highlighting inter-ethnic integration – which is of course vital in our multiracial society. I would like to see the concept cover multiracial collective effort in creating a more civil society where the arena of uncoerced collective action revolve around shared interests, purposes and values – that can be reflected in our education, political, social, economic system and so on.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Yasmin Ahmad

This week I will feature a talented film maker who has left us. On July 25 it will be one year she has gone from our life. The article appeared in theSun newspaper on June 1, 2006

The article
Suggested Headline: All about feelings

Yasmin Ahmad, who shot to prominence with her touching Petronas commercials, has been very much in the news lately as her latest films, Sepet and Gubra, have drawn a great deal of controversy. It began when a producer was unhappy that Sepet was adjudged the Best Film at the Malaysian Film Festival 2005 over the RM20 million production, Puteri Gunung Ledang. Then a Malay daily ran a series of articles that discredited Sepet. A forum on TV saw two of the panellists criticising Yasmin and calling her films pencemar budaya (culture polluters). Hurt, the director is not submitting Gubra for this year's Malaysian Film Festival. But she is not discouraged and will continue to make films - works with feeling. The talented Yasmin shares with BISSME S. how she wishes people would just see the love and compassion in her films.

theSun: What is the message you try to impart in your films?

A film doesn't have to have a message. How I decide whether I like a film or not, is whether the film has feelings.
Feelings don't just mean tears and great melodramas - which my films are filled with. Feelings are also about laughter, compassion, joy, sadness, disappointment, fear and relief.

So you put more emphasis on feelings than messages?

Yes. Nothing intellectual, nothing rational. Just feelings. In my movies, I want people to feel love and compassion. I want people to choose them to the opposite - no love and no compassion.

What is the biggest limitation you face as a filmmaker in Malaysia?

My own limitation. I often feel I am not good enough.

Why do you think you are not good enough?

When I watch old films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Billy Wilder, Satyajit Ray, and early films of Stanley Kubrick, I realise their films are so much better and they were made so long ago. They made me feel a kind of nothing. My biggest limitation in this country and anywhere else is myself. I feel I have a long way to go.

What do you think of the censorship board?

It has begun to improve greatly. The passing of Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (LKT) and Gubra led me to think the censorship board is now headed by someone much more level-headed and much more understanding of films.

But LKT was banned.

It wasn't the censorship (board) that clamped down on LKT. It was the home ministry. In one clean sweep, some ministry has declared Lembaga Penapis Filem (LPF) is nothing. Why have LPF when you are not going to respect its decision?
You appointed the people and you pay their salary and you completely disregard their decision. As a filmmaker I feel this ban is the biggest joke in the film industry.

Have you watched LKT and what do you think of it?

LKT is a lovely film that doesn't glorify Chin Peng in any way. It is a film where in the end, it shows that ideology has nothing to do with it and people are the product of their environment.
Chin Peng was born in a very violent environment - with a lot of fighting between freedom fighters and British colonialists and then the Japanese.
He came out from this violent environment and became violent himself. The film doesn't forgive him for what he did. In the end, the communists collaborated with the British to oust the Japanese.
People they are against, they collaborated with. It is not about ideology at all. It is about power and it is about economics more than anything else. It puts things in perspective.

What do you think of all the negative comments that have been said of Lelaki Komunis Terakhir?

There is a reason why Special Branch didn't have a problem with the film. There is a reason why LPF didn't have a problem with the film. I hope it will be shown. It puts things in perspective. It is funny and it has musical breaks which are hilarious.

Are you afraid that your next film will suffer the same fate as LKT?

I am only afraid of God. Even then, it is not enough. I should fear God even more. My parents had taught me only to fear God. Like Chin Peng, I am a product of my environment. Though I fear for my next film, I just continue making films. The fate of my film is really in God's hands.

Recently there was a forum on TV which hinted your movies Sepet and Gubra mencemarkan budaya (polluted the culture). What is your comment on the show?

I didn't see the programme when it was on air. But somebody showed me a recording. I can understand why so many people are outraged by it. It is not so much the comments on my films. It is the racist comments that they passed which I am very surprised that nobody has rapped their knuckles for it.
I am surprised nobody came down on a forum which everybody watched and which was bluntly racist and clearly unsettling for society. I was shocked by the racial slur. I was sure the authorities were coming down on them but they didn't.

Do you think your films mencemarkan budaya?
If they can define what budaya means, I might state an opinion. Do they mean Budaya Melayu?

I think they did mean Budaya Melayu.

The forum was conducted by people who were dressed like Western people. I wear Melayu bajus more often than they do. I don't understand what this Budaya Melayu really means. I have heard some people say Budaya Melayu is budaya lemah lembut (gentle).
But I find the Japanese are more lemah lembut than the Melayu. We don't hold the candle for lemah lembut. In fact, the forum itself proved, given the things people said, the champions of Budaya Melayu are not so lemah lembut, so what budaya are they championing?

Has the forum discouraged you from making films?

I am making another film. Perhaps it has not discouraged me.

Some say in your films, you like to put down the Malay race?

Actually, in my films I put down and I put up everybody. If you think about it, in Sepet the Chinese family is quite loveless and the Malay family is full of love. If I were Chinese I could say Yasmin was putting down the Chinese.
We see what we want to see. If you draw four dots on a piece of paper, some people can draw a square, some people will draw a cross.
I really don't think I was putting down the Malays. I am Malay, why should I put down my people? There are a lot of Malays who have said in my website as well as in Kakiseni that it is ridiculous to describe my films as pencemar budaya. I think there are only a few Malays who have a problem with it. I am not like them, therefore I don't really understand them. Maybe, I am stupid, that is (the) reason I don't see why they feel that way.

Tell me more about your new movie.

It is called Mukhsin. It tries to examine one very common human condition - how (the relationship of) two very good friends of the opposite sex goes awry when one of them starts having romantic feelings for the other.
It always fascinates me why something as beautiful as friendship can be destroyed by something as beautiful as love. You would think two beautiful things put together and you will get even more beautiful things. But sometimes, you don't.

Have you experienced such feelings?

Of course. I think everybody has been through this. You are good friends with somebody and suddenly you develop romantic feelings for them. Or they develop romantic feelings for you and things go horribly wrong.
With my husband though, it worked very well. We started as friends and we fell in love.

Give theSun a sneak preview - what can we expect from your (new) movie?

There is a scene in the film where somebody mentions the phrase Pencemar Budaya (Both of us laugh loudly.)

One film personality said Yasmin should be stopped from making films. Why do you think there is so much hostility against you? Are you afraid of your harsh critics?

I really don't understand about this hostility. My films are not big box-offices and they didn't steal business from other people's films. For some reason, some people feel threatened by my films. I just think they are being silly. Like I said earlier, I am not afraid of anyone, except Allah. I remembered being told If everybody joins hands to do good for you they cannot do any more good than Allah will allow them to. If everybody joins hands to do bad to you, they cannot do any more bad than Allah will allow them to.

It is said Gubra will not participate in this year's Malaysian Film Festival. Is that true?

Yes. That is true. They have made it so painful for me for having won last year. Despite some accusations against me, I don't make films for awards. Someone once said: All an artist needs to know about awards is that Mozart never won one.
But when I meet with such hostility, many people from the mainstream (movie industry) called me to (say) go ahead and carry on your work.

How long will you stay away from the local award ceremony?

For this time. Next year, God knows.

Some people say you can't take criticism and that is why you pulled out from the Malaysian Film Festival. Your comment?

It is not the criticism that hurts. It is the weight in which the criticism was dished out. It is so constant, unending, relentless and unclamped by the authorities. It is clear victimisation. I am not going to sit here and play the game. It is not my game. As my make-up artist on the set of Gubra said, they are beating the drums, let them dance. I do not want to dance. I just want to make films.

Do you think you can handle criticism?

I don't mind people saying my film Sepet was not good enough. But who said it, annoys me. It is not criticism but where it comes from (that) annoys me. By God's blessing, the film went (on) to win the Best Asian Award at the Tokyo Film Festival and the chairman of the jury was Zhang Yimou.
It matters to me (that) he likes it. Nobody can handle criticism. It is bound to affect you. But I am still making films. Whenever I get extreme criticism, I go to Rotten Tomatoes websites. Even brilliant films like All About My Mother and Talk To Her get good and bad reviews. What is Sepet.

Where do you get inspiration?

From real life. From people. Only people interest me. How people handle love and hate and how people choose between the two.

What is the best compliment and worst criticism you have received about your films?

The best compliment is when people say my movies touched them and when they say they see people of different races in the cinema watching my movies. The worst, of course, have been so many and the worst insult to me is that my movies are pencemar budaya.

Some people say you love to push boundaries. For example, in Gubra you have a scene where a bilal touches a dog.

I don't think a bilal touching a dog was pushing the boundaries. I think casting stones at dogs for no apparent reason is pushing boundaries. So my film was in protest of people who pushed the boundaries. I don't do films just to push the boundaries, I just want to tell stories.

What is the greatest misconception people have of Yasmin Ahmad?

That I pushed boundaries. (laughs) ... That I am a rebel. But I am not.

One newspaper has been writing a series of unflattering articles about you. Are you sceptical about the media and journalists now?

Journalism is like other professions. There are good and bad ones (journalists). You would think every doctor is a good person because they are supposed to save lives. But there are doctors who prescribe medicine that is not needed. They tend to gain by this.

Who are the filmmakers you admire and why?

Charlie Chaplin. Because he managed to mix great humour with great human drama. Satyajit Ray for humanity in his films and how he achieved this with small budgets. Pedro Almodovar. Because he always features people who are outcasts and unforgivable and found redeeming qualities in them. I am impressed how forgiving he is of those whom society has not forgiven. Takishi Kitano. Because of the ease he hides the emotions and violence with minimum cuts and minimum scripting.

Any local directors you admire?

Ho Yuhang. Because he portrays the section of Chinese society that does not drive Mercedes-Benz or have a lot of money. He focuses on the poorer Chinese and believe me, they exist! He focuses on them in a very controlled and dispassionate way. He shows me a world I have not seen before.
Osman Ali, because he is not afraid to be sentimental. In the commercial world I admire Kamal Mustapha. He, of course, taught me practically everything I know about films. Contrary to popular belief, he directed most of the Petronas commercials and not me. I just wrote most of the scripts and he encouraged me to direct some of them. I admire him greatly.

Why do you think your movies are so controversial and make people uncomfortable?
I really don't know.

You must must have some idea.

(After thinking for a while) In many local films, it is very clear-cut, bad people (are) always bad and the good people always good.
Which is to me anyway, completely unfaithful to real life. In real life, good people have (some) bad in them and bad people have some good in them.
My film Sepet features someone like Orked who reads the Quran and prays and wears baju kurung. She holds the hand of a Chinese boy. Some people wonder how she can read the Quran and pray, and yet fall in love with a Chinese boy.
People don't understand I didn't make Orked out to be an angel. People want my films to feature good people as always good and bad people as always bad.
The person who said in the forum she (Orked) can't be a good Muslim if she goes out with a Chinese boy and holds his hands, I find it very silly.
Gubra shows prostitutes are not all villains. She may be bad for selling her body, but she is a good mother and takes care of her son. The grey area makes people uncomfortable.
We have been showing films and dramas where people are exemplary citizens. Society has not improved. Handbag-snatching is at an all-time high, child rape is at an all-time high and drug addiction has not abated.
Perhaps, featuring people as exemplary citizens has not worked. Perhaps understanding their contradiction might work better.

Some say you only explore human emotions in your movies and you are not a versatile director. What do you say to that?

To be told I have a particular trend in my films is not an insult to me. All the directors I admired have consistent themes in their movies.
People have asked me, why don't I make a war or sci-fi film and prove that I am a versatile filmmaker. I never went into films to be a versatile director. I went into it to examine emotions. If you want versatility, go for somebody else.

Do you get offended when people say you can never get away from Petronas commercials and that your films are long extensions of these commercials?

Not all. Petronas commercials are the most popular commercials in the history of the advertising industry in Malaysia. I would rather my films are long Petronas ads than long detergent ads.

Every director has a dream project. What is yours?

I want to make a film on Dr M. But I am not wise and knowledgeable enough to make this film. It has to be in the hands of Kamal Mustapha.

What is the best moment in your life?

When Sepet won the top award at the 27th Creteil International Women Director Festival in France last year. My parents came on stage with me to get the award. They were so happy. Every time I make my parents happy, I feel God's pleasure.

How would you like to be remembered?

It is not so important to me to be remembered. Ego and arrogance are things that God doesn't approve of. I like people to remember the love and compassion that is so prevalent in my films. Some people choose not to see it. They see other things.

Some directors love it when their movies are controversial. What about you?

It surprises me that my movies are controversial. It surprises me that people are shocked by a Malay girl in a baju kurung going to a party. Going to a party is the not worst thing that a Malay girl in baju kurung has done. My films are so tame compared to real life.
It surprises me when I show a scene of an elderly couple very much in love; people call it obscene.
But, almost on a weekly basis, they watch Malay dramas where husbands betray their wives, marry more than one, shout at their wives and beat them. And this is not shocking?

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Today I am highlight an interview where the top guy at Finas, a local film body
talks about their role in improving the film industry in Malaysia. The article appears in the sun on May 20. 2010.

Headline: Scripting box-office success

Finas director-general Mohd Mahyidin Mustakim fields questions from BISSME S on our film industry.

There is a perception that Finas (the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia) is not doing much for the Malaysian film industry. What is your comment?

It depends on who you ask? Those who read the entertainment columns are aware of its events, activities and contributions.

What is Finas’s main function?

We are a development and regulatory body; we issue licences for production, distribution and exhibitions. In 2005, the government launched the National Film Policy where several strategies were drawn up to develop the film industry. We have diligently carried out a lot of programmes to achieve this target.

Tell us about some of these programmes?

We are focusing on developing human resources. We want to increase the skills in the film industry. Since 2005, we have conducted more than 40 weekly training courses every year covering most aspects of filmmaking. Every year we organise nine master classes where we bring experts from overseas. These foreign tutors have at least 20 years of experience. We work closely with the foreign embassies to identify experts who are qualified and experienced. Even established local film talents such as Afdlin Shauki, Adlin Aman, Sofia Jane, Ramlie and Erra Fazira have attended the master classes.
Finas has been building a post-production facility in stages. We need to buy a few more software programs, then we will have a complete post-production facility. By the end of the year our filmmakers will not need to go to Bangkok or India for their post-production work. We also offer a cheaper rate compared to our competitors.
Since our infrastructure is new, we have the latest technology so our facilities can be considered as one of the best in the world. (He laughs)

Do you think our movies are far behind in terms of box-office collection?

I do not agree. Everyone says Malaysia is a small market. Yet in this small market, a local film (Adnan Sempit) got RM7.66 million at the box office in February. In the past, the local films that got RM1-2 million at the box office were considered big successes. But of late, some of the local films are getting RM3-6 million at the box office. Local average collection of some Hollywood films are between RM1 million and RM2 million at the box office. Only the big guns like Spiderman and Transformer get RM15-20 million.
Last year, local movies generated RM50.854 million at the box office while in 2008 local movies generated RM43.927 million. This is a big increment. Since the launch of the National Film Policy in 2005, the box-office collection for local films has jumped from RM25 million to RM50 million last year. That is a 100% jump in five years. It is a wonderful achievement.
This has encouraged producers to make more films. In 2005, we had 21 films and now we are making more than 30 films. You can expect more films to be made in future. I feel the box-office collection for local films will only get bigger because cinema chains are growing. Three years ago we had 75 cinemas and 350 screens in Malaysia. Now we have 98 cinemas and 550 screens. There are plans to extend the cinema chains to rural areas and this will improve the box-office collection for the local movies.

Some young filmmakers feel Finas does not help them in marketing and promoting their films.

We support them with their film projects or when they want to make short films. We provide funds and assistance to them to participate in foreign film festivals, assist them with flight costs and accommodation, to attend training and seminars and other skills enhancement programmes and activities. Of course you cannot expect to make millions out of short films. But these short films give you a chance to prove that you can be a filmmaker … a director.
Young directors and producers can come to Finas for assistance and funds and our doors are always open. We have given them a lot of support in the past and continue to do so. But you can’t expect us to do everything. We have talents who tell us to get them jobs in television. But that is not our job scope. Our role is to support you, not to spoon-feed you. If I am doing the marketing, promotion and getting you the jobs, I might as well become the producer.

Is Finas doing anything to push Malaysian films overseas?

In the last few years, we have been going to international film festivals and markets selling Malaysian productions including animations and documentaries. Feature films are more difficult to sell. But our documentaries and animations have met some success and the response from foreign buyers is encouraging.
Recently, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa managed to get seven to eight overseas distributions. We took the producers (KRU production Sdn Bhd) to Cannes and America. We have come out with a new strategy to get our films shown overseas.

What is the strategy?

We will co-produce movies with foreign production houses to gain access to overseas markets. When the movies are made, we have a ready market. We are looking at some production houses in Australia.

What is one achievement that you are really proud of?

Almost every year, we received more than 80 foreign applications who want to do documentaries in Malaysia. I was wondering why our filmmakers are not cashing on this and making documentaries. I also find that our filmmakers are making documentaries on a tight budget. They have no choice but to compromise on the quality. But in 2007 we initiated a programme where our filmmakers could work together with established channels such as Discovery and National Geographic to make documentaries. Soon other established channels also joined the bandwagon. With better budgets and more experienced guidance, the level of our documentaries has improved tremendously.

There is a strong perception that Finas only helps Malay filmmakers. What is your comment?

Historically, the film industry in Malaysia is a Malay film industry. (The first Malay film, Laila Majnun, was made in 1933 by Singapore-based Motilal Chemical Company).
Some non-Malay producers are not aware of what Finas can offer. The basic thing a producer requires is funding and our funding is open to all races. Dana Pembangunan Seni Filem dan Multimedia gives funding up to RM50,000 to young and new filmmakers to make films and helped filmmakers to take their films to international film festivals. This funding has been going on for the last ten years and to date we have given more than RM6 million in funding to young filmmakers.
We do not look at the colour of your skin when we give out the funding. We only look at your proposals/projects and your body of work. We helped many non-Malay filmmakers such as Tan Chui Mui, Ho Yuhang, Lina Tan and James Lee with their film projects and to attend or participate in international film festivals.
For the Dana Skim Pinjaman Film Cereka, it doesn’t say the funding is only given to Malay films. In January, the government launched the RM200 million Dana Industri Kreatif that is open to all Malaysians.
We also have the Skim Wajib Tayang where it is mandatory for the cinemas to screen local films and they cannot take down the local movies from their venues for at least 14 days. (Unless that local movie fails and ticket sales show a below 15% occupancy of the hall). You have to apply for this scheme three months before your movie hits the cinemas. But not many non-Malay productions use this service.

Why do you think this perception exists? Why do you think non-Malay productions believe Finas is designed to help Malay filmmakers?

There is a Malay saying Tak kenal tak cinta (If you do not know someone, you will not love him). As long as it is a Malaysian-made production, we will try to help you. Perhaps, these facts only appear in the Malay newspapers and as a result the non-Malay filmmakers are not aware of our services.

What is the biggest misconception people have about Finas?

When local movies get banned, people point at us. But we have nothing to do with the Censorship Board. We are in different ministries. The board is with the Home Ministry while we are under the Information, Communication and Culture Ministry.

But when a movie is banned, Finas keeps silent. Shouldn’t it be helping them?

We do assist the producer. But we must also be mindful of our duties and not step on other people’s toes and jurisdiction. Censorship is everywhere even in the United Kingdom. To be fair, our censorship board has become liberal in the last few years. In the past, we could not make horror movies. This changed in 2004 when Shuhaimi Baba made Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam.
Recently, the board met our filmmakers and came out with better guidelines.Some filmmakers feel the censorship board’s strict rules hinder creativity. For example if you portray Mat Rempits and gay characters, they have to repent or die at the end of movie.
Unless you are shooting porn, you will not face much problems with the censorship board. You need to be creative and work around the rules. Look at what KRU productions is doing. They make a film about a mermaid (Duyung) and a man with superpowers (Cicak Man).

Some believe the development of the film industry is at the bottom of the government’s priority list. Is this true?

That is a misconception. If that was true, the government would not have created the RM200 million Dana Industri Kreatif last year. The prime minister would not have personally launched the Dana recently. All these elements are a testimony of the government’s sincere commitment to the development of the film industry and the creative industry.

Some people think Finas should be privatised to run more efficiently. Do you think it should be privatised?

I cannot comment on this. I am not supposed to talk about government policy.

Some say the people who run Finas are not passionate about films and arts. It is just another job to them. Do you agree?

Attitudes are changing in Finas. There is also a change in culture. In the past, Finas was just a regulatory body. With the National Film Policy in 2005, Finas was given a more prominent role.
Funds are given to us to build new studios. Research and development entered the picture. The staff in Finas are given better training. The government looked for an outside player (not from the government bodies) to run Finas. They wanted someone with film experience. That is how I came into the picture. If we were not passionate about our jobs, we would not have carried out all those activities that benefit the film industry. All projects and programmes for the development of the industry are carried out after consultation and input from industry players and associations.

Tell us more about yourself?

I worked with an oil company. After ten years, I left and worked in a family-owned film production company. I worked there for ten years before holding this post. I have been executive producer for six films. I was also the secretary for Malaysian Film Producers Association.

What was the biggest change you have brought to Finas?

I found decision-making in Finas was slow. I have speeded-up this process.

Malaysians prefer to watch commercial films. As a result, Malaysian art movies have a hard time at the box office. What is Finas doing to change this trend?

The first challenge is to get Malaysians to watch Malaysian movies regardless of whether they are art or commercial films. Malaysians are more interested to watch foreign movies. Ninety per cent of Malaysian films are Malay films. Even the elite Malays are not watching Malay films.
We have started a programme called Merakyatkan Film Malaysia three years ago. On the last Saturday of each month, a classic Malay film will be shown at Coliseum cinema for free. There are 700 seats in the cinema hall and often the movies are played to a full house. We even brought some veteran artists who starred in these films to the cinema.
Movie fans get to meet them and get their autographs. We hope this will encourage people to watch local movies. We have even formed film clubs, Kelab Pencinta Film Malaysia, in secondary schools and universities. There are about 58 clubs in Malaysia, and one each in London and Melbourne.
We provide a home theatre system to each of club which has to show two Malaysian films a month. In that way, we are instilling a love for Malaysian movies especially among our youths. We even send the DVDs of Malaysian movies to the clubs in London and Melbourne. To date, we have more than 6,000 members.

What is your view of local films?

In the past, we were making slapstick, comedies and romances. But in recent years, we have been making movies of different genres. That is good sign.

What is your hope for the industry?

I would like to see more investment, professionalism and key players in the film industry. Right now a big number of people come into the industry and start a film but they cannot finish the film because they run out of funds. Then they start looking for money. This is not healthy. There is a small pool of technical people and actors. We got to expand that and only then we will have variety.
Our producers are making films for the local market and then trying to take these films into the international market. This mindset has to change. They have to make movies with an international audience in mind and show them at the local market. Then, they will be more successful in getting their films screened internationally. It is time to have bigger dreams.

What kinds of films do you like?

I like most films except for gory horror films. My personal favourites are movies that emphasise technology and special effects.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Alfian Saat: I Love My Country, I Hate My Country

Today I am highlighting an interview that has appeared in theSun recently (July 1, 2010). The person in the spotlight is Alfian Saat, an award winning poet and playwright from Singapore. He talks about his relationship with his own country. What I like best about the article is the headline : I love My Country I Hate My Country. But the headline was not my idea. The full credit should go the editorial team of the sun particularly my sub editor Ravi. Any way enough talking! Now let me present you the Alfian Saat's interview

Headline : I Love My Country, I Hate My Country
Award-winning Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at talks to BISSME S about writing and his love-hate relationship with his homeland.

What are some of the challenges you face as a writer in Singapore?

Where do I start? Some of the challenges that we face are universal. It is difficult to make a living and a career out of writing and publishing in Singapore. For a country of 4.5 million people, I believe that there are fewer than 10% who are active readers. From that percentage, even fewer pick up and read works written locally. Readership is a challenge. We don’t have a reading culture. If you look at the bestseller lists, they are works, in a sense, already successfully and globally marketed, like Harry Potter. A lot of self-help books reach the bestseller list. That happens to be the reading diet of the Singapore population.

Why is this the reading pattern?

I think it comes from this idea that any kind of reading should be sort of instrumentalist, which means that you don’t read for pleasure alone. You read for some kind of edification. You read for a purpose, like improving your life. I find self-help books strange and presumptuous, trading on the idea that you can actually prescribe certain things for every single individual.
I think we are a complex people and I believe in us as individuals. I don’t think one self-help book is going to have the one size fits all solution. I must say in terms of theatre, it is a little better because you are not competing with international works. We are able to make inroads when it comes to theatre.
Of course (Singapore’s) film-makers and writers who are producing literature are facing stiff competition from Hollywood and pulp fiction paperbacks from other parts of the world. We are also competing against books by people who won the Booker prize or who are Nobel laureates. There is an attitude among Singapore readers who will say: ‘You have not won some international award, why should I read you?’

Are you not happy as a Singaporean?

Yes (we laugh). But I have to qualify this. It is unhappiness, an agitation, which I think is a source of a lot of creative energy. It is not a paralysing kind of unhappiness. It is an unhappiness, I think, that compels me to try to figure out certain questions. What it means to be a Singaporean … nationhood, belonging, ethnicity and identity. I hope it is not just something that ends up being a kind of involuted, armchair critic kind of complaining. I am, of course, unhappy.
Picking up a copy of Straits Times in Singapore can ruin your morning. You wonder whether they really had to report on the ministerial speech at a community centre.
It is just rehashing the same thing you have heard for the last four decades. It is so pro-government. The Opposition is always portrayed in an unflattering light.
But it doesn’t take much to read between the lines. Obviously, I am not happy with the situation. I feel as if I am not getting real access to the real information.

From your writings, one feels you faced some discrimination as a Singapore Malay?

I have been a beneficiary of the system. It is not as if I am a Malay, I am denied, like say, access to subsidised education. It has not happened to me.
But I don’t think writing is solely about your own personal grievances. I have this platform where I can share certain ideas and information. There is a certain responsibility to speak up on behalf of other people who have been discriminated against because of their ethnicity. I have heard a lot about working class Malays facing discrimination. I believe I should write about all these incidents.

Are Singapore’s Malays being discriminated against?

Singapore likes to compare itself to Malaysia, using Malaysia as a negative example. Apparently, the twin pillars of Singapore’s ideology are meritocracy and multiracialism.
Singapore’s ideology sounds good on paper and in principle. But what they ignore is that not all races are in equal proportion in society. There is still a dominant Chinese majority in Singapore. When you are the majority, you form the bulk of your market. Your images in the media are everywhere, etc. So you need to do something a little extra for the minorities who are not going to have this kind of resources simply because they form a smaller number.
But I think a lot of people in Singapore especially the Chinese don’t realise what they are enjoying is majority privilege. They think that just because everything is supposedly meritocratic, there is no such thing as market forces that will favour the majority. Why don’t I see Malay faces in magazines and advertisements? The reason is simple. Because you want to sell to the majority. The buyers want to see faces they can identify with. The question is what should the state do to prevent minorities from feeling alienated by all these market forces?

Can you cite an example of blatant discrimination?

There is still discrimination in the army. A Malay would not be assigned to a sensitive position in the army. They will not get to deal with areas like military intelligence and handle more sophisticated weapons. It has been happening for so long. But the thing that makes me unhappy is the government doesn’t admit it.
When these questions are raised, they keep insisting the army is meritocratic. It isn’t. I’d rather have a government that comes out in the open and says: ‘We do not recruit Malays into higher ranks because of security issues ... because we think their loyalty might be torn between Singapore and neighbouring countries.’ Only when this is out in the open, perhaps then we could have some healthy discussions.
But if they do this, of course this would invite a response from neighbouring countries. I believe that none of the neighbouring countries want to attack Singapore. It has no strategic depth. No natural resources. The rhetoric in Singapore is that other countries are ‘envious of our success’. I don’t think there is envy. But there is pity. Because here is a country with such a delusional sense of self-importance that it devotes so much of its budget to defence, and wastes productive years of the lives of its adult males through mandatory conscription.

But if you were the defence minister would you put Malays in higher positions in the army?

Yes, I would. Even the Israeli army recruits Arabs. In terms of social integration, it is absolutely important we do not mistrust any members of our society.
I believe their rationale is the Malays still have an attachment to Malaysia and we need to wait for several years until they feel fully Singaporean. But my rationale is: How can we feel fully Singaporean if we are not integrated into the army and made to feel Singaporean? Just because you are born in some Singapore hospital doesn’t make you feel Singaporean.
You have to go through a certain rite of passage and citizenship that makes you feel for your country. It must make you say: ‘I will fight for the army because it happens to be an army that trusted me to fight for my country.’ You must have confidence that a citizen will execute his duty as a citizen. Malaysia has had non-bumi generals for so long. Singapore never had a Malay general since independence in 1965. Only last year we had an Indian-Muslim colonel promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. It has taken them so long to appoint a Muslim general.

How do non-Malays in Singapore react to your statements?

I have more non-Malay friends than Malay friends in Singapore. I always put my views in an honest way but never in an aggressive way that will make them feel offended and defensive. But for some people in Singapore, even raising such issues puts them on the defensive.

Some consider you are ultra Malay. What is your comment?

To be an ultra Malay, I have to speak Malay well and be rooted in Malayness ... wearing songkok, samping, waving the keris (he laughs). But I don’t. I speak to my parents in Malay. But my first language is English. I even dream in English. So it is hard to be a racial chauvinist when you can’t even speak the language well. When I see a lot of this ultra Malay gestures in Malaysia, I feel nauseated because they are the same as the ultra Chinese in Singapore. Someone raising a keris is the same as a Chinese talking about the superiority of Chinese culture and their 5,000 years of civilisation.

Have you gotten into trouble with the law over your views?

I have never broken any law. But I also know there is the ISA where you do not need any evidence to catch you. I have not been detained under the ISA. But in Singapore, the process of making art comes under so many regulations. There are so many guidelines we (the artists) have to subscribe too. I had issues with censorship.

Can you give some examples?

In one of my plays, I wanted to include a scene where in the future, Malaysia decides to cut the water supply to Singapore. So some Singaporeans travel to the North Pole to transport back some icebergs. The scene was considered sensitive and we had to pull it out.
In 2001, in my poetry collection, History of Amnesia, there was a bit where I included poems on ISA detainee Chia Thye Poh. He had spent 32 years in detention under the ISA. I had a hard time getting a publishing grant (from the government). In the end, my application was turned down with no written explanation.

What misconceptions do people have about you?

That I am an angry young man. But when they meet me, they are surprised to find me soft-spoken and mild. They can’t match the writer and the person. I feel I have disappointed them.

Why are you often in Kuala Lumpur?

I am inspired whenever I come to Kuala Lumpur. I feel there are little pocket freedoms which I do not find in Singapore. There is greater freedom of expression in Malaysia. The idea of democracy is better practised here. There are no demos in Singapore. The idea is foreign to Singaporeans. Nobody has any idea what takes place in a demo ... what it feels like to shout a slogan or even hold a placard. Of course there are also repressive measures when it comes to Syariah law here. I do not want a kind of Jais (Jabatan Agama Islam) in Singapore. I do not want moral policing or even vigilantism.

Why do you want to see a demo in Singapore?

I am not saying that we should have one just for the sake of it. But if there is some legitimate grievance, then this avenue should be available. I think it is possible to have demonstrations conducted in an orderly fashion. The Singapore government is not so much afraid of the law and order aspects of allowing a demonstration. They are more afraid of public expressions of unhappiness over their rule.

Many Muslims believe the community needs the moral police. What is your comment?

We should be clear about the reach of the law when it comes to governing behaviour. When you behave in a way that harms others, obviously it is a crime and you need laws to curb it. When you are doing certain things in private and where the principle of harm cannot be demonstrated convincingly, I don’t think those are things that require legislation.

Do you hate your country?

In the foreword to my latest book (Collected Plays One), Ivan Heng (a Singapore theatre director) said that after reading my works, he realised that I hate Singapore as a lover would. Only the ones you love can hurt you. For example, if a waiter serves you late, you get annoyed but forget about it the next day. But if you felt wounded by someone you love, the pain stays for very long.
If I felt affected by some things that are happening in my country, a part of it is because I love Singapore. Of course, not in a facile, flag-waving kind of way. The frustrations come from seeing so much potential going to waste and being neglected.

What made you want to be a writer?

I wish I could tell you that there was a book that transformed my life and I wanted to be a writer. I wish I could tell you that I met this author and we shook hands and I felt something pass through me and I wanted to be writer. But the reality is I just love writing. Writing is one of those few things in life that I am probably good at. Writing is something that keeps me sane, that keeps me balanced, and that keeps me alive.

Alfian is doing a residency at the Instant Café House of Art and Ideas (CHAI) in Kuala Lumpur and will be conducting writing workshops. Those interested can log on to