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?

1 comment:

  1. I would like to recall back the years when yasmin lightened up my days, where she changed my perceptions toward locally made movies.

    It was just an ordinary weekend where my mama, cousin n I decided to hit the cinema. It was the wrong weekend I guess as there is no box office kinda movies available in the cinema. Sepet came in as a joke, we were like "let's give 'sepet' a try". With a giggle at the end of the conversation for sure.

    I was quite surprised, the cinema was near to the full capacity, and it was a multiracial crowd! Was quite puzzled with the situation. We came out at the end of the show, felt well beyond contented, the most worthy 11 ringgit ticket I've ever paid. My mama did actually hahaha.

    Her movies are products of intelligence and honesty. I never experienced movies with such simple yet delicate storyline, with the casts themselves seem like they're nt acting at all. All went natural.

    All the issues regarding budaya and so what's not, should be left for the highly intellectuals to debate. Only those who can comprehend the storyline can actually truly understand the beauty of the stories that she did.