Friday, September 17, 2010

Amir Muhammad

It was always pleasure to interview film maker cum writer Amir Muhammad. He never fail to give you interesting quotes. This interview appeared in the sun on June 30th 2005 where he speaks on various topic from the famous gangster to the sacked Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Here is the article

Suggested Headline: A rebel with a cause

OUTSPOKEN and opinionated with a touch of humour. That is the best way to describe this interview with AMIR MUHAMMAD. Malaysians first knew him as a writer. His pieces have never failed to arouse. This 32-year-old had his first work published in the national newspaper New Straits Times at the age of 14. Later he diversified, sat in the director's chair and made several independent films that entered a handful of international film festivals. His first work was Lips To Lips in 2000 followed by 6horts two years later. His most prominent work thus far has been The Big Durian which he made in 2003. It centres on a real-life event that took place on the night of Oct 18, 1987 when soldier Prebet Adam ran amok while armed with an M16 in Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur. His action triggered a city-wide panic and rumours of riots. Now Amir plans to make films on the exiled former Communist Party of Malaya leader Chin Peng and criminal Botak Chin. In a chat with BISSME S. he shares his views on politics, press freedom, movies, art and censorship.

theSun: Tell us about the first time you got your work published?
Amir: I was in Form 2. It was a book review. From then on, I just submitted articles to NST and they got printed. This was way before the Youth Page. A 14-year-old can get published so easily....That says more about the standard of our newspaper than it does about my quality as a writer. (laughs)

Whose book did you review?
I can't remember the title of the book.

What made you move from writing to film making?
I enjoy watching movies. I didn't grow up surrounded by film people. In fact, the first friends I made in the film industry was U-Wei Saari. (A controversial film director)
I interviewed him for the NST in 1993 when his first film Perempuan, Isteri Dan....? came out. I was on my summer vacation from law school from UK then and I continued to stay in touch with him even after I returned to law school.
He encouraged me to take up film. Without him, I literally would not have thought a life in film was possible. We don't keep in touch much anymore but I will always be grateful to him for that. So if my career flops I should blame him too. (laugh)

So what was your original ambition?
To be a writer. I never stopped writing even though I don't write regularly. I wanted to be a writer since I was 12. I loved reading books. It is quite obvious reading will inspire you to write.

You wanted to be a writer but strangely, you took a law degree. Why didn't you take up a writing or journalism course?
If you want to be a writer, probably one of the worst things you can do is take a writing or journalism course.

Writing is not a technical craft. Writing is more to do with experiences and reading. That is something a school can't teach you. Writers themselves had advised me that if you want to write, don't take a writing course.
Writers can come from any background. Anton Chekhov was a doctor and Franz Kafka worked in a bank. I think someone who opens a bar, someone who is a prostitute. someone who is road builder, someone who is a waiter - that sort of person would make a better writer.
After all, you are writing based on your experiences and the people you meet. If you take a writing course, you only meet people who want to be writers. If you attend a film school, you will only meet other wannabe film makers, so your films end up being about the world seen from other film makers' point of view.

If you had become a lawyer, what kind of lawyer do you think you will become?
I would probably be a bad lawyer. I was inspired to take up law after watching LA Law. The show made law look quite exciting and glamorous. I figured it early on, the reality was not like that. You spend less than ten per cent (of the time) in court and other time is spent on research and paperwork. Rather be a bad lawyer, it is better not to be lawyer at all.

Were there any other reasons for you took up law?
I had a study loan from Petronas. If you are taking a study loan from Petronas, there are only four subjects you can take - law, accounting, medicine and engineering. I thought law was the easiest. Now I am paying them back painfully RM1,000 per month. Now every time I need petrol, I will avoid Petronas station. I am already giving them enough money. (laughs)

You had your first art exhibition. Tell us more about that?
It was a flop, unfortunately. I didn't sell a thing. There were five of us who had our first-ever exhibition. All together, there were 25 digital photographs and I only had three pictures. They touch on the Ramadan month and shows Ramadan can be commercial and spiritual month.

What inspired you to go into the art world?
I was sick of the mediocrity of the art world and I wanted to drag it down even further. (laughs). I made a painful discovery that nothing above RM400 can't be sold and my pieces are priced at RM1,000 each. The people who came to the exhibition tend to be cheapskates. We must find ways to get the "mak datin" crowd. Maybe my next series should be on the mak datins ... maybe nudes.

You have not answered the question. Why did you enter the art world?
Why not? There are a lot of galleries around and it was fun to do. Basically whenever I am asked why I am doing something, my motto is that it is seemed to be a good idea at that time.

You love jumping from one thing to another?
I get restless easily. I get bored easily. I kind of admire people who can do the same thing forever and I can't imagine being like that.

Let us talk about your films. So far you've done independent films and for limited audience. You have not done anything for commercial cinemas. Why?
I am getting my first commercial release in early September. It is called Ada Apa Dengan Indonesia? It is a documentary about Indonesian politics and film making.

Tell us more?
In the middle of last year, I followed an Indonesian film crew and cast when they were making a film called Gie that was set in the 60s. The film is based on a book entitled Catatan Seorang Demonstran which focused on the life of a Chinese student activist Soe Hok Gie - during the last year of Sukarno and the first few years of Suharto's (tenure).
At the same time, Indonesia was having its elections. I decided to make the documentary that parallels the elections with the making of this film. After all, an election is the making of a nation.

Do you think Malaysians will be interested to see a documentary about Indonesian politics and film making?
There is a certain curiosity about Indonesia. We have so many things in common and we are different in other ways. A lot of things happen in Indonesia first. End of this year, I will be shooting another commercial movie called Susuk (a black magic spell used to maintain one's beauty).

Tell us more about Susuk?
It is a horror movie that is set in the film industry. I am the co-director and the director is Naeim Ghalili (a Persian American). In case it flops, I can always blame Naeim. (laughs).
Given a choice, I will not make a horror movie. I don't think I can be that scary. They just waved all this money in front of me and it was difficult to say no. Besides, the theme can be interesting. It goes to show how far one would go to succeed.

Our censors can be very touchy about horror films. So do you think Susuk will face problems?
I have not sent Ada Apa Dengan Indonesia? to the board yet and I am not sure of the fate of this movie. Ironically, if I were to release the movie in Indonesia and it will be uncut. I have seen far more radical and critical documentary. Our censors are not quite in touch with how democratic Indonesia is.

What is your view of the board?
I think they seem to have loosened up a bit. Pontianak Menjerit was passed uncut. I think censorship cannot be viewed in isolation. It is always a part of whatever political force happens to be dominant at that time. It is never something in isolation. It is a selection of whatever image the government wants to portray at that time.

So you believe the political situation controls the censorship?
Of course. Don't we know that! We want less censorship because we don't want to just scare people. We want less censorship so that certain issues that can be discussed in the media. Which include documentaries.
They seem to be lenient now. But it can change very quickly. If the government feel they need to be more Islamic because PAS is getting powerful, the censorship will be stringent.

What about your road movie Lelaki Komunis Terakhir ... on the communist leader Chin Peng based on his autobiography Chin Peng: My Side Of History?
I don't want to speak about it I have not begun any work. I really don't know how it will turn out. I plan to complete the film before year end.

There is talk you are going to interview Chin Peng in Southern Thailand. Is that true?
Yes. I will try to, but interviewing him is not the main point here.

Some people regard you as unpatriotic for making a movie on the communist leader. What is your comment?
People who are trying to tell their other countrymen to shut up are the least patriotic.

Because they are narrowing what being Malaysian is.

Do you think you're unpatriotic for making a movie on Chin Peng?
I think the result will speak for itself. If I said I am patriotic I may not be accurate. The same thing about being unpatriotic. It depends what the result is.
To me, in any country, the people who most loudly proclaim that they love their own country are usually the worst people in that country... that is why you get fascist... that is why you get right wingers ... that is why you get extreme Christians in America.
These are the ones who always say how much they love their country and they are the ones doing the most damage to it. Ordinary Malaysians who don't feel the need to proclaim it are more patriotic than those who make a big deal about it.

Since Chin Peng's autobiography, there has been a keen interest to put up theatre performances and making independent films that touch on communism. Why do you think people are so interested in the communism era out of the blue?
All of a sudden, all these information is made available to us. There come a time when you want to explore Malaysian stories, you will start to think is that all the story we have ... don't we have more stories than this. You will try to find whatever alternative reading of history that is out there.
I think people all over are starting to feel a bit dissatisfied that there is one superpower in the world today. Whatever America says, everybody has to either agree or get invaded. Maybe the interest in communism is like going back to a time when the world was actually more bipolar ... There was not only one superpower; there was an alternative. It gives you a glimpse into a time (when) there were other possibilities. It is terrible to think that, forever, America is the only force ... the only superpower.

What is your view on communism?
In theory, it is the beautiful ideology. Given a choice, people like to share. Given a choice, people would not like to be more rich and more powerful than their neighbour.
But in practice, there has never been a communist country which has not descended into dictatorship. It is not what the ideal of communism is supposed to be. The system has been abused. It is quite understandable that we mistrust its theory.

We hear you are also making a movie based on (gangster) Botak Chin?
I am trying to get a friend of mine Danny Lim to direct the film on Botak Chin and I will be the producer. He has written an interesting article on Botak Chin. There are people who idolised him and viewed him as some kind of Robin Hood. (Botak Chin was a KL based gangster/robber who was No. 1 on the wanted list in the mid-70s and was finally shot dead in a hail of bullets by the police).
In The Big Durian, you touched on Pbt Adam (soldier who ran amok and went on shooting spree in Jalan Chow Kit in KL in 1987). Now you are making movies on Chin Peng and Botak Chin. Why the fascination with these types of individuals?
Other people make films on Leftenan Adnan and Tunku Abdul Rahman. Everyone is making these types of movies. You must always do something to fill a gap. You must always do what you are interested in.

Why the keen interest in Pbt Adam, Botak Chin and Chin Peng?
Don't know. If you read Malaysia's history books, these people wouldn't be there so much. There might be a footnote, a paragraph or two written about them. These people are a part the collective imagination of Malaysians. These people are a pool of resources. In other developed countries, they can make films on all kinds people - from kings to crooks. Why are we restricting ourselves?

Do you like to be controversial for the sake for being controversial?
That can be quite tiring. Not only for myself but (also) for other people . A lot of films and books that were controversial at that time, later people don't remember them. I don't see myself as controversial. It's fun to annoy people. It is too easy to be controversial in Malaysia. The slightest thing could be controversial.

We hear you want to release Lelaki Komunist Terakhir in the cinemas. Do you really believe it will get the green light from censors?
I don't know. It's not up to me to decide.

What if the censors ask you to make cuts? Would you comply?
It depends. I would prefer uncut. I've lived in this country almost all my life and I know what people can take and what people cannot take. Where did we get this idea that every movie and book must not offend anybody. What is wrong if a movie or a book offends some people? You can't please everybody.

What is the greatest misconception people have about you?
I don't think people have misconceptions about me. People don't even know I exist.

You were sacked from NST in 1999. Why?
I was not really sacked. I was never a full-time staff in NST. My column was stopped during the general election in 1999 because it was thought to be un-helpful to the government in its bid to win the election. It says more about their paranoia. Now everything is okay. I can write for them any time.

Did it affect you in any way?
It was not a big deal. In a way, it was good. I had a bit more free time. I could do different things. I directed my first theatre performance The Malaysian Decameron. But frankly speaking, writing a column doesn't take much of my time.

Did the incident cause you to question Press freedom?
I was questioning it right from the start ... even before my column was stopped. You don't need an incident like that to question it.

People always complain of a lack of press freedom in Malaysia. What do you think?
The journalism graduate feels there are many things we can't do. In reality, it is not as bad. People have to be honest and follow what stories there are.
We are always suspicious in nature. For example, the corruption case gets played up in the media, we will question why these cases are being played up and whether somebody is out to get them. We have not got to the stage where we will say "yes, it is a corruption case and it should be played up". We always question, if something is exposed, then it is to fit into someone's agenda. It is not as bad as the critics say it is.

Tell us your experience in NST?
Writing for the NST was fun back then because people like Salleh Ben Joned and Johan were contributing to it. Also, the editors (I worked with) were liberal, down-to-earth and humorous in the way I think of as quintessentially Malaysian. I never felt like I was dealing with people twice my age. The last editor I had was Kee Thuan Chye, but before that there were Rose Ismail, Fatimah Abu Bakar, Aishah Ali and Sheila Rahman. I consider my NST years to be my true schooling experience.

You only directed one play, The Malaysian Decameron, in 1999. Why didn't you direct more plays?
It wasn't very good but it had a few good jokes. It was part of the director's workshop series headed by Joe Hasham and the late Krishen Jit.
I don't think I can be a Namron or a Mark Teh. I am too impatient and shallow to be a good theatre director. All those rehearsals! In movies at least, you can cheat with editing. But there is something magical about watching a good stage performance like Lembu or Baling.

You seem harsh on Yusof Haslam's movies.
I have watched all of his movies and I paid to see them. How you can say I am harsh on him. What is most interesting about Yusof Haslam is he started out as a bus conductor. He has the potential to make films about ordinary people, yet he only makes movies about people who have swimming pools.
He probably thought people will not see movies about bus conductors. But a film like Mekanik which is about ordinary people can pull in the crowd. Then again, who am I to lecture him on what kind of movies he should make?

Your views on the most expensive local movie, Puteri Gunung Ledang (RM20 million)?
There were certain things good about it. I think people were less forgiving because the hype was massive. They made terrible blunders. The art direction was terrible and it wasn't edited well. I like the dialogues and the performances were above average. It was not the ultimate movie that we were told it was. But I admire the fact someone was willing to try something big.

Tell us more about your parents? Do they support what you do?
My father Muhammad Abdullah was a civil servant who worked through several ministries. The last ministry he was attached to was the Transport Ministry. In the 60's, he was on the censorship board. I don't know how long he was there. Maybe just for a few weeks. Maybe they got rid of him because he didn't ban any movies (laughs). My mother Asiah Kechik is a housewife and is always busy.
I would think certain parents will be alarmed if their children did not do law and would rather do something that is uncertain. But they never stopped me as long as I was interested in something and I was not starving.

How many siblings you have? What do they think of you?
My sister Siti Dura is an engineer. She is quite busy with her job and doesn't devote much time to thinking about what I do. But she is very responsible ... much more responsible than me. For example, she did not forget to make restaurant reservation for the recent Father's Day. We balance each other out. (laughs)

What do you think of our current Prime Minister?
As much as you (can) get annoyed with (Tun Dr) Mahathir, he was such a galvanizing force (but) he was (also) so polarising. You either like him or don't like him. The Opposition was in a much healthier state in Mahathir's time. Pak Lah is a nice guy. He never seems to get angry. He is very friendly. He has taken the wind out of the Opposition. What else do you have to complain about?

Now you seem to be pro Mahathir. Why the change?
(laughs) It is like Britain after Margaret (Thatcher). She is a kind figure you either hate or love. You miss her after she is gone. A politician is a collection of his policies and of his actions. You like certain policies and actions more than others.
I supposed I like Mahathir's sense of impatience - he always had a sense of unfinished business - he always felt there was so much more to be done. It is kind of inspiring for a young country to have this kind of image. But nobody should be in a position of power so long. Because then it is just about the power.

Are you a supporter of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim?
I don't think I am a supporter. I am not a member of any political party. While he was in government itself, he was the big sponsor for dubious things like Bahasa Baku.
He seems to be the sort of person who like the surface details more than anything else. He always claimed to have read a lot ... I don't think he was as well read as he claimed. Well, he has written a lot of wonderful things and they have never been translated into action.

What is your view on Putera Umno?
It is going to be a place where potential entrepreneurs join where they create networks and make connections. (read Sun Weekend last week for conversations with Putera Umno chief)

Are you anti-government?
Everybody should question the government as well as the Opposition. Since the Opposition is not in the news so much, so what do you have to question them about?

Why don't you join any political party and make changes from inside?
I don't want to be a politician. I question them as a taxpayer... someone who gives them money ... we are the one paying their salary. It is so wrong to pay for their lifestyle and then you have to shut up.

So are you anti-government?
I am frequently anti-government. Then again, if PAS comes to power, I might be equally anti-government too.

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