Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Norzizi Zulkifli & Mak Yong

Today theSun published my interview with theater director  Norzizi Zulkifli  who is putting up a Mak Yong performance. This dance form is banned in Kelantan. Read more of the story here 

Headline: Shakespeare meets Mak Yong 
By Bissme S

VERY few urbanites have ever seen a Mak Yong performance, a traditional form of Malay dance-drama which originated in Kelantan. It was already playing to dwindling audiences before it was officially banned in that state in 1991, because religious authorities deemed it ‘unIslamic’. 
Since then, Mak Yong performers have struggled to keep the art alive, performing it outside of its home state. In 2005, it received a much needed boost when Unesco declared Mak Yong as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Audiences in Kuala Lumpur can now catch one of the more modern performances of this ancient art, with the staging of Mak Yong Titis Sakti in the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac). 
The performance is based on an intriguing interpretation of one of English playwright William Shakespeare’s best-known works – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 
Mak Yong Titis Sakti is conceptualised and directed by acclaimed theatre director Norzizi Zulkifli . Norzizi has staged it once before in 2009, also at klpac. 
Recalling her experiences then, Norzizi, 42, said: “klpac is known for its ‘English’ crowd, and I had some reservations [whether] the show would get a good response when I wanted to stage it for the first time.” 
Fortunately, Norzizi, currently the head of the Theatre Programme at the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation in Universiti Teknologi Mara, had nothing to worry about. 
Back then, the two-hour show played to a full house for five nights, receiving standing ovations and rave reviews. It was not only a runaway success but also managed to attract a large number of non-Malay crowd. Now, the performance has returned under the banner of The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat. 
“I am performing the same piece, in a bigger hall, at the same venue,” Norzizi adds. 
“I have a far bigger challenge, as I have more seats to fill.” 
Norzizi had creatively blended eastern and western elements into her show, adapting the original story and changing the characters’ names to suit the local setting. 
Mak Yong Titis Sakti tells of two men, Indera Putera and Iskandar Muda, who are both in love with Cempaka Sari, who only has eyes for Iskandar Muda. Unfortunately, her father wants her to marry Indera Putera instead. So, Cempaka Sari and Iskandar Muda decide to flee into the forest. 
The couple are pursued by Indera Putera, who is in turn followed by Seri Laksana, who is in love with Indera Putera. What the four individuals do not realise is that something mystical will take place in the forest, and that their lives are going to change forever. 
“You can easily adapt most works by Shakespeare into Mak Yong,” said Norzizi, who previously won the Boh Cameranion award for best theatre director in 2013 for Usikan Rebab. 
“Shakespeare liked to focus on royalty and mystical characters, and a lot of stories in Mak Yong have similar traits.” 
Her production has been studied by the National University of Singapore, and has appeared in numerous publications, including the Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre. 
About 25 cast and crew members are involved in the production, including music director Kamrul Hussin, set designer Bayu Utoma Radjikin, and costume designer Nur Afifi Mohammed Taib. 
Some of the cast members from the 2009 performance will be making a return, including two of the most well-known guardians of Mak Yong – Zamzuriah Zahari, who is also choreographing the work, and Rosnan Rahman. 
Other returning cast members include Asrulfaizal Kamaruzaman, Rosdeen Suboh, Shahanaros Shahruddin, Elza Irdalynna, and Siti Farrah Abdullah. They will been joined by popular actress Mardianna Alwi, Ezdiannee Hayatie Omar, Safia Hanifah and Putri Hannan Shahidah, as well as five dancers and 12 musicians. 
Norzizi was kind enough to give the media a preview of her upcoming production, and most of the journalists were impressed with what they saw. I find the traditional music accompanying the performance simply awesome. In addition, 30% of dialogue in Mak Yong Titis Sakti is in English, while the rest is in the Kelantanese dialect. 
“I have a dream that one day I can present a full Mak Yong performance entirely in English, and I hope I can make the dream come true soon,” says Norzizi.

Footnote : Mak Yong Titis Sakti will be staged at Pentas 2, klpac, from this Saturday to Feb 4.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Ho Lee Ching

This is interesting interview with Ho Lee Ching who has not let her neurological disorder (Tourette Syndrome )from pursuing her dream to be a theatre artist. Read the full story below 

Headline: In Complete Control
By Bissme S

Several times throughout our interview, 27-year-old Ho Lee Ching described herself as “timid”. But I saw her in a totally different light. She is one of the bravest women that I have ever met in my life. 
Ho suffers from Tourette Syndrome (TS), a neurological disorder characterised by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalisations, called tics. She is also diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety disorder. 
Despite all this, she has not allowed her condition to stop her from pursuing her dreams, and living life to the fullest. Growing up with TS and her various disorders was not an easy thing. 
“As a child, I was making sounds, and I was always jerking,” she said. 
“My parents thought I was being naughty, and playing some kind of prank. [So did] my teachers. They (her teachers and parents) would punish me.” 
When she was eight, her parents finally understood that the behaviour she had been displaying was not a ‘prank’. She was taken to a doctor, and finally diagnosed. 
“My teachers and parents felt bad for punishing me,” she remembers. 
However, being diagnosed with several disorders did not make her journey less easy. 
“Some people still misunderstood me,” she recalls. 
“They did not believe [that] I could not control my motor functions.” 
They included some of her classmates, who were so cruel as to imitate her tics. Some teachers even refused to teach her class because of her syndrome. 
“I was angry with the world and everyone around me [then],” Ho says. 
“Whenever my birthday came round, I would wish for the syndrome to disappear. 
“But I can tell you for certain, some birthday wishes do not come true.” 
Because of her condition, Ho is unable to perform some activities that most of us take for granted. For instance, she cannot watch a film in the cinema, because she is unable to stop herself from making noises that will disrupt other patrons and force her to leave the hall. But with time, she learnt to cope with her syndrome and made the best out of the situation. 
 “I cannot continue living my life in anger,” she says. 
 When she was about 17 and waiting for her SPM results, Ho took up acting classes under the guidance of wellknown theatre director Joe Hasham. She loved the experience. 
Strangely enough, she discovered that whenever she was on stage playing a role, she could control her involuntary movements. She was not experiencing any of the jerking moments, or making those strange noises that have plagued her life. 
“When I do theatre, I feel very normal,” she says. 
Ho cannot give any rational explanation how she is able to control her tics on stage. 
“That is the magic of theatre,” she says. 
“I really believe theatre is the best platform for children to learn about themselves.” 
After her SPM, Ho went on to graduate with a degree in mass communication, and even became a sports writer for a website for a while. But ultimately, she returned to her first love – theatre. 
Currently, she is an actor in residence and facilitor at The Actors Studio. She has appeared in Thuderstorm, Dator Seri, The Taste of Water, Aku Nak Jaid Bintang, Three Doors, and Zak Zebra’s African Safari Musical, which toured to South Korea. 
Under the mentorship of Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s resident director Mark Beau De Silva, Ho has also co-directed two plays – Still Taming and S’kolah. Still Taming recently toured in Singapore, and will be touring Russia this December. 
Ho will soon be making her debut as a theatre director with OCD, a devised physical theatre piece exploring what it’s like living with obsessive compulsive disorder. 
The cast comprises Emma Megan Khoo, Amanda Xavier, Riena Aisya, and Jun Vinh Teoh. Music for the show will be provided by Coebar Abel and Ian Francis. 
“The subject matter hits very close to home,” Ho says. 
“I have been living with OCD, and OCD can be both terrorising and embarrassing for people. The stigma cuts both ways – it keeps you away from people, and keeps people away from you. 
“I hope this play will start a conversation on this topic, and perhaps even create empathy towards people who have been living with OCD.” 

Footnote: OCD will be staged at Pentas 2, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac), from tomorrow to Saturday.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Chiu Keng Guan & Think Big Big

Today theSun interviewed Malaysian film director Chiu Keng Guan who had gives hits such as The Journey and OlaBola. He talks to theSun about his latest film Think Big Big as well as directing a sport movie about a father and son for production house in Beijing, China  

Headline: Reaching For The Sky 
By Bissme S

When Chiu Keng Guan was around 16, he read a book entitled I Can Do It, So Can You. It was the autobiography of Taylor Gun-Jin Wang, a Chineseborn American scientist who became the first ethnic Chinese to go into space. 
“This book was very inspiring to me because I have always been interested in space and UFOs,” says the 46-year-old. 
“I wanted to be an astronaut. If he [could do it] ... I thought I could fulfil my dream, too.” 
But fate led Chiu on a totally different path. He became a successful film director, producing hit films such as The Journey (2014) and OlaBola (2016). 
However, he has never forgotten his dream of becoming an astronaut. Now, Chiu is revisiting this childhood dream through his latest film, Think Big Big, which will open in cinemas on Feb 15. Think Big Big tells the story of Moon, a plus-size girl who (like a younger Chiu) dreams of becoming an astronaut. Brought up in a small town by her loving parents, she works as a mascot in a theme park and lives a carefree life, bringing smiles to everyone she meets. Then, reality hits her. Bogged down by debts, Moon is forced to participate in a competition that requires her to lose weight, and share her fitness journey on social media. The cast comprises Moon Yoong, Serene Lim, Fabian Loo, Ruby Yap, and Joanne Lau. 
“This is a story that tells you to be yourself, and love yourself unconditionally,” Chiu says. 
“But today, [that] is the hardest thing to do. Some of us [want to] get more ‘Likes’ on Facebook and Instagram. We are more eager to please the ‘friends’, [who are mostly] strangers out there. We should not allow social media to rule our lives.” 
In OlaBola, Chiu worked with a mostly male cast. In this film, his cast is mostly female. 
“In every film I make, I want to present something different, and I do not want to repeat myself,” he says. 
“I have not done a film about sisterhood. I have not worked with a mostly female cast [before]. “Through this film, I learned something about women. When one of them has a problem, all of 
stop crying, they will be strong again. 
“Women are amazing creatures. They can soft and powerful at the same time.” 
Since his two previous films racked up over RM33 million at the box office, does Chiu feel pressured to deliver the same with this film? 
“Nobody can predict the audience and the box office,” he says. 
“[There are] some good films that do not do well at the box office, and you have no valid explanation for their failures. 
“When I direct a film, the last thing I worry about is the box office collection. I am more worried about delivering a good quality film.” 
For his next film project, he will be directing a Chinese-language film for a production house based in Beijing, China. 
“They [saw] OlaBola at the Shanghai Film Festival and loved it,” he says. 
“They approached me to direct an inspirational sports film, just like Olabola.” 
According to Chiu, the plot of the upcoming film centres around a boy who wants to be a marathon runner. But before he can achieve this dream, he becomes blind. While the boy wants to give up on his dream, his father persuades him to carry on. 
“The film is more about [the relationship between] a father and a son [rather] than a sports film,” he says. Shooting will begin at the end of this year. 
Chiu has already lined up another project. He will be working on film set in Malaysia, with events taking place over the span of 40 years. For the time being, he is not revealing anything about the plot. 
“All I can say [is that] it is a heartwarming and inspirational story,” he says. That seems to be the trademark of all the films he makes. “I can’t see myself directing a dark [film],” he adds with a laugh. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mahi Ramakrishnan

Today I interview documentary maker Mahi Ramakrishnan who has been winning one international award after another  

Headline: The People's Storyteller 
By Bissme S

THE DOCUMENTARY Bou by Mahi Ramakrishnan has been making waves at various international film festivals. 
Last month alone, the 48- year-old Malaysian filmmaker and freelance journalist earned three awards for her film – best short documentary at the Around International Film Festival in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; best director at the 6th Mumbai Shorts International Film Festival in India; and the ARFF Globe award at the Around International Film Festival in Paris, France. She also recently received the RCPJ President’s Award from the PJ Rotary Club for her advocacy work to promote and protect the rights of refugees. 
In her 28-minute documentary Bou, she tackles the heart-rending issue of child brides among the Rohingya refugees. These child brides are victims of traffickers who seek out poor families in Myanmar willing to give up their daughters – girls from the ages of 11 to 16 – with promises of a better life in a foreign land. Unfortunately, a better life is the last thing these young brides will find. The traffickers torture them sexually and physically, before selling them to Rohingya men for RM7,000 each. 
“Bou means bride in the Rohingya language,” says Mahi, who took two years to complete the documentary, her eighth film to touch upon social issues. 
“I am really surprise that I [received] all this recognition. The main reason I entered my documentary into [these] film festivals is not because I want to win awards. 
“I really want the [issue] of the ill-treatment of child brides to reach as many people as [possible], and the best way to achieve this is to send my work to as many film festivals as I can.” 
With this issue getting more exposure, Mahi is hoping the international community will help find a suitable solution to the child bride issue. 
She has already picked the subject for her next documentary feature – a look at the Hindu transgender community in Malaysia.
 “I have many friends who are transgender,” Mahi says. 
“I have listened [to their stories of] the abuse they have [suffered from] a society that is not accepting of them. I want to show the layers of discrimination this community faces. The Hindu religion is very embracing of everyone, and I want to show that [transgenders] have the right to be a part of [society] like everyone else.” 
Aside from its provocative topic, the documentary is also unique for another reason: Mahi will have a co-director for the first time – her daughter, Savita Saravanan, 22, who is in her final semester of studies for her mass communication degree. “It will be a mother-anddaughter team working on this documentary,” Mahi says. “Working together can be difficult, because no two people will see a subject in the same way, and I cannot let my ego get in the  way.” 
Despite these challenges, Mahi is looking forward to starting a new adventure with her daughter.
 “I have been working as a journalist for the last 20 years and you can get [jaded],” she says.
 “But young people like my daughter have new incredible ideas. She might look at the issue [from] a different perspective, and it will be great to learn from my daughter.” 
Mahi remembers always wanting to be a journalist since she was young. 
“My grandfather (on my mother’s side) was a journalist, and he used to teach me English,” she says. 
“I believe I must have inherited [my] journalistic dreams from him.”
 In fact, Mahi started her journalism career in this paper, theSun, before moving on to prestigious international media outlets such as Time magazine, USA Today, and broadcaster AlJazeera. It is probably these experiences that helped hone her instincts for seeking out certain stories, and also given her the strength to tackle sensitive issues in her film, despite the risk of attracting controversy. 
“I am a storyteller and if there is a story that needs to be told, I will try to tell it, regardless of [any] backlash,” she says. 
“I look at myself as [merely] an intermediary.” She insists it is merely her job to report people’s stories. 
“I would not even refer to myself as ‘the voice of the oppressed’.” She adds that films are great way to make people compassionate about issues. 
“That is the reason I dabble in film. I really believe it is ordinary people like you and me [who] make the positive change we want to see taking place in the world.” 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Tiara Jacquelina & OlaBola

Tiara Jacquelina allows theSun to sit on the rehearsal of OlaBola The Musical in December and today theSun published the story...  

Headline: Shooting For Success 

By Bissme S. 

After watching a rehearsal of the first act of Olabola the Musical  I must say I was impressed. My gut feeling tells me that this musical theatre production is going to be mind-blowing when it plays at Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur, from Feb 8 to March 11. 
This production, by producer and director Tiara Jacquelina (below, right), is an adaptation of Chiu Keng Guan’s 2016 hit film Olabola, which is loosely based on the story of the Malaysian national football team which successfully qualified for the 1980 Olympics. The film collected more than RM16 million at the box office. 
Tiara admits that her biggest challenge is transferring the intensity of a football match from film to stage. 
“We are working with a totally different medium,” she says. “In films, there can be retakes. Unfortunately, we cannot afford that luxury on stage. “So everything has to be perfect, smooth and precise. The players have to pass the ball to the right person. [During the auditions], the first thing I looked for [in the actors] was their football skills.” 
Among the cast are familiar faces in the local entertainment scene such as Iedil Putra, Stephen Rahman Hughes, and Douglas Lim, as well as two of the stars from the original film, Luqman Hafidz and Lim Jian Wen, who will be reprising their roles. 
The rehearsal gives the impression that the musical will have a lot of rap and hip-hop numbers. 
“When I first decided to make Olabola into a musical, the first question I asked myself is ‘what will be the sound of this musical’,” says Tiara, adding that she finds herself drawn to rap and hip hop because they represent “the gritty sound of youth and football”. Olabola the Musical also takes liberties with the real-life story. The musical starts in 1980 with an intense football match where the captain of the Malaysian football team gets a red card and loses his temper with the referee. 
As a result, the team fails to qualify for the Olympics. Tiara is honest enough to admit she does not know much about football. However, she says she hired “the best people” to advise her on the subject. 
“The story is not just about football,” she adds, pointing out that the heart of OlaBola is a story about a multicultural team who came together and put their differences aside to achieve a bigger dream. “It is the kind of story I love to do, and if I don’t do this story, I know I will live to regret it,” she says.
Tiara can be considered the Malaysian version of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Two of her previous cutting-edge musical theatre productions are Puteri Gunung Ledang the Musical and P. Ramlee the Musical. 
When asked about the new musical’s budget, she refuses to reveal too much. After much persuasion, she says: “All I can say is, this [has] the highest budget for a musical theatre from my company, and perhaps in Malaysia. 
“The story of Olabola requires – and deserves – that kind of budget.” Tiara adds that Olabola director Chiu has been to the rehearsals, and is satisfied with what he has seen.
 “When I first announced my desire to turn his work into a musical, he told me that he has a difficult time imagining his characters singing,” says Tiara. 
Now, he does not have to wonder any more. 
“It is interesting for him to see his story being interpreted by a different director,” she adds. 
Tiara is fully aware that the success of the film has set some high expectations for her musical. 
“It is very important to have high expectations,” she says. 
“If your expectations [are] high, everyone will keep aiming to achieve them. I do push everyone hard, and I tell them it comes from love. I love getting the best out of an individual.”