a writer, Amir Muhammad was originally better known among the literary
circle in Malaysia but his debut independent feature film, Lips To Lips
(2000), brought him to the attention of film buffs. His short film, Lost,
won the Best Asian Digital Film Critics Prize at this year's Singapore
International Film Festival. Now, Lost, together with five other short
films are compiled into the 6horts VCD, which was released in Malaysia
late last month. STEPHEN TAN asks Amir, who probably dreams in English,
what he thinks of the current "go-English" Malaysian education
policy, the concerns of a young Malaysian, and his no-budget filmmaking
I still think it's the greatest feature ever made, but I am miffed that no distributor seems to share my view.
You made the feature film, Lips To Lips. What made you decide to pursue the short films route?
It occurred to me that in film festivals and symposia and the like, I am always banging on about how digital-video can "democratise" the film medium. The feature cost RM70,000, cheap but still beyond the reach of many people. So I decided to put my money where my loud, preachy mouth is. These shorts belong squarely in the "any idiot also can do" school of filmmaking; I just happen to be the first, but I hope not the last, Malaysian idiot to try it. My friend James Lee says that to make a movie you need "a camera, actors and some ideas." But I thought: Who needs actors?
What type of "pact with the devil" did you have to make to get the 6horts VCD out?
No devils were involved, just a slightly crafty bloke by the name of Vernon Adrian Emuang. I am not sure what he actually "does" I get the feeling it's not polite to ask but he seems to pop up now and then.
Your short films are very varied in terms of style and content. I suppose the style is dictated by your no-budget. How much do you spend on your short film? Can you explain how you approach each of the short films in terms of style and content.
The budgets and the style are inseparable. Rather than have bad acting, I'd rather have no acting, you know what I mean? I think the Malaysian landscape is so interesting, so I made it the star and didn't even have to pay it. The total budget for all six shorts was RM4,000, because I paid the editors. If you're clever enough to operate the software yourself, you can save even more. The cameras were all borrowed I don't own one. I suspect that if I have a camera, I won't get around to doing anything with it. When you borrow for a few days, it's an incentive to get something shot by the time you have to give it back.
The approach was inspired by an essay by the American critic Phillip Lopate on "the essay-film." I found it exciting and liberating and it clicked with what I wanted to do. I like the fact that the immediate impetus for this style was a printed essay rather than a movie. Everyone watches movies, but how many bother to read anymore?
seeing the shorts, some friends (that is, not very bright ones) did say
that I should have just written them as articles for the papers rather
than make them into "movies." But I see it as my mission to raise the
IQ of Malaysian cinema and also to provide some much-needed variety. In
the best of times, the visuals do correspond to the text through visual
and emotional association. Like in "Kamunting", I was visiting a friend
who is detained under the Internal Security Act. Instead of inserting
archive footage or interviews, I thought of just showing the highway journey
to the place. The Malaysian highway is quite beautiful but you have to
pay toll, which is shown twice in the short. This fits in with the government's
rationale for draconian laws we are told, "See? We give you nice
roads and stability, but in return you surrender your money and your freedom."
The subtext of the images is important; they're expressionistic rather than literal. But I don't think the shorts are "experimental" or "arty" at all, since they are very easy to understand and provide fun for the whole family. The production notes for each short can be found on my site, http://6horts.tripod.com, which I taught myself to build. I still don't know HTML, I only know the simple-simple ones. You can also find out where to buy the VCD in KL and Penang. There's no Singapore distributor yet, so any offers, including from pirates, are welcome.
Do you have a script before you start shooting?
I do, but these are provisional. Two of them, "Mona" and "Pangyau" changed quite radically from first to final draft. "Mona" started out as being about the death penalty, trial by media, the abolishment of jury trials, the link between Malay politics and violence, and so on. But something happened and I ended up with a slapstick comedy. Who knew?
While your short films come across as personal pieces, "Pangyau" (Friend) seems more personal than most. Care to explain the genesis of this piece?
It started off just because I took a few Cantonese lessons. I took these lessons with the express intention of making a short about the process, and then maybe make a few observations about the politicised nature of language and ethnicity in Malaysia. So I wanted images of Petaling Street in the heart of KL's Chinatown. I got my Iranian-American friend to operate the camera since he's very good at it and also, since he looks like such a tourist, the gangsters who run the place would be less likely to stop him. But being in Petaling Street itself brought back memories of my days in secondary school, situated nearby. And I thought about someone I hadn't consciously thought about for some time, although he might always have been lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. It's still predominately an issue-based thing but I realise it comes across as a gay melodrama. I didn't censor myself.
The guy who did the voice-over did comment during a line-reading that he found the text "bitter." I hadn't intended it to sound bitter, but maybe it is. If anything, it's about the feeling I have that this country is denying its multiplicity of voices. If "Pangyau" can somehow contribute to this busy discursive terrain, all the better. Some of the style is also influenced by Royston Tan's "Mother" the best Singapore short I have seen.
Your short films tend to focus on life in an urban environment. Yet you don't dwell on issues like race and religion (even if "Friday" has an Islamic setting, and "Checkpoint" is about travelling in a post-Sept 11 world). How do you think a young Malaysian view race and religion?
This is interesting. I will be 30 soon and can't speak on behalf of the younger generation anymore. That's why it was important for me to screen the works to students and to get their reaction. There have been more reviews on 6horts from the internet blogs of students than from the mainstream media. I would love to hijack the airwaves of one of our TV stations and just screen the stuff uncut, like the salesmen did in Robert Zemeckis' best movie, "Used Cars," just to see what happens.
Among the middle-classes at least, there's a lot more interaction among those of different backgrounds, but there are always these markers that will confront you in the form of affirmative action, even the slightest thing like how you are treated at government offices.
After an upsurge of political interest in September 1998 leading up to the general elections of December 1999, the young now seem blase about traditional party-based politics, which unfortunately has gone back to the exploitation and hardening of communitarian boundaries.
So you have a choice of opting out completely into a consumerist, materialist haven where all your reference points are Western, or you can try to engage with what's actually happening around you. There's an email currently circulating that's like the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", except it's about the Malaysian Chinese. When you read this kind of crap and notice that it's been forwarded by so many people (including those on university faculties), the choice should really be a clear one.
What do you think of the Malaysian government's attempt to introduce more English in school and the controversy the move engendered?
It's a farce. Umno thinks that learning Science and Mathematics in English will somehow make Malaysians more conversant in the language, but where in the world has this ever been the case? If they were serious, they would beef up the English language lessons to make them more interesting and relevant. As it is, I see it as yet another instance where the young are used as scapegoats and guinea-pigs in the service of short-term political strategy. The politicisation of education has effectively sidelined and devalued the importance of the teaching profession over the past few decades. One of the oldest schools in the country, Bukit Bintang Girls School, was torn down to make way for a shopping mall which says it all, really. Teachers are overworked and underpaid and expected to do administrative work, so it's little wonder that the standards seem to have gone down. I've received e-mails from people who teach English for a living and some of them can't even construct decent sentences.
By having even basic Science and Maths (we're not talking about Nuclear Physics here) in English, the intellectual value of the Malay language has also been traduced. It's ironic that the party that's most determined to push this through is Umno, supposedly the "protector" of Malay identity. But it's not so ironic when you consider the early history of Umno, which from the start has been allied more to the interests of the capitalist elite than anything else. That Umno actively sought to gain independence from the British is an old lie periodically propped up by our propaganda programmes. The communist and Malay leftists were the ones who did all the work, leaving Umno to scoop up the spoils.
Other than the fact that you are busy with many projects, I don't get the feeling that you have a pet topic/passion that sort of identifies what you do or who you are. So what are you passionate about?
I'm passionate about many things, but I've been raised to believe that it's not very gentlemanly to appear to work so hard.
Do you see yourself more of a (social) commentator or as a filmmaker (or visual artist)?
You can call me anything, I promise not to cry.
What's next after 6horts?
After getting a few things off my chest in 6horts, I want to make a feature that will incorporate other people's voices as well. It's called The Big Durian. It's set on the day in 1987 when a Malay soldier ran amok with an M-16 in Chow Kit. The idea is to get many Malaysians to talk about what they were doing on that day. Some of it will be their real stories and others will be scripted; you're not supposed to tell which one's which. It's a fiction/documentary hybrid. The thematic entry points are the subjects such as race, governance, royalty, the military, all of which came into the play in the way the event was played out and then exploited. It's also a day in which a form of innocence was lost, especially for younger Malaysians who weren't there during the race riots in 1969. So the theme of innocence lost will also be explored by getting people to also talk about their first sexual experience. I think it will be quite an interesting and unusual movie although once again not really "experimental" as such. "Fun for the whole family" is my new motto.
For more... email [email protected] with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."