The Write Stuff: Benjamin McKay

dsc00503.jpgBenjamin McKay is a prominent film writer/reviewer in Malaysia, regularly contributing to the likes of Criticine and Kakiseni, amongst others. And when I say prominent, I mean “You met Tan Chui Mui? Ah yes, I had dinner with her” prominent (OK, so that’s not an exact quote, but you get the idea 🙂 ).

He’s also an academician, currently lecturing in film studies at our alma mater, Monash University (ancora imparo, everyone!). Not that he always planned it that way. Here he talks about his early ambitions to be an actor, teaching films, and why Malaysians like to watch horror movies…

Have you always wanted to be a film writer and academic?
Initially I had wanted to be an actor and after High School in Sydney I went to New York to study acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory. One has to be quite ruthless as well as lucky to make a career out of acting and when I returned to Australia I realised that I just was not ambitious enough in that area. So I sort of veered into arts management. My love of film has, however, been life-long and so I made it central to my academic pursuits over the years to the point now where I find myself lecturing in Film Studies and writing about films as a full career.

Inspiration.How did you end up in Malaysia?
I discovered by chance the films of P. Ramlee and others from the golden years of Malay cinema and began my PhD research on those films. I started coming to Malaysia from 2001 on a regular, almost semi-permanent basis. I fell in love with Kuala Lumpur the first time I arrived here. I have been here permanently since I started with Monash University at Sunway in early 2006. This place feels like home now. Indeed, I recently bought an apartment here, so I guess this must be where I want to be for now.

You’re also a prominent film writer in Malaysia, generally writing about the Malaysian film scene. What is it about Malaysian films that interests you?
Films in general interest me, but given my research area on Southeast Asian cinema and given that I live here in Malaysia and have some interaction with the local film community, my primary interest in recent years has been in Malaysian cinema. It is largely the ‘indie’ scene here that I find fascinating. So many interesting voices and for a relatively young and relatively small scene the standard and quality of the work never ceases to amaze me. Malaysians should be so proud of the achievements of these filmmakers. Proud too that these talents have largely gone out and made their work despite the fact that they have largely received little or no support from the state. They truly are independent in that sense.

I was wondering whether you have tried to write scripts or pitches. After all, I’m sure have you one or two film ideas bouncing around in your head.
No, I have never tried to write a script or a pitch but I have given numerous young filmmakers advice, feedback and suggested changes to their scripts and pitches. It has been an honour to do so. Having said that, I would not want to limit myself – who knows, there may one day be time for me to sit down and write that great screenplay that may be lurking in the dusty corners of my subconscious.

What catches your interest when it comes to films?
Originality and some degree of innovation. Also, a recognition by the filmmaker that film is a visual language first and foremost. I shy away from overly word driven narratives and far prefer films that are driven visually.

The Agong’s appointment of the new head of JAKIM was equally controversial.For you, what constitutes a good review? For example, should it have a subjective or an objective approach?
An objective approach would simply be a plot précis, which would be rather dull. So a good review should be subjective. It should also have an argument that can be backed up with evidence – otherwise it is just an opinion piece, and anyone can write an opinion piece. Good reviews should be informed by an understanding of the medium and its history and they should also be guided by taste. When I say taste I am referring to an aesthetic response to a given work and not about some sort of preference for genre or style. A good review should be constructive not destructive – by all means damn films that are bad, but be intelligent in the damnation! There needs to be a reason why one would care to damn in the first place and that should lie at the heart of the review itself. Criticism, if done well is actually an act of love – a love of an art form, a love of culture and a love for the creative endeavour.

What do you bear in mind when you start writing a review?
I always ask myself what my argument is in this article. Why am I even writing it at all? I am too old and too busy to simply write for the sake of writing – full-time newspaper reviewers can do that, and good luck to them! I see certain films and feel utter indifference to them – I would not waste my energies in putting pen to paper with regard to those films. I much prefer to engage in criticism that matters. My engagement with Malaysian cinema sees me looking for what I think matters locally on screen and praising it or criticising it accordingly. Have an argument!

Moving to the more academic stuff, you’re teaching film studies at Monash University now. How do you teach someone about films? After all, it is an art form that depends a lot on instinct as well as knowledge, is it not?
We give students the knowledge, they come with their instincts – one area informs and helps develop the other; they are inseparable in the end. We do not teach film at Monash in order to create filmmakers. We teach Film Studies, which is a discrete discipline of theoretical and analytical enquiry that is academic by nature, rather than practical. Having said that, we have instigated a number of programmes to complement our academic activities by exposing students to a hands on engagement. Our new campus comes with a state-of-the-art Audio Visual Studio and we now have all the equipment on hand for our students to go out and make independent movies, if they so wish. So we have begun a process of mixing theory with practice that does not diminish the importance of the theory, but rather is complimentary to it. I have been asked to develop Film Studies into a full major and so therefore I am developing specific units of study that have a strong regional focus and that will be unique to Monash.

In a class of their own.How much practical knowledge should a university equip students with? After all, such experiences can be gained on the outside as well.
Practical knowledge is of course to be commended, but universities are charged with more than that. We create critically thinking mature adults who have the intellectual breadth and vision to go out and change the world they live in. Learning the craftsmanship of the filmmaking profession can take place elsewhere – at colleges or internships or on the job itself. We expose students to practice, but primarily to give tactile substance to their critical and theoretical engagement with film and film culture.

Speaking of experience, I am wondering about the issue of background and qualification. Let’s take Amir Muhammad, for example. He studied law, rather than film, at university. How would a formal film education be an advantage, when so many successful Malaysian filmmakers don’t have one?
Amir also did Film Studies as an elective in his Law degree – film theory, not practice – but such study did I understand inform his subsequent film work. He also came out of a writing background – he was something of a child prodigy in journalism. A formal film education – either theory and analysis or practical and hands on is of course an advantage, but it is certainly not the only avenue to a career in the film industry. And great directors and artists can come from many different backgrounds.

‘Indie’ filmmakers.Yasmin Ahmad once wrote that “our [Malaysian] films are labelled either as ‘mainstream’ or ‘indie’, a label that abhors me, and it’s difficult for me to understand those labels. It’s even worse when, recently, ‘indie’ films is now considered as a genre.” What do you think about that statement?
The labels are peculiar and the term ‘indie’ itself is open to contestation. So in a sense Yasmin is right! Her career is a good example where one could argue that the indie spirit has translated nicely into mainstream successful endeavours. Hopefully the industry will absorb more independent filmmakers into the mainstream distribution and production networks. That will ultimately strengthen Malaysian film overall.

Personally, I would define films for the purpose that they’re made for (commercial = mainstream). How would you then define the films in Malaysia?
I agree with you. The terms define modes of production and distribution – indie films more often than not having limited commercial releases if at all and relying much more on the global festival circuits. Mainstream Malaysian films are aimed at local mass audiences and have little capacity for distribution abroad. Let us bridge the gap, perhaps?

If the films themselves are identified as indie or mainstream, what can be said about the filmmakers themselves? The likes of James Lee and Amir Muhammad will be releasing mainstream affairs this year, while Osman Ali already tried his hands at that. Can, and should, filmmakers, like films, be defined?
There is a strange human need to constantly classify – some sort of scientific neatness and tidiness in our natures compels us to do this. But it is very limiting. James Lee, Amir and Osman Ali are filmmakers. They started out in independent modes of production and distribution and they made films that experimented with narrative and form and I guess could be given that other odd label of ‘art cinema’. But we should celebrate the fact that they are given opportunities to bring their skills, talent and artistry to films of a deliberately more commercial nature. Such crossover can only be good for film in general in this country. I see exciting times ahead here.

The REAL reason why we watch pontianak movies…A lot of the bankable mainstream Malaysian films are horror films. I am interested to know what you think about this. Is star power or plot more important in these cases?
Southeast Asian cinema cultures have always had a strong tradition of horror. Malaysian hantu and pontianak films have a long lineage and reflect certain traits and elements of adat in Malay society that acknowledges a fear and belief in what might be labeled the supernatural. That tradition has had its ups and downs as opposition to a belief in the supernatural became strong with Islamic revivalism from the 1970s on. But it still survives in one shape or another. I actually subscribe to the belief that horror films and horror stories play a sort of cathartic role in all societies. Our own fears and insecurities in our lives are briefly purged through a collective assembly in a darkened cinema where we get to scream out loud!

Plot, narrative and star power combine I think in assuring that these films are, as you say ‘bankable’.

Japaneseness not required.Moving on to the ‘indie’ scene, there’s been a tendency to show a slice of Malaysian life on screen. These ‘slices’ are being lapped up foreign audiences, with our films winning plenty of awards overseas. This leads to my question: is it our life that is interesting to foreigners, or is it the films themselves? Or both?
Both. The films that are being given awards internationally deserve their success as films. They are good, often great works of contemporary global cinema. But one would also be naïve not to acknowledge that foreign audiences are also attracted to the sense of difference – even perhaps the exotic if you like. Either way, it is heartening to see Malaysian filmmakers making a considerable impact upon global cinema. Cinema, after all, is not owned by nations or peoples. If a Malaysian buys a theatre ticket to see the latest Spielberg flick, they are not simply observing the culture of Southern California, they are purchasing their own stake culturally in the film. Film as an art and as a language goes beyond the narrow confines of cultural ownership and nationality. I do not need to be Japanese to know that Tokyo Story is a masterpiece.

How would you like to see the Malaysian film industry further involve? For example, if you could enact a certain practice or law, what would it be?
I leave it to Malaysian citizens and voters to make recommendations about laws! I would of course like to see a more mature attitude to censorship and classification in Malaysia. But that time will, I sense, come. I also think a mature nation can begin a dialogue further on what actually comprises Malaysian content – it seems absurd to me that films set in rubber plantations but with dialogue in Tamil are not considered technically Malaysian films. The language issue with regard to film status needs a more flexible approach.

I also look forward to less of a divide in time between the indie and mainstream sectors of the film industry – that process has commenced and is to be applauded.

Seng Tat rose to the occasionAt the moment, are there any filmmakers that truly caught you eye? Someone that we should probably watch out for in the future?
Azhar, Liew Seng Tat, Akashdeep Singh are among filmmakers worth watching out for. There is a lot of talent around and the Malaysian Shorts series is always something I look forward to attending. Often wonderful surprises are screened.

I’m told that you’re also organising some sort of film festival by the end of this year. Care to tell us a bit more about that?
I am hoping to bring back to KL some recent Southeast Asian films from the 5th Annual Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference taking place in Manila later this year. I shall keep you posted as to those developments. I am also commencing a research project on indie film in the Philippines and would naturally love to screen some of their work here in Malaysia as well. Monash now runs two monthly screenings of our Nasi Bungkus Cinema program. I co-curate that with Dr Yeoh Seng Guan. We showcase the work of both our students and more established and emerging local and regional filmmakers at those events. There is much to do and a lot to be positive about!

Check out Ben’s reviews of ‘The Last Communist’ and ‘Flower in the Pocket’. If you want more…well, Google lah. 🙂

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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