Silver Screen University – Filmmaking from the Ivory Towers

Noticing a trend, Fikri Jermadi takes a closer look at films backed by institutes of higher education.

There’s something about the heat in Kelantan that makes you want to take off your shirt. To put down your camera, to shower under the coconut drink and enjoy the endless supply of ice kacang bought from the roadside stalls. Many a time, that temptation was too strong to resist. Inadvisable, then, to find yourself loitering in the area, under the hot sun. One suggests that staying under the shade would have worked, but the shade provides little protection…if you can find it, that is.

Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have been here. But this is no ordinary trip, and this is no ordinary place. I am sitting next to a small shed specifically constructed for the film ‘Wayang’. The production is ongoing, with the director, Hatta Azad Khan, currently discussing with his cinematographer under the director’s tent. All around me, people buzz about the set, their minds set on the goal of setting up the next scene.

Neither is this an ordinary production. Fully backed by Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), the majority of the crew are staff and students from the Faculty of Artistic and Creative Technologies (FACT). Imagine, if you will, an entire faculty transported from its comfortable surroundings in Selangor into the harsh realities of a film set in Bachok, Kelantan.

The hierarchy remains intact in many respects, with the crew’s expertise reflecting their role in the production. There’s Mazlan Tahir, the acting teacher, seeking solace to prepare for his acting role. Nur Afifi Mohamed Taib, who teaches make-up, is busy ensuring that the desired effect is achieved by his students. In another time, another world, the cinematographer, Mazli Abdul Rahman, teaches the same students about photography and cinematography.

The aforementioned director is the dean of FACT. That’s not to say that he earned the directing job by way of that title. The script, which he wrote, is a winner at a script competition organised by the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS); he has also directed movies in the past, most notably ‘Mat Som’. In more recent times, he has concentrated more on theatre, being at the helm of Istana Budaya before joining UiTM. He would know how many performing arts beans in a row made five.

Having said that, not everyone wants to be here; it is, after all, the semester holiday for many. Many of them are have to be here, as a part of their practical experience (UiTM students would usually have to complete a practical unit before they’re allowed to graduate). Despite the grumbles, they still manage to tackle the production with vigour and enthusiasm.

Herein lies an advantage with the university crew. Many a times, making films is a stressful business. At best, the crew will work for slightly less than 12 hours of the day. This depends on the number of scenes lined up that day, as well as the speed with which scenes are completed. The script, at times, can be misleading; a two-line scene set at a clinic took the best part of three hours to shoot. It’s normal for shooting to wrap in the early hours of the morning, like 4am. And that’s only for the principal crew, such as the director and leading actors. For those whose job it is to dismantle the lights and pack up the cameras, the job is much more unforgiving.

In such circumstances, then, the bond between the crew members vital. It helps if the morale and spirits are high. When the going gets tough, it helps the tough get going if everyone is familiar with each other, and there’s more than a few jokes running around. You’re not just working with a fellow professional, you’re fighting in the trenches with your friends and classmates who you’ve known for years. It helps to lighten much of the burden.

In truth, there are also hired professionals scattered amongst the crew. The main camera and lighting work are all carried out by hired professionals, guns for hire from a local production company. The main members of the cast are also well-known professionals in the film industry, with local stars Eman Manan, Zul Huzaimy, and Ida Nerina taking top billing on the poster.

But make not mistake about it: this is a UiTM film. The movie is being made with money from the university, who is stumping up around RM1 million for the production. It sounds like a lot of money, but it runs like water seeping through your fingers if spent for making movies. In that regard, using students as crew members is probably as much a cost-saving exercise as it is an experience-giving one.

Using their vast network, UiTM are also able to facilitate many logistical aspects that would be beyond the reach of other productions. A university coach was called upon to transport the majority of the students, while a fleet of lorries and vans also make their presence felt, charged with ferrying film and lighting equipment to and fro locations. Accommodations were also easily arranged for the Terengganu leg of the shoot schedule, with the principal cast and crew putting up at Hotel UiTM in Dungun.

UiTM is not the pioneer in this regard, though. Somewhat infamously, ‘Johnny Bikin Filem’, a film directed by Anuar Nor Arai, was backed by Universiti Malaya some years back, but was never commercially released. It’s not difficult to see why, given that the original cut ran for over five hours long. There are plans to salvage it, with the film being reedited and recut for release as you read this.

More successfully, Limkokwing University has also been active in making movies for outside distribution. In collaboration with Greenlight Pictures, the Limkokwing Film and Television Academy (LFTA) have recently completed the production of ‘Kurus’, a telemovie that will be shown on NTV7. This follows on from their production of ‘Hidden Summer in My Heart’, a Felix Tan film released in cinemas last year.

Directed by Woo Ming Jin, ‘Kurus’ is a coming of age story for 15-year-old Ali, and is told mainly in Bahasa Malaysia, with smatterings of English and Cantonese. “Kurus is a very meaningful and sweet story,” said producer Aron Koh, who is also the head of LFTA. “Hopefully this will become a hit on television, especially since it has entered the Hong Kong Film Festival.”

Expanding it to the international film festival scene is definitely one of the aims for the film, since it is actually a telemovie rather than a feature film in its own right. “NTV7 approached us a while back about doing a telemovie for them,” said director Woo Ming Jin, himself an award-winning filmmaker. “It is commissioned for their Festival programme, which showcases independent films every week.”

“They gave us RM70,000 for this production, and it is made for TV,” he continued, “but we’re not limiting it to that. Hopefully, this will have a life of its own outside of TV as well, namely in international film festivals and the like.”

But what of Limkokwing’s involvement in this production? “I knew that we needed some help still, even with NTV7’s backing,” said Ming Jin. “I’ve known Aron for some time, and I know that he would be interested in doing this. Furthermore, Limkokwing can bring things to the production that we simply don’t have. All in all, it was a complimentary relationship.”

“We want to help to uplift the local film industry,” Aron explained. “Our academy is involved in the pre-production through to the post-production process of ‘Kurus’. This exercise helped to enhance the students’ filmmaking skills. Some of them even acted in it, making the whole process more beneficial for them.”

Ultimately, that’s one of the main aims of both UiTM and Limkokwing in getting involved in filmmaking. It all comes back to the students. Eman Manan, in one of his sessions with the students all sitting around him, lectured them on this. “Theory is theory,” he preached, waving his hands about as if it’s a magic wand. “You can study about acting and about filmmaking all you want, but nothing beats experience.

“You can’t feel the practice of filmmaking in the classroom,” he concluded. “You go to a film set in the morning, set up at 9 or 10, and shoot at noon or later. You can’t get this experience, can’t learn this patience in the classroom.”

Shadow Play – A synopsis of ‘Wayang’
The story follows Awang Lah (Eman Manan), a shadow play tok dalang (master puppeteer) idolised by a young, blind orphan, Awi. His enthusiasm for wayang kulit is infectious, and Awang Lah and his wife (Ida Nerina) adopt him. Soon after, they adopt a girl, Melor, after the death of her grandmother. All this while, Awang Lah’s brother, Jusoh (Wan Kenari), does not like Awang Lah’s activities, considering wayang kulit to be against Islam. As Awi (Zul Huzaimy) and Melor (Mas Muharni) grow up together, they begin to fall in love for each other. Jusoh eventually becomes jealous of this as well, and he strives to drive them apart. As the family drama unfolds, Awang Lah continues to perform wayang kulit shows, the stabilising influence in their lives.

Short and Sweet – A synopsis of ‘Kurus’
‘Kurus’ follows the everyday life of Ali (Arshad Zamir), a 15-year-old boy who has to come to terms with growing up with a single father (Namron) and a nosey neighbour (Mislina Mustapha) seemingly eyeing for his affection. With the arrival of a new teacher, Miss Liew (Carmen Soo), Ali finds himself developing a crush on her. At the same time, he and his best friend, Hassan (Ahmad Muzhaffar) experience the awkward stage of being a teenager, spending their day fishing and getting bullied, and learning to deal with that.

First published in Issue 42 of Education Quarterly (around late February/early March 2008). And on the note of experience, Fikri totally agrees with Eman Manan.

Featured image credit: Mediterranean School of Missions

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