Not so long ago, I contacted Zan Azlee, the documentary filmmaker, for an interview. At that time, he was busy working on the ‘Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite’, a series of short documentary videos he’s been regularly posting on his blogs and YouTube channel. They were an interesting bunch of videos, and I figured an interview would be in order to find out more about both him and the series. I’ve seen him at screenings in and around the Klang Valley, and while he seems like a fun and jovial person, I never really had the opportunity to know him better.
Zan is a filmmaker who has been making documentaries for quite a number of years now. In addition to that (or vice versa), he also teaches at a private higher education institution, and writes regular columns for The Malaysian Insider.
I guess it’s best we start at the beginning. You’re primarily a documentary filmmaker. What and who actually inspired you into taking your first steps into this field?
I’ve always liked telling stories. It started with writing when I was a kid. Then when I graduated from university, I just got a job as a writer/journalist at a newspaper. I also liked film and used to watch and talk a lot about films with my friends. Then I stumbled upon a post-graduate course on broadcast journalism and just thought I could be making documentaries, so why not.
Were there any particular documentarian you looked up to?
I like a lot of documentary filmmakers. Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, Sean Langan, Sebastian Junger, Amir Muhammad, Albert Maysles, too many to mention!
However, prior to that you actually studied accounting. What made you jump from that field to journalism?
I was never interested in accounting, other than to just try it out and see if I could do it. I really enjoyed telling stories but just didn’t really know how I could study or make a career out of it. I was offered a job at a newspaper right after I graduated and that just opened up my eyes.
Of course, from print journalism you then moved to making documentaries on a more regular basis, both of which placed an emphasis on portraying the truth. Given that you’re fairly prolific in both writing and filming, I wonder if you have a preference of one medium over another.
I have no preference at all. I love it all!
From the start of your film career until now, you have primarily concentrated on making documentaries, both long and short. What made you stay with this particular genre of filmmaking?
It’s just my interest. I’ve never been interested to produce fiction, either for the screen or for print. I like to observe things around me and also to tell people what I’ve experienced. It’s just a bloody excuse for not being creative enough for fiction lah! Hahaha!
What do you think of the documentary industry right now in Malaysia?
It’s quite good actually. There are lots of Malaysian production companies, and filmmakers are making documentaries for international broadcasters. But as for feature length documentaries, Malaysia is lacking.
Why is that?
I think the audience in Malaysia just won’t watch these films. There used to be documentary releases, especially at Cineleisure at The Curve. I remember going to watch, and there were never more than 10 people in the cinema at any one time. Probably it doesn’t have the mass appeal as big Hollywood action movies.
Who is the target audience you have in mind for your films?
The target audience is me! Muahaha! But seriously, I target all Malaysians.
How would you get your story ideas?
That’s simple! Anything that interests me at that particular point in time! Hahaha! But it’s been skewed towards identity, race, ethnicity and religious issue with a tinge of pop culture. Fuu-yoh!
You practice a gonzo style of journalism, with your good self essentially being the star of the show. How much does this affect the objectivity of your films?
My films are never meant to be objective. It is always meant to be from my perspective and I don’t hide that fact. So although I may be biased, I do make sure that I am honest.
You once wrote about an audience member rebuking a stance you took in a film, where you claimed to have judged the subject. How does this affect your filmmaking?
Judging and making observations are two different things. Feedback from the audience is really important. However, you need to be confident enough to be able to take criticism. There are feedback that I accept and allow to evaluate and better myself with. And there are also feedback that I choose to ignore.
How honest can you be in making films and documentaries?
I am very honest. But of course, only so much can fit into a documentary. And I think an audience would understand that.
In one of your columns for The Malaysian Insider, you discussed the issue of sensationalism. As a documentarian, how strong is the temptation to present something as better than it actually is?
The temptation is always there. I think it all depends on your own perception. If I perceive something as important or significant, then I will show it like that because that is how it is for me. But it might not be the same for someone else.
You also identify yourself as a Muslim filmmaker. What does that mean, exactly?
I’m a Muslim and I’m a filmmaker. Simple.
Would a concept like an Islamic film or a Christian film, for example, essentially have similar, if not the same elements?
I ask because there is a growing genre of Christian films in America and beyond. Do you see something similar occurring for Muslim films, either here or anywhere else?
Muslim films have always been big ever since 9/11. I think it is one of the most done topics.
I read that you make films because you want to discover your own identity as a Malay and as a Muslim. Has it gone according to plan?
Yes. It’s gone according to plan. I’d like to believe that I am a more confident person now because of making my films. I feel that I’m more confident of my identity and my beliefs because of all the things that I have seen in the world and all of the people I’ve spoken to.
At the same time, how helpful have your films been in enlightening others?
I don’t how helpful my films have been. I hope it has helped people. I do get some positive feedback. But I also do get negatives one. But my main objective is really just to create awareness in people and not answers. In fact, it would be better if my films make people question even more.
Let’s take the short documentary about polygamy made for a Dutch television station, for example. What was the reaction to that particular film like?
Not much reaction actually. The European audience saw it as something interesting and unique. The Malaysian audience…they weren’t too bothered I guess.
Of course, both of the identities of the above (Malay and Muslim) are heavily shaped by the state. I wonder whether you have had significant problems when it comes to presenting your own portrayals of Islam and Malayness.
Of course I have. I have received calls telling me I shouldn’t portray Muslims they way I have. For example, when I interviewed a heavy metal band from Iran in my documentary ‘I’m Muslim Too!’, an old lady called into the station and said I shouldn’t show the negativities of Islam. But how is it a negative thing? They’re just playing music. And once, I made a short documentary about homosexuality in Islam. I received messages from people who hoped that my daughter would grow up and have sex with animals. But things like this…you can’t take seriously lah.
I ask that because the government banned one of your documentaries only two days before it’s screening date. What kind of impact does this have on your filmmaking efforts?
It’s cool to be banned! Hahaha! It doesn’t really affect me much. So I’ll continue to make whatever film I want to. If you’re talking about how it affects my bread and butter…well…it’s important to not keep all your eggs in one basket.
On a related matter, there are new proposals about how the new censorship rules [where the filmmakers will be doing the censoring] which will essentially give more filmmakers more power when it comes to their films. How much of a step forward is this?
This is bullshit. The proposal merely states that a committee of filmmakers will be the censorship board. So at the end of the day… you still need to abide to the rules, even if the rules are made by a different set of people.
With regards to openness, you are also a very keen practitioner of social networks such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. How conscious of a step is it to do so?
Yes. I consciously do so because it’s an important medium and you can interact with people.
How effectively has social networking been used in this country? Does it necessarily portray more truth to more people, or the other way around?
It does portray more truths. But it also proves that there are many truths out there. People just need to be smarter in order to evaluate everything.
How effective has YouTube been in pushing Malaysian filmmakers into making more content?
So so lah. It’s not like it’s been very effective. But it has helped.
Would you say that the Zan Azlee we get to see through these channels represent you accurately, or is it a different version? In other words, do you self-censor portrayals of yourself?
It’s very accurate as far as my journalistic and documentary work is concerned.
In an age where things appear to be more accessible more of the time, many people appear to take things as the truth at face value. Do you bear this in mind when you write an article, or when you make a film? Do you have to ‘construct’ even more specifically, so people do not take it wrongly?
I don’t care if people take my work wrongly. People shouldn’t be taking things at face value when information is more accessible. Like I mentioned previously, people need to be smarter to evaluate it.
People react differently when there’s a video camera around. However, with the prevalence of recording devices, will this reaction be more muted in the future, as people might be more used to being recorded?
Yes, definitely. My daughter gets a camera shoved in her face all the time and she isn’t even bothered. People will also be more used to using video cameras. And to me, that would mean that video might just be a new form of writing. So instead of just being literate, society will also need to be video-literate because it’s probably going to be a major form of communication.
Your modus operandi is as a one-man band, where things are done a lot quicker. Has there been times, though, when you wish for a bigger crew?
Nope. In fact, there were times when I am shooting with a crew and I wished I was alone.
You’ve been to Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand and Afghanistan, amongst others, for your films. What is your primary purpose for picking these locations?
Interesting places that I’ve never been to before!
With regards to Afghanistan, you’re currently in the process of exhibiting your latest documentary, Guide to Afghanistan: Adventures of a KL-ite. What was your purpose in this latest undertaking?
I’ve never been to Afghanistan! Hahaha! But my purpose was to see how people live over there.
I’ve been watching the mini-parts online since its release, and I wonder how tempting it must be for you to be involved at times. Even though you’re a documentarian, are there times when you wish you have the capability to make more of a difference to what’s going on in front of you? Does this affect how you record the events?
I can only do what I can. If I can only shoot to tell the story, then that’s all I do. If I can help in any other way, I will. Of course it affects how I record the events but I’m not hiding it.
I understand that this will also be made into a feature-length documentary. What is the difference between that and the short parts available on YouTube right now?
I don’t know yet. I will once I start editing the feature length version.
What has been your biggest challenge so far in your career?
Nothing really. It’s been a bed of roses! I don’t know if it’s a curse or a blessing.
You’re also a producer on The Biggest Loser Asia. I’m quite surprised to find out about this. How did this come about?
A friend of a friend recommended me to the executive producer. I thought it would be interesting to try and I definitely had fun. I’ve become really close friends with the executive producer and the rest of the crew and I have been working together with them on so many reality shows since then. But these kinds of reality shows are not the same as the documentaries that I do.
I also read that you directed a local reality TV show that searches for the next great Malaysian actor/actress. Which show was this?
Its Pilih Kasih on TV2 and I have been doing it for two seasons now. However, it is of a ‘different’ standard than the reality shows that I do with the BLA team! Haha!
How different would your approach be to directing and producing reality TV shows, as opposed to making documentaries?
It’s different in the sense that reality shows have set situations while documentaries are totally unpredictable. Other than that, it’s the same because both involves observing and recording what happens.
You have a daughter, Athena, who you’ve written about a number of times. With your understanding of the media and filmmaking, does it necessarily impact what you allow her to watch or otherwise?
Yes it does.
Where are you going now? What will be your next project?
Don’t know yet. Nothing has yet to capture my interest. Haha!
And finally, how many battery packs should people have with them when they’re shooting in the field?
As much as they can afford to buy and carry with them!
Zan keeps a regular blog on his site, Fat Bidin Media. You can also check out ‘Guide to Afghanistan: Adventures of a KL-ite’ on his Youtube channel, where you can also find his older works (or at least snippets of them). If you fancy more of the written stuff, his regular columns for The Malaysian Insider can be found here, and you can like or friend him on Facebook. Oh, and he tweets. And Instagrams. And Socialcams. Phew.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training