Tuan Zain, A Malaysian Visionary and a Principled Documentary Filmmaker

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In a special article, Mr Hassan Muthalib takes a closer look at the godfather of Malaysian documentary films.

After more than three decades of his passing, the contributions and dedication of Mohd. Zain Hussain has finally been acknowledged. At the 2013 Malaysian Documentary Film Awards organised by the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS), Tuan Zain, as he was more popularly known, was given, posthumously, the Veteran Documentary Filmmaker Award. On hand to receive it was his son, Zahari Zain.

Among the documentary films made by Zain at the Malayan Film Unit studios are ‘Hassan’s Homecoming’ and ‘Mandi Safar’. These two films have won numerous awards at international film festivals such as Berlin, Edinburgh, Melbourne and Venice. His most famous film is the colour film – his first – called ‘Timeless Temiar’, made in 1957. It was bought by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for distribution and screening in the United States and Canada.

1526432_10203335940493748_4329716882450884536_nFrom 1963 until 1971, Zain was the Director of the Malayan Film Unit (MFU – later to be known as Filem Negara Malaysia [FNM]). During his stewardship, many films were produced to support the government’s efforts in nation building in the post-Independence period as well as after the formation of Malaysia.

Mohd. Zain Hussain was born in Jelutong, Penang on the 19th of June, 1921 and received his education at the Penang Free School. In 1939, he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Zain became a member of Force 136 and parachuted down into the jungles of Grik, Perak, together with other members. Due to his skill at sending Morse code messages, he became an asset to the group in its covert fight against the Japanese army. One of his compatriots was (General Tun) Ibrahim Ismail who later became the third Chief of Staff of the Malaysian Armed Forces.

In 1947, Zain headed the march past by the Malayan Armed Forces Contingent in London and was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE). In the same year, Zain joined the MFU as a sound recordist, then transferred to the Camera Department as a cameraman. Among the earliest films that he photographed was ‘The Kinta Story’ in 1949, directed by H.W. Govan, who was MFU’s first head. The film recorded the role of the people working the mines in the Kinta Valley in Perak and their efforts in combating the communists who were terrorising them. The film participated at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1950.

‘Before the Wind ‘, made in 1953, was Zain’s first directorial effort. It won an award at the Asia Film Festival and was about how fishermen in the East Coast were being helped to continue catching fish during the monsoon season. His second film a year later, ‘Hassan’s Homecoming’, proved that he had what it took to be a film director. The film won two international awards. It was about how a young padi planter who is beset with debts, benefits from the village cooperative and manages to get out of the cycle of poverty.

10492303_10203335935053612_3701359210822976430_nWhen Tom Hodge became the head of MFU from 1952 to 1957, a colour film, ‘Timeless Temiar’, was planned specifically to participate in international film festivals. It was about the daily life of the Temiar aborigines in the jungles of Perak not far from the town of Grik in Perak. Even though he was the director of the film, Zain also handled a part of the cinematography.

In the making of this film, Zain had a confrontation with Hodge on a matter of principle. Zain felt an obligation not to show the aborigine women in the manner that they were used to – that is, being topless, as he felt that they would become objects to be ogled at. Zain wanted to have them with sarongs or beads that would cover their physical endowments. Hodge insisted that they be photographed as they were. Zain, however, stood his ground. Hodge finally acquiesced when almost all MFU staff stood solidly behind Zain and were prepared to resign en masse if Hodge did not agree to Zain’s plan.

Zain began ‘Timeless Temiar’ with visuals of modern Kuala Lumpur, and then shifted to the town of Ipoh with more modern buildings. The famous portrait artist, (Dato’) Hosseinanas, who had earlier worked at MFU as a titling artist and was now with the Aborigines Affairs Department, appeared on camera smoking his iconic pipe. He was seen being driven in a jeep and then taken on a boat ride up river, heading into the jungle. The visuals were structured thus by Zain so that a foreign audience could see that Malaya was already a modern nation and that the aborigines were those who were still living traditionally in the jungles.

10359532_10203335942333794_6605710852995033541_nWhen Malaysian soldiers were sent to Congo in the 1960s on a United Nations-sponsored peace-keeping programme, Zain went along as a cameraman with the rank of Major together with Amir Shamsuddin, a senior cameraman. With his experience during the War, Zain managed to bring back many memorable shots of the situation in the Congo.

Zain’s personal world view, as well as his nationalist tendencies, can be discerned in his films’ narratives and also in his directorial style. In almost every one of his films, Malays were seen as people who were hard-working and fending for themselves, and who cooperated with each other (particularly in ‘Hassan’s Homecoming’). It was all cinematically presented through his camerawork in the use of close ups, low angle shots and frequent framing of the subject against the sky. This results in what is known as affection images, one that raises the image of the ordinary man as a heroic or mythic figure. As such, he attains the status of a ‘warrior’ in the mind of the audience. And in almost every film by Zain, he utilised the mythic narrative structure. Perhaps he instinctively knew that the still traditional audience would react positively to this kind of treatment.

Zain was a positive thinker who did not tolerate backbiting among his staff. He always felt that it was a regressive attitude. Though short of funds himself, he was always ready to help others in need and never thought of being repaid. He had an incredible attitude towards his profession. He had not taken a single day’s official leave since joining MFU in 1947 until his retirement in 1971. Many times, he would return to the office at night to look at and approve a film after it was edited due to its tight deadline.

This attitude to his work made him neglect his home life. His first marriage sadly ended in divorce. An incident in Pahang confirmed his utter dedication to work. During the making of the film, ‘Rohani Steps Out’ (1954), that was shot in a village in Pahang, the girl who was playing the lead role, fell in love with Zain (who was directing her). Halfway, she threatened to leave the production if Zain did not marry her. To save the production, Zain agreed and, forthwith, married her!

10433784_10203335933133564_5346494593966452608_nZain took over as the head of FNM in 1963. He was not one who waited for orders from his superiors. He told me of his commitment to his profession: “I’m a filmmaker. I know what kind of films to make for my country.” His frequent advice to the staff was: “Make a film that is ten years ahead of its time.” Zain preached what he practiced. He introduced a series of docudramas like ‘Kesah Kampong Kita’, and gave opportunities to new directors. He came up with a police series called ‘Tongkat Hitam’, directed by (Datuk) S. Roomai Noor. Through these series of films, Zain introduced new faces as actors, among them: Raja Ismail, Rosmawati, Hussein Abu Hassan and Tony Azman, as well as new directors such as Haji Azmi, Mohasbi and Abdullah Chik. The films entertained but subtly called upon the village folk to be self-reliant and to solve their problems through consensus. At the same time, problems of gangsterism and drugs that had not made their impact felt yet among the populace were introduced as a warning of what could befall the nation.

A number of films under his supervision won awards at international film festivals. Among them were ‘Mata Permata’ (1964), directed by Osman Haji Shamsuddin. It was adapted by Aziz Jahpin from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, ‘The Necklace’. In the lead role was singer, (Tan Sri) S.M. Salim, who appeared on screen for the first time; ‘Corridors of Faith’ (1966), directed by Ronnie Tan, and ‘Pearl of the Orient’ (1970), directed by Shaharoom Shahaban, a colour film in Cinemascope that promoted Penang as a tourist destination.

In the 1960s, Zain desired to process and print colour film in Malaysia. At the time, negatives were being sent to London or Australia for that purpose. To prove that it was possible, as early as 1969, Zain personally did an experiment by processing and printing a length of colour film in FNM’s laboratory. However, it was only after more than a decade that a colour film laboratory was set up in FNM.

10390373_10203335932253542_7180538032984750322_nZain was a teacher extraordinaire. As an expert in every area of filmmaking that also included the technical aspects of sound and film processing, Zain was ever willing to share his knowledge and ready to guide anyone who had an interest. Many of those who are well known names in the industry today acknowledge him as their guru and mentor, among them: Haji Azmi (director of photography of the feature, ‘Abang’), Mohd. Ali Hanafiah (cinematographer for commercials) and Karunanithy (director of photography of the feature, ‘Adik Manja’); film directors like Hafsham, Adman Salleh and myself, and film editor, Salehan Shamsuddin. After retiring, Zain conducted informal training sessions in film and photography for young people in Ipoh and in Kuala Lumpur.

It was unfortunate that the events after May 13th, 1969 created a situation that was not consonant with Zain’s style of doing things. He began to receive instructions to do things in a certain way which he deemed not to be professional. This situation (coupled with a petition by six senior staff of FNM who had a bone to pick with him) resulted in Zain being asked to retire early. Even though this problem had been one brought about by his right-hand man, Zain was not a man to complain and he took total responsibility as the man in charge. Before this, too, Zain had rejected the request of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister at the time, for FNM to be involved in the production of the feature film, ‘Raja Bersiong’. Produced by Shaw Brothers in 1968, Zain felt that it was a commercial venture and was not in line with FNM’s objectives.

With the end of Mohd. Zain Hussain’s era, FNM became only a shadow of its former self. No longer did FNM’s films win any prestigious awards in the top categories such as Best Film or Best Script. Even though retired, Zain kept in touch with what was happening in the industry. He saw how the feature film industry was struggling to survive in producing Malay films and did not appear to be headed anywhere.

In the early 1970s, Zain wrote out a proposal and sent it to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, outlining a plan to turn FNM into a corporation so that it could help the local feature film industry. He received a prompt reply, that said that it was a good idea and it would be looked into.

1258However, after a few years, there was an alternative suggestion by people with vested interests to create a new entity (which would become FINAS). If Zain had been alive then, no doubt he would have qualified to become the first head. And I have no doubt he would have transformed the industry in the shortest of times. But fate had a different agenda. Zain’s time on earth was coming to an end. He died in 1978 after suffering a heart attack while driving. It was ironic that the place where it happened was hardly a kilometer away from where FINAS is sited today!

Zain would be deeply saddened, too, if he knew that the studio that he loved was finally ‘swallowed’ by the very entity that it was supposed to have become. On the 1st of January 2013 (the year he was given his posthumous award), the name of Filem Negara Malaysia was wiped away forever and the studio was absorbed by FINAS. This sad situation came about due to the apathy and failure of the FNM management to propose a restructuring of FNM’s original objectives so as to continue to be relevant in the millennium.

FNM should have looked into its rich store of archival material as an asset that could be commercially viable. FNM was a pioneer in animation and this was a potential area to explore, especially with the most up-to-date hardware and software that had been bought for year after year but were never used to their utmost potential. With the developments taking place in the field of animation, FNM could have become a major producer of animation series for RTM as well as become consultants to the industry as well as provide training. FNM could produce high profile documentaries for overseas television stations to expose the peoples, cultures and developments taking place in the nation. Ironically, the production of documentaries was diverted instead to FINAS which did not have the expertise to manage them.

Mohd. Zain Hussain, A.M.N., K.M.N., M.B.E., was a Malay genius, who had steadfast principles in life. He was honourable in his dealings and had a personal identity. He was a warrior in every sense of the word. As one of the pioneers of documentary filmmaking, he had put Malaysian documentaries on the world film map while contributing to the nation’s development during the crucial times of the Emergency and the post-Independence period.

His contributions and dedication should never be forgotten. May Allah rest his soul in peace. Amin.

Republished with permission by Hassan Muthalib. It was originally published here. Check out our review of Encik Hassan’s book ‘Malaysian Cinema in a Bottle’. As an aside, here’s a writeup about the Malayan Film Unit by Colonial Film.

Featured image credit: Budak Pensel

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