Good Gestalt – Come Hell or High Water


Sheril Bustaman gets the honour of our first ever full review for a short film, courtesy of the man that is Hassan Muthalib.

When I go through something, I follow
through, come hell or high water.

– Tengku Mohd. Ali Bustaman

What comes across to me first after viewing a film is its gestalt (German: form). It could be either good gestalt or bad gestalt. (That’s something you learn in a class on Film Dynamics, by the way.) The gestalt psychologists say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. How you feel immediately after watching a film is a pointer as to whether the film is good or not. It is the ‘whole’ rather than the parts that affect you first. If you had a good feeling about it, that means the parts were arranged in a manner that contributed to a satisfying whole. If the structure is sound, form definitely follows.

Happy meals for happy couples.
Happy meals for happy couples.

This is how I felt after watching Sheril Bustaman’s mini documentary on her parents entitled ‘Come Hell or High Water’. From the first scene to the last, she was in control of all the parts of her story – right from her title to the choice of locations, manner of shooting, the use of graphics, and also the quote at the end. In structuring it thus, Sheril has crafted a film that exudes excellent gestalt. What Sheril has achieved as a student with this film is much more than many veterans have managed in the industry. Her supervisor is probably thoroughly satisfied – if not downright gleeful! It means she has studied well. Or she’s the kind of person who has that something that eludes many filmmakers – an instinctive understanding of form. Could this have come down from her parents? Hmm, that calls for another article sometime in the future…

Or perhaps it is because this is a film close to Sheril’s heart. And why not? It is about her parents. They are not ordinary parents, mind you. Both of them admit to being strong-headed and doing what they think needs to be done. Usually this kind of partnership would result in sparks flying (and perhaps some other things too!). Perhaps that’s why Sheril decided not to interview them together at the same time. Who knows what would have happened – especially when Sheril’s mother is the second wife of her father!

The film begins with her father being interviewed by an off-camera person. He doesn’t look directly at the camera but is relaxed and speaks as if he’s reminiscing in front of a friend. Behind him is a restless sea with dark rocks, hardly a spot for rest and recreation but in the context of the story and character, the association is a pointer as to the kind of person he really is. Interviews are then conducted with Sheril’s mother but right until the end of the film, Sheril’s father is always speaking at the same location by the sea. He says nonchalantly that he knew that she was a ‘wild sort of person’ but wasn’t going to take anyone’s word for it. The decision was his and he stuck by it – come hell or high water. At the end of the film, to a question by the interviewer, he says in a matter-of-fact manner: “When I go through something, I follow through, come hell or high water.” And to another question as to whether every day has been great for him, he gives a terse: “Yeah.” And you know he means everything that he says. Sheril’s father epitomises the strong, silent hero of old, someone you can go on a hazardous journey with and someone you can depend on when the going gets rough.

The kind of shooting you won't get arrested for. Well, not usually anyways.
The kind of shooting you won’t get arrested for. Well, not usually anyways.

The interview with Sheril’s mother is a visual contrast to that of her father. She stands against a wall and speaks directly to the camera. In intercuts, she smokes – and even blows smoke into the camera lens. She, too, is very direct and tells it the way it is; that she knew he was already married; that her parents initially were not happy because ‘he was already old,’ and that he already had a wife. When Sheril was born, her family finally came around because they liked babies, and they knew that she ‘didn’t like whining children.’ But she had good things to say about Sheril’s father; how he was patient and considerate, and is full of admiration for him, seeing him as a screen hero in the likes of Charles Bronson. He was even liked by her father when they first met! And she considers her father very highly…

Good gestalt again comes into play when intercuts show a repetition of shots. Dinner time is family time and visually, this always means peace and harmony. Earlier in the film, her parents are sitting side by side enjoying dinner with the family. Later we see her mother’s family also having dinner together. The similarity (one of the elements in gestalt psychology) is a signifier as to both families being in harmony with each other. From early on, they knew they could not restrict each other as both were strong-headed. And religion did not figure prominently (Sheril cleverly avoids going into this further). Sheril’s father was spiritually-bent; for him, as long as one knows what one is doing and it doesn’t go against religious beliefs, that was good enough for him. Strict rules were unnecessary. Like the Chinese symbol of the Yin and Yang – two opposites that work together in harmony – a satisfying whole can be created. Figure becomes ground and ground becomes figure depending on how you look at it it. Sheril’s parents early on had decided on having a similar, but at the same time an individual, point of view. And that’s why their marriage had succeeded.

Many shots show Sheril’s understanding of visuals that are symbolic, that relate to character as well as contribute to the good gestalt of the film. For example, her father’s ‘rugged character’ in the mould of Charles Bronson as described by her mother, fits with Sheril’s choice of a rugged coastline as a background for him. We can feel that this is a man of adventure. In one dramatic low angle shot, he is set against a blue sky, cutting a heroic figure. The sky is usually a spiritual signifier and can at times be taken to mean as divine acceptance of the person portrayed. The sea is a signifier of the origin of life and can also mean distant horizons and mysteries to be explored and with water signifying purity of heart. Sheril’s father cleaning his father’s grave further enhances his spiritual image, of a man who does not forget his roots and where he came from. Good gestalt is again seen when, like Sheril’s mother, her father also mentions that initially they had problems; that it wasn’t like what you read in romantic novels or saw in films. Though they faced ridicule and crude comments from people, their marriage survived it all.

This was actually a 'practice' shot that made its way into the final cut.
This was actually a ‘practice’ shot that made its way into the final cut.

Like most students who make films, Sheril cannot resist a ‘making of’ ending. As the credits roll, a box has (this guy looks familiar!) being interviewed. He is clearly self-conscious and when he is asked what he thought of inter-racial marriages, he blurts out that it is when ‘one human race marry (sic) another human race’. LOL! We can forgive him his choice of words and grammar. After all, no one – including Sheril’s parents – is perfect.

And oh, did I mention that Sheril’s father is Malay and her mother Chinese? And that they have been married for almost 25 years? In the context of the socio-political situation today, I will consider that as fantastic gestalt! I think the nice little quotation from Arthur Miller at the end in the on-screen graphics nicely sums it all up:

Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.

Check out the film’s Facebook page, and like it while you’re there. There’s no trailer for the film yet, so do make do with another short film of Sheril’s, ‘I Am’. We reviewed Encik Hassan’s book ‘Malaysian Cinema In A Bottle’, which you can purchase here.

Featured image credit: Mr Wallpaper


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