Fikri Jermadi takes a step back to take stock of Best Short Film nominees at the 28th Malaysian Film Festival.
Much of the talk about the upcoming edition of the Malaysian Film Festival have focused on the controversy with regards to its leading categories. While others will have their say, here at Thoughts on Films, we have decided (at least for now) to train our attention on the less considered but no less worthy filmmakers. The five films in the category of Best Short Film all have something different and interesting to say, and their voices are worth listening to.
Let’s start with ‘Selfie’, a very contemporary film in that it encapsulates the zeitgeist well. It is a simple story, one that is told within a very interesting set of aesthetics. It features a female character, involved in a relationship with a loving boyfriend. Yet we never actually see the guy. In fact, the male characters who do appear in the film tend to be quite two-dimensional in an effective way. For example, an antagonist of the film is never seen in whole, dismembered as he were by the close shots that hides his full face. It adds to the menace, suggesting a threat that is as omnipresent (it could be anyone) as it is faceless.
The main motif of the film is the female character’s phone. Under pressure from her boyfriend, she relented and took some nude selfies of herself, before the tension is ramped up with a misplacement of the phone. It sheds light not only on the ubiquity of the smartphone in modern society, but also on its importance. It is at once a daily diary, a purveyor of love letters, a keeper of secrets and a medium that connects us to the world in its very privacy. Such convergence, however, is not always welcomed by all; someone I know has never been keen on the latest edition of Malaysian identity cards (with many functions related to cashless money, ATM functions and more). “If you lose that, you lose everything,” she lamented.
For the MyKad read the smartphone, and that is something Yoges highlighted very well. In terms of the narrative, he displayed a nice dramatic touch, ramping up the tension whenever necessary. One particular scene was especially effective, as the sound of the cameraphone repeatedly clicking made things a little more disturbed than most. I couldn’t identify who did the sound design, but kudos should be given to that guy (or gal) nonetheless. There’s also a conclusive yet reflective ending to consider, one that is not without its morals for fans of such an approach.
This story above can be contrasted sharply with ‘UV’. Syakira Pauzi’s third directorial effort is set way into the future in the year 2049. It tells the story of a scientist on the run from the authorities. With natural births outlawed for nearly a decade, she is willing to do anything to protect her child. The notion of a forbidden birth is not entirely unfamiliar; there are overtones of ‘Children of Men’ at play here, which in itself is a remake of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. I do not believe that there is a direct or obvious religious intention to be inferred here, but certainly the creation of a certain miracle for the benefit of mankind is clear for all to see.
At the same time, much like ‘Children of Men’ (and other films in this genre), the future is a dystopia. On one level I find this to be an interesting trend developing in the context of Malaysian student short films. Made as a final year project for Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA), I understand that many such universities require a close collaboration with students from other programmes at the same level. This is not unusual by itself, but what it does mean is that many of these filmmakers now find themselves with visual effects designers to spare. Could it be that with such a requirement in place, there is a greater desire to create a more complex set of visuals that is regarded as futuristic?
A brief look through a lot of other ASWARA short films online (like ‘Battlefield’ and ‘Curi’, for example) highlights the clash of realities, virtual or otherwise. Either that, or the lecturer has deliberately told the students, “Think of a Malaysian story that is not Malaysian.” Training the lens of a genre unique enough is one of the easiest ways of making the familiar unfamiliar, yet it is precisely because of the lack of such a tradition that the task is equally challenging. At the same time, what does it mean when our young filmmakers, given a freer rein in imagining the future, consistently foresee one that is bleak in many aspects? I suppose it is an ideological challenge, mirroring the cynicism of many. At the same time, it could well be an influence of such feature films to begin with; with little points of reference in a more local context, many are instead turning to the futures offered up in films like ‘Blade Runner’ as guiding lights in the darkness.
That feature narrative is somewhat evident here as well. Rather than containing a clear beginning, middle and end in a lot of short films, the film starts with the story far advanced. We drop in the middle of a raid of a hidden location, where the scientist in question is concealing herself. A primitive yet intricate system of alarm alerts her to their presence, and the rest of the story follows the ‘will she, won’t she’ conflict of her attempts to escape. Here, the ambition of the film is also reflected in its production design. Being a student film, the context of its production (limited timeframe, skewered objectives, potentially forced collaborations and more) should also be borne in mind, but I believe there is a strong balance of addressing big ideas through this small film. There are some difficult moments to watch (especially if you’re a father of a two-year old), which actually highlights the film’s effectiveness.
One film that is easier on the heart (though no less philosophical in some regards) is ‘Terbit 23’ . A film made from winning the BMW Shorties competition, the film and its maker is actually someone we had shed some light on some time ago. Taufiq Kamal, who also made the excellent ‘Rozita Binti Roslan’ some years ago, is the man in the hotseat, and this is what we wrote about it: “When I saw a guy and a girl on a jetty at the start of the film, it’s a clear thematic marker of the direction the film is heading in.” In terms of his name, I also drew correlations with the Indonesian poet Taufik Ismail, noting how both Taufik and Taufiq drew on big ideas expressed in small ways.
At the same time, such stories of boy meet girl (or vice versa) tends to work almost in a vacuum of considerations, with little thought given to much beyond their world. This is not a bad thing, of course. I also noted this as such: “It’s difficult to castigate something for what it’s probably not meant to be.” Much like ‘Selfie’, it could well represent the zeitgeist for specific groups of people. A film made with a fine attention to technical detail (it did come with a RM75,000 price tag), Taufiq also stayed loyal to much of the same crew that brought him success with ‘Rozita’, and it is pleasing to note a versatility he has with regards to style, if not necessarily content.
I don’t know how much the next film cost, but I’m willing to bet it’s more than its title. It doesn’t matter, for ‘RM10’ certainly provided more than its bang for the buck. Directed by Malaysian Digital Film Awards-winning Emir Ezwan, this one-take film follows the odyssey of a RM10 note as it traverses its away across the nightscape. Like pollen stuck to a buzzing bee, the film starts of at a Chinese hawker stall. A customer paid for the food, and then the worker used the money to pay for something else. This ended up making its way to different hands throughout the night, making that one-take approach even more ambitious than it first appears. This style of filming and invisible cutting is evident in a number of feature films of some renown (the most obvious example being ‘Birdman’), but in a more Malaysian context the approach remains rare. On a technical level, the film is very accomplished, with several different shots pertaining to different characters stitched together effectively. Without going all Batman (or Birdman) on you all, darkness is Emir’s friend.
Then again, the content itself is also dark, a tour de force of the different characters you are likely to see once the sun sets and the cat is away. Some parts are slightly more difficult to watch, but it certainly does the story justice. We have no real main protagonist or antagonist here, for nearly all the characters play both roles at different points of the film. ‘RM10’ tackles an issue that is at the very foundation of our capitalistic urges, yet it is not often talked about as much. It features a set of characters we have caricatured for our own purposes, and manages to imbue them with a certain degree of humanity and relation (despite the limited duration, I felt strongly for the characters whose hold on the note was more tenuous than others).
The payoff was also incredibly satisfying. A long time ago, when I first started publishing my thoughts on films (no pun intended), one of the earlier write-ups reconsidered what films mean to me. Without being too self-referential in one single effort, here is a rumination from that which echoed through time as I sat down to write this. “It is an experience, but what is being experienced? It is making history, but what kind of history is being immortalised? If it is indeed storytelling, what kind of stories are being told?” I go on to discuss the likelihood of the Collective Unconscious, a dormant layer of understanding which connects human beings globally in more ways than one. This comes back to me as I considered the deeper meanings of Emir’s work. There is a unity that shines through the plurality of characters, a story that connects all of us. Again, we go back to capitalist notions mentioned earlier. The more I think about it, the more I feel that this is a part of the unconscious objectification conducted on a daily basis that Emir was trying to get at. This came about through the repetition of certain elements. I strongly believe in the construction of meaning through this, and here the narrative structure allows for a very meaningful climax that concludes the film without ending the story. In that regard, ‘RM10’ is both film and life at the same time.
The final film, ‘Suraya’, is unfortunately the only nominee I failed to watch prior to writing this write-up. Directed by Zulaikha Zakaria, it is another student film, flying the flag of the Faculty of Cinematic Arts in Multimedia University. The story covers the eponymous protagonist and her struggle as she balances a passion for ballet and piety in religion. “When Suraya lands a desired role for a special Adam & Eve performance,” says the official synopsis, “her priority becomes an obstacle as she slowly falls off balance and breaks the rules of Islam, alongside her relationship with her mother.” There’s enough there to intrigue, and I only wish I could have seen it to give it a more proper appraisal. What I will say is that it appears to be part of a concerted effort by the faculty as a whole, with a batch of other films such as ‘Kakek’, ‘Nenek’, ‘Bittersweet’ and ‘The Pursuit’. All of them seems to have a more professional outlook, with strong efforts in terms of crowdfunding as well as accomplished promotional engagement such as music videos and selling t-shirts to fund the film. It is incredibly encouraging to note, and I hope to be able to watch them in the near future.
Having enjoyed these films and considered the limited context of short films, I look forward to see what these filmmakers have lined up for the future, beyond their 15 minutes of current fame. The journey is a never-ending one, and the next step will be that bit more difficult and challenging. Well begun may only be half done, but at least this half was done as well as it could have been.
The 28th Malaysian Film Festival takes place on 3rd September 2016. This is what we wrote of the director of last year’s Best Short Film winner, John Cho. Check out our write-up of Taufiq Kamal here, and read our words on the films nominated for 2015. Happy Independence Day, Malaysia.
Edit: Emir Ezwan’s ‘RM10’ was announced as the winner of the Best Short Film award. Congratulations to all involved.
Feature image credit: Linkology