Surprising Expectedness – Guilt of the Dreamer

Fikri Jermadi indulged in the guilty pleasures of ‘Guilt of the Dreamer’.

In judging films for competitions and award ceremonies, there are two things that stand out. One is how surprisingly boring the experience can be. True, there can be a lot of wonderful films and entries that may catch you by surprise. Yet for the most part, unfortunately many films end up cluttering the bigger picture even further, rather than standing out from that crowd for the right reasons. The story may be interesting, but the execution may not do it justice. Its technical qualities may satisfy the eye, but the heart and soul could be running on empty, drained by an unimaginative story. Given the choice, I am the kind of person who would stay until the end of the end credits, largely out of respect for the work put in by all the cast and crew members, but I must admit that there are times when the temptation to chuck in the towel can be great.

Funnily enough, it is this that leads to setting up the second thing. For all the dross that you watch, it does mean that when you come across a film you like, the heart sings, the mind is energised and the mood changes to one of positivity. “We may be on to something here, folks,” I am often tempted to shout out loud, grasping at the straws of light at the end of the tunnel.

‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ is one such film. Directed by Yohann Ian, it tells the story of Clint (Haikhal Eiman), a detainee suspected of murder and rape. He is interrogated by an investigator (the director Yohann himself) in being forced to answer for the supposed crime he has committed. “Do you find it easy to make friends?” asks the investigator, a line of dialogue which catches my attention in two ways. One, it indicates that we are actually introduced some way into the interrogation itself. One oft-quoted quote from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s seminal tome ‘Film Art’ is how a film’s story doesn’t necessarily have to tell everything: “A film does not just start, it begins.” I read this as not having to start everything single thing right from the very beginning. We can, as evinced by this particular scene, begin by jumping right into the middle of the proceedings, creating a greater sense of flow.

Secondly, it is also the quality of the dialogue recording that perks me right up. I may be mistaken, but I believe it is Walter Murch we can paraphrase in saying that sound is half the image: if it’s done right, it’s not usually noticeable, but when it’s even slightly wrong, it throws everything on screen askew. I myself have not gotten this right enough enough of the time, so I appreciate the work put in by Samuel Goh (the sound recordist, who also triples [if I can use this term in this way] as the film’s cinematographer and editor) and the sound assistant, Kow Kay Jun, in getting it right.

Speaking of Samuel, considering how he is also responsible for much of the image quality and its arrangement, to a certain extent I’m tempted to describe ‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ as ‘The Samuel Goh Show’. There is a fine consistency of quality and colour from one scene to the next. Truth be told, in many respects this does not appear to be a particularly complex film to shoot, with a fairly minimal number of locations, props and actors to work with. All the same, that should not detract from the actual quality presented; what Samuel and his team did, they did very well.

Another very important element is the actor. That almost goes without saying, of course, but in Haikhal Eiman, Yohann has equipped himself with a very suitable actor. What is interesting is that Haikhal is a former student of mine, who actually studied under my tutelage at the time of the film’s adjudication. There was that strain of familiarity his facial features hailed me with as I watched the film. Though I initially couldn’t really place it, the realisation was hammered home only as the credits rolled and his name popped up, for the portrayal on screen was completely at odds with what I remember of him. Of course, given that he was in a cohort of nearly 200 students, where your students are mostly merely names on the attendance list, I can’t claim to have known him all that well.

Nevertheless, his performance was not only one of great intensity, there were also moments when he shifted between different levels and emotions. In watching the film, I am reminded of Herbert Fingarette’s idea of the self-deception. Often seen as a form of deliberate misdirection, Fingarette looked at the self not as one singular whole, but as an entity composed of a series of subselves. Without necessarily getting into the territory of multiple personality disorder, we’re looking at the different sides of a person afforded (consciously or otherwise) a degree of autonomy, manifesting in a complex expression of character. I’m not sure how deliberate much of the above analysis is to be found in the performance, but I would not have imagined the role of Clint to be an easy one to be interpreted and performed by other actors. That we (the panel of judges) later lamented the lack of acting performance categories is testimony to the admiration in which Haikhal’s performance was held.

It must be said, though that even though the above elements contributed to what is a very good film, they are not the main reason why I’m writing about this film. Instead, what is most pleasing for me is how ‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ works largely and simply as a genre film. The category of Malaysian short film (and, perhaps, the shorts cinema of any country in this region) is often laced with socio-political readings, a deeper meaning infused deep in the narrative. Dealing either with issues such as race and religion, this has given rise to a complex form of self-expression and emancipation, particularly in contexts where public discourse of such discourse are constrained for a variety of reasons.

It is therefore particularly pleasing to come across a film that appears to focus on being a good film, full stop. What Yohann has done here is to help create a more varied entry in the landscape of Malaysian shorts cinema, simply by going back to so-called basics. I don’t wish to denigrate the works of others, and, once again, this is an assessment that could have been coloured by the stream of other, less interesting films bombarding my mind with their banality. What it lacks in an expansive scope, it makes up for in its fine technical, technical and aesthetic qualities. ‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ is a pleasant surprise, perhaps primarily through its lack of surprises, and we are keen to see how Yohann and his team would fare in spreading their wings ever wider.

Read our exclusive interview with Yohann Ian here‘Guilt of the Dreamer’ was nominated at the 2017 Malaysian Digital Film Awards in the categories of Best Direction, Best Digital Editing and Best Digital Sound Design, winning the award for Best Digital Editing.

Featured image credit: Talking Humanities

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