Ariff Syahzan’s ‘Samudra’ is a pleasant little surprise for Adi Iskandar.
‘Samudra’ opens with a shot to the sea. It’s a simple vista, dominated by the clear blue sky, but one that is dense with meaning. A young boy is seated at a pondok, looking out into the open blue. The waves softly caress the beach, slipping and sliding against one another, before the director, Ariff Syahzan, fades to black.
When we come back in, we are presented with a voiceover narrative, serenaded poetically by Manan (Mohd Fauzi Yahya), a fisherman at the end of his wits, as he struggles to make ends meet. His is a dialect lilted with the Kelantanese accent, one whose musical whims and fancies is a delight to listen to, even for those who don’t fancy it. The story being told, however, is one that is less pleasant, as he recounts the trials and tribulations he faces in going out to the sea. “I unfurled my entire strength,” he muses, “searching for life.” All the while, we are treated to cuts of fish being fished, thrown open from their nets, as we see other fisherman working their catch of the day. It is clear that this is the epicenter of the town, highlighting this activity’s importance.
The voiceover continues, extending its poetic aesthetic with its fine diction. “I rhymed at a cottage stairway, inscribing and scribbling.” This is perhaps one occasion where the limitations of language fail us, doing little to truly translate the language in question. “Ku khabarkan kisah manusia… di pintu maut, di pintu maut” is just much more poetic relative to this film’s subtitles: “I tell the stories of mankind, upon the threshold of death.” Not entirely incorrect, but in speaking to our souls, it misses the mark through no fault of the filmmaker.
What is within Ariff’s control, however, is the story presented. ‘Samudra’ features Manan being sidelined, struggling as he does against the influx of foreign workers doing more of the fishing at a lower rate; an old newspaper headline indicates this to be a bigger, more national issue, but Ariff wisely keeps it personal, making it easier for us to relate to the topic at hand. This sense of us versus them is a process of othering I’m not necessarily a fan of, but there is certainly some merit in discussing it further. The film complicates an oversimplified issue, providing more of a balance not just within itself but also outwith, relative to other films on the Malaysian short film scene. It is a genre often positioned as an arena where identity politics are contested and contended, and this film is a fine addition into that mix.
This is startling when we consider the filmmaking teams’ youthful background. ‘Samudra’ is a student film produced by students from the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation in Universiti Teknologi MARA. Films of this ilk tend to focus on the youth and how they see the world. Attempts to step beyond this boundary often betrays the lack of fidelity between the serious issue at hand and the lack of life experience and skill in bringing that issue to life. Such efforts would end up a damp squid, the figurative fish out of water.
It is not to say that this film is without its flaws (the characters’ costume design, at times, can actually be simply and superficially ‘Melayu’). Neither do I agree entirely with the politics of the film itself, as Ariff almost romanticises the idea of the Malay male stepping up to defend his community and himself. However, even in that portrayal I see a filmmaker who is serious about many aspects of filmmaking. Coming back to the costume design, Manan, dressed up in a more traditional garb, and armed with a traditional weapon, makes his final stand; on a more silent level, we can practically hear the words “Tidak akan Melayu hilang di dunia ini!”, pointing out how the Malays shall never be wiped out, even without any of this diction uttered out loud.
One scene in particular, which could well be described as the film’s catharsis, is a long, unbroken take, recorded as Ariff takes us along the shores, floating by the carnage that lay before our eyes. I say ‘carnage’, but in reality, we are made aware of a bloody affair without a single drop of blood seen. These shots are indicative of two things. The first is how the long take can be read as indicating just how real this scene is, going against the current that is a film with many edited cuts. The second is the film’s poetic quality, one which is expertly imbued by the filmmaking team. ‘Samudra’ is an artistic film worthy of being analysed not just as a film that hammers home the take-home message of how such socio-economic struggles are potentially inter- and intragenerational, it is also a text that is well-planned and constructed in its wrestling of these issues.
As the credits roll, we see this film officially credited as a production of FiTA Studios. Originally developed as a vehicle through which the faculty’s staff and students can collaborate in making films for the mainstream market, the past few productions (such as ‘Badang’ and ‘Soulmate Hingga Jannah’) have besmirched much of the goodwill many may be willing to give it. For my part, this film is a closer iteration of what such an endeavour should produce, and ‘Samudra’ therefore stands as only the second FiTA Studios production I like (after ‘Aach… Aku Jatuh Cinta’).
Before I end, I must wonder aloud about the distribution method of this film. To my eyes, it is a quality bit of work, one good enough to make its way round a number of different festivals, with plenty juice here to pad the filmmakers’ CV. So why is it being made publicly available on the filmmaking team’s advisor’s video streaming account? While it does mean that people like you and I can watch this more freely, a more considered approach in marketing and distributing this film, both online and off, would give ‘Samudra’ the legs should have in running the festival circuit. The film opens and closes on the wide, open blue, but in real life it is doing little more than wiggling inside the little room that is a lecturer’s personal Vimeo channel.
Featured image credit: Themocracy