Levelling the Imbalanced – Voices from the East (part 1)

At the 2017 Young Filmmakers Forum, filmmakers Nadira Ilana and Putri Purnama Sugua, along with the actress Jasmine Suraya Chin, discussed their filmmaking experiences in East and West Malaysia, the (mis)representation of their respective communities on screen, and the kind of impact this has on Borneoans.

Ladies, welcome to the panel. Putri, I’d like to begin with you. Talk to us about the process of making your film, Dream to Fly.
Putri Purnama Sugua: Hi everyone. I’m a graduate from the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation, Universiti Teknologi MARA. Ever since I became a diploma student, it has been a dream of mine to make a film in Sabah, especially as it’s where I am from. It’s a hard journey to be able to make a film in Sabah. You need to travel there, when most of the industry is here.

Tell us a bit more about the starting point for ‘Dream to Fly’.
PPS: I remember in 2014, I tried to pitch the idea in the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival, and was selected. I researched about the stateless community, and I went from kampung to kampung, meeting different children.

It was in this one particular kampung where I met Bhulat, the actor who would play Amin. I asked him exactly the same question I did in the film. He asked me instead, “What is cita-cita?” That actually made me want to make this film. The journey actually started from there.

Apart from the geographical factor, what sort of challenges did you face in making the film?
PPS: For 18 months, I tried to develop this story. At the time I was a student, and I did not come from a wealthy family. My dream was just to make this film. Whatever it takes, whatever the struggle, I need to finish it, because this story needs to be told.

PPS: I want someone to hear the voices of these kids, especially people from West Malaysia. The first time I screened ‘Dream to Fly’ here, I see the reactions of people here. Some of my friends even asked me, “Is there really someone like him out there, or did you just create him for the film?” I said, “This is the real thing that you guys don’t know about.”

Enlightening. Nadira, you have more experience in the film of filmmaking in Sabah. Putri mentioned how it is a difficult plough to furrow, so to speak. Can you shed more light on this? After all, with the technology available, everyone can make films nowadays, right?
Nadira Ilana: All of us here grew up on Malaysian media, which is essentially Peninsular Malaysia media. Even for East Malaysians, we grew up on that narrative, meaning that Malaysia is Malay, Indian and Chinese, and everyone eats nasi lemak for breakfast. We were not exposed much to our own media from Sabah and Sarawak, or our own stories. Not even in our own history books.

How has this affected you, personally and professionally?
NI: I think that was very disruptive, for me personally, as a filmmaker, not being able to know about our own culture and my Dusun heritage. In terms of what the media industry is like in Sabah, it’s evolved a lot, particularly because of social media. Abu Bakar Ella’s ‘Proton Saga Kelabu’ was the first Sabahan-produced telemovie in 2003. We did have Deddy M. Borhan, who founded Sabah Film Productions, in the 1980s, who helped to revive Malay cinema in Peninsular Malaysia. He also made a couple of Sabahan feature films for theatrical release then. You can find these on YouTube now, but we didn’t have this access a few years ago.

Chris Chong, who is the second Malaysian to get into the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, he is a Sabahan, but the film, ‘Karaoke’, was not shot in Sabah. From Sarawak, there is Margaret Bong, and Tsai Ming-liang but you can see, many of us struggle to be based in Sabah and Sarawak.

Isn’t that true for everyone involved, though? To a certain extent, we all have to go outside and do our stuff there, no?
NI: There’s that, yes. I’ve been told before that Kuala Lumpur is the creative hub of Malaysia and therefore we have to be based here for that. But what that’s also does is to displace us from East Malaysia. My process as an indigenous filmmaker then means balancing a career in Kuala Lumpur with going back to the interiors in Sabah to learn about my culture.

For me, I basically spent all of my twenties not even making the films that I want to make. I just accidentally started making documentaries because there was just so much that I wanted to learn about myself that was just not available. So far, my work has been about sort of working backwards into my timeline of what it means to be a Sabahan, to have that Sabahan identity, because it was not provided to us even if we grew up there.

Would that apply to West Malaysians as well?
NI: In Peninsular Malaysia, rightly or wrongly, the industry is broken down into Malay, Indian and Chinese, and each of these ethnicities have had a long film history, whereas we don’t come from that, really. We come from an oral tradition. Still storytellers, but in many respects, I feel that we’re still struggling to finding our voices now. That’s what I see, I guess with a lot of East Malaysian filmmakers coming up. A lot of our subjects are hard hitting, a lot of it has to do with identity and politics. There is an urgency to preserve our heritages and identity.

We’ll come back to that in a short while. Jasmine, to a certain extent, perhaps you can relate to that sense of displacement. What sets you apart from our friends here is that you’re an actress, and therefore spend more of your time in front of the camera. Tell us a bit about what it’s like, being a Sarawakian actress here in Malaysia, and whether your identity can be a factor, if at all.
Jasmine Suraya Chin: For me, I love to perform. When I was young, I started performing when I was five years old. Acting is something I want to do in the longer term. Being a struggling actress, coming from afar to Kuala Lumpur, perhaps I think it’s the distance that makes a lot of people think that Sabah and Sarawak are completely different places. In the midst of trying to survive, I had to go into a lot of different things. For me, I guess my rezeki came in hosting, but from there, I got a lot of exposure that brought me to film and acting, and finally I decided to pursue it more seriously.

In this sense, when you are acting, do your East Malaysianness or Sarawakianness become a factor in terms of how people look at you, or how producers deal with you and such?
JSC: In a way, yes, because I am Sarawakian. Also because of that, a lot of people can’t really pinpoint what my race is. Sometimes I get questions like, “Eh, are you Chinese or Malay?” I am actually very proud to be Sarawakian.

Exotic, perhaps.
JSC: Yes. I think people from Borneo, for example, I think people look at us as an exotic culture. If you tell people you’re from Borneo, the word Borneo itself is the name of the third largest island in the world. It gives people something to have a conversation about. People are very curious to know what is it like over there, and I must say that our history is quite… you know, interesting. Even I am regarded as very exotic. I am actually a Chinese, and people always like to group me as being one of the Ibans or Bidayuh. That’s what they think of Sabah and Sarawak. They’re headhunters, or whatever, you know? They think we’re quite kuno!

A friend I made here in West Malaysia, she was doing her national service in Kuching. She told me that she brought all these very ugly clothes, because she felt she had to look very poor, because she thinks that people will rob her there. That’s the perception that people get about people over there.

How does that make you feel?
JSC: Actually, I don’t blame them, because, like I said earlier, the distance itself is one thing. Secondly, I feel that there’s been a misrepresentation of us. People from West Malaysia, they watch a Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) documentary, and that’s what they see. I get this a lot: “We want to make a docudrama, a documentary, and we want to go to Sarawak, Sabah. We want to film the longhouse, and everything.” You’re already going in there with the perspective of a West Malaysian perspective, or just a perceived-metropolitan perspective. When you go with that, obviously you want to shoot that lah, and that’s how the cycle goes. If you keep being exposed to the same thing, that’s what you believe.

Having said that, there has been a lack of growth, in the sense of people within Sarawak or within Sabah who want to represent ourselves rightfully or more fully. I don’t blame how people want to represent us, because that’s what they grow up with, but there needs to be more research and study, I guess, an interrogation of the cultures over there. That’s why me coming here as a Sarawakian talent, it’s a good thing, especially if they need a Sarawakian actress who can speak in the Sarawakian dialect.

Sorry, a Sarawakian talent who can speak Sarawakian. Isn’t that a normal thing? It’s like saying, “We need a Malaysian who can speak Bahasa Malaysia.”
JSC: That’s what they’re saying! I do mostly get that advantage, and give people something to talk to me about, as people are curious. To me, I think it’s not a bad thing. At the same time, when I first got here, I had a very bad accent. Not bad per se, but it’s enough to make people say, “Eh, your Sarawakian accent is a little too strong. Can you tone it down a bit?”

Nadira, I can see out of the corner of my eye that you’re shaking your head.
NI: Well, we talked about the logistics a little bit, about how having to fly to Sabah and Sarawak just to shoot is a little difficult, and definitely a lot costlier. I envy my friends who are independent filmmakers here in West Malaysia, because you get to work day jobs, and on the weekends you get to work on your passion projects with your friends. For us, it’s not so much just that we only want to make films in Sabah. The thing is that we are attached to the landscape, to what we know as home. It’s beautiful, and that’s what we want to be able to express.

But when we are in KL… me, personally, I’ve been around a little longer than Putri, and I will flat out say that there is a systemic prejudice towards East Malaysians. Whether or not that is intentional, it does make our lives very difficult. I don’t necessarily agree with Jasmine in the sense that they need to do better research, because I don’t think you can cheat those life experiences.

What do you mean, cheat those life experiences?
NI: The best thing to do would be to involve Sabahans and Sarawakian crew members. In my experience, I have had a lot of people who just ask me for research, and don’t want to pay me. We’re talking about major, major corporations and public relations agencies, who want me to basically answer their entire Q&A for television commercials and magazines or whatever it is. They basically do not want to involve Sabahans and Sarawakians as scriptwriters, as directors, as producers, even though some of us are actually qualified to do it. Why that is, I am not entirely sure. So rather than ask us 100 questions about us, why not just get us to do the job?

Can you give us a specific example of this?
NI: Every year, I wait for Kaamatan and Gawai to get a phone call to do a Kaamatan and Gawai advertisement. They just lump it together, and I’m like, “I’m not from Sarawak. I don’t know anything about Sarawak.” There was even one year, when I got a call that goes something like this: “Hi, is this Nadira? We’re doing this ad for Kaamatan, for Gawai. We’re looking for a 21-year old girl, a Kenyah, who just got back from KL.” And I’m like, “OK. So?” “Would you be interested in acting?” “I’m pushing 30, I’m a Sabahan, and I’m a director. Where are you shooting?” They tell me they’re shooting in Sarawak, and I say, “Well, I’m pretty sure Sarawak has Sarawakians. You can cast from there.”

A lot of people are not putting in the effort to do it. It’s very frustrating, because you go from this period of erasure, of people not acknowledging that Sabah and Sarawak for the longest time, yet people still won’t allow us to tell our own stories in the mainstream.

Yes, I want to get to this, actually. You talk about representations, but surely as a director, you are in some control of that, at least in your own films.
NI: Once, when I screened my documentary, ‘The Silent Riot’, in Peninsular Malaysia – this was in 2012 – people seemed shocked.

In what sense?
NI: They didn’t even know how to respond. They couldn’t say whether my film was good or bad, because the images in my film were so alien to them. Nobody was asking questions. So I asked, “Is this the first time you’re seeing Sabahans as professionals, as lawyers? Have you ever seen a Sabahan or a Sarawakian not dressed in loincloth, in traditional costumes, or sitting in a long house?” They said yes. They have absolutely no idea what we looked like. So you’re fighting against these stereotypes.

NI: The problem is people just don’t want to listen. People just want to project their ideas of Sabah and Sarawak unto us, and that makes it very frustrating. I can be in a room of seven to ten other people, in an agency, all of them are West Malaysians, and all of them are telling me how to tell stories to a Sabahan. “We want to shoot in a longhouse in Sabah.” “Sabah doesn’t really have longhouses,” I would say. “Dusuns don’t really have longhouses. Only the Rungus do.” “OK, we’ll shoot the Rungus.” “But some Rungus people don’t even want to identify as Dusuns.” And they don’t care, and they just go ahead and shoot it. That kind of blatant ignorance just makes it even harder for us to develop our own reels, to get jobs professionally in that space.

Parts two and three will be posted soon. The above has been transcribed and adapted from the panel discussion, Voices from the East: Stories from Sabah and Sarawak, held during the 2017 Young Filmmakers Forum. You can listen to an audio recording of that session here. Read what we wrote of Putri’s films, and we’ve previously published an interview with Jasmine via CQ Magazine.

Featured image credit: Neurohealth Chiropractic

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