Errors of Erasure – Voices from the East (part 2)

Continuing a discussion held at the 2017 Young Filmmakers Forum, Putri Purnama Sugua, Nadira Ilana, and Jasmine Suraya Chin wax lyrical on the making of their own films, issues faced by Borneoan performers, and how this issue is linked to the more global issue of whitewashing.

Putri, you’re selected to represent Malaysia in the Asian Film Academy (AFA), which is related to the Busan International Film Festival. What does that mean for you? You are, of course, a Sabahan, but outside of the country, people don’t care that you are from Sabah. They see you just as a Malaysian. Does that change anything?
Putri Purnama Sugua: For me, what it means is that I keep moving. I know it’s hard for people to get to know Sabahan stories, and Sabahan issues, but if I just stop, if I think, “It’s OK lah, people don’t want to concern themselves about Sabah, I’ll stop making Sabahan films,” nobody would know Sabahan films. That’s why I keep pushing myself to the highest, so that in the end, when people recognise me, they will recognise my story. They will recognise my work. It’s like a promise I made with myself, that my private film, my true film, will come from Sabah. Even for AFA, the selection committee wanted me to become a director, but I rejected this, because I only want to direct a film that come from my land, because that is the story of me.

Surely the onus can’t just be on you, though. Nadira said something earlier about not having enough filmmakers. Amongst your friends and family members, how many of them want to make films or to be filmmakers? This may not just be an issue of supply, but also of demand.
PPS: Actually, yesterday, I just came back from Sabah, where I did a film workshop for my former class at Sung Siew Secondary School. My former class is actually the lowest class in that school. The teachers were concerned about these kids, because they don’t have any ambitions and they don’t want to further their studies.

I tried to introduce filmmaking to them, and I was pretty surprised when I see that they are so passionate about it. The film they did was pitched, shot and edited in one day. When I saw the final product, it’s honestly better than those of students who just came in at the diploma level.

They made a film in one day?
PPS: Yes.

How old are these kids?
PPS: Around 17-years old. Form Five students.

I’m going to be out of business soon…
PPS: Yes! These kids were not introduced to the art of filmmaking. They watch films, of course, but they had no idea that making films can be a career. When I go in there, I just wanted to inspire them, actually. Even those who come from a poor background, those who may not be good in theoretical things, maybe they’re good in a more practical area like filmmaking. I introduced this to them, and I was so surprised when I saw it.

Coming back to you, personally, are you as interested in issues related to culture, like Nadira and Jasmine appear to be?
PPS: In Nadira’s and Jasmine’s case, they veer more towards culture, because they’re Kadazan and such. But I’m more interested in the ambitions of the stateless.

The stateless?
PPS: Yes. There’s a lot of stateless children born there in East Malaysia, who are not Malaysian. However, I want to tell the story of the stateless, because when I go there and shoot, and they see me, it’s like… I don’t know how to express this. These kids are, like… eager.

In what sense?
PPS: For ‘Dream to Fly’, the reason why I use non-professional actors is partly because we don’t have one, but when I see these kids, actually, I don’t need to teach them how to act, because they perform as their own character. The way they portray it is very realistic, like people who have been in the industry for so long. This is the first time they’re acting!

For Bhulat, this is actually his story, but it’s the first time he’s acting in a film. Even more so, he was the one teaching Zainal, who played his guardian, Tondeng, how to express his emotions!

What the…?
PPS: In the last dialogue, Zainal was finding it very difficult to deliver it in a sad way. Bhulat was the one who grabbed him. “Pakcik, you must remember that I am your son, so you must be a lot sadder.” I was so surprised, because for one thing, this kid did not go to school. He doesn’t watch TV. Yet he is able to express a truly actor’s expression.

Let’s keep an eye out for Mr. Bhulat, perhaps within the next ten years or so.
Nadira Ilana: He actually won an award…

PPS: Yes, he won an award! At the 2016 Youth Video Awards, I didn’t know that they have a Best Actor award, and he beat all the actors from West Malaysia!

How about that! Speaking of actors, Jasmine, earlier you stated that you did a number of different things, as part of your journey of being an actress here. Can you elaborate a little more on the process of achieving your breakthrough?
Jasmine Suraya Chin: For me, particularly, when I came here, I was very naïve. And I think for a lot of people here, who, I’m sure if you are pursuing film, you are pursuing something that you love, or else you would not pursue it. Being very naïve is very, very important, because the world is your oyster and anything’s possible. We need that, because reality can be a little bit harsh at times.

I came here to Kuala Lumpur, and didn’t really have much of an expectation. I just wanted to act, and to say that I have reached my breakthrough… I can look at it in small, little milestones every single day, but I haven’t really reached what I really want to do yet. For me, no, but in the sense that I have reached the little things in order to attain the bigger picture, yes.

Have you found another dream of yours that you wanted to do?
JSC: Yes, I guess, in a way. When I first came here, I actually didn’t have very big dreams. There was a period when I helped to manage the ASEAN International Film Festival and Awards in 2013, and I met a lot of wonderful filmmakers from all around the region. I was exposed to the kind of films that otherwise I wouldn’t have been exposed to, independent films. I never really like to group films as such, actually, because to me they’re all films and stories. But I guess I was exposed to more personal stories, and that made me feel that I want to be much, much better at my craft. It was something I didn’t really think about to begin with, as I just wanted to act. But that is the other thing that I wanted, because for me it is a 20- or 30-year career, a very long career.

A strong base.
JSC: To me, the foundation is very important, and I think a lot of people lack that in this country, a firm foundation in the sense of craft. People always go for the glamour. When I first went in, that was the picture in my head: “Oh wow, Michelle Yeoh! Helen Mirren!” Then you realise, “Shit, you’ve got to work!” You really, really have to work, you know? I think that’s where the love for it actually comes in. So, take time to build up the foundation for yourself. That is what I learned, in forming the new me. A lot of people think, “Oh my god, I’m 30, and I haven’t done anything.” But it’s a 30-, 40-year career, and that is what I want to share.

Nadira, coming back to the point you mentioned earlier, soon enough there is a film called ‘Tombiruo’ coming out. What do you guys think about the film? It tells a story that is close to the hearts of those in a particular context, but it’s made by people from outside of that context.
NI: In the first place, I don’t think that I should have to feel so uncomfortable and so unsafe, within my own film industry, just by commenting on something like this. There was something that Jasmine mentioned earlier, about playing to the mass. I think that’s an excuse that has been overused. Malaysia has been a country since 1963. That means we are no longer just Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak. It means that Malaysia is a federation comprised of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. So why should the images of Sabah and Sarawak be so foreign to people? I think what breaks my heart is that people don’t really notice it. They don’t know what Dusun people look like in the first place.

Whenever I watch these ‘Borneo films’ from Kuala Lumpur, I notice that all the main actors are from Peninsular Malaysia, and they’re all Malay. It doesn’t matter if the story is about Kaamatan or something like that. They would have Malay actors playing key roles in the film. They will put on the Sabahan accent, or some don’t even bother. I think that’s very painful for me, to be erased. It’s painful for me that people will watch these films and not be able to tell the difference between a Dusun and a Malay actor performing as a Dusun.

Of course, this is an issue that is being discussed globally as well…
NI: This is actually important to look at. If you look at Hollywood now, they all have similar issues about whitewashing. There’s a lot of concerns about white people performing as Asians, while blackface is something that has been known for a long time, and it’s not right. It’s very similar to that personal experience for me.

It’s harmful to me for two reasons. First, when these stereotypes are perpetuated, or it’s made to seem like, “It’s OK, I’m a Malay person playing a Kadazandusun person. It’s just acting.” But when I want to present my own culture to people, in documentaries, in films, it becomes so foreign to some Peninsular audiences that they think I might be lying about who I am, or they might not let me pitch stories that are based on my Sabahan experience.

Ultimately, what we’re seeing is a distortion of the Borneo narrative, which is actually detrimental to us. Especially because people have predicted that in the next 60 years or so, the Kadazan and Dusun languages, with around 30 dialects that may become extinct. That could be in the next generation, so it’s not helpful that people think that you can just replace a KadazanDusun with a Malay actor and not endanger our heritage.

The second thing is in Malaysia, our industries are Malay, Indian and Chinese. So where do I fit in? Where does somebody who is Iban or Kenyah or Dayak fit into that? When you see the Chinese and Indian film industries, you don’t see them being forced to be Malay. That’s precisely what the problem really is. For people from Sabah watching these films, it’s like, “Why are all these Malay people performing as Kadazandusuns? Why are they trying to imitate us?” We can tell the difference, but because we’re minorities, it’s easy to take advantage of us. “Your voice doesn’t matter, you are not the mass, and we don’t have to care about what you think.” Isn’t that racist? Isn’t that counter to the 1Malaysia everyone was talking about?

Jasmine, you go through the opposite of that. Here, by and large you are an East Malaysian playing a West Malaysian role. Does this affect how people see you? How do you also feel about an East Malaysian role going to a West Malaysian?
JSC: I think you have to define what you mean by East Malaysian role.

Let’s say that for a film like Tombiruo, the producers making the film don’t call you. Does that make you think that, in a way, you or an East Malaysian should have at least been given the chance for that role?
JSC: Of course! I’m not going to lie. Sometimes, when they have those Merdeka ads, and they have someone who is West Malaysian speaking a terrible version of a Sarawakian dialect, it just jars. I’ve been putting myself out there, I’ve been telling people, “Look, if you ever need a Sarawakian talent who can speak the language, that’s me!” But they never just want to call.

When I asked you to define what an East Malaysian role is, I mean that if it’s something shot in Sarawak but it’s not a Sarawakian story, then I’m fine with it. But for me, I think, coming as an East Malaysian into a West Malaysian context, I think that’s fine for all Malaysians.

But when you’re talking about a West Malaysian performing in an East Malaysian role, in the sense that they are portraying a certain culture over there, from the Iban community, then obviously you need to get someone from there, because… they are from that community, they know the lifestyle, they know what to expect, they understand.

What Nadira mentioned earlier as the life experience.
JSC: You really need to involve people from there to talk about these stories. This is our lives. We can’t have someone who perceive they know everything about East Malaysia when they’ve never even set foot there. “I went there for ten days, for recce, and then I’m going to tell this story.” You can’t.

You’re doing a bit of that as well, though, right?
JSC: For me, coming to West Malaysia as an East Malaysian, it’s different. I’m coming in as an actress, as a Malaysian talent. I’m doing a general story. It’s like, for example, if I’m going to Hollywood, and I’m acting as a doctor in a show, I can be anyways I want to be. But if a white person wants to do Mulan… salah lah.

NI: I think the difference is really a question of spaces. The majority of roles written in Malaysia are West Malaysian roles. See, the issue that Putri and I have is that we will inevitably have to work with non-actors, and also with an untrained crew. That’s a tiring thing, because when I go back to Sabah, I don’t get to focus on the story as much, I have to train my crew at the same time, and it shows in the quality of work.

So when I do meet East Malaysian actors and actresses here in Kuala Lumpur, a lot of them have to put on West Malaysian accents so that they can get jobs throughout the year. They’re waiting for those East Malaysian roles. Then suddenly the East Malaysian roles come, and they go to famous West Malaysian actors. This always happens. I will ask them, “Why aren’t you giving these roles to East Malaysian actors?” Then they say, “Eh, why are there no famous Sabahan and Sarawakian actors?” “Because you’re not casting them!” That’s the problem. I don’t think that’s going to be on them. I think that’s going to be on us, at the end of the day, to change that, to find that authenticity, but I just really hope that audiences will be as supportive, instead of just seeing us as being… foreign.

Read part one here, while the third and final part 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, while we previously published an interview with Jasmine via CQ Magazine.

Featured image credit: Keith Williamson / Flickr

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