Cracking Through – Bebbra Charles Mailin

Having watched her film ‘Rapuh’ at the 2018 SeaShorts Film Festival, we catch up with a friend of the show, Bebbra Charles Mailin, for a quick chat.

Hi Bebbra! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. For those of us who don’t know you, how would you describe or identify yourself?
Thank you for interviewing me, I feel very honoured! Well, I’m a proud Bornean (my parents are from Sabah and Sarawak), and nobody can take that away from me. I’m currently teaching at the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), in the film department. And I am also an animal lover!

Woof! Tell us a bit about how you got started in filmmaking. Was it something that you’ve always dreamed about since you were a young child?
Actually, filmmaking is something I had never thought before in my life, not as a career, at least. After I finished my high school, I received an offer to further my studies in the Diploma in Screen Art at the Faculty of Performing Arts in UiTM.

Is that the same faculty you’re teaching at now?
Yes, it’s been rebranded since.

Why did you decide to pursue this?
Because I have an art background, I thought it would be something interesting to explore. I knew that I have to worked very hard to understand and learn about cinema, and I was very excited and curious in joining any film productions, workshops, seminars and even casting (even though I’m bad in acting!). My first experience in filmmaking was when I joined a music video production with a number of my seniors.

That sounds exciting, actually. In terms of education, what was that experience like?
Primarily, during my years as a student, I was exposed to all kinds of films from all over the world. As a film student, we were required to attend film screenings, from Monday to Friday. They were organised by my former lecturer, Dr. Norman Yusoff. It was a helpful starting point for me, and I’ve learned so much from watching and writing about the films.

Brilliant. What kind of films are we talking about here?
The focus is largely on Asian films. I enjoyed watching films directed by Hussein Haniff, U-Wei Haji Shaari, Yasmin Ahmad, Satyajit Ray, Mani Ratnam, Chen Kaige, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Akira Kurosawa, Yosujiro Ozu, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Riri Reza, and many more.

That’s quite a list! Perhaps we can add you to that, because the focus of this interview is actually your short film, ‘Rapuh’. It screened here at the 2018 SeaShorts Film Festival, but for those unfamiliar with it, how would you explain and define it?
‘Rapuh’, or ‘Fragile’, is a short observational documentary that captures the life of one Indonesian family who had lived in Sabah since 1998. This documentary voices my concern on the issues arising from the influx of immigrants in Sabah, and also focuses on the fragility of the dreams and hopes of those Indonesian children who are facing an uncertain future due to their illegal status.

My main character, the 12 years-old Nirwana, was born in Sabah. She is popular in her school because of her singing talent! Eventually, she hopes to capitalise on her talent by being successful in singing competitions, so that she can support her mother in providing for their daily subsistence.

Having watched it, I’m personally intrigued by it, because you featured a story not often told, at least not through mainstream cinema. How did you first come across this story? What was the spark for this particular film?
The story came to me when my cousin’s daughter sang an Indonesian national anthem with some of her neighbour-friends. They sang the song very well, and I was so puzzled and asked how they knew the lyrics and melody very well. They said that they learned it from their Indonesian neighbour-friends. That was how I found out about an informal Indonesian school for the children of Indonesian workers. Most of the family works in estate and mini shops in the area of my village.

I went to their school, and that experience really opened my eyes about the life and education of these Indonesian children. I kept thinking about this matter and decided to go to the school and meet the school teachers.

What was it about it that was such an eye-opener for you?
According to them, there are more than 50,000 immigrant children from Indonesia in Sabah who do not get the right access to education, even when they are living in Sabah.

That’s a surprisingly high number!
Indeed. Therefore, the implementation of Sekolah Indonesia Kota Kinabalu was to curb these children from being manipulated by their parents because of economic pressures. And of course, these issues will not be told in mainstream news or media, and I knew I needed to tell this story.

What about people in Sabah itself?
Usually, after the screening of ‘Rapuh’, many people, including Sabahans, will tell me that they’ve never even never heard of Sekolah Indonesia in Sabah.

I am reminded of filmmakers such as Putri Purnama Sugua, whose focus on stateless children is a deliberate attempt to give a voice to the voiceless. How much of this can be said is the same for your own film?
I believe every Sabahan have their own perspective and issues in dealing with these immigrants. This is actually not really a new issue for us, and the influx of illegal immigrant is actually increasing in more recent times. As much as I am concerned about the stateless in our communities, I must admit that I myself developed my own stereotypes ideas about images about these groups of people.

However, while I was doing my research about this project, and having found out more about Nirwana’s family background, my perspective changed completely. Instead of focusing on the political-economic problems faced by the immigrants, I chose to portray a more personal and humane story from a point of view of an Indonesian child. I believe that this is no longer a matter of politics or economics, it is an issue of humanity. The immigrants and their children are here; their dreams are our dreams, and their future is our future too.

I couldn’t put it any better myself. In the past, I have actually interviewed you, maybe sometime after you made ‘Kopi, Donut & Bayangan Gadis Berambut Hijau’. It was an adaptation of a short story, in which you said you followed pretty much what was in the original narrative. In this case, however, how much of the story did you know before you started filming? Or was it a case of you shooting everything, and deciding later what the story is in the editing room?
‘Kopi, Donut & Bayangan Gadis Berambut Hijau’ was an adaptation from a short story written by Adib Zaini. When Amir Muhammad gave me the opportunity to adapt the story into a short film project, he emailed me a copy of the book and asked me to choose one story. After considering the limitation of budget and time (I was struggling to complete my master’s thesis at the time), I chose a story that I felt most connected with, as well as something practical that could be done in a short time.

How long did it take?
We shot the film in two days, in two locations, and with less than five crew members. I really enjoyed the process and had so much fun making the film!

Wonderful! In terms of direction and directing style, it must have been very different, though. What was it like to vary your directing style, from more fiction-based works (like ‘Langad Di Odu’ and ‘Kopi’) to a film like ‘Rapuh’?
In terms of style, my focus is actually more on the narrative and how it’s delivered, as I believe that it’s important to deliver an impactful story to the audience. I’m very much inspired by realist-humanist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, Satyajit Ray, Yosujiro Ozu, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. We can also add the likes of Ken Loach, Dardenne Brothers, Lino Brocka, Brilliante Mendoza and many more to that list.

Usually, after I have completed my screenplay, usually I will do a visual-cinematic research. I love to study and refer some of these filmmakers’ visuals, and try to develop my own style at the same time. In this case, I focused on the humanity as the film’s core. I must say, I still have a very long way to go before I can decide on my directing style, per se.

Again, very well put. ‘Rapuh’ is actually quite short and punchy, saying a lot in a short period of time. Yet I don’t imagine it to be an easy production to make. Can you talk to us more about the most difficult or challenging part of making the film?
The challenging part of making this film was at the beginning of the idea and story development process. This film was made during a filmmaking workshop in the Sabah Film Academy, at the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival in 2015. At the time, I realised that I had a in pitching this story and its concept to my mentors. They wanted me to come up with a different story-treatment, since there was already a few of documentaries that focused on immigrant issues in Sabah.

What was the key that unlocked this, then?
I was very blessed to have met with Nirwana and her mother. They were very co-operative and supportive to my team and I throughout the whole production. They were very open and genuinely sincere with their life and stories. I was never imagined I would have completed the project in less than a month.

A month? That’s quick.
Yes! I was also very lucky because one of the important events was the final of the singing competition. It was just around the time of our shooting date, and it helped to speed up the shooting time, in a way.

What was the reaction to the film the first time you screened it?
After the film is completed, and it was screened on a large screen at the festival, my mentors came up to me and hugged me. They were really touched by the story, and decided to screen it to their students in the United States of America. I still keep in touch with them, and sometimes they share a few comments and feedback from their students, too.

In the bigger picture of your career, what has been the biggest challenge thus far?
It’s largely financial. Most of my short films are independent, with a self-secured budget. At the moment, I am working and helping Muzzamer Rahman to produce his feature film debut, ‘Prebet Sapu’, and it required a lot of budget and financial considerations and projections. For most of our local independent filmmakers in Malaysia, securing project funding is always the trickiest part.

What can be done to improve the situation?
Last year, as a government film development support system, the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) spent more RM60million on more than 30 local contents, but that number did not bring much of economic and industry benefits to our film industry. And I found that most of our passionate and genuinely good filmmakers such as Sanjhey Kumar Perumal, James Lee, Liew Seng Tat, Tunku Mona Riza, Namron, Bront Palarae, Eric Ong and many more are still struggling to secure their production budget, grants and loans for their projects.

I agree. Are there any examples out there we can look to for guidance?
I hope we can refer to other models of government-supported bodies such as the Korean Film Council and New Zealand Film Commission. Both have supported local talents, but in the most systematic, effective and reliable approach. If you browse their websites, you could get detailed information published in their past funding decisions, and they tried to ensure that those records are accurate.

That’s the challenging part. What about the good moments? Share with us something that pleasantly surprised you.
One of the moments that pleasantly surprised me was when ‘Rapuh’ was selected for the Visual Documentary Project 2015, organised by the Center for Southeast Asia Studies of Kyoto University and Japan Foundation Asia Center. I think I was very lucky because that year’s theme was ‘Human Flows – Movement in Southeast Asia’ – and I submitted my film. After a few months, I received an email saying that my film is selected and they invited me to go to Japan for film screening and discussion!

That’s great! What was it about your film that led to its selection?
Five short documentaries were selected from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia that year. I asked one of the panel members as to why they chose my film. He said, “We received hundreds of film submissions, but when we watched your film, it was like the puzzle was complete.”

I see where he’s coming from! You’ve travelled with your film beyond borders, and are also screening with other films from the region at the SeaShorts Film Festival here in Penang. What is your opinion on Malaysian shorts cinema at the moment?
Short films are easy to make nowadays. And because of that, it makes it more difficult to anticipate the quality of groundbreaking short films. I believe we have a lot of good quality short films and these are coming from young talented filmmakers that have made their names on the international film festival circuit. And also, with great initiatives driven by the likes of Tan Chui Mui in this festival, we hope to features many great talents from Malaysia! I am very optimistic about that!

There is much to be optimistic about! What’s next for you? You mentioned that you’re producing ‘Prebet Sapu’, but are you working on anything else at the moment?
In addition to producing Muzzamer’s film, I am also working on my documentary project, entitled ‘Light Up The Sky’. The story focuses on one family who lives in a small village at Kampung Pakolen, Ranau, without electricity and proper water system.

Finally, I have to ask: your Instagram account is just your first name. How did you get that, and what does that feel like?
I’m so sorry Fikri, I can’t answer this question! Technically, that Instagram account is not a valid account because it was actually created by Muzzamer, and we forgot the ID and the password!

Oh no!
Yes! So I am not on Instagram, only Facebook.

We previously interviewed Bebbra in the 19th and 20th episode of Thoughts on Films.

The SeaShorts Film Festival (a part of the 2018 George Town Festival) is running from 1st until 5th August 2018 in Penang, Malaysia. Download their programme booklet here.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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