Concluding an enlightening panel discussion at the 2017 Young Filmmakers Forum, Jasmine Suraya Chin, Putri Purnama Sugua and Nadira Ilana discuss how to best make films in Borneo, why trust is important in East Malaysia, and share ideas on how the bigger picture can be improved.
Jasmine, when you are cast in a TV series or film, do you talk to the writers or directors to make your character East Malaysian? If you’ve done that before, what was the reaction?
Jasmine Suraya Chin: That’s an interesting question. When they know that I am Sarawakian, it’s not that they would change my character, but there was one time where they said, “Yeah, you know, you can just make it as if the character lived there [in Sarawak] for ten years, and then they come here.” That’s because of the accent, when I first came here. But most of the time, not really, actually. They just cast me as the character itself. I’ve played some characters whereby people really thought I was a Malay, because I was wearing a hijab for the role and everything. Most of the time, though, no, it’s just basically the character itself.
Whether or not I have asked the director… I’ve never actually asked the director. We’ve had conversations about where I come from and such, and they’re always very curious. Maybe next time, in the future, I will ask them. For me, though, because it’s their stories, I’m very thankful to be cast, the little bits of opportunities along the way.
Perhaps, as mentioned earlier, we just need more East Malaysians behind the camera.
JSC: I would like to have more people like Nadira come from Sarawak. I feel like Sabah is a place where there is a lot of budding new filmmakers, but not in Sarawak, actually. You get the famous ones or the good ones, they tend to get out of Sarawak. I know a couple of people doing stuff there, but even they are struggling. There is literally no creative scene over there. You can blame it on us, yes. We should build it, but unfortunately… not yet lah.
Alright, this is a question from the audience to Nadira and Putri: I was born in Kota Kinabalu, but I grew up in Johor Bahru. When I was in Form Two, my parents said, “Let’s balik kampung,” and we ended up going back to the Philippines, as it turns out that we have some connections there.
I’ve never been there, but once I arrived there, and I got down from the jeep, I had a strong sense of déjà vu, as if I’ve been there. The people there, what they do, what they eat… it’s the same as what I do. I feel as if I am home, as if I’ve been there for a long time. I wanted to record things, but I was told not to, because people might think I’m a spy; at the time, there was a kind of conflict that went on there.
My question is, what is it that keeps you going? A lot of people are not comfortable with the camera, so if you’re working with non-professional actors, in a more rural area, perhaps making a documentary, it could well be that the subject matter of the documentary itself do not want to be recorded.
Putri Purnama Sugua: Actually, with regards to Zamboanga, until now there is an issue. Sometimes, I get mixed up as well, in terms of language. In terms of challenge, the biggest challenge in making a film in Sabah is money. If you don’t have money, it’s hard for you to make a film, to go there, to shoot, compared if you’re based here.
If you’re based there… if I am based there, I don’t think I would have the same challenges, though. The one thing about the Sabahans is that if you go and shoot there, the sceptics will say maybe some of the locals are not keen, but they can be very wrong.
How wrong can they be?
PPS: For example, for my previous short film, when I shot in the marketplace, I would do the recce today, and say that I want to use this one particular location. “Who are you shooting for? TV3?” Most people there, they only think of TV3 if there is a shoot there! TV3 is very famous there, so whoever who holds the camera, they will assume that you’re from TV3. If I say that it’s for YouTube, it’s going to take an even longer time to example, so I just nodded!
At first, I was very nervous, thinking about how to handle the crowd. They’re not used to the camera. But when I arrived with my crew, I was shocked: the whole marketplace stopped for our shoot. When we’re about to shoot, I told everyone that “when I say action, I want everyone to act as normal. Pretend as if we’re not here.” That’s the simplest direction I gave. When I said “action!”, everyone acted as if there is no camera. I don’t need to go for second or third take. The first take was good!
PPS: But one thing is, you need to gain the trust. You’re not just there to use them. Sabahans have good instincts when it comes to this kind of stuff. For instance, for ‘Dream to Fly’, I went there to get Bhulat’s parent’s permission. The thing is, he doesn’t have a birth certificate. There was also the Lahad Datu issue at the time, in Sandakan, so a lot of people are concerned that the authorities will come after those without an identification card. It took some time to get the permission from the parents. I offered them my own identification card, to show that if anything happened to this kid, I will be the first person responsible.
That’s a bold move.
PPS: I went twice, after 11 PM, to meet the parents. One time, I met them at 1 o’clock in the morning, waiting for his father to come home. I wanted to get their trust, and to show that I will protect their son. I needed to tell their story, and I don’t want to use another actor for this. The story must come from this young boy. This is his story.
As such, if you want to shoot the Sabahans, there are no problems. First, when you go to recce, ask them if they want to be in the film. Like Pakcik Zainal, who acted as Pakcik Tondeng. When I asked, he was afraid that if he was seen on TV, he’d be recognised and people would ask him for his identification card. I just told him that, “Pakcik, you’re a fisherman. This story is from that perspective.” “Oh, if so, no problems!” No need to change them! They can just be themselves.
This can be a problem, though, I suppose, if there is no separation between fiction and reality?
PPS: If you remember, there is one scene when Amin is running to his pakcik, telling him that he wants to go to school. However, I had to cancel the second day shoot, because Bhulat got emotional. On the first day, there was something related to the dialogue, and on the second day, that was the line he was supposed to say, that he wants to go to school. So I told him, “Bhulat, you have to run, sit, then look at the pakcik and say that line.” Then he looked at me, and he looked at the camera, and then at the time, he became emotional… and then he cried. It’s as if, if he would say the dialogue, he felt like it would happen, because the words were within him. He wants to go to school, and finally he would be able to express it. But if he were to express it, he didn’t know whether that thing would happen or not. I needed to stop the shoot because I need to control his emotion at the time.
This feels like a story within the story.
PPS: There is also another scene that made me feel like I want to continue my focus on the stateless. Even though they are stateless, I don’t care. My story is not about Malaysian or anything like that. My story is about being a human being, and we need to care about them because we are human.
There was a scene where they went to school, and the first time they went to school, their expression was priceless. And the first time when Bhulat wore the school uniform, I will forever remember his expression. This is the moment I want: for all these stateless children to attend school. That’s the biggest dream I have in making films like this. That’s the director’s experience I have that will always push me, no matter how hard it is to make films in Sabah, because nobody can tell the story apart from you, because you know the story.
That’s incredibly powerful. Thank you for sharing. Nadira, what about you? What drives you through these challenges you face?
NI: Putri and I cover very different areas. Sabah is huge, and I think maybe the biggest challenge I’ve had, personally, is… we’ve talked about logistics, we’ve talked about not having enough crew with the proper training. But for me, I think the biggest challenge was myself, because I just didn’t grow up with my culture. It was not visible to me.
You need to understand how Sabah is laid out; every other district might have their own dialect. It doesn’t mean that all Dusuns speak in the same way, because the dialects change from town to town. So even like, from Keningau to Papar, they’re already speaking very different dialects. So it is very hard for anyone to absorb everything at once.
For me, I felt an incredible loss. I grew up quite privileged and I got to study in Australia, although by the time I got to study in Australia, I realised I want to do cultural stories. I’m in the wrong place! I fell in love with Southeast Asian cinemas, and I realised that what is important to me is specificity, locality, and I really want to know what I look like on camera. By that, I mean I want to know what Sabah looks like on camera. There was a lot of things I was looking at but I didn’t understand.
For us, we’re so lucky that in our generation we have social media. Before social media, before Facebook, you may suddenly wonder, “Why are there so many Filipinos in Kota Kinabalu?” I only learned about Project IC in my twenties. There was that emptiness, which social media helped to bridge.
Which filmmaking experience did this come out through?
NI: My last big project is ‘Big Stories’. It’s an Australia-based community project, and they require that the filmmaker go and do a residency in a small town and village, to stay there. Initially, it was supposed to be for three months, but I had a very hard time looking for a cameraman, looking for a producer. At the time, my Bahasa Malaysia was really bad. And I didn’t understand Dusun. This was an all-Dusun speaking Dusun kampung. It frustrated me because I’m from there. I’m Dusun. I’ve the same bloodline as them. But why do I feel that we have such a different experience? That happens when you don’t have access to media, when you grow up not having access to literature that is your own. It is a question of identity.
What happened was, after the first three months, an earthquake hit Ranau. I think God was trying to tell me something, because I was based in Ranau! Ranau is three hours away from Kota Kinabalu. I was driving myself. I was bringing my own gear. I had to set up my own production company on the fly, just because I had to get this done.
And yet you did get it done.
NI: I knew that I wanted to document Dusun culture, because I had never seen it before. I grew up watching Indonesian films on television with my grandmother, but I wanted to make something for my grandmother that she could watch and think, “Oh, this is mine.”
I grew up speaking to my Dusun grandmother in Chinese, because I went to a Chinese school. When my Malay got better, I spoke to her in Malay, but I wanted to at least, even if I cannot speak Dusun, I can make something in Dusun so that my grandmother can watch it and feel that she has been included in the conversation.
What happened after the earthquake?
NI: I came back after the earthquake and I had already gone through three cameramen. As a woman I was fine just staying there, but it was hard finding a cameraman who would just stay throughout the project. They didn’t have the same dedication or understand the project well enough. But the other thing is, like Putri said, when you go there, Sabahans are very warm and welcoming. Among the natives there, we have an urgency because we know that our culture is dying. Whenever they see a camera, they say, “Oh, please document our culture.” So the access was easy enough, but I think it was down to me. I had to learn how to navigate a kampung. I had to learn what the system was like, who the head of the village was, who the person is you need the approval from.
How did you do that?
NI: You’ll need to spend a lot of time karaokeing with them! But once I told them that, actually, I just want them to really be themselves, by the fourth month, they opened up a lot more. I had to leave for about three months and get back to them later. Altogether, the project took up one year. The documentary filmmakers, the directors, were the orang kampung themselves. The ketua kampung, the youths, all became their own directors.
I had to make a decision: do I teach them how to make a film, or do I just ask them to tell their story? You can’t do two things at one time. The storytelling skills, when you’re telling an ethnographic story, is extremely complex. You have to be able to make sure you’re getting it right, and not put word into people’s mouths. You have to be friends with them, know their family and relatives. You can’t just Google these things, you have to get testimonials, so I was at that point where I was juggling 40 people’s stories at one point in my head, trying to figure out how to streamline everything, and also take care of the kids, because the children took part in the accompanying photo series.
We ended up with 14 short documentaries and three photo series. I would not have been able to complete the project, actually, if not for the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS) and its director general, Datuk Kamil Othman. Aiysha Masarudin from FINAS was there as well, and it was a tremendous relief to get that support.
It sounds like a mammoth undertaking. What did the orang kampung think of the final product?
NI: We did a big screening in the kampung for 1,000 people. It was an incredible experience to screen the films back to the community, because the audience knew all the people in the stories. There were, like, 14 home videos back to back. Everybody in that room… it was so different compared to watching a film in a regular theatre, with regular audiences. Regular audiences will watch a film, and after a while, it’s done. But with them, I knew I couldn’t go wrong because it was their story.
Coming back to what we discussed earlier, I think with East Malaysians, you see a lot of stories that don’t belong to you. To have that concentrated into one village, where it’s just about them, meant so much that I think it became universal in some way. It taught me a lot about listening, about diversity and wanting to look for people who are different from me. It is so different from my experience in Kuala Lumpur, where expectations of what is a Borneo story are imposed onto us. So that’s what I got from the experience.
Read parts one and two here. 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: BBC