Ploughing a Furrow – The Films of Jef Samaroon

Fikri Jermadi trawls through the filmography of the man with many monikers, Jef Samaroon.

The name of Jef Samaroon is one I have been hearing over the past few years in a number of different ways. A big part of that has to do with the constant shifting of his moniker; it would vary from the more complete version (Muhd Jefri Samaroon) to shorter editions (like Jef or MJ Samaroon). Having seen a number of his films, I can’t quite decide which is the one he prioritises, so I’m going with Jef Samaroon, as per his Viddsee profile.

Another part of that equation is the quiet consistency he has been displaying. Certainly, at one point in time, there would be a Jef Samaroon film popping up in festivals and competitions here and there. A part of that is perhaps related to the courses he was studying at the time (a film like ‘Story From A Small Town’, for instance, was described as a film noir exercise), having graduated from filmmaking programmes in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

Student filmmakers, however, usually become slightly less productive, at least in the production of narrative short films, after their graduation. A part of this is simply dealing with the vagaries of working life; after all, who has the time to sit down and think of narrative elements for a short film script you’re going to find difficult to fund anyways? Jef, however, appears to have stayed in the academic line, transitioning from the student life to becoming a lecturer for UNIMAS. This is an important point I will get to not only in the next paragraph, but also expand upon before the end of this piece.

I suspect a lot of that is reflected in the film, ‘Mr Lecturer’. Mr Lecturer tells the story of a lecturer (Ngui Yew Fong) who finds it difficult to capture his students’ attention, many of whom appear to be either incredibly disinterested or distracted, perhaps even to the point of being rude. The lecturer, however, continues to plough a lone furrow, discussing aspects of cinematography by reading it from a book.

It could perhaps be inferred that Jef is channeling some form of frustration derived from the education system. It might seem that much of this is targeted at the students, many of whom seem like they wish to be anywhere but there. At the same time, the barrel is also turned the other way, as the lecturer himself did little to inspire much of the desired attention. Being an academic myself, and having experienced a variety of different educators in my lifetime, such lecturers would often inspire much mirth from my friends and I, and is a big part of me ensuring I would not teach in the same way.

Again, I might be reading too much into what may turn out to be nothing at all, but I sense that on some level, Jef is creatively exploring ways in which he could critique much of that system he himself might have gone through. Additionally, the scene plays out almost like the beginning and ending of ‘Shattered Glass’, a personal favourite of mine often used for journalism classes.

‘Story From The Small Town’ takes on a very different tack. Whereas the previous film was shot in a single location, and with a relatively small variation of camera setups, this one was far more ambitious in terms of scale and narrative exploration. It tells the story of Uncle Hussain (Tajol Asyikin), best described as a hitman with a conscience. He is ordered by his boss, Datuk Murad (Am), to kill Datuk Ramlee (Mohamad Hasan), but in doing so, would render Ramlee’s son (Adik Busman Ismadi), a witness at the scene, an orphan. Feeling sympathetic, he would end up taking the boy under his wing, much to his boss’ chagrin.

You might have heard of this particular plot before, but it still is interesting to see how different people take on this particular genre in their own way (Ismail Jamaludin’s ‘My Name is Francois’ and ‘Donna Must Die!’ jumps to mind). I can always appreciate the interplay of well-dressed bad guys, fedora hats, and smoke (lots and lots of it). Such motifs make this arguably Jef’s most ambitious film thus far, at least in terms of style. It still carries the hallmarks of a student film (there are punches that don’t quite connect, and I couldn’t really see the drops of rain in some of the scenes, despite the soundtrack telling me that they’re there).

This has to be contextualised even further. In more recent times, the likes of Multimedia University have raised their game, but nearing the end of the mid-noughties (the film is officially tagged as a 2008 production), more of such films are made with the purpose of just passing the course, rather than actually pushing the boundaries and limits of their narrative storytelling skills. I’m not sure how easy it is, for instance, to look for a big colonial house to shoot in, and I can appreciate the lighting worked by cinematographer Abdul Riezal Dim. There are also high editing moments, such as the cutting when Hussain is about to kill Ramlee, raising the tension to a crescendo, so credit where it’s due, and it’s due.

It’s a bit of a surprise, then, when ‘Wash Room’ came out in 2011, featuring a very different set of narrative elements. Hussein (Muhd Affwan Izam Romli) is from Sarawak, East Malaysia (more on this later), and he is trying to make his way in the big city that is Kuala Lumpur (the nation’s capital). He attends a number of different interviews, desperately seeking a job, only to be rejected for a variety of reasons. He is left with almost no choice but to be a toilet cleaner. Yet he remains a kind-hearted person, whose set of principles would be tested when he came across Melur (Nur Nabila Muhd Zahir), a runaway who is pregnant out of wedlock.

What stands out in this film is the television drama aesthetics that is utilised throughout. By that, I mean there is a fairly gratuitous amount of elements one would often associate with the screening of such dramas. A big part of this can be see through the process of externalisation, in which the characters would direct address what and how they feel, leaving little room for ambiguity. One obvious way this is done is through Hussein saying out loud what he sees. Another is the voiceover narrative, more often employed near the beginning of ‘Wash Room’. Such soap opera methods, I must admit, is useful in helping to set the stage, making us understand where Husin is coming from. At the same time, it feels like a lot of unnecessary information was also imparted.

Unnecessary, perhaps, but not insignificant; when Husin was rejected in the job interview, the interviewer (Ahmad Zulman Mohd Zain) mentioned how it would have helped if Hussein had any connections to rely on. With an East Malaysian protagonist, I think Jef is deliberately highlight a particular issue of disenfranchisement, an analysis hammered home by the news clips on television, indicating the socio-political context the story is firmly ensconced in. It recalls how Leong Tuck Fai’s ‘I Love M.U.M.’ also works in the same way, the background helping to contextualise what is being foregrounded; the scenes shot around the Petronas Twin Towers is not only a sight less seen in independent short films, but also firmly ensconced in commercial Malaysian films as a way of projecting mainstream (read: bumiputera or Malay) strength and economic vitality.

Having run through that gauntlet, it is clear to my mind that ‘The Road to God’ is Jef’s best piece of work. We’ve written more specifically about that film earlier, with the gist being it is a film of two halves, whose frustrations would melt away to reveal a more silent experience. Much of the films above appear to have a lot to say, both directly and indirectly. If Hussein spoke too much in ‘Wash Room’, perhaps it is also an indication of Jef himself having a lot to say. That same level of ambition has also been highlighted in different ways in both ‘Mr Lecturer’ and ‘Story From The Small Town’. ‘The Road to God’, however, is helped in part by the film’s second half, in which I wrote how the noisier first half helped to make the silent second period more satisfying: “Perhaps in that regard, that prologue is the necessary journey one must undertake to make the film more worthwhile.” That sentence, perhaps, could encapsulate much of Jef’s filmography up till this point.

We cannot ignore him being firmly situated in Sarawak; in addition to teaching at UNIMAS, he also appears to be involved with Rumah Filem, organising screenings and discussions. Being far removed from the Klang Valley makes it challenging not only in a socio-political sense, but also in terms of the projection of the self. A personal acquaintance was given a similar opportunity in Penang some years ago. After a while, however, the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur were too tempting, as building a sustainable film career and community in the Pearl of the Orient was deemed too challenging. Sarawak is literally further away from that capital imaginary, so any discussions on filmmakers based there should not be silent on the disadvantages that may come about as a result of this.

As for Jef, I’m sure he’ll continue to tool along, remaining silently consistent either through works of his own creation, or in collaboration with his students. As it stands, he’s currently working on ‘Story Behind the Wall’, a documentary about a mural artist in Johor Bahru (another city removed from the mainstream). The maturing trajectory of his filmography thus far suggests an educator who is also learning lessons along the way, and I’m certain we’ll hear more from him (even as his characters speak less) in the near future.

Jef is currently crowdfunding on his next effort, ‘Story Behind the Wall’Click on to find out how you can support his film, and discover more of his works through Facebook, Vimeo and YouTube

Featured image credit: Fikri Jermadi

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