A Taste of Vanilla – Story Behind the Wall

Having followed the production of this film, Fikri Jermadi is keen to share his thoughts on Jef Samaroon’s latest film.

When we first decided to pay attention to the works of Jef Samaroon, the decision was made largely because of the quiet consistency Jef has displayed throughout his career. Our interest was a long-standing one, a curiosity which developed to become an effort of historicising much of his filmography, and our thoughts about them.

In doing the background research, we discovered that he was hard at work on ‘Story Behind the Wall’, a short documentary which featured the life and times of Nabil Azhari. An artist in his own right, he made his name known primarily as a muralist, drawing on walls both in Johor Bahru and beyond, including places such as Terengganu and Singapore.

The film plays as a straight up documentary, making time to chart down Nabil’s thoughts, along with those of his father and his wife. Through these talking heads, we understand the trials and tribulations he went through; much like many of those striving to make a living in the arts, the issue of financial survival crops up more than once. In that regard, it is intriguing to see the perspective of the father, Azahari Ahmad, a viewpoint laced with concerns related not only to professional success, but one that is predicated upon a firm academic platform.

An example of this could be evinced from him being pleased that the wife, the bachelor degree-toting Fatin Nurain Johan, is willing to follow and support her husband in his endeavours. This part of the picture suggest how it must have been difficult for Nabil to truly convince his father (a man who prioritises education so much that he wishes for his son to attain his master’s degree as well) that his passion could be translated into a sustainable form of income.

Unfortunately, we do not get too much of that tension. Watching the film, it feels as if Jef could have delved a lot deeper into what must have been fairly difficult conversations, particularly as this is the kind of conversations many people are having not only with their parents, but also with themselves: can we make a living through the arts? By glossing over much of that, ‘Story Behind the Wall’ feels a little vanilla; a little more chocolate and strawberry of conflict and tension wouldn’t go amiss.

‘Story Behind the Wall’ is not without its moments, though. Of particular interest to me is the way which Nabil and his wife communicated in college. They kept a diary, and would communicate visually through that. Going beyond how intriguing that is as a form of communication between couples (I can imagine this being a part of some form of couple therapy somewhere), it is so incredibly sweet and romantic that it’s difficult to imagine her saying anything other than ‘yes’ when he would have popped the big question.

I am partial to that, as it is the kind of detail I like in such stories. I am reminded of reading Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s book, ‘A Doctor in the House’, in which he would talk about his own eating patterns of leaving the ikan masin until much later on (basically saving the best bits for last). Such anecdotes, a smaller part of the bigger picture, helps to colour it with life through relatable details.

Speaking of colours, ‘Story Behind the Wall’ is bright and beautiful, an attractive aesthetic which makes the experience of watching this film a pleasant one. Having gone through his films, I feel that I can say this to be the most beautiful film Jef has made thus far. I expect there to be more to come from him, of course, but as it stands, this is a nice little circle the director has drawn.

That circle could have been a little bigger, of course. More interviews, perhaps from clients or passers-by who could be relied on for a voxpop or two, would have rounded things up a bit more. A third-party, more expert or academic perspective, may also be useful, perhaps repurposing Nabil as a gateway into the world of street art as a whole. It’s a part of the variety of flavours I mentioned above, but as it stands, this film remains a nice little taster all the same.

Find out more about the film here, and we wrote on the rest of Jef’s films here.

Featured image credit: Jef Samaroon

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