Having gone through his filmography not too long ago, we sat down with Jef Samaroon to talk about the genesis of his filmmaking career, as well as the challenges he face in his academic one.
Hi Jef! First things first: looking up your various films online, it seems that you have been working with different names, such as Muhd Jefri Samaroon or MJ Samaroon.
I myself prefer Jef Samaroon because the sound it close to the prolific director James Cameron!
Nice! But why the variety?
Since my days as a student, all my friends call me MJ, and most of the people in Kuala Lumpur also call me MJ. It’s OK, at least I’ve a variety of names to choose from!
Lovely. We’ll get back to your name later, but take us back to the beginning. How did you get started in filmmaking? Was it something that you’ve always dreamed about since you were a young child?
To begin with, I wanted to be a cartoonist. But when I started studying at a film school, I really put my heart into making a movie: short films, documentaries, animation, everything.
Surely there was a moment or an event before you entered film school, perhaps, when you were you particularly inspired to get into this line?
I still remember when I started renting VHS tapes at the Indian shop near my house. At that time, ‘Hantu Sundal Bolong’ was very popular. I watched it together with my siblings with our old CRT television, using the VHS player. Maybe that’s the hint I did not notice myself, how I developed my interest with moving images. After I was done with my Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) programme, I received an offer from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) to further my education in the field of film studies.
Were there any particular films or filmmakers which influenced you?
I’ve been inspired by quite a few filmmakers. Federico Fellini, Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Martin Scorsese, the lot.
Making that first step into academia, I wonder how useful the filmmaking experience has been for you.
Initially, when I became an academic, it seemed like I made a bad decision.
There are many reasons for that. One of them is that I did not have enough time to focus on what I really love doing. I focused more on teaching and handling workshops for students. But it’s OK. I told myself that even though I can’t be what I really wanted to be, at least I hope my students will continue my vision and be the best storyteller they can be.
However, since my first year as an academic in 2009, I see many opportunities as a film lecturer. In many ways, I am not teaching the students, per se, I am liberating them. I give them the full freedom to explore themselves and their ideas. To become a good filmmaker, I think we should really understand life and ourselves first.
Good point. Moving on to your films, how much of your own lecturing experience did you rely on for the making of ‘Mr. Lecturer’?
This film I’ve made is to express my own feeling, my experience of teaching millennials and the younger generation.
In a previously published piece, we wrote 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.” How accurate is that?
I think your answer here is worthy enough.
In the description for the film, you mentioned how it is meant to discuss the mindset of students, but I also wondered whether you intend to critically feature perhaps a certain aspect of classroom instructions. Was it meant to be critical of lecturers as well?
Indeed. In our department, we have four to five people who teach filmmaking. However, most of them only read the slide and talk bullshit. It is this frustration that I feel that made me think of shooting ‘Mr Lecturer’. The frustration and hopelessness made me want to shoot ‘Mr Lecturer’.
Can you be more precise in what you mean?
Basically, some of them only knew 100% about the theory of filmmaking, while the others only understood the practical side of things. I am not saying I am good enough, but I know how to balance things between theory and practice.
Moving on to ‘Story From The Small Town’, how did that film come about?
This project is the final project for my filmmaking degree course. My research at the time was on neo-noir and elements of noir.
Why is that?
I like the noir style in many ways. From the story and its visuals, to its characters. My life is close to these elements, and it inspired me to create a noir visual, which is dark, empathetic, suspenseful and mysterious.
That explains why out of all your films, it appeared to be one in which you followed closely a certain genre; a lot of your other films were less mainstream, perhaps, like ‘The Road to God’ and ‘Mr. Lecturer’. What did that feel like for you, to follow a path more strictly defined?
To be honest, I don’ work within specific genres. For my part, I always like to challenge myself, to create or try something different. For instance, it is hard to direct a Tamil film and create some experimental value.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training