We conclude our conversation with Jef Samaroon, taking in his more recent films such as ‘Washroom’, ‘Road to God’ and ‘Story Behind the Wall’.
One film of yours that is more mainstream is ‘Washroom’, employing some of the narrative elements and storytelling tools that is familiar to people who watch Malay television drama shows. Was this a deliberate thing, or am I reading too much into this?
Actually, I did not really like this project! But yeah, this was the final project for my master’s programme at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). It needed to relate to my thesis, which was about social criticism and social value.
Though this film is a little ahead of its time, I feel that it can be connected to an increase in the discourse about representation of East Malaysians in Malaysian cinema. You yourself appear to be firmly ensconced in the East Malaysian side of things, having lived there, studied there, and are now working there. What kind of challenges do you face in building up not only your own profile as an individual filmmaker, but also the film community’s in that context?
It is very complicated. Since I am not Sarawakian, I feel like I am just doing something useless, as I feel like I am an outsider. There were many activities and community services I had wanted to plan, but they got stuck in the middle because of my identity.
What do you mean?
I am not Sarawakian, so there are those who question why I am doing this for them. Why do I want to fight for them, for their film industry? All these question are always raised in my mind. And, interestingly, people here also somehow look down on us.
Rumah Filem. They do not see any opportunity from that community.
How did that make you feel?
Sometimes, I feel like giving up staying here, and I don’t know what it is that I am waiting for here. What am I doing here, when I can do something else in Kuala Lumpur?
So why are you still in Sarawak?
Because I love cinema. Talking about Rumah Filem, for instance, it is like my second home, and it felt like a form of alternative cinema for us. Walid Ali and I set it up in 2018, as we believe that education is needed for the normal spectator. Without awareness and education about film, people here in Sarawak may not care about film.
Could this be related to a generation thing, maybe, that you discussed earlier with ‘Mr Lecturer’?
Yes! Sometimes I wonder why those who could be more active here are doing in their free time, especially the millennials. Why they don’t like films or movies as a whole? Sometimes, we have only two or three audience members at Rumah Filem But it’s OK. We are not giving up, and we do have genuine followers who love cinema and film. One fine day, the name of Sarawak will come up in the film world, and I want to be a part of it. No more KL-centrism.
Let’s get to ‘The Road to God’. I notice that the one of the film’s actors, Jaiyanthara Naidu a/l Rave Chandran, is also heavily involved behind the scenes, especially in crafting the story, without actually directing it himself. Instead, it is you, a so-called outsider, who sat in the director’s chair. It’s not something I come across all that often in the Malaysian short film context, and I wonder whether that somehow influenced the dynamics between the actor and the director.
Actually, the story was fully written by myself. Jai is one of my students, and I asked him to check the originality of each actor, scene and any spiritual acts. I was worried if I did something wrong about Indian culture and such.
Fair enough. On that note, it seems that at least a part of the crew also appeared to be your students. I can make an educated guess, but I’d like to know a bit more of your perspective as to why you decided to work with students (and vice versa).
I teach my students by doing. I get them involved, but I do not push them. It’s open to everyone who is willing to help and learn.
What was it like directing a Tamil film? I wonder whether your directorial style had to change as a result of this.
I like to experience something new. That’s is why Jai was the one who helped me in terms of the dialogue and its translation. The tempo, the pronunciation, the rhythm of the dialogue… Jai helped me a lot with them.
It also appears to be a film that touches upon a potentially-sensitive issue. How did you go about preparing to direct this film?
Actually, yes. I wanted to create a certain impact, and James Lee, after watching the film, said the film is too much. He felt that I did wrongly about people who already died, in the sense that I misused the context of filmmaking to create that kind of film.
What would you say to that?
It is all metaphoric. All of my short films are metaphors for my views of life and my environment. I translate what I feel into my short films.
We wrote that the film could possibly be seen as discussing the more “macro spiritual narrative of the nation that is Malaysia.” How true is this for you?
It is true. What you have written is true.
I don’t imagine that the making of such a film would go off without a hitch. Describe for us the biggest challenge you faced in the making of ‘The Road to God’.
The biggest challenge for us is the language, and also those around us. A lot of people thought I was out of my mind by directing a Tamil short film. I also received many negative comments from my colleagues, including those who teach film at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS).
What do you think of that?
Well, like I said, there are people who only want the title, like having a doctorate, but they don’t really understand life and the moving image. Actually, they are somewhat represented in ‘Road to God’! Don’t forget the Malay character who gave the three siblings the motorcycle. It’s a metaphor of Malay society.
On the flipside, I feel that there’s a lot of positives that could be found in the film. What was the reaction to the film the first time you screened it?
Most of the Indians and Tamils who watched it really liked the film, because they understand the culture, and it’s really close to them. The others, they just complained about my short film, as I discussed above.
On this point, what has been the biggest challenge of your career thus far?
I’ve been having a tough life. I’ve sacrificed many things for the moving image and academia. I am divorced and a single father. It’s taught me to be wiser, and to become more personal when it comes to the stories I write.
What about the upside? Surely there must be some good moments.
Truth be told, I just love cinema and moving images. It’s brought me back to life again. Watching and making movies are a big part of my life.
Speaking of making movies, you’ve recently released your latest film, ‘Story Behind the Wall’. Tell us a bit more about that spark that catalysed your interest in Nabil, the mural artist. How did you come across his story?
Life is very challenging. It’s a full biographical documentary, but I am not doing a documentary for Nabil per se. Rather, the story that Nabil will share will become a part of our life. I met him before his success. He is a struggling young man who need our government’s and community’s attention, to prove that the arts can put food on the table for us to eat.
Beyond that, are you working on any other film projects as well?
I am currently writing a proposal for my research grant.
Finally, a part of the reason why we don’t call you MJ is because we are always reminded of Michael Jackson or Mary Jane from ‘Spiderman’. Which of the two do you prefer, and why?
I love Michel Jackson, but MJ is more like Mat Johor! Incidentally, I was born in Johor.
Orang Johor rupanya! Hok aloh mu ni!
OK. Thanks very much!
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training