Dancing in the Wind – The Short Films of KKIFF 2017 (part 2)

Fikri Jermadi continues his analysis of selected short films from the 2017 Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival.

Another film I first caught at 2016 Pesta Filem KITA was ‘Living Alone on Bung Jagoi’. Directed by Yow Chong Lee, it documents the life of a woman called Jema Ak Nopis… living alone on Bung Jagoi. It is not often that you have the entire premise of the movie that is spelt out entirely through its title, but this is an enlightening and entertaining film. Much of that comes from Jema, keen to stay put in Bung Jagoi even as she is left all alone in the neighbourhood (is it still a neighbourhood if there are no neighbours around? #showerthoughts). Through restful camerawork (by Mohd. Affendi Azizan, director ‘Aman Nak Besar’), we gaze and ponder Jema’s predicament: a silhouette of her here, looking out the window. There, rays of sunlight reflected against spider cobwebs.

All this is accompanied by a soundtrack of the crickets, as noisy as it is homely. Apart from some dogs, it is, by and large, a life of solitude. We see her not being lonely as she conducts her daily routines (such as collecting medicinal herbs), even if she is alone. ‘Living Alone on Bung Jagoi’, then, is a brief but effective treatise on the idea of home. “These houses seem like they are abandoned,” she said, taking us inside one of the houses next door. “They are actually not. It is just that the owners aren’t here anymore.” It is another perspective on an issue I’ve wrestled with: what is home, who defines it as such. I like the fact that Jema offers another perspective on what is a common question. I also love how she enjoys watching professional wrestling, a language a lot more universal than many would think.

However, if I may be allowed to nitpick, there is a shot in which she blows out the candle, ending the scene but not the film. Personally, it felt like, in a visual and cinematic sense, it may be more satisfying to have that as the film’s final scene. Perhaps it is I who need to check my own biases, and that being the last shot might bring connotations other than Chong Lee intended, but having been conditioned so, I find the scenes after that to be slightly less than satisfying precisely because of this.

On the matter of satisfaction, the next film debunked both the Rolling Stones and Britney Spears, as I found all the satisfaction I need through ‘Tontolu’. Directed by Carolina Peni, it tells the story of a single mother, Loiya (Rosalia Gisok). Located in a faraway rural area in Sabah (not unlike the terrain explored by Geraldyn Acibron in ‘Tubod’), conflict arises in the community when her son, Bitut (Christian Geoffery), is accused of stealing the eggs of one of her neighbours, Sara (Saripah binti Amin). The village head (Geoffery Ibun) is tasked with determining what to be done, as well as the punishment appropriate for this.

That paragraph works as a single snapshot that may resonate with those who feel the oppression of patriarchy weighing down on their shoulders. I feel that on one level, Loiya is being made to pay the price of being a woman. That she is a single mother is of no consequence, even if such societies tend to deify motherhood, for justice must be served, however (un)fair that may be. Strengthening this suspicion is Uding (Murin Kudou), a local man whose attempts to seduce Loiya to be his second wife is as deflating as it is comical. For me, it references the privileges assumed, certainly in this part of the world, where the male will not give the female a respite from unwanted advances.

What is a lot more welcome is the film’s look. Simply put, Carolina has made a very good looking film. The cinematography by Fredy Joe is attractive, but much of the ingredients comes from the colouring of the film. This is done by Syahrizan Ramlee and Ester Saminding, the pair doubling up as the film’s editors as well. I also like how the drone shots are integrated. Often, their usage in such independent productions is marked by a stark contrast in quality between them and the more mundane shots on the ground. Here, such differences are minimised, which means the drone shots helps to enhance the film, instead of merely setting unrealistic expectations.

Speaking of expectations, I must say that I have no idea about Kwan Thung Seng and his filmmaking buddies. However, I can say that his film, ‘Hello Pirit’, hits the same jackpot Chong Lee and Carolina did. Like theirs, this film sounds and looks good. In fact, and in keeping with the heart of the story, we hear the soundtrack first before the black fades away, revealing a girl, walking in the middle of a paddy field. Perhaps this harks back to some of my own film work, or may it is just the ASEAN spirit in me, but my goodness, I am happy to see paddy wheat dancing softly in the wind.

Of course, ‘Hello Pirit’ is not just about that, for it is a short documentary about how farmers protect their crops. They would come up with all sorts of tactics to keep away predators. Scarecrows are perhaps the most common trope in this discourse, but here, a platform is set up in the middle of the field. Ropes are tied from the platform to the different corners of the field. Along these ropes are hung empty cans, plastic bags and coloured clothes, which, when triggered, would catalyse a cacophony of chaos for birds and other such animals planning to feast on the wheat.

It’s an ingenious tactic that must have been developed from many years of practice and thought. I feel that these are the very traditions that is worth studying (presumably by a Caucasian academic from a foreign university). Thung Seng’s work is an important document that both historicises and validates this tradition as one worth knowing and keeping, at least to a wider audience. He is very clever in setting this up, allowing us to see the birds swirling about the area, before inserting shots of a man heading to the aforementioned platform. The music begins, kickstarting the tension, and slowly rises before plateauing as the man flicks the ropes. We then see the birds fly away in unison. It is a sight (and sound) for sore eyes (and ears).

Conversely, one that made my eye (and heart) sore is ‘Shelter’ by Charles Hazo. Truth be told, looking at the video file and noticing it to be less than three minutes long, I wondered whether I had procured the right film, that this is not instead a trailer for a longer story. When I played it from the start, I see Charles placing me in relatively familiar surroundings, inserting quick cuts of apartment buildings everywhere. It is an urban jungle, with nary a human being in sight. That impersonality does not restrict the soundtrack, a city buzzing with phones ringing and computers whirring. He cuts to black, and we then hear keys being inserted into the doorknob, signaling the arrival at home to conclude a long day at the office.

When that door opens, however, we are instead greeted with images of the poor, of poverty, of walls with graffiti, of clothes hung under damaged roofs, of kids in front of what seemed like abandoned houses, shelters unloved by others and yet never more important to them. Here, a KFC poster turned sideways to cover a window, a vain hope for a modicum of privacy. There, children kicking old, deflated basketballs in the rain. Of people making do, not just because they have to, but because this is life, and the lack of trappings of wealth will not stop them from playing with kittens, from living life itself.

For much of the film, I wondered where all this is happening. After all, however good the text is, it is the context which helps to provide greater meaning, possibly effecting the change desired. Then, in the background, I saw it: a Perodua car with the SAB license plate. That made me feel uncomfortable. By and large, I lead a fairly comfortable life, and while issues like this do pop up somewhat regularly, the fact that this is happening in my backyard is not pleasant. ‘Shelter’ is important not by giving us the answers we want, but by raising the questions we need to ask. In confronting that, as I did, you may find some uncomfortable truths not just about the situation, but about you yourself.

What will that lead to? We may need more than three minutes for that.

Read parts one and three. The 10th Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival will run from Saturday 7th September 2019 to Saturday 14th September 2019. Click on them for more details.

Featured image credit: Riceland

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