Home Discomforts – The Films of Nadiah Hamzah

Having dried himself from that afternoon rain, Fikri Jermadi gets to the rest of Nadiah Hamzah’s filmography.

Continuing on our Nadiah Hamzah journey for now, I am going to explore more of her short films made from yesteryear. I want to begin by recalling what I wrote previously, of how she had infused much of her film with a discussion about identity, interrogating her protagonists through unfamiliarity in different places, a process which I feel, to a certain extent, is a silent echo of her own experience. There is also much that we can talk about in terms of what the concept of home is. Though produced some time ago, this is the bigger picture context that should inform our reading of these characters and their stories.

This can be seen in ‘Sub Rosa’. The film tells the story of a budding inter-cultural and -racial relationship between two people, Ayesha (Adepero Oduye) and Kurt (Tommy Heleringer). It is a cold open (in more ways than one; the film appears to have been shot in winter) as we meet our characters meeting each other as a bus stop. Kurt registers some interest in Ayesha, but she essentially ignores him. However, this does not nip his attraction in the bud, and over time, they grow to like each other.

Set in New York (where Nadiah was studying for her master’s), it highlights the director’s commitment to narrative storytelling. By this, I mean that the film feels like a feature film formatted as a short, packing in quite a lot in just a touch over nine minutes. A big part of that is the dialogue, with plenty to go round without going overboard. An example of this is when Kurt introduces himself, just as Ayesha is boarding the bus. “I wasn’t asking,” comes the cool reply.

We now revert again to the idea of the protagonist being driven by the director. Here, Ayesha’s identity as a covered up Muslim woman could be directly connected to Nadiah’s, whom I’ve never seen without the tudung. I am hesitant to say that she experienced the same sort of curiosity we see Ayesha go through in the film, but living in a post-9/11 New York with such visible signifiers of a religion often associated with causing that national trauma could not have been smooth. ‘Sub Rosa’ does not dwell for long within these political and religious discourses, but Nadiah did a good job of touching lightly on them, with a brief scene of Ayesha explaining to Kurt why she wears it.

That exchange occurs naturally within the film as part of a boy-meets-girl meet-cute. Yuna’s ‘Deeper Conversation’ makes a brief appearance as well, imbuing the film with a greater sense of pop culture relevance. There is also an almost-obligatory shot of Ayesha gazing at herself in the mirror, a cinematic process of self-thought and reflection. Hassan Muthalib noted this in ‘Jagat’. I remember seeing it in ‘Pria’ by Yudho Aditya. Even ‘Hujan Panas’ employs this. What are the odds of Sharifah Amani looking at a reflection of herself in ‘Motif’?

From New York, we go to more familiar surroundings in ‘Hi, I’m Julia’. Set in Penang (Nadiah’s hometown), it details the story of Julia (Nurul Farhanah Abd Razak), a new girl in a new school. She is not comfortable, and is disconnected from the others in class. Soon enough, she would cross paths with Didi (Nur Alia Azimi), Lalita (Reena Hooi Lei Yin) and Angie (Chong Chun Mei). They’re about to skip school, and Julia, willingly or not, is taken along for the ride, primarily through Didi’s North Malaysian bonhomie (often a force of nature in its own right).

The story development allows for us to be gradually introduced to Penang as well, its trajectory revealing the city to us as it is exposed to Julia. Given that it was made for Astro’s My Hometown short film series in 2012 (in which a number of filmmakers were encouraged to tell tales from their origins), that is perhaps not such a surprise, and we’re in good hands, as Nadiah probably knows most of the on-screen locales like the back of hers.

You would think that given the home comforts, the disorientation Nadiah’s protagonists felt in ‘Sub Rosa’ and ‘Hujan Panas’ would not be as evident. This is especially due to the different aesthetics both places would have; I love Penang, but it is comparatively lesser-known for being a place of transition, both culturally and visually. By this, I mean that New York’s hall of mirrors that is its skyscrapers make it cinematically stunning.

Penang, on the other hand, has to show its own charms and (dis)connections in very different ways. Certainly when it comes to Julia, Nadiah’s employment of jump cuts in one particular scene helps to enhance that sense of being lost. As such, ‘Hi, I’m Julia’ maintains much of the same thematic approach we can denote from Nadiah’s other films. There is still that brief discussion of home, whether it is a pre-existing place to be in, or a feeling to be found. Plus, I quite like the cutaways of signs you commonly see in such schools, such as ‘Learning is fun’ and ‘Actions speak louder than words’. Given the plot, it’s not without irony.

There is another film Nadiah directed called ‘Cure to Catastrophe’. One of her earlier works, it tells the story of Liz (Jamie J. Park) on a date gone wrong with Jeremy (Jared Stanfield). It works largely as a genre effort (psychological horror, perhaps?), with some clever bits in between (I particularly like a match cut between two very different scenes). However, it seems like the kind of film made primarily to fulfill credit requirements, with very little of the qualities that would make it a key part of Nadiah’s cinematic oeuvre.

With that exception, all of her films look very good. This is down to her and her high standards. In explaining this, I am always reminded of an event I organised for Filemmakers Anonymous in 2011, in which Nadiah, Sherman Ong and I conducted a workshop for filmmaking newbies. We would each take separate parts of the course, covering different aspects of the filmmaking process. Given Sherman’s more experimental background, and my profession as an educator, we focused on encouraging the participants no matter the technical barrier.

Nadiah, on the other hand, had different ideas. Sticking to her high standards, she spoke convincingly of the need for films to be made to the highest levels possible, of how the presentation of the story is essentially a part of the story itself; getting the right cameras, lenses and lighting support is absolutely paramount. I don’t recall all the specifics of that day itself, but while some of the participants might have been put off by the idea of having to invest more money in filmmaking, I did remember thinking that whenever she makes her feature film debut, it’s going to look very good.

That when is now. ‘Motif’ is out in cinemas, so do catch it if you have the time, for if there is one thing I hope to have succeeded in highlighting through these write-ups, it is to show that Nadiah Hamzah is a filmmaker with something to say and a good way to say it.

‘Motif’ is out in cinemas now. Click on the link for more details. You can read our review of ‘Hujan Panas’ here, while we name-checked Nadiah in an article look at Malaysia’s Oscars chances.

Featured image credit: makanajib.com

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