True Grit – Prebet Sapu

Fikri Jermadi takes in the beautiful realism of Muzzamer Rahman’s first feature film.

The most telling scene of ‘Prebet Sapu’ is its second; returning from burying his deceased father in his hometown, Aman (Amerul Affendi) drives back to Kuala Lumpur. Reaching the Mont Kiara exit on the PLUS highway, there is a peak from which you would usually see the Petronas Twin Towers.

For those journeying from the north, this visual signifier of the nation’s capital acted as the marker that your journey is nearing its end (assuming that Kuala Lumpur is indeed your destination). You may still be some distance from home, but that light is seen at the end of a long tunnel, allowing you to exhale a sigh of relief.

You don’t get that view anymore. Our sight from that same spot is now blocked by newer high-rise towers in Mont Kiara and its surrounding areas, dotting the vista enough to cover up the Twin Towers. From that vantage point, that which once was a sight for the sore eyes of many is now the privilege of the few.

‘Prebet Sapu’ locates us on the fringes of such trappings, as we follow Aman, an e-hailing driver struggling to make ends meet, and Bella (Lim Mei Fen). Though she appears to be more at home than Aman in the big city, like Aman she is also searching for an anchor of her own. Meeting by chance, they grew closer together, realising that they won’t make it through life in Kuala Lumpur otherwise.

Many things are at play in the film, but it’s worth noting the difference in their ethnicity and cultural background. In conversation with Aman about her dreams, she revealed how she never thought that the Malays and Chinese could be friends, hinting at a siloed upbringing not uncommon in Malaysia.

While this can result from personal social preferences, much of this is also due to external political machinations, ranging from exclusive Bumiputera policies to less-discuss historical issues like marginalisation of Chinese communities during the Malayan Emergency, the legacy of which reverberates to this day.

Additionally, the playing of ‘pendatang’ politics, where non-Malay/Bumiputera Malaysians are still subjected to discriminatory language and behaviour due to the perception of them not being ‘native’ to the country, is particularly disappointing (if not all that surprising) when it comes from those in positions of power.

I touch on the above because ‘Prebet Sapu’ does so as well. “I don’t feel the sense of belonging here. It’s like this place does not belong to me,” said Bella, before asking Aman: “You pernah rasa tak feeling macam you tumpang kat orang lain?” Aside from the double meaning of Aman’s e-hailing app (Toompang), it is a clear reference to the contexts discussed.

Arman’s answer to Bella’s question could be the entire film itself. Though a part of the ethnic mainstream, he remains marginalised to the fringes of the working class. Not having a place to call his own, he rents a room from an Indonesian couple, who would eventually kick him out for reasons beyond his control.

That sense of injustice is further compounded by the thought that others (and ‘the other’) appear to have a better deal than him; as he converses with a Bangladeshi customer, I sense a subtle yet strong hint of jealousy at foreigners finding shelter and satisfaction in his own country. Amerul did such a great job highlighting these muted feelings I thought he might ask his customer whether he has a room to spare.

This is the crux of the film, a treatise against the socio-economic squeeze felt by many of the working class in the heart of the nation. Muzzamer presented a myriad of perspectives still a rarity in many Malaysian feature films. This demographic, often courted during election seasons, are conveniently forgotten in the actual policymaking foci of the powers that be.

Speaking of elections, ‘Prebet Sapu’ is set in the midst of one, with its background taken up by various political discourses. This can range from the flags of political parties swaying in the wind by the roadside, to radio commentaries raging against astronomical property prices, preventing many from owning their own houses.

Though such discussions are uncommon on our silver screens, it is not unwelcome, as its gritty realism makes a fine addition to a compendium of films like ‘Daulat’ and ‘Rise: Ini Kalilah’. These films may have found an audience recently, but they remain exceptions rather than the rule, as many tend to steer clear of such themes due to potential reprisals (officially or otherwise).

The background-as-the-foreground approach is most obvious with representations of the city. As the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur has received the bulk of major infrastructure investment, with its modern glory and splendor highlighted through films like ‘Shadowplay’, ‘J Revolusi’ and any Yusof Haslam production you care to flick through.  

While there’s nothing wrong with that, such depictions fail to capture its underbelly the way ‘Prebet Sapu’ did, its low angles showcasing Kuala Lumpur as a foreboding presence. A case could be made for it to be the film’s true antagonist, especially when there is a lack of that personification in any one person.

As a film in its own right, there is much to delight in here. Amerul’s turn as a leading man is one that is well-deserved. He is a talented actor often left in the shadow of his higher profile colleagues, the Tonto to Zahiril Adzim’s Lone Ranger. I first saw him as the leading man in Bradley Liew’s ‘Xing’, and it’s good to see him take the lead again here.

Mei Fen is equally effective, exuding an intriguing aura on screen. Witness the first time Aman sees Bella in his backseat through his rearview mirror, peeking at her as she leans back and takes nonchalant drags of her cigarette. Aided by the camerawork by Fairuz Ismail and Hafiz Rashid, she looks like a classic film star not out of place in a Wong Kar-wai film.

Additionally, I can’t help but connect identical narrative beats in key scenes from ‘Prebet Sapu’ to films like ‘Dari Jemapoh ke Manchestee’ and ‘Budak Kelantan’, though discussing this more may well reveal key plot points. It might be unintended, or I may be reading too much into it, but these links linger in the mind all the same.

‘Prebet Sapu’ is truly a Muzzamer Rahman film in every sense of the word. There are also little trinkets for those in the know; the name of Hanafiah appearing in the film made me wonder whether it’s a tribute to the late Muhd Ali Hanafiah, the cinematographer Muz was close to.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case, as, to paraphrase Bella, this is an independent film with a big heart, with meaning to be found in every corner. It is a timely and critical addition to discussions on the human condition in the country, a true grit making ‘Prebet Sapu’ a sight for sore eyes indeed.

‘Prebet Sapu’ will be released in cinemas on Thursday 16th December 2021.

Featured image credit: Prebet Sapu / Muzzamer Rahman

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