Tuesday, May 23, 2006

MALAYSIAN CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Amir Muhammad

Michael Guillén: Amir, thank you for allowing me to be the opportunist I am, taking advantage of the fact you've lost your voice and luring you into an email interview. First of all, congratulations on the favorable reviews that your most recent documentary The Last Communist has been receiving on the international festival circuit! I've gathered together a smidgeon of them for The Evening Class, with more to come I'm sure.

Amir Muhammad: Is that all there is? I want more!

Guillén: Well, I couldn't possibly outdo Fathi Aris Omar's incredible coverage so I'll concede to him! Allow me to express, however, my solidarity with all those within the world's film community at the recent ban of The Last Communist in your home country. Your initial refutation on the film's blogsite skewered the hypocrisy of the situation and categorically stressed the danger of having a newspaper like Berita Harian wield so much power. Can you name the columnist who has been giving you and Yasmin so much flak? What do you predict? Will the ban be lifted? Or is this the beginning of a long haul for Malaysian filmmakers? Can you briefly profile Berita Harian for American/Canadian readers unfamiliar with their editorial policy?

Muhammad: Berita Harian is one of the two best-selling newspapers in the country, the other being Utusan Malaysia. It's read by about 20% of the population. It's owned by a large conglomerate called Media Prima that also runs other newspapers, TV stations and a film production company. Like many large enterprises in Malaysia, it is closely linked with the ruling party UMNO (United Malay National Organisation). Berita Harian is simply (at this moment) the mouthpiece for the more conservative, reactionary segment of this party. If it didn't exist something else would take its place. The columnist is also fulfilling his function as the mouthpiece du jour for this conservative faction. He was indeed named in my blog. So it's not like one newspaper per se has so much power, but that it reflects certain tendencies within the ruling elite.

We are currently appealing against the ban. Most of the articles in the mainstream media (including the other newspapers in the Media Prima stable) have been supportive of us, so we hope for the best.

Guillén: Brian Darr has opined that the ban is "seemingly another example of the trend of censorship or denunciation of a film making it all the more viable in the marketplace. In the case of censorship, the neighboring country's marketplace, and probably the black marketplace too." Has that proven to be the case? Is it true that there is no such thing as bad publicity? Does this hinder financing of your future projects? Is your horror musical still in the pipeline?

Muhammad: Actually the pirates might be reluctant to take it because it's a local product that is banned, and so the pirates who sell it will be likelier subjects for police raids. Local films aren't pirated nearly as heavily as foreign ones.

My horror movie Susuk is now being edited. Here is irony number 1: The company that is funding it, Grand Brilliance, is owned by Media Prima too.

I haven't started looking for funding for the next project so I wouldn't know if it's going to be difficult.

Guillén: Let's hope not! Obviously censorship has been an ongoing issue in Malaysia, giving birth to a lucrative black market for pirated dvds. I recall when you were here in San Francisco that you quipped that pirated dvds were Malaysia's best film school. I imagine that a financial return on your investment would have to come from movie house screenings and dvd sales and that you won't see a red cent (so to speak) from any black market traffic, if any? How do you feel about that? Can you recover any of your costs on the festival circuit?

Muhammad: It's a pretty low-budget documentary (US$20,000) and part of it was covered by a grant from the Jan Vrijman Fund, so I wouldn't be a pariah if it loses money. The Singapore box-office might help a bit. There is interest to market the dvd in Singapore but this entails getting a separate Singapore censorship clearance, which we are looking into now.

Speaking of piracy: There is an upcoming independent Malaysian comedy called Ciplak that revolves around a dvd pirate. I haven't seen it, though.

Guillén: Thanks for the heads-up on Ciplak. Over at Twitch, Gommorahizer has been recently profiling a batch of Malaysian horror features—including Susuk—along with Osman Ali's Puaka Tebing Biru and Michael Chuah's Chinese-language (Cantonese and Mandarin) Malaysian horror movie Nephesh Seed. Have you seen either of those? Any dirt on Osman Ali or Michael Chuah? Sounds like M-horror is just about to carry on Asia's alphabetical thirst for the genre!

Muhammad: Osman is a terrific director whose debut feature Bukak Api remains one of the best Malaysian films ever made. It started off as an HIV educational tool for transvestite prostitutes (although I am sure you in San Francisco would call them sex-workers) but he developed it as a strong melodrama about community. I know Michael only slightly; he always looks somewhat shifty, which might be a good thing. I have not seen either film.

Guillén: What drew you to the horror genre? And where did this idea of the susuk originate? It seems so local and unique!

Muhammad: It wasn't my idea to do a horror film. I was approached by the production company. "I've never been so insulted in my life!" I said. But actually, I have: all my other movies had been "festival favorites", which is a euphemism for "flop." So I figured on laughing to the bank for a change. Susuk is a practice in Indonesia and Malaysia. Since it's unIslamic, of course it's taboo. No other local film had been made on it. So it fit well with my motto: It's not important to be the best, but it's important to be the first.

Guillén: I think it's great that Yasmin Ahmad is in it!

Muhammad: She wears a kinky nurse uniform.

Guillén: Ooooooooh!! If you ever do another horror film, will you set it in San Francisco and allow me to be killed off in the first scene? That's a dream of mine!!

Muhammad: Vertigo is already the ultimate San Francisco horror film.

Guillén: Will you be starting up a blog site for Susuk as you did for The Last Communist?

Muhammad: We shall see . . . .

Guillén: For those of us a little rusty on our Malay can you synopsize what's being said in those video diaries? Or offer any up-to-date scoop on the film or anecdotes from the filming?

Muhammad: Oh, the video diaries are basically people pretending to know what they're doing. The shoot itself was not smooth; it was supposed to last six weeks but dragged on for three months. One of our locations was a terrific house that had no roof but unfortunately the weather was atypically rainy. There were so many other delays as well. People kept threatening to walk off the set. The co-director Naeim Ghalili says his next film will be a comedy about the making of Susuk. Needless to say, I enjoyed the process tremendously.

Guillén: As ever, the brilliance of your intellect shines through your wry acerbic humor. Recently on the Twitch Forum someone shared an article they had found that was about the Malaysian censors' upset with The DaVinci Code. They didn't provide a working url so I couldn't confirm it, but, I'm convinced you wrote this. Did you? I've seen other pieces where you are spoofing the censors (one regarding a Harry Potter movie that hasn't even been made or named yet and another about dangling participles). This is not only brave, but effective of you to shift this "debate" away from false censorship issues into a satirical send-up of bureaucratic ineptitude. You use humor as a weapon and an educational tool, don't you? Where can we find these columns?

Muhammad: Using humor as an educational tool sounds way too dour and deterministic. I use humor because that's the way I like to write most of the time. I've been writing columns, on and off, since the age of 14. I am trying to bully a publisher into compiling these new spoof columns into a book next year. It might need footnotes as some of the references are really local. Here's irony number 2: The newspaper I contribute to—The New Straits Times—is owned by Media Prima too.

Guillén: A collection of those spoof columns would be fantastic!! What would you call it?

Muhammad: Not Strictly True, since the paper they appeared in is called NST.

Guillén: What, if anything, can non-Malaysians do to counter the ban? What are Malaysians doing? You've received considerable online support at the film's blogsite, has this mobilized into any effective campaign against the ban?

Muhammad: The online commentaries have been transmuted into articles in the print media, which will more likely be read by those in power. So of course we hope these will be considered when we appeal against the ban.

People in North America can show solidarity by buying a dvd of my landmark 2003 work The Big Durian. After all, words of support can only do so much; putting cash into my account proves that you really love me.

Guillén: Ka-CHING!! Just ordered mine. Can you feel the love? Would you ever consider working in exile if the climate becomes too oppressive? Or have you developed a style of working through such oppression?

Muhammad: I don't think I could ever live anywhere else. For starters, we have the best food. I'd probably get some international media coverage out of coming across like a helpless victim of a tyrannical regime but the truth isn't nearly so severe. I feel very comfortable here and don't suffer any harassment. Most intelligent Malaysians have a healthily skeptical view of authority anyway.

Guillén: Food determines all my major life-changing decisions also. I have long said that eating is my spiritual path. Knowing that discussion of communism is taboo in Malaysia, are you guilty of poking the hornet's nest with a stick somewhat?

Muhammad: In a free country, one should be free to poke one's stick anywhere.

Guillén: Heh! What is the best case scenario you can see coming out of this unfortunate situation? What about a worst case scenario?

Muhammad: The best-case scenario is it persuades other Malaysians to take up the documentary form. The Last Communist would have been the first to get a theatrical release. I wanted potential filmmakers to look at it and say, "Is that all? I can do better" and then go ahead and indeed do better. The worst-case scenario is that it will scare people away from any remotely unorthodox subject. Oh, and that I will be unemployable.

Guillén: How has the Malaysian filmmaking community rallied, if at all? As a maker of independent and experimental films, do you receive support from your peers? Has there been support from the international film community?

Muhammad: Malaysian directors, even the really mainstream ones, have either openly supported me or refused to say anything against me. But the head of the Producers' Association and the head of the Film Workers' Association were baited into criticizing me. But this too shall pass.

Guillén: How have festival audience Q&As been reacting to the ban?

Muhammad: The ban occurred while I was attending Toronto's Hot Docs, in between my two screenings in fact. I told the second crowd: "You really got your money's worth. The first crowd wasn't watching a banned film but you are." Needless to say, they were quite curious as to the reasons. Some people found my Q&A more entertaining than the documentary but I am quite used to this by now.

Guillén: There are stand-up comics who would kill for what you throw away. How has the ban affected your day-to-day operations? Have you been distracted into necessary debate? Or are you moving on to your next project? If so, can you tell us a little about that and what your hopes are?

Muhammad: Never has Googling myself been such a fruitful enterprise. But other than that, nothing has changed. We are still doing the post for Susuk.

I've got a few other documentary and feature ideas but these will depend on which gets the necessary funding first. I'd like to shoot something in Peru at the end of the year. Because Peru is the antipodes of Malaysia so I'm curious to see what it's like.

I'd also like to do something about a murder that occurred in Kuala Lumpur in 1911 which became the basis for the Bette Davis movie The Letter . . . but my take might be closer to early Fassbinder than good old Willie Wyler's.

Guillén: That sounds fascinating!! And a touch of Fassbinder always brightens a melodrama, don't you think? Anyways, thanks so much for taking the time to "talk" with me. I hope you feel better soon. Keep me posted on your projects! I look forward to watching The Big Durian.

AM: Thank you!


Anonymous said...

Great! Have uploaded this interview (the link, as usual) on my blog. Terima kasih :)

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, Fathi.

Anonymous said...

Amir Muhammad sounds like a riot. He continues to reinforce all the positive comments I've heard about him. Plus, the perspective he maintains in the face of the censorship is quite motivating and tempers much of the rhetoric you hear. He's the kind of person you feel will be more successful at arousing change.

I really can't want to see his pork-eating-taboo comedy short I've heard so much about.

Thanks for doing the interview, Michael.

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, Adam, for taking the time to stop by to read it. I couldn't agree more with your comments.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea that censorship was such a problem in Malaysia. Seems that not only films, but also interviews with filmmakers, from foreign countries illuminate those countries.

Although I haven't seen any of Amir Muhammad's works, when I do, I'm sure that my viewing will be richer because of your interview. Can't ask a critic for more than that!

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, Pacze Moj, you've made my day!