Wednesday, April 3, 2024

What constitutes a "kiddy show" these days?

Haikal Nak Jadi Cef

More than 15 years ago, I decided to focus on the “heavier” and perhaps, the grittier side of social commentary in my work.

On documentaries and narrative dramas in tv and films, I want to explore these topics with specific visual artistic aesthetics - not just the cookie-cutter, straightforward coverage.

I call it explorative (you may call it “experimental”) but hey, you need to be experimental to find your own voice as a filmmaker. You don’t grow if you do the same things year in year out.

I discover I can actually approach “difficult” social commentary through layers of sound, visual and language that the visual medium affords. These 3 elements combined, create a tapestry that articulates the human condition. They say good scriptwriting is when there is less dialogue and well-written screen direction, among other things.

However the 3 elements need not be the star all at once, because human emotions are like that. More can be told when at least 2 of these 3 are selectively used to bring forward the essence of the scene or conversation.

The visual language is empowering, because you can show things without showing things. Less is more. No need to dumb it down. You just have to think with more sophistication (and work with the best language writers).

But, importantly through these exploration, one thing remains - you make tv programmes and films for the audience - your biggest customer. You make these things not for your Self.

When the chance to do Haikal Nak Jadi Cef arised, I grabbed the opportunity. Because it is something of a throwback to the more “fun” things that I have done previously.

Not many may know this but I did 5 series of hybrid food / cooking/ cuisine programmes previously. I did several fun travel and cultural series around Asia. I did “serious” current affairs too.

Haikal Nak Jadi Cef is a mix of all these previous creative explorations and influences.

I would not call it a “kid’s show” because when you watch it, you may discover something else that adults may need to explain to the kids.

Watch it and let me know.

The 13-episode series debuts on 5 April, Friday 8:30pm. Malay with English subtitles.

So is it really a “kids show” when its on the prime time belt, immediately after the national news? (It is officially an info-ed programme).

Directed by yours truly. #sanifdirects

#HaikalNakJadiCef #mediacorpHaikalNakJadiCef
Catch it on mewatch and Suria channel. English subtitled.

Series synopsis
Haikal Nak Jadi Cef is a whimsical coming-of-age series told from the eyes of Haikal, a precocious 11 year old boy who lost his mother recently from an illness. Haikal still misses Mama Haikal’s cooking. Haikal food adventure begins as he tries to replicate his mother’s favourite dishes - from memory. Haikal’s quest is accompanied by an erratic sidekick, Zaidi, and a world surrounded by offbeat characters that reflect the different spectrum of adulthood such as Raian, Cikgu Alin, Mariah, Rahmat, Uncle Ravi and Chef Mel. While on a mission to accomplish something for himself in the most charming yet imaginatively complicated way possible, Haikal discovers that the journey to uncovering Mama Haikal’s secret recipe is a kaleidoscope of the unpredictable and colourful throwback to life itself.

Saturday, October 21, 2023


What is Authenticity in an age when making films is about meeting national KPIs & maximizing returns? Is one Singapore story less important because it doesn’t qualify into a prestigious film festival or doesn’t get made at all?

I was asked similar questions during PENDEKAR post-screening attended by about 100 very enthusiastic film audience. It was overwhelming because PENDEKAR was my Singaporean-Malay-Bawean ode to Nusantara, the broad Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia. It was also overwhelming to discuss authenticity because where I come from, Malay is the national language, English is the national language of communication & Singapore-Malays make up 13.5% of her residents.

Each of my films reflect my evolution in social awareness as a Singaporean filmmaker. It’s mostly about deconstructing my identity and the mainstream Malay texts.

PENDEKAR is an agency to discover myself in relation to my fellow Singaporeans - both Malays & non-Malays. Most importantly, how this Malay sees himself in relation to ‘rakan serumpun’ in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei where Malay dominates the respective national identity.

Am I less a Malay because I don’t speak much of the language or don’t subscribe to the accepted Malay norms? Is there an absolute Malay or Malayness - even in a Malay dominant country?

I deliberately spoke Melayu during the session to respect the film festival. It’s a privilege to be in Jambi - literally the heart of Nusantara Malay Archipelago. It’s an opportunity to discover how much of a Malay I am. I actually threw a question to the audience to ask how “Malay” is PENDEKAR with regard to its visual cues and mise-en-scene 😅

Terimakasih kepada semua komunitas sineas yang hadir, harap senang dengar aku bicara tentang PENDEKAR dalam bahasa filem yang tidak pernah aku lakukan sebelum ini 🙏🏽

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Choice and sanity

It was almost 10.30 pm. I was watching “My Neighbour, Totoro” (Hayao Mizayaki) when I received the following rather perplexing text from an award-winning actor and a published writer;
“Bro…. Kenapa aktor kau berbual macam cikgu sekolah? 🤣🤣🤣🤣 (Lead's name) cannot make it sak.” 
[Why does your lead actor speak with a formal accent? ...Fail!]

“I am not convinced that she was brought up by a Malay family. I have a lot of Chinese aunties who was adopted by Malay family”

Let’s break down these texts and their implications.

I receive many feedback for my work. In the past, I would get affected very much especially by the unsavoury remarks. It would have affected me for days. Deep down, the imposter syndrome would manifest by validating that I am never good enough, despite the multiple awards in writing and directing for television and international accreditations my films have received. The doubtful intent of the remarks impacted how I receive them.

In the motivational speakers that I followed on YouTube and TikTok, one of the key points often brought up touches how successful people are often the subject of envy from the insecure. They create negative detractions and subsequently use these to gaslight. It’s always about seeking their own validation while dismissing others. The later’s process and outcome is thus declared redundant. The speakers also reminded the best way to deal with toxic people is simply, to ignore them - by not returning the negative energy that they so crave. We invalidate their energy this way.

Just because you are triggered, doesn’t make you right.

These days, for my mental health I have learnt to pick my battles.

As much as I appreciate public feedback, I take these with a pinch of salt. But when it comes from peers, I question the intention of the feedback. The degree of engagement also takes into account credibility and consistency in respective production tasks and scope.

A person who claimed to be learned in the craft would be familiar with Process such as research, writing (and rewriting), scripting, structure, network feedback, on set unpredictability over scheduling, weather and location availability, and most importantly, Context.

Representation often raises question on authenticity. Where do you draw the line to be ethnically conscious?

I remember when the Oscar-winning film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” came out, my Chinese friends pointed that the accents and linguistics of the Chinese actors’ spoken Mandarin were jarring. The film starred Michelle Yeoh (Malaysia), Chow Yuen Fatt (Hong Kong), Zhang Ziyi (China), Zheng Pei-pei (Hong Kong), Chang Chen (Taiwan) among others. These actors have different Mandarin accents based on their background. I could just imagine the struggle that director Ang Lee (Taiwan) would have gone through with regards to these different accents to contextualise the film which is set during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).

In the film “Crazy Rich Asians”, many Singaporeans question the authenticity of the locations and American-Chinese actors casted to represent the Singaporean-Chinese. The Malaysians laughed that many of the locations used in the film were in fact shot in Malaysia.

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee sought to present a "China of the imagination" rather than an accurate vision of Chinese history. How would you decide if you are Ang Lee?

"Mencari Hajar" is based on the collective life journey of many women’s experience. The story is based on the deductive outcome of experiences collated from research. It is not a biopic. There is one narrative to tell based on the single trajectory of collective experiences. This trajectory is where the screenplay (a crucial process before scripting), develops based on intensive discussion in the “writers’ room”.

I welcome all feedback, because feedback feeds the creative growth. But I learn to manage who I engage with. I consume feedback that brings value to the process, not one that clouds it.

By the way, there are many factors beyond family in the development of accent.

Genetic, friends and education affect how we speak.

After My Neighbour, Totoro, I continued to watch another of Hayao Mizayaki’s masterpiece and Oscar-winning, suspension in disbelief animation feature, “Spirited Away”.

And my response to that text?
“Thank you for watching 👍🏽”

Monday, June 26, 2023


Begins streaming on Hari Raya Haji 2023 on MeWatch and Youtube

The trailer

(Post WW2, it was common for newborn girls especially, to be given away for adoption. Many of these babies grew up detached from their birth families. Many adapted well into the adopted culture, while others may struggle with their identity from the detachment.)

Born Chinese, Hajar was given away as a baby to a Malay-Muslim family and raised as one. Her past catches up with her as Hajar prepares for her first Haj. How would she deal with the discovery of her hidden past?

Production: Shortmen Production
Director + co-writer: Sanif Olek
Original idea + script: Lea Samudera

Cast: Nora Samosir, Sharon Ismail, Joyce Harn, Michael H Chua

OST song composer: Mayuni Omar
Song vocals: Hazrul Nizam

The filming process: MENCARI HAJAR telemovie

MENCARI HAJAR, telemovie.
Begins streaming on Hari Raya Haji 2023 on MeWatch and Youtube

The filming process

During production, I try to find that sweet spot between what I am comfortable with and what the circumstances on set have to offer. I work with the parameters I have been given (…and in local television production there are many, yet remain loyal to my visual style - staying true to my identity - but importantly, translating the script visually without missing what the scene is really all about.

I remind myself there is a great and important story to be told and that one has to tell the story with sensitivity regardless of the circumstances on set.

My approach has been informed by great designers like Fritz Hansen, Hay and Zaha Hadid, to name a few. In recent times my visual style has been influenced by transformative industrial designers and playful artists. If you are not familiar with these designers, they produce designs that are minimalist yet very functional but, most importantly, organic and beautiful to the eye.

In the past my directing approach was often about being elaborate, but I soon realised that often these styles were unintentionally reductive as a consequence of being imitative of filmmakers famous before me.

My professional experience in long-form drama informs me that anything and everything that can go wrong on set, will go wrong. Thus experience taught me to constantly relook into the basic, minimalist yet innovative way to translate the script visually without compromising the story.

So in summary what I have learnt from these designers, as cliched as it may sound, is that “less is more”.

It is easy to distract from the flaws in core storytelling by overwhelming the audience with style, especially during post-production, when most of the time these distractions are unnecessary, a superficial and nice laminate to veneer the disappointingly flawed particle board if you like. But to continue the cliches, to each his own.

Thus, I go back to the heart, the performance of the actor and their interaction with the camera lens. I remind myself that on set limitations can still be overcome when you have great performances from actors and hardworking filming crew who are loyal to your style and always have your back. Through decluttering bombastic stylistic distractions and with circumstantial limitations out of the way I am freed to get into both the heart of the story and the souls of the characters.

MENCARI HAJAR stars Nora Samosir, Sharon Ismail, Joyce Harn, Michael Chua with Shahril Wahid & Sani Hussin. The telemovie begins streaming in MeWatch Mediacorp on Hari Raya Haji 2023.

Bilingual with English subtitles.

Directed and co-written by yours truly.

The script process; MENCARI HAJAR telemovie

MENCARI HAJAR, telemovie.
Begins streaming on Hari Raya Haji 2023 on MeWatch and Youtube

The scripting process.

The most important aspect of documentation is to go to the ground and actually meet the subjects about whom you’re telling the story.

I may be privileged to have researchers available to do the work for me, but nothing surpasses having real conversations with the respective profiles, to find that conscious connection with their life journeys. This explains why I insist on meeting the characters in person.

In Mencari Hajar, I have had the privilege of meeting 5 ladies whose life journeys parallel Hajar’s, the protagonist in the telemovie MENCARI HAJAR (streaming on MeWatch from Hari Raya Haji 2023).

Born Chinese in 1950, Hajar, was given away as a baby to a Malay-Muslim family and raised as one. Her past catches up with her as Hajar prepares for her first Haj. How would she deal with the discovery of her hidden past?

(Post WW2, it was common for Chinese newborn girls to be given away for adoption. Many adapted well into their respective adopted culture, while others may struggle with their identity from the detachment.)

The ladies fall into two camps; one has reunited with her Chinese family, the other has not and doesn’t want to meet them. The main reason for the latter is out of respect for the Malay family who raised her. In fact, even talking in private to me about that part of her life is regarded by her as somewhat out of line.

For context, around post-World War2, many Chinese newborn girls were given away for adoption to Malay families. These babies were given away due to many beliefs inherent in the culture during that period with having baby girls.

Regardless of who they are, they both seem to have moved past their respective traumas and now appear strong. Yet at times during conversations, there were hints of them being affected and even slightly bitter about having been given away.

The second arc in MENCARI HAJAR deals with victims of scammers. Research shows that scammers do not choose their victims. Anyone can be a victim. I chose a high-flying, career woman to be a victim to emphasis this important point.

MENCARI HAJAR stars Nora Samosir, Sharon Ismail, Joyce Harn, Michael Chua with Shahril Wahid & Sani Hussin. The telemovie begins streaming in Mediacorp MeWatch on Hari Raya Haji 2023.

Bilingual with English subtitles.

Directed and co-written by yours truly.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Fast fingers.

This is something I have been wanting to address for a long time, perhaps an unpopular opinion but that’s ok. (Creatives love to engage and talk cock.) Many of us, me included, gets excited when we’re on set - we get carried away and eager to show the world what we do and the fruits of our artistic endeavours.

It’s natural. Artists tend to be narcissists.

I think it’s ok to keep the end product mysterious (especially the ACTUAL shot onscreen). Not showing the process doesn’t devalue our worth as creative human beings.

We seem to be normalizing these reveals too damn early. I admit I have also been guilty of it sometimes.

Is it healthy to reveal the set, the costume, character styling way too early in production? Would we be devaluing the artistic process in the long run? There are multiple teams of people and departments working behind that Shot.

Perhaps it’s ok to reveal screenshots, costumes and sets only AFTER the project is exhibited. Or something within a curated marketing process closer to the exhibition date for maximum hit.

Between a tease and a reveal, I’ll choose the former. It’s fine with selfies and playful wefies as long as it doesn’t take away the artistry. It takes EVERYONE on set to work together to ensure the mystery of The Shot is maintained.

Some of my collaborators may have noticed this embargo being a contractual obligation previously. This is something I want to do better at - something I have enforced, especially on reeljuice sets.

Sunday, May 15, 2022


Pandan/Teban Gardens (Singapore) neighbourhood kids, circa 2012

Besides dramatic films, my other passion is making documentaries. A documentary is another form of visual narrative but because you’re filming real people in their natural, social environment - normal people who largely have no sense of the camera language, things can/will take a tangent in location.

As much as you’ve done in-depth research prior filming to give bullet points in your script, many times you are faced with extemporaneous, offhand or impromptu situations on location. These require you to think on your feet to deliberate. I think this is where one’s maturity as a storyteller may shine. Sometimes you need to make unpopular creative decisions because you’re closer to the ground. You’re more in tune to the beat as director. Your subsequent decision to follow-up new details or go a little off-tangent may be unpopular on set or with the powers that be.

However, we ultimately need to be looking at the bigger picture - the content of the documentary. The message it is trying to convey. It’s unlike many heavy-handed, lite magazine programme/segment where much is perfect, pretty and on-point - but somewhat hollow. I’ve been there. Perhaps many avoid this process because of the hassle, but I thrive on this challenge as storyteller. The process also takes time (!!) to put together. This nature of documentary pushes your limit as a storyteller - to be that safe doco filmmaker or one that pursues the subject and questions your audience.

On that note, this picture popped up on my memory feed. It was taken 10 years ago while shooting a documentary at Pandan and Teban Gardens (Jurong, Singapore). These neighbourhood kids came out of nowhere and “shot” at us playfully 😄 I decided to film them in their element. Very impromptu indeed.

Documenting kids (as opposed to just filming) - capturing their innocence is up there among filming a socially-troubled subject or one on the brink of death, in my humble opinion.

If you happened to be one of these boys (or know them), please holler! You’ve certainly added colour to the documentary. I think this picture very much summed up the vibes of Pandan and Teban Gardens then.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Notes from the editing room.

The two people I consider my left and right arms in the directing process will be the director of photography and the post-production editor. Their effective collaboration ensures my ideas come through. While the “director” gets most of the spotlight (unfortunately, imho), often the video editor gets the least credit next to the DOP.

The DOP translates my mise-en-scene. The editor layers the images based on the narrative. (There are however the ‘glorified’ cameramen and indifferent button pushers but that’s for another post).

You develop many genuine relationships in the production process. I have my firm directions. I also give the DOP and video editor some breathing space. No one is more creative than another. We have our own skills and tastes. As much as they look up to me for guidance, there are moments when I hit the wall and they are there to support me with my vision. This is where you build relationships - your creative social capital.

I have worked with editors who overlooked the mise-en-scene and devalue actor’s performance. I have also worked with ones that chose the ego over collaboration. I appreciate the handful gems that truly “see” the shots and work around with these images that, when put together, create deeper layers. Editing is laborious. It is also an intimate process.

On that note, one of the best hands in the industry will not be spinning his magic behind the editing console together with me anymore - at least locally. One that had a hand in creating some of my best work the last few years. I am honoured that his final work in Singapore is with my upcoming film project.

Thank you Perri for your magic. Can’t wait to present this soon. 🤜🏽🤛🏽

Perri and I on his last day of editing the film, Pulang Balik. The project also marked his last project in Singapore.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Good Intentions

I grew up surrounded by enthralling stories, but I remember sitting at many film events in Singapore and not seeing a single film being about my people, my community, its achievements, and its struggles. I remember seeing many great films of international acclaim, yet none of them “spoke” my language as a Singaporean-Malay. The Singaporean-Malay, in the land of their ancient ancestors, seemed like an entity that no one knew about. I felt disconnected from the world that was constructed on the screen. The films spoke to the dominant demographic in attendance – the Singaporean-Chinese. Amidst the films from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China there were already a handful of films that were made by local Singaporean-Chinese. Thus there were already some representations of locals of Singapore-Chinese heritage. In a country where the Singaporean-Chinese make up 75% of the population, the Singaporean-Malay 15% and the Singaporean-Indian 7%, this viewing demographics and the dominance of Chinese films is to be expected.

There were films from Malaysia and Indonesia in Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia respectively. However none of the gritty, insular stories about the kampung (rural, village) heartlander or those adapting in the peripherals of big cities, that regularly feature in films from Malaysia and Indonesia at film festivals, matter much to me.

This was sometime in the late 90s and the early 2000s. The last films from Singapore made in the Malay language ended in the late 60s when Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaya. With independence, the local lingua franca changed from Malay to English. Cinema habits changed too as the demand was largely from Hollywood and Bollywood. Occasionally there were films from Hong Kong.

Sitting in the cinema then, something triggered at the back of my head and it was not about the foreign films that I was watching. It was something about the relevance of my voice, and where this voice situates itself in Singaporean contemporary cinema. It was also about how I would tell the world audience about Singapore and Singaporeans. A city state cannot proudly authentically claim itself to be “multicultural”, when its media is only representing one ethnic facet of its reality. Simply showcasing all the four official languages and their respective ethnicities in one programme is not reflective of “multiculturism”. Having that token local Malay in one programme in a predominantly Chinese programming is not representation. Put bluntly, it is insulting window dressing.

In 2005, I wrote, produced and directed my first indie film, LOST SOLE. Other than being Singapore’s first film in the Malay language since independence, I pushed further by writing some of the dialogues in the Baweanese language. This was my way of giving tribute to my Baweanese heritage and my grandparents who hailed from the Bawean Island in Java, Indonesia. It was also my way of pointing a finger to the four nationally-sanctioned official languages in state-run media.

A still from LOST SOLE (2006)
LOST SOLE is about an elderly Malay man who lost his slippers at the mosque after the Friday congregational noon prayers. More importantly, it was a film dedicated to my late father who walked barefoot for two kilometers home after losing his slippers one Friday at the mosque. LOST SOLE travelled to more than 30 film festivals. It was subsequently showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During these festivals, I had to explain to the large international audiences who were not aware of the Singaporean-Malay existence because they were only familiar with the Malays in Malaysia and the Bahasa spoken in Indonesia from these countries’ respective films. I was happy that the Singapore-Malay was being seen internationally – finally!

After LOST SOLE, I made two other indie short films A LA FOLIE (2008) and AMEEN (2010). These films are centered on the Singaporean-Malay and looked at ironies and conflicts between “Malayness” and Islamic spirituality. Subsequently I was beyond excited to do my first feature, SAYANG DISAYANG (2013) that I wrote, produced and directed. I felt that after the success of the three short films in world cinema – and presenting a more nuanced multicultural Singapore, SAYANG DISAYANG would have access to state funding. However, that was not to be the case. Eventually the film was made independently after it failed to receive state funding after two long years of flip-flopping between the agencies. SAYANG DISAYANG was about a caregiver who is desperate to re-create the Sambal Goreng recipe made by the deceased wife of her lonely and testy wheelchair-bound Singaporean employer, in efforts to break down the emotional barriers between them. SAYANG DISAYANG was awarded Best Asian Film (Jury’s Prize) at the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival and subsequently and rather ironically became Singapore’s official entry in the 2015 Oscars (Foreign Language Film).

From these experiences, I take it upon myself to ensure that Singaporean-Malay voices are heard. It seems, if I don’t do it nobody else will – or somebody else may try to and do it disrespectfully. These days whenever I was commissioned by state agencies to do public video campaigns, I deliberately incorporate Malay story elements into these videos.

Films are incredibly important historical documentation for future generations of Singaporeans. The respective communities need to be assured that their voices matter even when commercial cinema dictates otherwise. Despite the challenges of showcasing minority voices, they can be inspired by filmmakers telling more stories that matter in the community. Telling stories that “speak” to communities unite, empower and inspire them. That has become my life-calling as a story-teller.