Sunday, December 9, 2018

Pioneer Magazine (December 2018)

So I appeared on the "People" feature writeup in Pioneer Magazine, a monthly magazine published by the Ministry Of Defence, Singapore. It was heartwarmingly written, imho.

Thank you so much to Benita Teo for writing such a sweet article. The original article is reproduced here.

03 DEC 2018 | PEOPLE


Ever had an experience so impactful you made a movie about it? Local filmmaker and ciNE65 mentor Mohamad Sanif Olek is doing just that.

"Old Commando, old Commando!" Mr Sanif said with an embarrassed chuckle as he limped cautiously. He was nursing an old hip injury that had acted up during a weekly run with his former National Service (NS) buddies.

Yet he struck up pose after pose for the photoshoot, joking and apologising for taking too long.

Who would have believed we were actually in the presence of the filmmaker behind Singapore's first Malay language film to get close to an Oscar nomination?

One big step for SG filmmaking

Director and writer Mr Sanif, 48, is no stranger to local television, having forged a two-decade-long career producing Malay language programmes. But behind the big screen is where his passion and talent lie. 

In 2015, his debut feature film Sayang Disayang (My Beloved Dearest) — a Malay-language tale of an Indonesian domestic helper’s relationship with her wheelchair-bound employer — became Singapore's official entry to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. 

"I made the film because I believed in the story. I just wanted to talk about Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) food and music. And I wanted it to be identifiable to everyone in the Nusantara," said the veteran filmmaker.

Best of the best

Telling authentic stories is Mr Sanif's guiding principle to filmmaking. And in Sama Sama (The Same) — a special commissioned film for ciNE65, a biennial short film competition — the ethnic Boyanese chose two subjects he knows best: Commandos and Boyanese chauffeurs. 

"I've always been fascinated by films and narratives that involve elites," said the former Corporal in 1st Commando Battalion (1 Cdo Bn). 

He explained that, like the Commandos, Boyanese chauffeurs were deemed elites in their profession and were trusted for their professionalism and pride in their work during the colonial era.

"Both have traditions that go a long way back… People look at chauffeuring like it is a lower-class profession, but not many know that Boyanese drivers are traditionally the elite drivers," he elaborated, adding that "Ahmad" (local slang for a driver) used to refer specifically to this respected group.

"Boyanese drivers had little education and some couldn't even speak English, yet they made it by being the best drivers they could be."

Brothers from different mothers

A story about beating the odds is perhaps one that mirrors Mr Sanif's own NS experience in 1 Cdo Bn. 

"I always looked up to the ideals of bravery, patriotism, and what it means to be a soldier and serving your country. And then I had the chance to 'join the legends'."

Although his first days were not easy, he soon learnt to be disciplined and take on any challenge. 

"Being a Commando is not just about the physicality, but the mental fitness to push on. 

And also contingencies — whenever we went out for operations, we always had several contingency plans. 

"That mental preparation helped me a lot in my work too, because anything can go wrong on set but you still need to continue shooting because of deadlines. My training helped me to prepare for all these things."

And it may have been more than a decade since he has donned his red beret, but his ties with his buddies remain just as strong. They go on weekly runs together, and are ever ready to lend a hand. 

"For instance, if someone says in our chat group that Brother A is in bad shape, within a few days, everyone will galvanise and help him out. That's still happening now, after almost 30 years."

He added proudly: "I think it's amazing how these guys become your second families."

Telling the Singapore story

Asked about his greatest achievement, Mr Sanif does not mention his brush with the filmmaking industry'’s biggest platform. 

Instead, it is the appreciation he receives from those closest to his heart — the everyday Singaporeans.

"I think the best thing is when someone on the street comes to me and says, 'Hey I've seen your work, I really like it.' I think it's a good validation for why I'm doing what I'm doing — that my work is not just for my peers, but also the wider community," he said thoughtfully.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Elite Suria 2018

Another year another reality-based talent search programme.

I have been following many reality-based talent search programmes on Mediacorp Suria (and other local channels) - it’ll be a cardinal sin if I don’t, for being in the industry and responsible for writing and directing many of it’s critically-acclaimed programmes since late 90s - not to gloat but to be grateful and privileged to have been a large part of the Singapore television Malay programming, collaborating with many, many talented people of various backgrounds of diverse creative leanings and artistic spectrum. My takeaway from these collaborations is always constant - never stop caring for all that you’re tasked with, never stop learning because being creative is always about interpreting new ideas (without compromising your creative center) and importantly, to always stay hungry.

When you stay hungry - you’re always interested, you never stop chasing that little dream of yours when the world stop believing, because the award you received is only valid for One Year. Yep, people don’t care.

Now, going back to the just-concluded Elite Suria congratulations to all participants - all 16 of them. To be one of the 16 among the plenty that attended the open auditions is itself a winner! The difference between the last 16 and (real deserving winners) Hans Hamid and Hana Rosli are your nerves, communication with audience and your BS level in front of the camera.

The Real competition is when you’re working on the ground post Elit Suria. On that note, here’s what I’ve observed from past local Malay reality talent shows - many of the champions somehow fizzled after 1 year (2 years max) for whatever reasons. Instead, the ones that sustained prominence are the non-champions. No disrespect, but I wonder why.

Regardless, Stay hungry. Stay interested. Stay relevant.

Mickey Go Local 2018

Mickey before
In conjunction with the 90th Anniversary of Mickey Mouse, I had the honour to reinterpret Mickey at Disney’s MICKEY GO LOCAL, in support of the President’s Challenge 2018.

Mickey after 1.
Mickey after 2.
Mickey after 3.
Mickey after 4. 
My inspiration for Mickey Go Local was from the myriad of cultures that make up Singapore. We celebrate our respective festivals by immersing ourselves in the diversity of fragrance, sound and taste. The markets, the foliage, the multicultural residents, the flags, the food vendors, the malls, the faiths, the common HDB corridors, the hawker centres – add to the merry kaleidoscope of colours that we readily embrace.


SAMA-SAMA, maju ke hadapan...
What is your SINGAPURA?

I am grateful and honoured to make another film to kickstart season 5 of ciNE65 (2019). This is the 2nd time that I’ve been commissioned to do so - THE USUAL (season 4) was the first.

Sometime in May 2018, I was approached by the Nexus team at MINDEF - an invite for a commissioned film in season 5 of the bi-annual ciNE65 film competition. I have been involved with ciNE65 since season 1, ten years ago, as a mentor and jury. I hope to be involved for the long term. ciNE65 is unique from the other competitions because each season explores the Singaporean identity.

This season, the theme is SINGAPURA.
In support of the Singapore Bicentennial in 2019, the theme SINGAPURA calls on film-makers to reflect on the stories that our past generations have shared that make us Singaporean and how we want these stories to live on for future generations to come, through a 3-minute film.
From as far back as we can trace our ancestry, each of us has a story to tell. Each story a piece of the history of how this land in which we live became a nation and how we became Singaporean. Tell us your story. What did your forefathers pass down to you, and what will you want your future generations to know? What does Singapura mean to you most?
I thought hard about this. Thus I reflected on 2 very important life journeys - being raised in a Singaporean-Baweanese household and National Service, where I rediscover my roots and made many lifelong friends respectively.

The Chauffeurs
One of these traditions is the local Baweanese chauffeurs. Back in the day, the Baweanese chauffeurs were highly-regarded for their discipline that the tycoons only insisted a Baweanese to be their personal drivers. It was also said that the Baweanese chauffeurs were good at keeping secrets to some of their wayward tycoon's movements around town - even from these tycoons' respective families.

Baweanese chauffeurs had existed since the colonial era.

(courtesy of Hazrul Azhar Jamari)
 (courtesy of Hazrul Azhar Jamari)
I recall during Baweanese weddings, a handful of relatives would arrive at the wedding in luxurious European-made sedans. In the 70s-80s, much of the Baweanese community were living comfortably but not too comfortable enough to own these European sedans. Imagine the look on the faces of the polite guests and hosts when these cars arrive. Nevertheless the grandiose was received good-naturedly. The more outspoken but well-meaning relatives would tease at the drivers for their luxury.

Remarks such as, "Wah, mak mon-char dhal-luk...!!", would go fast, furious and loud.

It was only later when I was older I found out that the male relatives who arrived in these sedans with their families, were actually chauffeurs.

This is Haji Akhmari, a first generation migrant to Singapore from Bawean Island, Indonesia. Like many others from the little island (north of Surabaya), Hj Akhmari sailed (!) on the rough Java sea to seek fortune in Singapore - to build a better life for himself and his family. Like many others, he had little/no education, except life’s hard knocks topped with a mindset that things Will be better here in Singapore. It was a hard life but what kept him going was that regardless of the situation, this adopted homeland was still better than the island in his memory. Hj Akhmari found a job as a driver. It was the best job he had. A job he held on until he retired. He raised many kids in Singapore. They attended good schools and had good jobs. And they become good Singaporeans. Hj Akhmari was not just a “driver”. He was a chauffeur, who drove many post-colonial tycoons in Singapore. Name one famous tycoon in Singapore and highly likely Hj Akhmari had driven him. Hj Akhmari was a unique chauffeur because he belonged to a special breed (and much-sought after) of chauffeurs that dated back to the colonial days. You see, other than that famous tradition of working at the Turf Club, many first generation local Baweanese in Singapore worked as chauffeurs. They were special because they took their “jobs” very seriously. In fact, so seriously that the cars they drove became their second homes. To a Baweanese, a home reflects the state of his well-being. A happy home reflects a good family and a good family reflects good lineage. Baweanese are house proud. Thus a clean, welcoming car is like an inviting home. A boss needs an inviting home after a long day at work. A Baweanese driver took care of these needs Very well. Hj Akhmari may not have realised much his esteemed profession contributed to Singapore’s nation-building. I am glad to know many, humble 1st generation Baweanese like Hj Akhmari who, regardless of the profession (there were hundreds of chauffeurs like him), worked proudly, professionally and became Very Good at it. #reeljuice #akandatang #filmmaking #filmmaker #storytelling #storyteller #sg #iremembersg #sghistory #history #bawean #nusantara

A post shared by Sanif Olek (@sanifoo) on
The Turf Club
The other famous tradition that was much synonymous with the local Baweanese were horse wranglers and stable boys or grooms. It originated at the stables of the Singapore Turf Club, before the Club moved to its present location at Kranji from Turf Club Road at Bukit Timah (and Race Course Road near Tekka Market before that). The profession was so widespread it had its own little community that mushroomed into multi-generational Baweanese families from the first-generation of horse wranglers and stable boys. This close-knit community at Turf Club Road even produced a prominent Singaporean champion jockey, Saimee Jumat.

The other consideration was from my National Service experience with the elite Singapore Armed Forces Commando Formation. My first ciNE65 commissioned film, THE USUAL touched this experience briefly via its protagonist, Rosli. I decided to bring Rosli back in SAMA-SAMA to explore his journey. One may view Rosli's journey as my own semi-autobiographical journey in the Commando Formation.

When I was enlisted at Hendon Camp in the late 80s, I remembered my father was the proudest Malay father at the Boon Lay neighbourhood. Although my older brothers did their national service in the army too, no one could advise my family about my NS journey. The juvenile competitions at the common corridors and playground during childhood might have prepared me to be streetwise, but nothing could prepare me about the implications being enlisted at Hendon. I was thankful of the Commando experience. I had the full support from my buddies, who on the onset, trained and looked out for me as one of the brothers. I learned that in time of distress, only your buddies can save you. 

My take to this season's theme, SINGAPURA represents the common values such as industrious work ethics and initiative of the Baweanese enriched by traditional traits of the Commandos such as persistence, excellence and sense of brotherhood "leaving no man behind".

Recent reports about inequality and elitism in Singapore has made me wonder - how do we define a person?

Do we judge a person’s worth by how well they do in life? Do we define a person by the kind of jobs they do?

The first generation Baweanese arrived in Singapore with no formal training or education. They did menial work and became the best at their profession, ie chauffeurs, horse wranglers, nannies, etc, that future generations can be proud of. 

Watch the video below for my insights in writing SAMA-SAMA,

Raised in the blue-collar industrial estate of Jurong, it has always been about perseverance and chasing higher aspirations. I look around my neighbourhood and wonder why do people work so hard?

SAMA-SAMA "The Same" and THE USUAL mirror the unique life journey of a boy from working-class neighbourhood in Jurong. It takes perseverance, of chasing one’s dreams diligently to one’s values regardless of the circumstances. I remembered how my late father reminded my siblings that regardless who we are as adults in profession, life is good as long as we become someone that is respected by the community and country.

Singapore owes its development to its cultural diversity and our common values. Perhaps the most important place to reflect on the last 200 years (and earlier) is to return to our roots – to ponder who we were and what we have become. 

Celebrate our differences. Majulah Singapura!

Thank you to EVERYONE at the Singapore Armed Forces Ministry of Defence, Singapore (MINDEF), who have made this complex filmmaking possible and supported this journey.

The challenge has been very worthwhile.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Zakat Zakaria

Since my first Umrah in 2010, I have planned to spend to the last days of Ramadan and Syawal at the holy land biannually, God willing. I made another trip in 2013. The last trip was made in 2015.

I have yet another opportunity to visit the holy land in 2017, nor 2018.

However, I had the blessed opportunity to do a telemovie for Ramadan in 2018, ZAKAT ZAKARIA, for Mediacorp's Suria channel. Directing this telemovie had given me ample opportunities to study my comprehension about Ramadan and the Zakat.

It was pretty interesting to work on this telemovie because I was paired with the Noorman Nordin, the director of photography. The last time I worked with him was more than 10 years ago. I worked with him on my first short film, Lost Sole. This is also the first time I worked with Suhaimi Yusof.

But it was an intense one week filming. The male lead could only attend the last 4 days of shoot whereas the female lead could only be on set for 2 nights. There were much reshuffling of schedule to fit their availability. It was my 3rd time directing Hasnul Rahmat and my first directing Nabila Huda.

Directing actors
I am all for the thinking actor. If the actor wants to explore his character dynamics, he is more than welcome to do it. I appreciate it when the actor thinks beyond the script and explores boundaries. However, when it comes to collaboration, it’s about listening to one another. The actor cannot take the liberty to block himself without discussing with the director and the rest of the actors in the same scene. Even if you're in the zone, please do not make it hard for anyone on-set to communicate with you. Your intensity is not an excuse for you to shut out everyone on set.

An actor does not exist in a vacuum. Unless it is a monologue, the scene exists with other characters.

The other actors need space to react too. I need to be aware of the actor’s movements within the shot frame so that I am able to capture his performance. The last thing you want to happen is when the actor gives his all but because he had failed to communicate with his fellow actors and the director (and my director of photography) of his actions, the performance need to be replicated - to be retake. Most times, the energy and intensity cannot be replicated in the next take.

You are wasting time and money. It is not being productive on set.

Importantly, the actor is not the one sitting in with the editor during post-production. All actors see their fine performances only after the footages have been assembled (ie the bad takes removed), sound mixed and colour-graded at the post production. Thank the editor and the director for your fine performances.

Thus STFU, listen and collaborate when you're on set.

That is set Discipline.

Original soundtrack (music video)

It's a wrap!!