Thursday, October 3, 2019


I am starting a new series of IG story posts where I post anecdotes on my directing process. Please return to this page because I'll gradually add more stories.

Monday, April 8, 2019

SAMA-SAMA, the process

Behind-the-scene review of the cine65 season 5 (2019) commissioned film, SAMA-SAMA.

I remember during NS I did get along with everyone, yet you just can’t be on everyone’s good books all the time. Everyone who had been through NS can relate to this. We live and learn. Moments like these I wished I had been a better mate. While contemplating what I want to do with my life, I developed a keen sense of observation to what’s going on around me. I observed my fellow buddies and events A LOT, ie how they act and react and how things should have been or escalated into something that shouldn’t have been. 

Some may consider this as being passive but they say many thinkers are known to appear as such. (I have expressed these to much of my batch buddies. We exchanged, ‘kissed and made up’ over the years so it’s all good lah, although these things don’t go away easily whenever we meet for kopi but it’s all good fun stirring s* with one other).

Anyways, what went on in my head back then was how I wished I was able to translate what I’ve observed to something more tangible, perhaps in the form of literature or moving visual. Fast forward almost 30 years later, here I am - watching the monitor and recreating scenes from memories that I hold so dearly for the film, SAMA-SAMA. However, the opportunity comes with great responsibility because as a filmmaker, I have made it a choice to tell my stories to be as authentic as possible. 
Sitting there, deep down I felt sorry for my juniors to have made them repeat what’s needed to be done to get the perfect shot. Thank you brothers, for being such a sport! Pre-empting the physicality of the shoot I’ve promised to do it as productive as possible during the pre-shoot briefing. “Do it once and do it well”, was the mantra (among others) that we shared throughout our training in the Commandos. We connected on that. 

And we always want perfection, regardless the circumstances (FYI, that explains the 15th Best Unit the commandos receive in 2018, but I digress). Real sweat and exhaustion are the only way to display authenticity. I hope they had good takeaways from this experience. On a side note, SAMA-SAMA was my second opportunity to do something military-based. The second was quite a while ago when I literally “commanded” a battalion for a erm, food (!) show. Maybe more of that interesting story at a later day.

The weather was above 30 deg Celcius. It was almost mid-day (check the shadows casted on the ground). We were filming the crucial opening sequences for the film, SAMA-SAMA, where the boys had to drag 20kg++ rubber tires upslope respectively. Crucial sequences such as these need perfect synchronization with regards to camera shot/framing vs the action in front of the camera.

The life of a Commando extends beyond the red beret. I felt the boys needed some motivation and I’m not one to lepak behind the monitor. The only way to do this was to Be with them - to do it together under the mid day sun while they run upslope weighted by rubber tires. We could not use the loudhailer which was prohibited due to the restricted space. There was no way to fake these sequences. Sweat and exhaustion is real. To achieve sweat and exhaustion one needs to go through them for authenticity onscreen. And they had to run xxx times up the slope. 

Furthermore, let’s just say that it’s important to be fit even when you’re not a Grip and I’m glad I still can run. This is also what acting is all about, where good actors emote and react. The boys knew it - we all knew it. “Do it once, and do it well” was my last briefing to them. For non-actors, they did very well. My juniors learnt and reacted fast - just like how we were conditioned during training. I’m pleased we still have that connection.

You may watch the film, SAMA-SAMA here.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A dissertation response.

I received a message from one Aurora who is writing her dissertation about women representation.

Here are my responses;

1) You mentioned that you do not overthink too much on your narratives and you leave it to the audience to derive their own perspectives. So, what areas or subject matters are you more sensitive/conscious about? Do you have any type of storyline that you're less inclined to be involved with? 

Much of the stories I write are pretty much instigated by my mental state of affairs. It can be as random as food, religion/spirituality, sexual politics and social commentary about my Malay community. My Love Trilogy shorts, ie Lost Sole (2005), à la Folie (2008), Ameen (2010), Home (2016) reflects my observations about Malay spirituality and gender. Bila Larut Malam (2015) is about middle-class Malay women who despite their personality differences, shared a longing for love during post-war. The MINDEF-commissioned shorts, The Usual and Sama-Sama, breaks down stereotypes of Malays in the Commandos. In Sayang Disayang, I used a lot of metaphors to tell a story about love and loneliness. 

I wouldn’t say that I’ll steer myself away from any topics ie no topics is taboo to me, I’ll visit these topics when I’m in the right state of mind or maturity to tackle these issues. 

Regardless of the genres and stories, much of what I’ve written are based on my own life journey. Close friends would have spotted vignettes of my life in these films. 

2) How much control do you have over the casting on your films and tv shows? 

When I write for my films, I would have a cast already in mind. I would have known the cast in person or have watched him/her from his/her previous work. It helps me during the writing stage (character wise). But for television, 65% of the time i dont have a say in casting because much will be determined by the network (ie commercial value and no of followers on IG haha). When this happens, I’ll just accept it and pray for the best. Nevertheless, many of these cast that I've never worked with give surprising performances. 

3) Are you, in any way, particular about whether you make English language films or Malay language films? (And why?) 

The language of film is humanity. Regardless of spoken language, audiences will still be connected to the films by the story. On that note, I write mostly Malay-centric stories because that’s where I grew up in and I feel I can tell a story effectively when I know what I’m making about. The audience is not foolish. They can sense if you’re inauthentic from a mile. 

4) Do you feel a sense of responsibility as someone who makes stories? 

This is a very important question. Yes I do. I feel a responsibility to tell stories that I am familiar with, as authentic as possible. Yet, to highlight the ironies in the film long after the audience watched the film. 

5) You have stated how one of the reasons you made Sayang Disayang was due to the fact that there weren't any films in southeast Asia centred around food. Are there any other type of films you feel is lacking in this region? And if so, what type of stories are you wanting to explore that has not been explored yet? 

When a topic or story is done for the first time, there is ALWAYS a concern where people will ask “will people watch the film”. In filmmaking, many are scared to embrace new concepts and perhaps will only adopt (and rework) the idea when the first film find its audience. 

When I did Sayang Disayang, a lot of people questioned me if my idea about Nusantara food that is embellished with some live-singing by the cast would work. None came forward. But I did it anyways with the moral support from the cast. I finished SDS with my own savings. I did not receive any funding help from any local government body. Also in Singapore, it was the first time that someone is making a Malay-language film, thus the typical question is “can this film make money”. In this case, ask yourself, if you want to create art or be a banker? Do all writers think if they can make money when they write literature? 

6) Are you conscious of inclusivity when it comes to making your stories? 

I think one of the reasons why I make my first short is the frustration that I did not see my own representation in films that were screened in singapore (Malaysian and Indonesian films do not count, because Singaporeans dont live in a kampong nor balik kampong during Hari Raya). This was from my graduation from film school till LOST SOLE was made, ie 1996-2005. Yup there were no films about Malay community by Malay community being made into films. 

When it comes to inclusivity, think of it as the language being spoken (see my points in Q3). 

7) As a male director/producer/writer, what are your opinions about the representation of Malay women? 

As an extension of points 3 and 6, I only include genders when it is necessary. When I write about Sama-Sama, The Usual or Home, the story do not need a female character thus I dont include them. 

In Bila Larut Malam, the women are strong women. But due to the nature of their situation, their respective longing makes them weak. Plus, the sexual politics between each character make the 3 women weak, in my humble opinion. 

In Sayang Disayang, Murni may seem weak but the irony is that she runs the kitchen and by extension the household. 

8) Are you conscious of the treatment and portrayal of women in your stories? 

This goes back to the idea of authenticity. It’s not just about women. Each character, regardless male or female, is complex. Thus I am very particular that my characters are 3-dimensional and most importantly, relatable to the audience.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Pesta Perdana 15 (nominations)

TEKAN MINYAK, the 1-hour, 13-episode drama series directed by yours truly, received a whopping 7 nominations at the upcoming Mediacorp Suria Pesta Perdana 2019 in the following categories;

1 x Best Drama Series
3 x Best Actress in a Leading Role
1 x Best Actor in a Supporting Role
1 x Best Editing
1 x Best Videography

(No nods for directing... I wonder how the programme comes together 😎)
Nevertheless, congratulations to all nominees.

But most importantly, a shoutout to EVERYONE in the production team, because none can shine without the other.

The award will be announced in a "live" telecast on 30 March 2019 on the said channel.

UPDATE: The drama series took home 1 award, via Ariati Tyep Papar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. This is her 3rd winning the award in the same category.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Note to newbies and wannabes

You don’t just call/write to someone whom you have just met aeons ago and spoke for less than 30mins (and then disappear for aeons again) only to contact me out of the blue for a recommendation letter.

Furthermore I cannot recommend anything if I don’t know what in the world you are doing that needs my recommendation. I need to read/hear from you what you are doing.

I can support what you want to do but hey, filmmaking is not just about you!

It’s NOT ethical and NOT professional. And it’s also downright RUDE. Hence, do you think you deserve a recommendation?

Filmmaking does not work that way.

You’re welcome.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

On the Front Page

BERITA HARIAN, 31 January 2019.

Humbled. It’s not often that you can be on the front page - for the 3rd time in the course of about 10 years, and this time sharing it with the President, Madam Halimah Yacob.

Berita Harian (SPH), 31 January 2019
Berita Harian (SPH), 31 January 2019
Read the online version here.

Meanwhile gather your friends to make a 3min short film about “Singapura” that sparks your joy. Visit for details.

The commissioned films from season 4 (THE USUAL, 2017) and season 5 (SAMA-SAMA, 2019).

Friday, January 4, 2019

Rediscovering roots.

22 years.

How have I lasted that long doing Malay (television)?

When it all started, my radar towards the Malay community entertainment was close to zero. I did not know anybody in the industry. Even up to this day, when someone approaches me to claim relative at someone already in the industry, it may be met with a “hmmm?” or “ohh?” from me. Sorry.

In the 80-90s, apart from those top 10 Malay pop songs on rotation on local radio, my awareness to my own culture was those of the late 70s Nusantara songs, satay, mee rebus, lontong, nasi lemak, sambal goreng, Hari Raya delicacies and maybe, Geylang Serai.

My first television assignment straight after graduating film school was a short segment on Dondang Sayang for a weekly morning magazine programme - miles away and on the opposite spectrum to Tears For Fears, Duran Duran and maybe Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Thanks to my first boss, Mr Yusoff, for throwing me into the deep end of the ocean. I somehow float my way around the very Malay Dondang Sayang troupe from Malacca.

Fast forward, I met many more Malays that were of interest to my research for many more Malay programmes. Many from the Malay community was very kind to me, while others were not. Much of their adversity perhaps arose from their self-righteous observation that I was not being Malay enough.

I fought back. Heck, I had a job to do and deadlines to meet. Then I thought if we happened to bumped into one of this malicious Malays, they’d probably feign ignorance and walked the other way. Fine.

I think this was where I began to develop a thick skin towards the impossible. It's all business, nothing personal.

And then I met the late Cikgu Muhammad Ariff Ahmad “father of Malay linguistics” and his contemporary Cikgu Masuri SN. I spent a lot of time with them while doing my research for a one-hour documentary series about their life and work. For the first time, I had someone who looked beyond my incapacities of my Malayness. I actually felt comfortable communicating with them in my half-past six “establishment” Malay language. Their countenances actually made me more keen to discover the Malay world. 

Cool guys, these Cikgus. 

In their own non-judgmental way, they made me eager to do more programmes in the Malay language. And yes, the Malay language is beautiful. There is so much that one can weave the Malay words to derive meanings at diverse contexts.

6 television awards for Malay television, 1 feature film and numerous other shorts later, I still find that the Singapore-Malay world is intriguing and amusing at the same time.
Fasih Bahasa Melayu tidak bermakna Melayu nya cerdik.
Lebih baik faham sahaja Melayu daripada tak faham bahasa.
Don’t fret if your kids do not do well in their respective “Mother tongues”. Most important, imho, that you keep harnessing their interest to the culture and ethnicity.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Rewind 30 years

Who would have thought this casual snapshot will make it nationally almost 30 years later!

It was February, at north-north of Singapore.

We had recently received our beret. The men in the picture were my batch boys from 1st Company, platoon 3, section 2 (1989-1992). The weather was terribly dry and hot. Much of the greens had turned brown and the open tracks turned dusty in the air as we walked over. The region straddled between the temperate and humid. While trekking we chanced upon this dramatic looking cliff, hence this group picture. Nevertheless, for the uninitiated, we DO NOT normally wear the red-colour beret in the field, because red is Just. Not. Camouflage-friendly.

This picture happened because many newly-minted, very young proud NS commandos would want to show off their coveted red berets whenever we have the chance. Also, because we could ahem, look "garang" effortlessly 🤩. 

We sometimes packed the beret with us when we moved out to visit these unique terrains to take "garang" pictures - because preparedness for 1001 contingencies is always something we are well-known for 😎.

On hindsight I am reminded of those war television series, Band Of Brothers and Pacific (and a couple of other films from Hollywood) where historical pictures of war are keyed-in or superimposed against the bigger narrative. Hmm, perhaps this could be it haha. Something for me to think about.

PS: I was also featured on Singapore Armed Forces' monthly Pioneer magazine (December 2018).

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Welcoming 2019


I look forward to a SINGAPURA that celebrates diversity, embraces differences. A Singapura that evolves strength with common values. Regardless our respective definition of Singapura, they all matter. Sama-sama (together) we make Singapura special 🇸🇬

SAMA-SAMA, a commissioned film for the ciNE65 season 5 (2019, theme ‘Singapura’), written & directed by yours truly. A reeljuice production.

Starring the people of Singapura 😎

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.

I never thought that a simple childhood fascination on the elite force would make me a feature for one. An honour to share my journey in the 🇸🇬 Commandos and filmmaking. I hope it inspires young people out there, especially those in the ‘hood, to never stop reaching for the stars. Nothing is unattainable, you are your own adversity. To grief is human. Fatigue (mental and physical) is a state of mind. Overcome and you’ll be a glorious version of yourself.

Coincidentally, the Formation will celebrate it’s Golden Jubilee, aka 50th anniversary, later in 2019. A shoutout to the past and present band of brothers. I remain in awe at the pioneers of the brotherhood! I’m privileged to be walking among legends

Thank you so much to Benita Teo the 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.