Sanif side up
By RIZAL JOHAN
This director is fast gaining attention as the man who’s giving Singapore its first Malay feature film in almost four decades.
HE is an award-winning freelance television director and producer with over 10 years’ experience working in Singapore. Sanif Olek, however, is also a filmmaker at heart and the work he has done outside of the mainstream in Singapore has his countrymen and international film festivals rather excited.
Sanif has only three short films under his belt – Lost Sole, A La Folie and Ameen – known collectively as the Love Trilogy. Even though it is a small, sporadic body of work (the three films were made over a period of five years), his stories have a unique voice and point of view that put the Singaporean on the fast track to becoming a filmmaker to look out for.
His upcoming project may be his most notable yet. Not only is it his first feature-length film, Ramuan Rahasia (The Secret Ingredient) –which is still in the works – is significantly the first Malay-language feature to emerge from the island republic after almost 40 years.
In an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently, Sanif recounted his forays into filmmaking. “After graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1996, I went straight into television, working in a production house for two years before going on to freelance TV production. Back in the mid-1990s, there was no proper structure if you wanted to go into film (in Singapore). You had people like Eric Khoo whom I consider to be a pioneer in independent filmmaking but for the rest of us, it’s pretty much like being in limbo. So it took me 10 years to do my first short film,” recalled the 40-year-old.
Sanif, however, wasn’t just bidding his time before he could break out and make his own films. Being in the TV industry for as long as he has made Sanif aware of the kind of stories that were being told on a regular basis on mainstream television and how much he wanted to tell his own.
“Ten years as a producer and director doing commercial television gave me a good grounding because I could see what I really wanted to do – to tell stories ... preferably real stories. And that’s what I couldn’t do in television but I did in my short films,” he said.
The language of love
For his first short film, Lost Sole, Sanif looked inwardly for inspiration and remembered what happened to his father who had walked home barefoot from prayers after his slippers were stolen.
“I was eight then and I still remember clearly the day my dad came home without his slippers and my mum asked him what had happened. He told her they got stolen while he was praying. And she said: ‘So why didn’t you steal someone else’s?’ And my dad was like, ‘Look, I’m going there to pray, to redeem myself. So what’s the point if I end up stealing?’” Sanif laughed.
Spirituality and love are the main themes behind all of Sanif’s short films but so are language and identity. Sanif, of Boyanese heritage, wrote Lost Sole with characters speaking either Boyanese Malay or Hokkien. (The Boyanese hailed from Pulau Bawean, or Boyan, an island north of Surabaya, Indonesia, in the Java Sea.)
“Bahasa Melayu Baku is the medium used in Singapore. My ethnicity is Boyanese and I just found that using Bahasa Boyan was more expressive than Bahasa Baku. I also didn’t use Mandarin (another main medium) but Hokkien instead,” Sanif explained.
Besides language, there is also a restriction on the portrayal of religion in film and television in Singapore. Such constraints were just some of the hindrances that Sanif faced working in the mainstream. The other was a strict adherence to structure.
“Coming from a commercial background, everything was very structured. When I made my second short film (A La Folie), I had a concept but no script. I got two of my actor friends together and we shot it in two nights in Little India, Serangoon Road,” he said.
With a mix of abandon and creative desire, Sanif and crew whipped up a story based on the classic Hindu text The Ramayana and produced a story on “revenge, reconciliation and love”.
“The are many facets of love ... love of family, spouse, religion, etc, but in the English language it’s just known as love,” said Sanif.
With his third short Ameen, Sanif focused on “spiritual love” and the perception people have of each other.
“The inspiration behind this short is based on some of my ‘colourful’ friends. Some of them have tattoos and some have been in jail but are now reformed. But they still find it difficult to get a job or get married. So what I’m trying to say is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and really, who are we to judge people simply because they have tattoos.”
By employing such universal themes as love in his films, Sanif has proven that his stories can cross borders, cultures and languages. His short films have travelled international film fests in Hawaii, San Francisco and New York in the United States, St Petersburg (Russia), Montreal (Canada) and Tehran (Iran).
A La Folie won best short film at the 2009 Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival, Indonesia, and Lost Sole was bestowed best film on religion at the 2008 International Festival of Short Films on Culture, Jaipur (India), and best narrative film at the 2008 Rahmat International Short Film Festival, Tabriz (Iran).
More importantly though, this local boy has struck a chord with his audiences at home who can relate to his stories. And Sanif also recognises the fact that growing up and working in the Singaporean TV industry has helped shape the filmmaker he is today.
He is, however, finding it difficult to get Ramuan Rahasia off the ground. One of the main problems he faces is funding (at the time of the interview, Sanif said he had secured about 65% of the financing) and the other is the film’s commercial viability.
The film centres around an elderly, wheelchair-bound man, played by veteran Malaysian actor Datuk Rahim Razali, who lives a lonely existence tended to only by a maid. The old man complains about the maid’s cooking and tries to get rid of her but it is through the maid and the food she cooks that she reconciles the old man and his son.
The film’s other stars include Aaron Aziz, Rafaat Hamzah, Aidli Mosbit and Keagan Kang.
It is indeed a hard sell for a film which features a wheelchair-bound geriatric, so what made Sanif want to make such a film?
“It’s quite common in Singapore for people to hire maids to look after their elderly parents. I wanted to tell a story about kasih sayang (love) and how to bring people together,” he noted.
The project has already received a lot of news coverage because of it being a Malay-language movie from Singapore after a near-40-year gap (the last, Satu Titik Di-Garisan by Cathay-Keris Film Production, appeared in 1973).
“I’ve kept the project under wraps and I don’t know how it got all over the news. It got a lot of people excited and they kept asking me when it’ll be done and initially, I tried to hide the fact that I didn’t have enough money to make the film. But after a while I got tired of it and told them, ‘I don’t have the money to make the film,’” smiled Sanif.
When asked whether he could get funding through the government, the director said: “Yes, you can through the Singapore Film Commission but its focus is to make commercial films. And there are guidelines that you have to follow once funding is approved. Doing a Malay film ... it simply hasn’t been tested in the Singapore market. There has been no Malay film for almost the last 40 years.
“I see this as a challenge though, and I’m convinced that a Malay film can make money. I have well-known actors from Malaysia and Singapore. I believe I have the right ingredients to make a commercial film.”
Thank you Rizal for the great write-up.