2011 marks fifteen years eversince I graduated from film school in 1996. When I first enrolled into film school in 1993, it had been a case of circumstantial convenience than a deliberate “plan” to “be” a director in film or television.
Between the first humbling industry award to the most recent one I received in March 2011, I reflect upon the many questions that has been posed to myself. The questions range from innocent ones like “have you always wanted to be a director” and “is directing hard” to “does it pay well” and more profound ones like “what sort of change do you intent to make with your work”. Pondering over how to best respond to these queries, I often mused at how these “standard questions” are now turned to me – I have been the one to post these. But none had really prepared me to face what eventually became a main critique to my Malay television work – that my work in drama tend to be too “arty-farty” for television.
I have a simple philosophy when it comes to work - to stay committed and complete it effectively respective of the circumstances. I recall during national service a sergeant major, in optimism, would constantly remind us “there’s always the 50-50 chance a mission would fail”. This advice prepares and challenges me to come up with effective solutions.
Growing up in the local Malay community, observing them and subsequently serving them with television content, my like-minded peers strive to produce content that steers away from the “makcik-makcik” (loosely translated, “matronly”, or non-contemporary) appeal. There is always a struggle to cater to commercial television that attempts to net the widest demographic groups and appeal to the vast spectrum of intellectual leanings as much as possible within a single programme. The network’s strive to hit high "ratings" for these respective programmes (which translates to the healthy bottomline) for itself has been a bane to producers and directors like myself.
I stress that my intention in television is always about serving the community. I have always been thoughtful about my audience and my training in anthropological analysis and social documentary at the university have made me sensitive to the fragile human condition and how to serve it effectively. Before attending film school, I was doing photography and my transition to the video spectrum had been a breeze. From film school, I learnt that structure in storytelling and how to tell that story effectively cannot be underestimated. And one of these methods to communicate one’s storytelling is the mise-en-scène.
...Recently, the term has come to represent a style of conveying the information of a scene primarily through a single shot - often accompanied by camera movement. It is to be contrasted with montage-style filmmaking - multiple angles pieced together through editing. Overall, mise-en-scène is used when the director wishes to give an impression of the characters or situation without vocally articulating it through the framework of spoken dialogue, and typically does not represent a realistic setting... (WIKIPEDIA)
Now, when the critique to my television drama work is that it's too arty-farty, I am puzzled - primarily for two reasons. Firstly it attacks my sincere intention and secondly, it promotes an inaccurate, unhealthy perception of my work and my self. This association simply disregards my philosophy of promoting education to my production and to add value to my content. Furthermore, it simplifies my capacity as a multi-genre television director. I believe the television awards in various genres I have received up to this point stressed my capabilities.
One only needs to listen closely to the ground the common complaint to local Malay programming is its regressive tendency for mindless, dumbing-down programming at the audience. This is where I feel mise-en-scène, on top of a good script, would perhaps alleviate these concerns. Low-denominator appeal doesn’t mean low-brow nor low-concept. Mise-en-scène goes a long way to inculcate quality programming on easy entertainment for my heartlander Malay audience.
Have I overestimated the audience in applying mise-en-scène to my work? Does local Malay dramas have to regularly site itself among the generic, recycled and inward? Does the local Malay audience deserve constant dumbing down programming?
Here I would like to stress that television, like film, is primarily a visual medium. A good script doesn’t need implausible, didactic dialogues. I need not tell the audience I am drinking Milo from a red cup when the audience can see the red cup. However the audience want to know why I’m using a red cup to drink that Milo.
Or perhaps the important television folks have miscalculated my techniques? Perhaps they have underestimated the essence of directing itself – that directing is not just a technique of framing actors, recording them emitting dialogues lines and ensuring camera continuity. Perhaps they have overlooked the positive feedback from the ground that my work is often unique, identifiable and “different”. I humbly mused when audience says my work looks appealing or “beautiful”. Thank you :)
Even cooking shows need mise-en-scène to render the food featured appealing on television. Many such shows produced locally in my humble opinion has fallen into the generic, in such a way that these have failed to communicate the essence of the flavour and taste of the cooking. But I digress...
Elaborating on Wikipedia’s definition, the mise-en-scène encourages motivation and brings nuance to the actor’s movement, the dialogues, the location and finally the framing of the action. A composition without mise-en-scène is like a Malay rendang dish without the kerisik (grated, toasted and grounded coconut paste), the Chinese laksa without coconut milk and the Italian spaghetti dish without the tomato base.
The human condition is sensitive. Each story deserves its own visual character and treatment.
Perhaps my recognition in recent years as a “filmmaker” has further clouded them into thinking that I’ve been too arty-farty to "dumb down" or steer myself for other genres. One only needs to study my past television portfolio to see that I have done comedy programmes too. I couldn't speculate more.
One should remember that the cast in the television series, Friends, are not comedians, but actors. Thus, perhaps these detractors need to do their own research to understand the “filming language” before diluting my techniques.
Just as it has been my ambition to propel Malay films in a manner Chinese films have been brought to international appeal by Zhang Yimou, I would like Malay television to level it’s standard to the best that comes out of Hollywood. I would like these critics give room for people like myself to nurture and improve Malay televison as much as I, in my capacity as a director, listen to my actors to earn their best performance and always keep to the plot. It's a small enough industry, let's not further wedge its development.
Assumptions are termites of relationships.