Saturday, May 14, 2011

Art and the “lowest denominator"

Please allow me to ramble...

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.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ramuan Rahasia 10:3

You may be wondering about the digits in title.

It was about 10 years ago (since 2002) when I conceptualised RAMUAN RAHASIA ("the elusive ingredient", loosely translated) as a film and 3 years ago when the 1st phase (February 2009) of filming the feature film began. Since then, I have gone through interesting personal and professional journey at various levels. This experience highlights to me the meaning of humility and value of compassion. Importantly, it has taught me the value of engagement - of discovering my self and utilising the creative gift I have to affect change, for the benefit of society and my community. It has also taught me to appreciate the creative company I have been blessed with and those before them to further the cause for social change. Their perseverance inspires me. Their friendship gives me strength and reason for being.

I used to wonder why I'm still on RAMUAN RAHASIA, putting myself out there when many would have considered the project as a "lost cause". No, it's not glamorous having my face splashed on main feature articles when the discussion is about the lack of money to complete a project. It's not glamorous obliging to full-page write-ups pleading for money hoping for a kind soul out that would be moved by the real intention on making RAMUAN RAHASIA. However these need to be done to connect with my audience and appeal to new ones.

I am blessed with compassionate friends in the industry and I sincerely thank them. I appeal to keep RAMUAN RAHASIA in your radar, please.

I have been doing a lot of soul-searching. On several internet responses addressed to my Malay community I posted this,
I consider myself an observer, storyteller and filmmaker. I'm not good at expressing myself in smart-sounding posts and essays, but I do find joy in expressing through the visual medium (film, television), where I humbly consider myself more proficient. I want to serve my community - via the respective familiar platforms that I can communicate my thoughts. I don't believe that posting questions and rhetorics on the whys and hows to be cathartic.

The film medium cuts all boundaries and is accessible to everyone. I believe that when the film, RAMUAN RAHASIA, is ready, perhaps it would bring us to another level of LOVE and appreciation to what makes kita orang Melayu (the Malay) unique. This is not my film. RAMUAN RAHASIA adalah filem kita - untuk santapan masyarakat kita (is our film - for us). Like the written prose, films contribute to our community's cultural development. It documents our current being. Thus, if you are concerned about our community please open your hearts and support generously to the RAMUAN RAHASIA film fund appeal. Let's walk the talk together.

I get asked repeatedly why I have not applied/received any financial support from the relevant film bodies or organisations. I don't wish to discuss that here as this post is not about that. Furthermore it won't be enough to fit 13 years of that here. It's also unhealthy to speculate these speculations in print as doing so would possibly invite legal suits. RAMUAN RAHASIA would prefer to expend its money constructively.

To those unaware, I have been on a crowdfunding campaign since early 2010. Subsequently, I have set up a new funding here. The response since the 1st crowdfunding call has been good but very slow. What is humbling for me is that many of the contributors have been the "little people" (I've yet to hear from the big-wigs) - people like you and I who take the trains and buses to work. It is the things they wrote (I wish I can share all of them here) that move me a lot. It is these little, sincere notes that make it all seem worthwhile. And no, it's not just coming from the Malay folks. They just believe. So, tell me my friends, how could you not be moved by these gestures???? These and the support from industry peers has made me see the need to complete this film, regardless of the odds.

Last I spoke with Cathay-Keris (Singapore) I was assured (in-principle) they would be keen to exhibit the film - but no money for production - when the film is finally completed. I'm humbly appreciative of the gesture. This is one more assurance to push for additional funding to complete RAMUAN RAHASIA.

I realised some time ago that despite my accolades in the television industry, I have to work harder when it comes to making films and selling them. I am among the millions of first-time feature filmmakers who aspire to share the stories of his community to the world by having my community's cultural record be projected on the giant cinema screen. As a document for future generations, much like how the late, great Malay filmmakers (P Ramlee, Hussin Haniff, M Amin) who made their endearing stories at Jalan Ampas (Shaw Brothers) and Jalan Buloh Perindu (Cathay-Keris) have done with their films.

The journey for a new product entering the market is as uncertain as Nemo's (yes, that film cartoon character) first adventure in a fish tank. Hey, Nemo persevered and endured because of the eclectic friends and alliances he made with total strangers who eventually lead him back into the ocean. The fish tank was a scary environment for Nemo but he return to the ocean a better fish with the experience in the fish tank. Understably, not many folks dare to make that first venture nor pay for an untested, new product - but a trusted brand should never be complacent too. Subsequently I believe a set of collected samples and regurgitated business models cannot guarantee fixed Return-On-Investments (ROI).

Filmmakers like Majid Majidi, Pedro Almodóvar and Zhang Yimou inspire me greatly. Their resilience to communicate their respective stories in their native tongue humbles me, who is still struggling to speak Bahasa Melayu effectively.

"If music be the food of love, play on..." (TWELFTH NIGHT; Act 1, scene 1)

Looking ahead and reflecting the journey I've walked in the last 3-4 years (emotionally and professionally), I can only hope that my audience would see through my intentions. RAMUAN RAHASIA is not just a "Malay film". Nor RAMUAN RAHASIA is about the race to be the "1st Singapore-Malay Film". Nevertheless, there is the urgency to project a particular Singapore Story. Singapore has developed rapidly over the last 50 years that the world has found it harder to connect with contemporary Singaporeans on a human level. RAMUAN RAHASIA is a discourse that I would like the larger audience to engage with me - of a cultural collage unique to Southeast Asia.

This video gives me hope in my journey with RAMUAN RAHASIA.

(No, I don't have commercial affiliations with Apple)