Yasmin Ahmad (1958 – 2009)
The Malaysian movie director Yasmin Ahmad passed away on July 25, 2009. She was only 51, when she died after suffering a stroke during a meeting at a television station in Kuala Lumpur. She was rushed to a hospital, where doctors managed to stabilize her condition. She died however two days late. A longer piece on the cirumstances of her death is here
Yasmin Ahmad was one of the most prolific film makers from Southeast Asia, and her movies – like Sepet (Chinese Eyes, 2004) or Mukhsin (2006) that won her an award at the Berlin Film Festival – often tackled subjects that were taboo in the “multi-racist society” (Amir Muhammad) of Malaysia. Her first feature film Sepet, a Romeo and Juliet story between a Malay middle class girl and a Chinese vendor of pirated VCDs, was only allowed to be screened in Malaysia after eight cuts were made. (The objectionable scenes included one shot that shows Orked´s father tickeling his wife in bed.)
However, her films were never exercises in political rethoric, but funny and heartfelt. She was preparing a new movie that was partly set in Japan.
I interviewed the resolute Ahmad half a year ago for a forthcoming book on Southeast Asian independent cinema. To pay my respects to this great film maker, I publish the interview here.
Tilman Baumgärtel: Do you see yourself as an independent film maker?
Ahamad: No. Independent is a strange term. The word has taken two routes. The first one is the description of a film that has not been backed by a big studio. In that sense two of my films are independent, and the rest are not. But at the same time, “independent” has become a genre in itself. In fact, I don’t want to be an independent film maker, because it is a tough thing. You have to run after people all the time to get your films produced.
Baumgärtel: Which of your films were independently produced?
Ahmad: Sepet and Muallaf. They were both not produced by a major studio. Sepet was my first feature film, so we had get money here and there, and my producer and I had to use some of our own money. For Muallaf, I got money from a rich man from Ipoh, who liked Sepet and Gubra so much that he gave us one million ringgit (€ 210.000 or $ 270.000). So we did not need a big studio to help us finance the film. However, usually it makes life much easier in many ways, if you work with a studio. Of course, you have to answer to a lot of different people, if you work with a studio, and they sometimes want to change this or they want to change. But I have a reputation of being stubborn. So if they say, “I want to do your film”, they usually expect that I won’t allow them to change much – unless they are being reasonable. (laughs)
Baumgärtel: So, unlike other directors, you do not see working for a big studio as a limitation to your creativity?
Ahmad: Well, in Malaysia, yes. But now I am working on a production for a small Japanese studio. They liked my previous movies, so now I am about to make a Japanese film. They do make comments, but the Japanese producer is a reasonable person, and his comments make sense. I am not stubborn for the sake of being stubborn, and he knows Japanese culture better than I do. He is completely Japanese, whereas I am only Quarter-Japanese. So I do listen to him, and in fact, I rely on him for many details of the film.
Baumgärtel: Could you explain how such a production is financed, and how the whole collaboration is organized?
Ahmad: The script idea won the Pusan Award last year and that got us some seed money. One television station here in Malaysia is interested in coming in. My producer is looking for financing in Japan. I will be going, hopefully in September, to shoot in Japan. It is going quite quickly and quite far, and I am a little bit nervous. The first twenty minutes or so take place in Malaysia in a horse farm, and the rest is set in Japan. The film is about a girl, who is Quarter-Japanese – guess, who was the model for that one? (laughs) Her Japanese grandmother is dying here in Malaysia, and the girl starts to wonder why she came to Malaysia in the first place. The grandmother sends her back to Japan, and she starts to find out about herself, about her grandmother, about humanity, about love, about missed opportunities…
Baumgärtel: Was it a requirement on the part of the Japanese producers to have the film shot partly in Japan, partly in Malaysia?
Ahmad: No, that was the idea from the beginning.
Baumgärtel: There is a very lively independent scene in Malaysia right now, with directors such as Ho Yuhang, James Lee, Amir Muhammad, Azharrudin, Woo Ming Jin, Tan Chui Mui, Deepak Kumaran Menon and Liew Seng Tat. Do you see yourself as part of this group, or is it an entirely different scene?
Ahmad: Even James Lee has made a studio-backed film, and Amir has done so too, incidentally for the same studio that produced my film Mukhsin (2006). All of these films were box-office hits, so technically we are no longer independent. But we are spiritually united, I think, because we began at the same time, with Amir spearheading the whole thing. And we became friends, because at the time we shared the same problems. We acted in each others films, and we helped each other find money, and we helped to produced each others works.
Baumgärtel: What is unique about you is that you still have a day job at an advertising agency, at Leo Burnett Malaysia. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ahmad: Oh, that’s how it all began. I began making films partly to entertain my parents and also to exercise my skills as a film maker, because I enjoyed it so much. Making commercials has really helped me in making films, because you learn the economy. At the same time, making films has helped me make commercials.
Baumgärtel: But do you need to keep the day job, or do you want to keep making commercials?
Ahmad: Yes, because it pays the rent. Malaysia is a country with less than 30 million residents, so it is hard to earn enough money just by making films. So I do advertising. They pay me a good salary, and they even bought me a Mercedes-Benz to drive, so I see no reason to quit the job. I need to live. And I still need to build my parents a house. (laughs)
Baumgärtel: So you are saying that making movies in Malaysia, even films like yours who make money at the box office, is not a living?
Ahmad: Yes. There are a lot rumors about some Malaysian mainstream directors, who pinch and scrape on the productions and pocket the money for themselves. But I don’t want to do that. I want to lavish the production as much as I can with whatever money I can get and I want to pay the crew and the cast as much as I can. I don’t want to squeeze them, so I can get rich. If you rely on movie making for a living, you have to be more stringent with money. I don’t want to do that.
Baumgärtel: Well, that sounds like it is another kind of independence. Compared to some of the other independent films that are coming out of Malaysia right now, your films seem to be relatively traditional in terms of narrative. Is this approach influenced by working in advertising, or is this simply your style?
Ahmad: Well, it comes from being a film viewer. I always thought that if I make people pay ten ringgit to come and watch my film, it behooves me to try and make it entertaining for them. Also, my heroes in film history are people who make films appealing. I admire some films from various parts of the world which are a bit more contemplative. But my absolute favorite films are from people like Pedro Almodóvar and Yoji Yamada and Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood and James L. Brooks. The films that I really like are films by people who make an effort to be engaging.
Baumgärtel: One interesting aspect of your work as an advertising director is that you made more than 50 clips for Petronas, the big government-owned company that is vested with the entire oil and gas resources in Malaysia. These spots were not advertising in the usual sense, but showed the multi-racial Malaysia of today in an emotional way. I guess one could call it an attempt at national building. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it relates to your feature films?
Ahmad: You may call it nation building, but I just hate borders and I hate those arbitrary divisions between people. I simply want to make films about humanity. Ever since I was young, I was always concerned about humanity – not in a Mother-Theresa-kind of way, but I was interested in the day-to-day-interactions between people. I find that in our pursuit to achieve success, we sometimes forget some basic human qualities, like kindness and compassion. I always tried to inject those feelings that I have into any film that I make, whether it is an advertising film or a movie. For me, film is the opportunity to remind human beings to be human again.
Baumgärtel: Your film Sepet is about the interracial love affair between a Malay girl and a Chinese boy, a hot-button subject in Malaysia, where the relationship between the three major ethnic groups is often problematic. The conflicts and commonalities between Malays, Chinese and Indians are a major reoccurring motif in many independent films from Malaysia. But you are saying that your films not about Malaysian identity at all?
Ahmad: No, they are basically about people. There were some local critics who said that my films were championing the Chinese, and others said that my commercials were championing the Indians, and the Malays were complaining anyway. But I kept saying my films are about human beings, and I want you to forget about the race of the protagonists half an hour into the film, and focus on their character. I say that specifically because Malaysians are so aware of the race issues in the country. But now, that my films have won, thank god, international awards nobody can say anymore that I make films just for Malaysians.
Baumgärtel: So you are saying that your films are not about race relationships at all?
Ahmad: They are, but I think that this is mostly because of my life. I was married to an Indian before, and now I am married to a Chinese. And if I am writing a script, I can only write about things that I know. My screenplays are like that, because my life is like that.
Baumgärtel: Nevertheless, you had problems with your films in Malaysia. Sepet ran into trouble with the local censorship board, and could only be shown in a version that had some objectionable scenes cut out. The film was attacked on television, and there was a controversy in the newspapers…
Ahmad: It was difficult, because a small group of very vocal people in Malaysia could not accept this type of film. The censors made nine cuts, and than I argued with them, and they made eight. And then the complete version ran in Singapore, and you know – Malaysia has a very healthy video piracy industry. (laughs) So the public saw all of Sepet on pirated DVD, despite the censorship. And people were saying: Why did they censor this film? That was stupid! It came out in the newspapers, it came out on the internet and on TV. And with my subsequent films, they became less strict with me, because it became pretty obvious that the public had no problems with the way Malaysia was portrayed in my movies. So with the films after Sepet, I had it quite easy. The other films had not to be edited anymore… or it was very negligible.
Baumgärtel: So what exactly was the argument against Sepet that the censorship brought forward?
Ahmad: Well, the Censorship Board – that sounds like one big institution, but in fact it changed a lot over the years. In the year, when Sepet came out, I happened to encounter a Censorship Board that was quite bigoted and small-minded, so I argued with them a lot. In the end, the film won the award as best film at the Malaysian Film Festival, so I felt the censorship board looked quite silly. Fortunately, this board is comprised of different members now, so they are much more open.
Baumgärtel: But what exactly didn’t they like about the film? What were the objectionable scenes? As a foreigner, I do not see anything problematic about it at all…
Ahmad: They said, I was portraying the Malaysian family in a disgraceful way. (laughs) My own family was very bohemian, and so the family of Orked, the girl in the movie, is also very bohemian. They are half-naked most of the time, you see them playing, the talk of sex is very open. But with the subsequent films, the public got used to Orked’s family after a while. Some people even said: I wish I had a family like that!
Baumgärtel: What scenes did they cut?
Ahmad: There is one scene where the mother and father dance, and then the mother pulls down the father’s sarong. That got cut. Then, there is another scene where Jason’s friend says to Orked: “Not every Chinaman is a cheat and not all Malays are lazy” which got cut. Well, it’s a fact, but some Malays are so sensitive about these things.
Baumgärtel: Did anybody ever approach you about turning the story of this family into a TV series? This family seems like the perfect material for a sitcom…
Ahmad: Actually yes, there was talk about Mukhsin being turned into a TV series, but I turned it down, because I kept emphasizing that I have a day job. And television just does not pay as well as advertising.
Baumgärtel: What is the audience you make your films for? Do you think about a specific kind of people for which you make your films?
Ahmad: No, I don’t, because I deal with humanity. My film Mukhsin won two awards at the Berlin Film Festival. It is about a ten year old girl and a twelve year old boy, and how they deal with first love. So, a lot of people said: Oh, it’s a children film. But at the box office it turned out that people from all ages and from all races went to see the film. In the end, human problems are human problems. I don’t image any kind of audience, when I am making my films, because I want to talk to the human heart.
Baumgärtel: If you look at Malaysian film history, are there any films that are important to you? Do you see yourself, for instance, in a tradition with P. Ramlee, who also dealt with contemporary human problems in many of his films?
Ahmad: I don’t think so. I admire P. Ramlee’s comedies, but I don’t like his dramas very much. But apart from them, I don’t identify with any Malaysian film makers. In fact, I don’t even think about them. When I am making my films I think about Charlie Chaplin, and maybe a little bit about Almodóvar, or Yoji Yamada, nothing else.
Baumgärtel: So you would rather look at international than local cinema. Why?
Ahmad: I don’t know. Maybe their sincerity and humanity appeal to me more. I am absolutely excited about the films by Yoji Yamada. His Tora-san films are absolutely influential for my work – films about ordinary people with ordinary problems, a little bit charming, a little bit hopeful, and a little bit sad. I think that this is what life is about.
Baumgärtel: Are you aware of other contemporary film makers from Southeast Asia? For instance from the Philippines, like Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza, Jeffrey Jeturian?
Ahmad: No, I am not. When I am making my films, I am very busy, and when I am not making my films, I am also very busy with my advertising work. Last year one of my commercials got a Gold Medal at Cannes, the first for a commercial from Malaysia, and it became the fourth-most awarded commercial of the year in the world. As a result, jobs are pouring in, and I don’t have much time to watch films or read stuff – other than Haikus, which are very short. (laughs) But I love being busy, it’s nice!
Baumgärtel: Some film theorists have tried to find a certain “Malay aesthetic” in your films. Elements of this aesthetic include relatively long takes and a blocking, where scenes are often shown through windows, doors and other elements that kind of “frame” the action etc. Can you say something about that?
Ahmad: Malay aesthetics are an eclectic thing. Ours is a crazy mixture of Indian, Chinese, Arab, Indonesian, Portuguese, and English cultures. So to be honest, I think those film theorists you mentioned were making things up, as film theorists often do.
Baumgärtel: But a lot of the key scenes in your films are shot in long takes, aren’t they?
Ahmad: My long takes usually involve some interaction between actors. When I require the conversation or physical interaction to be intense, I prefer not to interrupt the sincerity of the moment with cuts and reverse angles. This is not to say that this is the only right way to do it. It’s just how we like to portray such situations. In other words, we follow our own feelings about the scene. I don’t think it’s a “Malay aesthetic”, it’s just our aesthetic.