Sarawak filmmakers on a roll

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By Neville Timothy Sanders & Gabriel Lihan

KUCHING: Over the past few years, there have been a few local films that represent and portray the stories and culture of Sarawak.

Then, two years ago during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sarawak government under the leadership of Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg launched TV Sarawak or TVS, which made Sarawak the first state in Malaysia to have its own television channel.

From the looks of it, it seems that the creative industry in Sarawak, most notably the film sector, is on a roll with an outstanding platform for filmmakers to showcase their creativity while promoting Sarawak stories, its people and most importantly, its culture.

Most recently, a film called ‘Misi.’ made history as the first film fully produced by Sarawakians to make its way to Astro’s First Video On Demand (VOD) slot.

Producer and director of the movie, Mohamad Ghazali Jeman, shared that this was one of the few ways to develop the film industry and promote interesting places in Sarawak.

While it is indeed a wonderful move, other filmmakers and even actors feel that the industry does have a long way to go.

New Sarawak Tribune spoke to some filmmakers and actors about the depiction of Sarawak stories and what more could be done for the state’s film industry.

SHORTCOMINGS

Syafiq Zahin, the creator of the ‘Boss John’ series that premiered on TVS during the fasting month, said the representation of Sarawak stories in the film industry was still shallow.

Syafiq Zahin with his published work and some of behind the scenes of his series, ‘Boss John’.

“When I say shallow, I mean the community, its people and culture are not properly represented and instead, Sarawak is visualised as if its people are not progressive and being left behind in Malaysian cinema,” he said.

He explained that Sarawak’s stories were only told from the aspects of mythology, fantasy or history.

“Where are the stories that show the reality of the lives of Sarawakians? Why are the stories of Sarawak only told through myths, fantasies and history? I just don’t get it,” he added.

Felix Agustus, a film and theatre actor, felt that one reason why films that centred around Sarawak received scant attention was poor marketing of the films.

“The stories and, of course, the actors and directors, if you really think about it, will have some effects on the film enthusiasts,” he said.

Another filmmaker, Sydney Atin, felt the representation was not well done.

“There are many layers to a Sarawakian story but rarely explored further,” he said.

Nova Goh, another filmmaker, explained the film industry in Sarawak lacked good storytellers.

“Even though we are rich in native culture, we need to tell the stories from our views, perspective and, of course, we market them and publicise them as much as possible to potential audience,” he said.

WHY IT IS STILL HAPPENING

Nova explained that part of the reasons could be the lack of resources.

“The filmmakers in West Malaysia have more resources than ours. Besides that, we also lack the sensibilities to dig out local stories.

“I think the local filmmakers also have to find out the uniqueness of our history, lifestyles and cultures and then translate them into universal stories that are understood by the worldwide audience,” he said.

Meanwhile, Felix pointed out that Sarawak’s filmmakers were not as aggressive as their counterparts in Sabah.

Sydney stated that Sarawak currently still lacked two things, namely, money/resources and local talents.

Elaborating further, he said: “At the risk of sounding elitist, that video you took with your phone looks good on your small screen but will break down on a large cinema screen.

“Special cameras are needed to meet the standards that we usually see on the big screen and those cameras are not cheap.”

He explained that since the equipment was expensive, most production companies decided to rent it.

“So, who’s willing to spend that much for a “maybe”. That’s why I’m very thankful to the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) because it is willing to help us.

“It also provides funds any Malaysian can tap into,” he said.

He added that the local film industry definitely needed more investors and more local talents.

“We need more people not just on the screen but also behind the screen. We need more gaffers, set and sound designers, costume supervisors and a hundred other production staff that will cover the amount of work behind the scenes of the film,” he said.

Sydney also pointed out that the industry needed proper actors, such as the trained ones instead of the Instagram-famous talents.

“I’m talking about actual skilful actors who can shed tears on cue, and even if we do actually have some of these very talented people, they are either working actively in the industries outside Sarawak or even now in the much better paying industry, internationally such as Alvin Wee, who was recently nominated for his work in the film ‘Encanto’,” he explained.

Syafiq said the people in the state were already accustomed to Western films and those from Peninsular Malaysia.

“Therefore, when we wanted to create a film that visualised Sarawak in the most authentic way possible, it was awkward for some of the filmmakers.

“So the desire to represent Sarawak in the most honest way possible dissipates just like that due to the fear that the film may not be accepted by the audience,” he said.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Sydney agreed there should be more funding, training and, most importantly opportunities should be happening more in order to improve the Sarawak film industry.

“We have to spend to build the film industry here. We have to invest in it just like any other business. There are definitely quite a number of options around for short videos but nothing for films. Maybe we should pool our resources together,” he said.

Felix felt that the industry players in Sarawak should keep up with recent developments in the film industry.

“The industry players should also play a role in promoting the local creatives of small scale productions.”

Nova pointed out that the film industry was usually centralised in the capital city of a country and it was a bit unrealistic if it required the same standard of facilities as a film studio.

Sydney Atin and some scenes from his published work as the film director. (Photo 8 is scene from his short film called Jauh (2021), Photo 9 is the scene from his short documentary Gendang Rayah: Tradition and Religion (2022).

“But since we have abundance of tribal stories, we can start small scale documentaries or short films and submit them to an international film festival/market. There are a lot of public resources out there,” he shared.

Syafiq stressed that filmmakers and film associations had an important role to play in creating the proper representations of Sarawak stories.

“I suggest creating a culture of producing and watching films made by Sarawakians that have Sarawak themes,” he said.

He was optimistic that the local film industry could penetrate the mainstream audience, namely, the Peninsular Malaysia viewers, if there was a new wave of filmmakers and audience in Sarawak.

Sydney also pointed that training was crucial for the industry to have more qualified and skilled crew and cast to make better films more efficiently.

“Seniors should share their knowledge and help build the community and if our goals are just to make short films, then we don’t need more.

“But if we want to produce great films, we need more people to work together and train new people to join us. More often than not, we cannot do well because we have too many responsibilities at the same time,” he said.

He was happy that many bodies provided training opportunities but pointed out that opportunities were also crucial as filmmakers needed a place to start and try.

“I’m thankful that we have TVS and we now have our own platform to tell our own stories. The regulations are more relaxed and more negotiable compared to other stations.

“Investors and clients should be more open to new ideas to try out and find out what works for us,” said Sydney.

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