A Conversation with Amir Muhammad
Interview by: Benjamin McKay
[note: numbers that appear in brackets refer to author notes that appear at end of article. End notes are also accessible on every page via the links bar on the left]
Amir Muhammad is one of Malaysia’s leading independent filmmakers as well as a writer and commentator of repute. Amir spoke to Benjamin McKay at Silverfish Books in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur on June 4, 2005, about both his past work and his future projects. That discussion led to a broader dialogue on the nature of filmmaking in Malaysia.
Benjamin McKay: Amir, are you originally from Kuala Lumpur or are you like a lot of Malaysians and have just gravitated here?
Amir Muhammad: No, I am from KL. I think in my generation a lot of people are actually born here. My parents were not, but we are.
BM: And they come from?
AM: My father was originally from Negeri Sembilan and my mother was born in Perak but she grew up in Butterworth and they met in Penang.
BM: It appears to me that when we talk about Malaysia and Malaysians, the nexus around ethnicity, religion and class are somewhat unavoidable. The three issues seem inextricably linked. The government identifies people in Malaysia through their ethnic and religious identity. If they also decided to identify people on class identity, which box would you feel compelled to tick?
AM: Oh, proudly middle class. The middle class doesn't get enough credit! (laughs)
BM: You seem to be critical in your work of that middle class - the Melayu Baru  for instance.
AM: That is the privilege of the middle class - we have enough leisure time to be able to criticise ourselves.
BM: Many Malaysians go abroad to study for their Higher Education, and so did you. Should Malaysian parents be concerned that a Law Degree from the University of East Anglia leads to a career as a writer and filmmaker?
AM: I wanted to study abroad but my results were not good enough to get a scholarship, so to study I got a study loan from Petronas . In order to get a study loan you either need to study law, accounting, engineering or medicine - those are the four things. So I thought law would be the easiest!
BM: The easiest? You did practice for a while?
AM: No I never practiced. I never did my bar. I have a law degree, but I am technically not a lawyer. Petronas didn't encourage you to do the Bar, because they wanted you to work in the corporation. So I worked for Petronas in the legal department for nine months. And so now I am paying them back - about RM1000 a month. I still owe them about RM38000.
BM: I asked that question because I note in your films a pervasive sense of justice. In your short films - some of which are personal, Amir Muhammad driven essays - you investigate the repercussions of both crime and acts of justice/injustice. Everything seems to be driven by a criminal act in your short films for instance - a stolen wallet at Kuala Lumpur Railway Station; stolen slippers at a mosque in Mecca; the entire case surrounding 'Mona'.
AM: Yes, I suppose I never thought of it that way (laughs).
BM: So perhaps it wasn't a waste of a law degree after all.
AM: No because actually I enjoyed the subjects that other Malaysian students didn't enjoy. I enjoyed things like jurisprudence, comparative law, evidence; subjects that require argument - the ability to construct some sort of an argument. Whereas literally almost all other Malaysian students would prefer things like Land Law and Contract Law because they have to do with how much you can memorise. That is how our education system works - we are taught to retain information and when it comes to the exam day we just regurgitate everything we have. I was never good at those sort of subjects. I was attracted to a different type of law to what other Malaysian students were doing. Because I think Law is still one of the most popular subjects for Malaysian students to do overseas. Maybe a bit less now because our legal system is going away from the British style - the common law system - there are so many particularities here now. So I think they are beginning to phase out sending people overseas to study law.
BM: How does a 14 year old begin writing for one of the country's leading national daily newspapers? And what were you writing about for the New Straits Times at 14?
AM: I think that says more about the standard of newspapers here than it does about my own writing! (laughing) I was writing book reviews - and it was like reflections on my own life and so it is a little embarrassing because people will come up to me and say "that thing you wrote about your driving test was so funny!" You know - that was written fifteen years ago. I think I peaked too soon. I think I am the Drew Barrymore of Malaysian writing. I was a precocious teenager. I wrote about school stuff. Then there wasn't a regular page for young people and so I just wrote a column about anything and everything actually.
BM: In 1995 you again started a column for the New Straits Times - so that was after you had come back from studying law in England - how long did that column last?
AM: Until 1999.
BM: Why was it called 'Perforated Sheets'?
AM: Because it is a reference to my favourite novel at that time, 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie - and the first chapter was 'The Perforated Sheet' and the column was about reading and I liked the reference to it. And in the novel itself it is about this Doctor who is not allowed to examine a woman except through a hole in a sheet, so I liked that idea that you look at one part of the body and from that you are expected to extrapolate a judgement and a diagnosis and the general condition about the whole thing. Plus it is funny - a funny title.
BM: Some of the articles have been anthologised in the book Generation: A Collection Of Contemporary Malaysian Ideas  . The anthology itself resonates an atmosphere - the mood, if you like - of a very tumultuous period in Malaysia - the 1990s. Given that pervasive atmosphere, were you and your editors taking risks in publishing what you wrote? They are often blisteringly critical of many aspects of contemporary Malaysia.
AM: I think I have to give credit to the Section Editor, Kee Thuan Chye. He took a lot of risks and he was the Literary Editor and when he was at the New Straits Times it was a very boundary-pushing thing because the literary pages just looked and read differently from the rest of the paper. It was sort of an odd little off shoot that didn't conform to the very ideologically conservative framework and this sort of inherited, blinkered way of looking at things. It was a good time to write for that paper and he has since left the NST. He is now at The Star.
BM: You are not writing for a mainstream daily newspaper any more?
AM: Not anymore. I tried to - I started again this year, but it was not as interesting to me as it was at first. But I think that is what I would like to go back to. From the start my ambition was always to be a writer. But I don't know if column writing is necessarily anything I could go back to, because column writing is not really writing and not really journalism; it is neither here nor there. You get the illusion that you are writing and people call you a writer, but it is not like writing a book.
BM: Can I ask you - Is it easier for a Malay, rather than a Chinese or Indian Malaysian, to engage in a provocative and critical fashion with the state; the culture; the very idea of Malaysia?
AM: People say that, but I think there are other factors at play because there is also the question of class. The more political kind of theatre - stage theatre - that we have is mainly like a non-Malay kind of preserve, so even the smaller budget Malay theatre won't engage directly with politics in that way; they will deal with it in a kind of oblique way. And I suppose just because the tradition of political writing seems to be more a Malay thing. I mean in universities all the Malay students seem to be interested in the campus politics and the national politics, so it is the way things pan out. But, you know, a lot of the most vocal NGO's and academics are mainly non-Malay.
BM: Do you perhaps think - in both your writing and your films - that you manage to get away with a lot because you are witty, and often very funny in your critiques and exposes? I do notice that satire and even stand up comedy is quite strong here in Malaysia.
AM: Yes (laughing). Then again I think that humour is not something you can put in artificially. It has to do with your way of seeing things and I think a lot of things are funny around here and a lot of things are very ironic if you just take a step back and see it. And whatever we have to complain about here, if we were to be honest with ourselves, are relatively minor on a regional scale - we have never had a genocide - that kind of thing. So I always think it has been a Malaysian trait to be able to laugh at yourself, which I think now some people try to hide and they try to be more pious - religiously pious, politically pious, nationalistically pious - which had never really been the case. I think the founding fathers of the country appeared to be quite light-hearted.
BM: Things perhaps became a little more serious in the 80s and 90s?
AM: Yes I think so. We tried to harden these boundaries. We had people rising up based solely on their race and their religion and they needed certainly to protect these things because that is the basis of their power. It is no longer something populist.
BM: Not all of your work is humorous - your recent film 'Tokyo Magic Hour'  isn't exactly laden with triggers for either laughter or wry amusement.
AM: (laughing) I thought some parts of it were funny, at least for me.
BM: To you perhaps!
AM: A private joke. .
BM: Well perhaps we won't go there for now! But I notice that the critic Chuck Stephens in his recent review of your work for the New York journal, Film Comment , described you as "the funniest Muslim filmmaker working today."
AM: That is because there is no competition!
BM: Oh very droll. but how do you react to that label, "the funniest Muslim filmmaker in the world"?
AM: Well I have never thought of myself as a Muslim filmmaker, quote/unquote, because I don't want people to say that this is representative of how Muslims are thinking. It is certainly not. This is a very particular take on things. You know I guess it is intriguing this idea of the funniest Muslim because it sounds like an oxymoron. (Laughter)
BM: Again, I am not going to touch that! But no one ever really refers to anyone as a 'Christian' filmmaker - except recently perhaps with Mel Gibson. People do however refer to Steven Spielberg as Jewish, even when they are talking about a film such as 'Jaws' - which is hardly Semitic.
AM: Yes, and sharks are probably not even Kosher.
BM: No indeed not, I would imagine! So while we are on this point - you can't think of any other funny Muslim filmmakers?
AM: (laughs). The rest of them seem quite glum, don't they? Seriously - I think even Iranian filmmakers - they come from a very different tradition anyway, a Shiite tradition which I think is a more intellectual tradition than the Sunni tradition that we have in Malaysia. It seems to me that the Shiite tradition, for someone from the outside, is based on the idea of questioning. I suppose that has been tested somewhat in the past few decades by the Ayatollas, but I am sure their films are funny in their own way.
BM: The same critic Chuck Stephens did suggest that your collection of shorts - 6horts  - was "one of the best films of recent years." So let us look at those short films for a moment. In a couple of them - Friday and Pangyau - you delicately straddle the sacred and the profane. Can you talk me through that?
AM: That is actually the sub-title of a book by Salleh ben Joned - Poems Sacred and Profane .
BM: I deliberately borrowed it, but I am not sure if all our readers will know the work.
AM: I think we should introduce his work to a wider readership. He was a columnist I enjoyed reading when I was a columnist as well. He started his column a few years earlier than I. He also had a book of poems called Poems Sacred and Profane and a reviewer very perceptively noticed that the title had to be read as one phrase (with dashes in between them). I think that the sacred and the profane are very mixed in the Malaysian Muslim experience. You don't really get, until very recently, people who are very single minded about being pious. It has always been based very much on the concrete reality of how we live here which is different from how people live in the Middle East. It has always been a very polyglot kind of culture and a very permeable one because there have been so many influences over the past few centuries. Islam was always seen as one strand of your identity; there were other strands as well.
BM: In films like Lost and Kamunting you directly take on the state. In Lost you critique a sense of identity and the manner in which the weight of identity is bureaucratised. There is, I recall, a great shot of a mural portrait of former Prime Minister Mahathir, looking rather benign, but all-powerful.
AM: Yes that was at Central Market.
BM: In Central Market?
AM: Yes there is a corner there where artists paint portraits. You know it?
BM: Yes, but I had just assumed it was a large billboard poster.
AM: It was a close-up.