A Conversation with Amir Muhammad
Interview by: Benjamin McKay
BM: Very impressive! Given the change in leadership here since that film was made, is the sense of political urgency that a film like ‘Lost’ imparts, still as relevant today?
AM: There is sort of nostalgic thing, because I think Malaysian politics seems to be a lot more boring now that Mahathir has stepped down, even though he refuses to shut up. His resignation has taken the wind out of the opposition’s sails because he was such a polarising figure – like Margaret Thatcher. And then suddenly you have someone like John Major and the idea of talking about politics seems like too much of a bother now because he seems like this nice man; this nice well meaning man. So even if you see that film now, though it has been only just a few years, the sense of confrontation and urgency seems a bit distant to a Malaysian audience now. Maybe it will change again in a few years, because all it takes is a new Prime Minister or leader like Mahathir - who you either support or don’t.
BM: I think Kamunting is a dazzling work. The manner in which you ostensibly take us on a road movie into the dark heart of the country and expose the banality and horror of the Internal Security Act , while still remaining witty, must have been something of a difficult balancing act.
AM: (Laughing) Well I chose a road movie because I was visiting in the film Hishamuddin Rais, who had made what is called the first Malaysian road movie.
BM: Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee .
AM: Yes. So it was appropriate to make another road movie where you literally see the road.
BM: So he was the detainee you were visiting?
AM: Yes. And also Kamunting is the name of the town where the prison is, but it’s also the name of one of the corporations that run our highways. All these corporations are politically linked. So the North-South Highway itself that I travelled on was the subject of some controversy because in 1987 the concession was given very quickly to a company without proper tender – so they may not have been the best and most efficient, but because they were politically linked they got that highway – and there was a big fuss. People talked about boycotting this highway, but afterwards people forgot and they just used it because it was convenient. It is a sort of nice symbol. So the highway is also indicative of how Malaysians view politics I think, because we complain, but at the end of the day when they ask you to pay the toll, you just pay the toll. That is what you are expected to do, and that is the price you pay frequently because the justification for our anti-democratic laws - not just ISA, but our publication laws – is that “At least when we take away from you these freedoms we also give you good roads; good highways”. That is the thing – we have so many freedoms taken away from us – and one day we will just be left with our roads.
BM: The scene where the vehicle we are travelling in enters the underground tunnel and then we suddenly are plunged into a narration of various testimonies by detainees is revealing. The use of a single narrator’s voice to tell a narrative blended from a number of separate witness statements tends to create for me a sort of an ‘everyman’ prisoner – a meta-victim if you like, of the ISA. You have a tendency in your work to revel in the manipulation of language – playing with it. Talk about language – is this the writer coming out in you on film?
AM: Well, like I sometimes say, speech is not my first language. I have read more than I have spoken I think. And from the start I have memories of reading rather than of watching movies as my parents don’t really watch movies and we didn’t have a VCR until quite late. So for the first twelve years of my life I didn’t really watch movies, except the ones that were showing on TV. It has always been about the way sentences are strung together – I find that very interesting. I wish I knew more languages, but I think I am too old. After having just spent six months in Japan where I couldn’t even express myself, except for some very basic things. The language that you are given – you can do things with it. Which is why I think Midnights Children was such a revelation to me, and to a few other people too, that English was supposed to be this British English, and then you took it and you actually did something with it. Rushdie turned it in to this amazing thing, which is not quite, you know, Indian English, because you can see the literary style of it – it was not just recording people speaking in Bombay. So that was quite exciting. That you have twenty-six letters in an alphabet and that they can be rearranged in such a way that suddenly English felt like a very new language. So I only know two languages, so I play with what I can. And in Mona – it is funny when it is screened in Malaysia, but I think overseas you can’t get it – it is meant to sound like a radio play that you listen to, with the bad acting and the sound effects. And of course the figure of Mona herself – when her face appears any Malaysian will know who she is – it counts on things like that .
BM: You told me before that you might do a feature on the life of Mona?
AM: Yes I would like to do a kind of feature on it – I haven’t quite worked out the format – maybe like a game show kind of thing!
BM: A Mona game show?
AM: (laughing) Yes. I originally thought of a semi-musical, but as I am doing a semi-musical for something else, I thought I might do a game show kind of format.
BM: Given that you just declared that you didn’t really watch films until quite late, I have to slip in that standard interview question, which is: Amir, what filmmakers have influenced your work?
AM: The first film I remember seeing repeatedly was Back To The Future. I did see that in about 1984 or 1985 and until now it remains to me a sort of masterpiece of narrative precision and it is so perfect the way the story came together. I was quite excited. I haven’t seen it again recently, but I should. I literally didn’t see Jaws, ET, Close Encounters – all those sort of films other people saw and talked about. In the 80s there was a film here called Mekanik , which I didn’t see at the cinema but saw on TV and I think it was quite wonderful because it was very multicultural, multilingual, which you didn’t see in a Malaysian film at that time. And it wasn’t done in such a way that it felt contrived. It is quite natural that in a given day you will meet different types of people who will speak different types of languages which is a very KL reality I think. And then in university I didn’t just study law, I took Film Studies, which I am glad I did because it pulled up my grades. Otherwise I would have barely passed. When I was in university it was the first year that in Britain you could take credits like in the American system. So I took credits in Film Studies and so for the first time I saw Hollywood films from the 40s and I really liked a lot of the Hollywood films from the 40s and 50s – the usual suspects – Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Sweet Smell Of Success, All About Eve – that kind of thing. They would still be among my favourite films for even though I wasn’t around then, they felt somehow familiar. Maybe it is because they were more like writing – a written kind of movie, than the type that directors in the 70s made. So you could see the narrative, written quality, you know? You don’t really get that much of that in the cinema today, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for me it didn’t feel much different from reading a novel – and something about it – the black and white; especially the film noir and the screwball comedies I like. For some reason I felt nostalgic towards that era even though I wasn’t around then. So those were my favourites and if I were to pick directors – people like Bunuel, I like Bunuel very much; Orson Welles would be one of my favourites; Pasolini; Fassbinder – maybe these four. Even though I haven’t seen all of their works – maybe each of these directors I have seen maybe half and with Fassbinder maybe even less if you like – a third – because he made so much. I like the fact that I have years to look forward to catching up on all those films.
BM: You mentioned in one of your columns that you thought that there was a scene in the Marlene Dietrich movie ‘The Shanghai Express’ that was better than all of ‘Citizen Kane’.
AM: Oh right. I think Citizen Kane wasn’t even Orson Welles’ best movie. People overrate it because he was so young when he made it and he was so clever. I wouldn’t choose to sit through Citizen Kane again, having seen it maybe four times. But I would watch Touch of Evil again and I would watch even the relatively minor ones like Mr Arkadin again and my favourite of his is his last completed one F For Fake. I liked the fact that it was his last film and he was kind of looking back and sort of summing up – or he seemed to be, there was always this sense that he could be bluffing, right? So he seemed to be summing up his career as a director.
BM: Turning to The Big Durian  for a moment. It is an endearing look at all the complexities and contradictions that you, Amir Muhammad, perhaps see modern Malaysia to be. It is also however a wonderful look at a place – Kuala Lumpur. Talk us, if you will, through the way the movie relates to KL and also perhaps to the way you personally relate to the city.
AM: It is a very KL movie. I wouldn’t say it is a very Malaysian movie, but it is a very KL movie, because the amok of Private Adam was a very KL phenomenon . I being a KL-ite just assumed that because we all panicked, the whole nation panicked, but then we interviewed people in the run up to ‘The Big Durian and people who weren’t living in KL then don’t even recall what was going on – maybe it was something they vaguely read about in the papers, but it didn’t grip the whole nation just because it happened it here. I guess this is common to any city dweller – you think that what happens here must automatically be of great relevance to those in the – what do the Singaporeans call it? - the ‘heartlands’ (laughs). Which in Singapore is especially funny for you only have to go an extra three stops on the MRT and you are in the ‘heartland’.
BM: You always have quite a bit of fun with Singapore, but you actually seem to be quite affectionate towards it.
AM: Yeh, of course, of course – it is a good place to visit. (laughs) So – also geographically there will be scenes when my voiceover in The Big Durian comes on and you see images of KL – those are all only taken in Chow Kit and Kampung Baru – so literally we just drove around those two areas because those were the two areas that mattered the most in this controversy. He ran amok in Chow Kit and there was a rally in Kampung Baru and of course one is a very Malay area and one is very Chinese area – well not quite; it does spill over. So the fact that the road you see is actually the same road you see again and again – that is how politics in Malaysia operates – you just keep coming back to the same issues for the past hundred years – there is race, religion, quota, education, immigration. In terms of mix of language in this film there was supposed to be Tamil, but the Tamil person didn’t turn up or didn’t turn out to be what we wanted – and so the fact that it is multilingual, I wanted that diversity. KL is mainly a Cantonese town. People who have never been here would think that KL is a very Muslim city but KL is sixty per cent Chinese. That is something that might surprise some people. But you know it never occurred to me to learn Cantonese. It has never been something that people think: “I am in a city where the majority speaks this language so I should know something about it” – it never occurs to people like that. It is just taken as a given.
BM: It is a very KL movie. Kuala Lumpur is often just a backdrop in mainstream Malaysian movies. There is always the Petronas Towers, the KL Tower – two structures you don’t appear to be very thrilled with.
AM: Because they are Mahathir’s biggest erections.
BM: Indeed. In mainstream movies there is not a great sense of place – we are either in a middle class household or in the kampung, but you captured KL well in The Big Durian. Kuala Lumpur appears to have become the centre for the so-called ‘new wave’ of independent Malaysian filmmakers. You all tend to be very supportive of each other and indeed your names all crop up in the credits of each other’s films from time to time. Does the ‘indie’ scene here act in opposition to the “mainstream”, commercial Malaysian cinema and is there a sense that you intentionally react against a perceived mainstream?
AM: I think we all grew up watching Malaysian cinema to various degrees, but we are also of the generation that was very much exposed to cinema made in other countries. Malaysia always was exposed in that sense, but because we came of age with the pirated VHS in the 80s and the VCD in the 90s, so I think our range of influences are wider. Definitely – because if it were not for these pirated things then we would have been stuck with what was brought here, which is extremely limiting. And probably you would have got the sense that to make a movie you had to make a movie like what you see in the cinema. Perhaps you can say that we damaged in a sense as we were exposed to the hype of independent movies, which you can’t deny started in America in the early 90s. So we then got the romantic idea of doing it our own way. So I don’t think it was consciously in opposition in that sense, because that would only work if mainstream Malaysian cinema were the only films that we see. But we still watch mainstream movies.
BM: James Lee recently had a commercial release here in a Cineplex of his My Beautiful Washing Machine  and Yasmin Ahmad’s recent Sepet  seems to have found an audience far wider than the traditional Festival and art-house scene. What plans have you got for straddling the borders between the independent and the mainstream – or is that question redundant?
AM: It always seems a bit strange to say, “I am making an art house film”. You know, who are you to say it is an art-house film? I know that certain types of films have a more limited audience and I wouldn’t push for them to have a commercial release – so something like Tokyo Magic Hour I wouldn’t dream of foisting onto the exhibitors. And The Big Durian would not have gotten past censorship, so why bother and I wasn’t interested in doing something where I felt censored so much that it didn’t make any sense. So those are the risks you take when you start and when you know that this won’t get a wide release for whatever reason, so you scale down your expectations accordingly. So it is nice to be able to make that choice and that sometimes if you are given a bigger budget there is of course a responsibility that it has to make money and you want to be seen as somebody who if given a big budget can make back the money. It is probably not as easy as it looks, you know, although we say that all these mainstream movies are dumb or whatever, there is a profitable dumbness and an unprofitable dumbness. I would like actually to be able to do both. See how calculated that is? The fact that my first commercial release will be The Year of Living Vicariously  which now has a more commercial title for Malaysia, Ada Apa Dengan Indonesia? , which is a sort of a spoof of the title of the most popular Indonesian teen movie, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?  which was very popular here in pirated VCD, not so much in the cinema, because by the time it was released here it had already been circulating for a year on VCD format. But every Malaysian viewer, particularly the type who watch Malay movies, knows the title and many Malay movies after that tried to imitate it quite consciously. We can see it in the posters, the casting, the kind of stories, but it doesn’t quite work. So again a very commercial title, and I never thought it would get a commercial release, but it is kind of nice and kind of perverse as well that my first Malaysian release is actually Indonesian. I guess it makes it look even more foreign, I suppose, what I am doing.
BM: And it will be the first Malaysian documentary to get a commercial release.
AM: Yeh, yeh. And you know, who would have thought even a year ago that something like this would be possible.
BM: You have written about other cities such as New York, and this year you have released two films set outside of Malaysia. You filmed The Year of Living Vicariously in Jakarta. How was that ‘vicarious’ experience?
AM: Oh, it was good. I was quite unprepared for the emotional pull of Indonesia. It was the first time that I was spending time there and I felt like I was returning to something I had always known – so it was quite similar in some odd way to when I was in university and I would watch Hollywood movies of the 40s and they felt so familiar; and just the experience – the overwhelming sensory overload of being in Jakarta was very overwhelming – yes, the language is similar and yet it is not similar. You would read in the papers and you would understand most of it – maybe eighty percent – and there would be talk around you and you would be lucky to get fifty percent – because the slang changes very fast.
BM: That is evident in Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?. Students of Indonesian language can’t understand it and people outside of Java need help.
AM: Because it is very Jakarta teenage slang which when it was screened here needed subtitles. So that experience was quite exciting. It is a much more dynamic kind of society and I don’t know how much of it is because of post-reformasi or whether you could sense it even before that. A lot of your assumptions are sort of challenged I think, because their brand of Islam is so much more liberal – it seems to be, or maybe it is just in that middle class milieu where it just seemed like a much more accepting kind of society because you know, it is hard enough to just get through the traffic jam in the morning. So if you can face that you can do whatever you want for fun, you know? Nobody will bother you – there wasn’t the sense of it being such a defensive, reactionary kind of Islam that you get here. And there is more humour and more exuberance about lived experiences. It is not so solemn – their writing in particular; their theatre, and also of course their movies.
BM: Is it strange being a filmmaker making a movie on the set of another filmmaker’s movie?
AM: I think it was appropriately Wellesian (laughter). No because I happen to think that is what I was following anyway. I never really liked ‘Making Of…’s’. I never watch ‘Making Of…’s’ on DVD and I didn’t want to make a ‘Making Of….”. I wanted to make a documentary that happened to have this as the backdrop for that idea of being in transition or whatever – and the idea of creating something; creating your own mythology; creating your own history. Visually it seemed ideal because the film I was following, Gie,  involved literally reconstructing the 60s just as in people’s imagination your past is a constructed thing – it is constructed through school, or what people say, so that national icons, national tragedies, national defining moments – you know, it is very much something that is created by you, or that you create for yourself. As a metaphor the idea of building a film; making a film….
BM: I thought it was interesting the way there you are making a film about another person making a film. Your film deals with a people looking at their past and the film that he is making is actually a construction of history. Very Wellesian as you said!
AM: Yes, of course, but I don’t know to what extent consciously but I think it works better for a Malaysian audience than anybody else, because for the past two decades Malaysia has had a very stupid First World mentality when it comes to Indonesia. Now we come to associate Indonesians with migrant workers and domestic servants, whereas in the past Indonesia was always ahead and we always looked up to it in literature and in films and politics. Everything that happened in Indonesia would happen in Malaysia a decade later. But things just changed in the 80s – a sort of reversal of how we viewed it – so to screen it here in particular to a Malaysian audience; especially a Malaysian college age audience, is kind of an eye opening experience – for it is sort of a challenge to them as well - as here are people about your age for the most part, and they are actually thinking through things in ways we in Malaysia don’t. We sort of accept whatever is given to us and we have that don’t-rock-the-boat mentality. So in the short term we will seem like the more progressive, more advanced country, but it means that on an individual level we actually stop ourselves from achieving something more, because we don’t dare to take big risks.