A Conversation with Amir Muhammad
Interview by: Benjamin McKay
BM: The other film you have released this year is Tokyo Magic Hour which is quite a departure for you. It is a powerful film and is all the more interesting for the way in which you have assembled a collection of images filmed by other people and like a painter you have created a collage – an onscreen collage. You also play again with language and through editing an array of collected Malay pantuns you have constructed a very personal and authored narrative from again – the works of other people. Found footage and found dialogue as it were. Is Amir Muhammad challenging our notions of the ‘auteur’ here?
AM: He wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing! It came out of being in Tokyo for six months where I got a grant from The Nippon Foundation to study independent filmmaking. I was attached to the office of the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival and they have this huge archive of every single documentary that has ever been submitted to them and like many documentary film festivals they also show experimental films. So this was literally my first time to be able view experimental movies, because when I studied in England we didn’t watch those. Our specialty was what they call the ‘Classical Hollywood Cinema’ from 1930-1960. So for the first time I got to watch things by names I had heard of like Michael Snow, Jon Jost, Stan Brakhage and Japanese filmmakers like Hiroyuki Oki and also Takamine Go who does documentaries. So watching all of these and also borrowing things from the video stores –sometimes without subtitles – so they are experimental and without subtitles – so I think the experience of Tokyo became stranger than it should have been. The relationship between Malaysia and Japan is also quite an ambiguous one – in a different way than between Malaysia and Indonesia. There is a generational thing also, because even in my father’s generation, there are some people who still refuse to buy Japanese products.
BM: Even though they “only occupied didn’t colonise”?
AM: Oh – you read that somewhere!?
BM: I don’t know where I read that!? But I am certain that you wrote it!
AM: But they were worse – in the three years they were here, they killed more people than the British ever did and even then, before they came there was the expectation that they were the great hope – the great Asian liberators. So we sort of instinctively look up to them, but also expect the experience of being there to be a very strange and alienating one. It is a sort of city that dis-invites – it invites by keeping people at bay, unlike New York for example which is very welcoming even if you don’t know the language. You go to New York and you suddenly feel at home. In Tokyo, no matter how long you stay there, you get the feeling that you will never be at home, which I thought was quite enticing; it was quite bracing in that way. So just the idea of playing with how a Malaysian would view Tokyo, because I think a lot of middle class Malaysians would have been to London probably, but not to Tokyo – and this idea that part of the reason why there is such a great respect for Japan, is I suspect a kind of ethnic chauvinism here among the Malay literary and Malay political establishment because they see Japan as being so much more efficient because it is monocultural and monoethnic. I think that is always the subtext – “Oh look at them, they can do anything, and its only Japanese people.” They don’t allow Chinese people to learn Chinese – that kind of thing. So to challenge that – the idea of making something with Tokyo in the title where you don’t hear Japanese – but you know that in Tokyo, like any big city there are pockets of difference, but it is not as blatant as having Spanish Harlem or Little Italy. But there are these certain areas where you just won’t hear Japanese, which if you have never been there you wouldn’t think that is possible. The idea of making something that is not quite about the expected Tokyo would be truer to my own very subjective impressions of Tokyo. That does sound very dry doesn’t it? (laughs) But also I like the idea of found footage – although it wasn’t quite found footage, because I told them where to shoot….and even the text – it was found but I went through a lot in order to get the ones that I chose. So I felt more like a DJ. I like the fact that you don’t have to be directly responsible for the source, but it is the way you arrange it.
BM: I saw the film and your question and answer session following it at the Singapore International Film Festival in April of 2005. Speaking to a number of people afterwards, they were all impressed by the visual splendour and they loved the use of the pantuns, but some of them felt the film was perhaps a little reticent and reserved.
AM: That is me – c’est moi.
BM: My opinion differs, but I was just wondering whether a sense of reticence might not in fact be deliberate?
AM: Oh – yes it is all deliberate (laughs). Whatever you think. I don’t know actually – maybe because a lot of experimental movies don’t give up their meaning just like that. It is something that requires a certain willingness to struggle with what is there. So it was never meant to be this blatant thing that can be read in only one way. Because it can be about two persons and it can be about two countries – so this idea that it could be about Malaysia and Japan, as grand as that sounds, or it could be something as small as being about two historically unimportant people. I like the opening quote, which I got from this book, which I lost after only reading two pages. But in these first two pages I remember this quote from the book by this Lebanese writer and video artist called Jalal Toufic - “All love affairs take place in foreign cities.” For some reason I just lost the book, I don’t know where it is, I might have left it somewhere. It is kind of tantalising for me. But I sort of stopped reading it before I got to find out how he fleshed out that idea. So I fleshed it out in my own way – the idea that even if a city is familiar to you it will seem strange if you are in some kind of heightened emotional state like being in love. I only got the quote when I was already editing. I just remembered, the title of the book was Undying Love, or Love Dies which pretty much sums up the plot if you were of Tokyo Magic Hour.
BM: You mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago that your next film is on the history of communism in Malaysia. Is it a feature or a documentary?
AM: It is a semi-musical documentary.
BM: A musical as in?
AM: It is a documentary that occasionally breaks into song. (laughs)
BM: Fantastic! So, why communism?
AM: Not communism as such, but the life of Chin Peng who was the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya which engaged in guerrilla warfare against the colonial and then native government for decades. He lives in exile in South Thailand. I bought his 2003 memoirs My Side Of History . I think I bought it here. It is a very interesting book and is very well written, unlike most Malaysian books. From the opening sentence alone “A few months after my 25th birthday I discovered that I was, in fact, only 23 years old.” As good as the opening sentence of David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities! The way we were taught about communism – you know, they ate children. It is a legacy of the cold war where we thought that everything negative that could possibly be done, was done by the communists. I liked the idea of reading the book and finding out that it is such a Malaysian story – the way he grew up and all – although it is very Malaysian Chinese. You know the places that he mentions and the things he went through – it will be quite familiar for people who are even growing up right now. So the main idea was not to make something about communism necessarily – the main idea was to show something outside of KL, because I didn’t want to do another KL movie. I wanted an excuse to go out of the city and I was reading that book at the same time and thought, why not use that as the narrative. And also because I am interested in communism in the sense that it is the most beautiful ideology to me in theory, because it assumes that given a choice people will want to share. But it has never quite worked out that way. There has never been I think such a system where a communist state did not descend into dictatorship. So there is that internal irony there and also there is that additional irony of nationalism, where we have UMNO  claiming a monopoly of nationalism as the dominant party – theirs is the only nationalism that counted, whereas it has been recorded that the earliest fervour for nationalism was from the left wing parties; the socialist parties. But this has just been relegated to the sidelines where the UMNO brand of nationalism prevailed. They have been consistent – right from then until now – their agenda is to protect Malay capital and western capital - so any other type of thing is irrelevant. There is an irony as well about what if someone else could be just as nationalistic – but an internal contradiction there that by wanting independence for Malaysia, you just govern your country by whatever Beijing dictates. Interesting-lah, interesting. I don’t know much about what happens outside KL. I have never lived outside KL. In Malaysia there are several states that I have never been to. I have never been to Perlis. I have been to Terengganu once and have been to Kelantan once – literally. I have been to Pahang maybe four times and I haven’t been to Melaka in over a decade which is probably a good thing, I don’t know. So I live in KL and to a much lesser extent Penang. It should be an interesting experience for me mainly just to listen to people; to listen to what they have to say. So it is very much something that I am not dictating much of a structure for. It won’t be like The Big Durian where I knew what I wanted to be said – and where I wrote things for people to say. It will be closer to The Year of Living Vicariously but I think the tempo will be different because it is Malaysia. And the songs of course! (laughs).
BM: Are the songs already written?
AM: We are writing them – me and the composer. Because once again it is not as strange as it seems. The roots of documentary in Malaysia was in this thing called the Malayan Film Unit which was a propaganda arm of the British Army and their documentaries were fairly musical because they had songs telling you how to protect yourself from diseases and of course telling you not to choose communism; telling you about these new housing schemes and how to get immunisation shots. So it should be interesting-lah, not as unusual at it seems.
BM: I am certain that once your works have been discovered and consumed by western academics you will be on the road to major deconstruction! Given the nature of the two films Pangyau and Tokyo Magic Hour you should expect a spate of Queer theory deconstructions. Do you relish the irony of a queer analysis of “the world’s funniest Muslim filmmaker”?
AM: (laughing) Yeh, why not, why not? It will be funny. It will be interesting. This thing about the queer context that was in 6horts, I submitted all of them to this curator in San Francisco, Roger Garcia and I think accepted Lost and he passed Pangyau to Michael Lumpkin, the head of Frameline, which runs the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival – and of course the Lesbian has to come first because it is politically correct.
BM: And it is San Francisco.
AM: Ah yes. That is as PC as you can get. I made a joke about domestic abuse when I was at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year and it didn’t go down that well.
BM: Oh, Amir!
AM: Still some people find it funny. They asked me you know what is the situation like for women filmmakers in Malaysia – and I said that there is one woman – Yasmin Ahmad, but she can’t come to the Festival because every time she leaves the house her husband will beat her up and that is just what happens in a Muslim society and that is the way we like it!
BM: They didn’t get it?
AM: Oh, they got it I think! So Michael Lumpkin chose Pangyau to be distributed and I think Roger just gave him that one short and it was the first time that I had had anything distributed, even though it is with a kind of non-commercial distributor. I remember Michael Lumpkin wrote to me and asked me whether my other short films had a queer content as well and I almost replied “Not yet” – I could just change a few of the subtitles. (laughs). But you know, that is where the money is.
BM: It certainly is. At the Singapore Film Festival most of the films that managed to get a second screening had queer content.
AM: The whole idea is problematic. I would see ‘queerness’ ideally as being something like Oscar Wilde. But I don’t see the point in it if it is a dogma, a kind of orthodoxy, which can be quite stifling I suppose. You experience it more in America. One of the movies I was planning to make, it was originally going to be second movie after Lips To Lips, was a lesbian vampire movie with an all female cast. I thought it would be good, but we couldn’t get the right location, you know. I don’t see it as a queer movie as such because I think lesbian vampire films are an honourable tradition in their own right, as a sub genre. I wanted this all female cast and in some ways it seemed now similar to Ozon’s film 8 Women – I might return to that.
BM: Return to it. I will let you know if I find any great locations.
AM: I wanted this kind of Le Coq D’Or, old Chinese mansion – a double storey thing with all these ornate staircases and big bathtubs. So it would be that kind of location where we can paint walls blue and yellow. I think the only gay films I like are the kind that are not so warmly received by what is maybe the queer establishment, if there is such a thing. I know that The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant was attacked as being negative, but I loved it and thought it was great. I like Fox and His friends – I thought that was very good.
BM: I think that the ‘queer establishment’ has problems with Fassbinder. He was just not southern Californian enough.
AM: Yes. These were consistent with his other films, you know, because he hated everybody!
BM: And it is much more interesting to deconstruct him, if you have to deconstruct anybody, on the issues of class.
AM: Yeh, yeh, of course.
BM: It is ironic that of all those six short films in 6horts you can take Pangyau out because of all of them it is the most different.
AM: I thought Mona was the most different.
BM: I don’t think it is. I think Pangyau is the most different because it doesn’t have the same witty sense of humour in the telling of the tale. It has real heartache.
BM: While it does have that sense of justice that exists in the other shorts, the justice is about the fact that children are often victims of decisions made by others. Our young protagonists’ relationship ends when the young Chinese boy ends up having to move to Australia.
AM: Of all places! (laughs)
BM: Indeed! Now Amir, you can be candid here: As a filmmaker how do you relate, if at all, to academic film scholarship in areas like Film Studies and Cultural Studies for example?
AM: I enjoyed reading people like Robin Wood. I don’t know if he counts. Does he count?
BM: He does. But don’t ask me that – I am not the one who determines who is and isn’t allowed into the Academy!
AM: Into the canon.(laughs) I like him because reading his book on Hitchcock he was willing to engage with the films on an interesting level that was ideological, but at the same time not just ideological. He was open to the aesthetic and the emotional content of it. He did not just see things through ideology – as in, if it doesn’t fit it is a bad thing, you know? I think his reading and his life experience probably exposed him to wider ways of seeing. Even if it was simply purely an ideological critique it was interesting to read because I liked the openness with which he engaged with things. Probably you also find that in Edward Said, but he is of course more difficult to read, isn’t he? (laughs) He made it look like hard work, whereas Robin Wood had this lightness of touch. I like that. I don’t know if he is still writing though.
BM: There can of course be a tendency to try and pigeon hole a director and their work and directors themselves can slip into a comfort zone as well. So I might attempt to offer you a chance at being speculative. I am reminded here that at the height of the Watergate scandal in the United States, that doyenne of American investigative journalism, Ms Barbara Walters, asked the President, Richard Nixon, that “if he were a tree, what sort of tree would he be?” In the spirit of that sort of penetrative analysis may I ask Amir Muhammad: If you weren’t the world’s funniest Muslim filmmaker, what sort of filmmaker would you like to be?
AM: I honestly like the kind of filmmaker who seems to treat it as a hobby, because that was the impression I had of Orson Welles. I don’t buy into that myth that after Citizen Kane his life just went downhill and that he was reduced to doing TV commercials. I think that he seemed to enjoy that – he had a sense of humour about things – and Bunuel as well. Yeh – a hobby filmmaker I think.
BM: Like ‘inspired’ amateurism.
AM: Yeh, yeh.
BM: OK, Amir, what is the fascination you have with pork? It is in your essays and in your films. Are you just being funny here or do I discern a far more serious critique taking place behind the bacon and the babi? 
AM: That was the best article I ever wrote actually.
BM: It is actually in several articles and in your films.
BM: Pork crops up everywhere.
AM: Oh really, I didn’t notice. I was thinking of my article A Khinzir’s Eye View of the World  I just think it is funny that it is like the one taboo in Malaysian Muslim society and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent for the Arabs. It is not so much in Indonesia. There are Muslims in Indonesia who eat pork. But here it is like the one thing you are not supposed to do – you can drink, you can gamble, you can have four mistresses. But the idea of pork is such a taboo. Which of course you know – Muslims and Jews are the only people that don’t eat pork. There is that Jewish thing as well – if you were to point out that the injunction against Pork came from Judaism, which came before us and we are just imitating them – same thing as circumcision. It didn’t start with Islam we are just continuing what the Jews did. Pointing it out might make Muslims here upset. So it is quite delicious this idea of pork. I have never eaten pork in Malaysia. I suppose I am internalising this and criticising something in myself.