[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.
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.
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.
BM: Have you eaten it elsewhere?
AM: Yeh, yeh. Out of personal curiosity. You are told you can’t do certain things and at university you tend to try all kinds of things. OK – so this is what it is like – it is enough, you know. But you know I think that there is a great Malaysian story to be made about Pork.
BM: I think you have touched on it in Pangyau with that analogy of swallowing pork…
AM: With other taboos!
BM: Indeed – other taboos.
AM: I suppose it might be a simplistic way of looking at it, but it is not entirely wrong – because the taboo here is attached to the fact that Pork is associated with Chineseness. Because even Hindus don’t really eat pork, even though they can. So it must be that –because why is it different here than for Muslims in other countries? In Tokyo Magic Hour if I had gone with my original idea of putting my own original narration in it, there was pork in that as well. The concept of vegetarianism is just alien to the Japanese. You would order salad and it would have sprinklings of bacon – that is just so vegetarian! There is pork in everything. A great Malaysian movie or novel can be made about pork. We were talking about Malaysian novels – this is kind of a tangent – I want to return to my main ambition to be a writer. I am only making movies because it is easy I think. It is easy because you collaborate – and there are other people helping to make it, so you have an added incentive to do it well, as their names will be there and you don’t want them to be let down by it. It gives you that compulsion when you have that group dynamic. But with writing it is just yourself – no one pushing you. So this book, whatever book I am supposed to write – it is still not written. I don’t think it will be a novel anyway – it will be non-fiction. But we were just saying yesterday that the great Malaysian novel – there isn’t as yet even a very good Malaysian novel – but the great Malaysian novel will be written by one of these thousands of Bangladeshi or Indonesian immigrants who serve you and you don’t even look at them, because you treat them as invisible. You know, ten years from now, one of them will write a great novel that will really show Malaysia to Malaysians. We would never think to look at it that way. I think it is the most logical thing that the greatest Malaysian novelist will be one of them and not the people who go through our education system and take writing courses and win junior literary awards. It is my hope-lah! It keeps me interested in Malaysia – I am looking forward to this great novelist who today is serving me fried rice and maybe knows only ten words of Malay - but in ten years from now – yeh, it is quite exciting actually. Sorry – what was your question?
BM: That is OK. It was only about pork.
AM: Yeh, yeh. Maybe he will write a novel called Pork. Of course there is Salleh’s poem Harum Scarum which sort of sums it up in the most pithy way, I think. “So long as we hate pigs and pray/ We’ll remain Muslim and Malay.” The funny thing is if you try and translate that line into Malay it will have two meanings – as long as we hate pork and hate praying. So you can hate pigs and praying in equal measure. By the way after my next film I am making my first mainstream movie. Did you know?
BM: Well yes – I had my umbrella explode all over that meeting you were having that night with that American chap when you were talking at one of those chain store coffee shops. You were talking about that then.
AM: Oh yes, right.
BM: But I don’t remember if you had a script or a scriptwriter.
AM: We have now – didn’t we have one at that time? We were doing separate drafts of the treatment.
BM: So what is Amir Muhammad’s entry into mainstream commercial filmmaking going to be?
AM: The experience has been just like Belle de Jour – which is my favourite film – I see my job as being like Belle de Jour – like working in the whorehouse during the day (laughs) and you really like it but pretend not too! But there is a certain crisis looming, for it reminds me of when Faulkner – name dropping again – when Faulkner went to Hollywood and was working as a scriptwriter and he had a clash with the studio – who was it Mayer? – in the end he said “The problem is that Mr Mayer is only interested in art and I am only interested in money.” I think I was hired on the pretence and assumption that I would do something really classy and that you can show overseas, but I want to do something really trashy (laughs). You know I even look at the first draft and I think we really need a swimming pool scene, just for the sake of having a swimming pool scene. It is quite exciting that they agreed to fund it based purely on the title – one word – Susuk.
BM: So you have a swimming pool scene?
AM: One swimming pool scene. I am not happy with it now. I am changing it.
BM: And you have nearly got a script?
BM: And when will that start filming?
AM: We are filming in December.
BM: So in August a musical on Malaysian communism and December a mainstream movie with money. They wanted you to add dignity to their art house pretence of a mainstream movie? And you just want to revel in the trash.
AM: (laughs) Yes – shameless! As Nabokov once said – one of my favourite writers – there is nothing more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity. I think it is such a delicious idea – no one has made a movie with the theme before in Malaysia – maybe in Indonesia they have – so to do something very modern, very in-jokey; it is meant to be a horror film. I am seeing it more as a black comedy – but eventually it will have to be a horror film. You know susuk, right?
AM: Oh you don’t. Susuk is this belief that if you want to stay young you embed like gold or silver under your skin – or diamonds under your skin. So you will stay young – not so much that you will be beautiful, but people will be attracted to you. A bomoh  will do it – not the insertion, but he will do some magical process under your skin. The trick is you cannot die with it still on because if you die with it still on the grave will not accept you. It is like an abomination – like having an artificial limb. You are altering what God gave you, so you will be a kind of restless spirit if you die with it. There are a lot of urban legends about it about with celebrities. There are a lot of rumours about Siti Nurhaliza  – but I don’t think she does it – it is a sign that people still get quite enthusiastic about it.
BM: She is still looking not much older than she was when she first appeared though.
AM: Yeh, yeh, but people talk more about someone like Sarimah. For decades people have thought that she was doing susuk – but she always denies it.
BM: So the denial of this in Malaysia is like the denial of plastic surgery in Beverly Hills.
AM: Yes, right. It is more prevalent in Indonesia. So probably there has been an Indonesian movie about it. But I am co-directing it with Naeim Ghalili this friend of mine. It will be quite interesting too to co-direct for the first time. He is much more skilled at the technical requirements that this sort of film needs. It is not just one person with a video camera anymore. Suddenly it will be a 35mm film with Dolby sound.
BM: And the capacity to spend money.
AM: Yes. It will be quite fun-lah!
 Literally: New Malay. It was a term made popular by the former Deputy Prime Minister and Prisoner, Anwar Ibrahim
 Petronas is the Malaysian national oil and gas corporation and the owners of those distinctive twin towers that are such a feature of the Kuala Lumpur skyline.
 Amir Muhammad, Kam Raslan and Sheryll Stothard, Generation: A Collection Of Contemporary Malaysian Ideas, Hikayat Press, Kuala Lumpur 1998.
 Tokyo Magic Hour (Dir: Amir Muhammad) 2005., Malaysia/Japan.
 Chuck Stephens, ‘Now and For-IFFR’ in Film Comment, New York, Vol.41, No.2, March-April, 2005.
 6Horts (Friday, Mona, Checkpoint, Pangyau, Lost, Kamunting) (Dir: Amir Muhammad), 2002, Malaysia.
 Salleh ben Joned, Sajak-Sajak Salleh: Poems Sacred and Profane, Pustaka Cipta, Kuala Lumpur, 2002.
 The Internal Security Act or ISA is common to both Singapore and Malaysia and is a legacy of the British colonial period and the fight against communism. People can be detained without charge and interrogated under the ISA for up to 60 days.
 Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee, (Dir: Hishamuddin Rais), 2001, Malaysia.
 Mona is based on the real life case of a notorious murderess.
 Mekanik (Dir: Othman Hafsham), 1983, Malaysia.
 The Big Durian (Dir: Amir Muhammad), 2003, Malaysia.
 The film is a ‘documentary’ with actors that tells the true story of the case of Private Adam who ran amok in KL in 1987. His amok triggered a city-wide panic as rumors circulated that racial riots were taking place. Kuala Lumpur remembers clearly the riots of 1969.
 My Beautiful Washing Machine (Dir: James Lee), 2005, Malaysia.
 Sepet (Dir: Yasmin Ahmad), 2005, Malaysia.
 The Year Of Living Vicariously (Dir: Amir Muhammad), 2005, Malaysia/Indonesia.
 Literally: What’s With Indonesia?
 Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (Dir: Rudy Soedjarwo), 2003, Indonesia.
 Gie (Dir; Riri Riza) recently released, Indonesia.
 Chin Peng, My Side Of History, Media Masters, Singapore, 2003.
 UMNO is the United Malays National Organisation, the founding party of independent Malaysia and the leading party in the ruling coalition known as the Barisan Nasional.
 Lit: pig.
 Can be found in the anthology, Generation: A Collection of Contemporary Ideas.
 Bomoh: traditional healer
 a highly successful Malaysian singer
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