Thursday, August 26, 2004

Am I sentimental, or just mental?

Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.

Late last year, a British book reviewer asked Arundhati Roy, the award-winning author of "The God of Small Things", why she had "slipped" into such extreme sentimentality in her then latest book. I found her reply to the question at once refreshing and reassuring.

"Why are you so afraid of your sentiments?" she said, or words to that effect.

For years I had been pooh-poohed by people in the advertising industry for the unabashedly sentimental stories I tell in my Petronas festive season commercials. Ms Roy's words reassured me that I needn't apologise for any of it.

Why? Well, try this test. Step One, look back on your life. Step Two, remove every bit of sentimentality from it. What have you left? Only the worst life imagineable, that's what.

And so, with or without Ms Roy's encouragement, Yasmin-the-Incorrigible marches on.

First it was those saccharin tear-jerking, button-pressing Petronas ads for Independence Day. Then it was "Rabun" -- that diabetic tale about a wrinkly old couple soaping each other in the garden.

Someone's mother-in-law actually told her to turn off the tele immediately while "Rabun" was showing, because she couldn't stand the sight of old people being lovey-dovey. (She doesn't seem to mind the scenes of Malay husbands shouting at, slapping around, and two-timing their wives in Malay TV dramas, though.)

And now "Sepet". Cynics and lovers of restraint and subtle cinema, please seriously consider bringing barf bags into the theatre with you -- we have a scene where young man asks young lady, "How long do you think it takes to fall in love?", to which young lady replies, "A minute."

Better still, don't go! Give it a miss. Don't waste your eight bucks, only to walk out spitting and cursing afterwards.


If, like me, you feel there just aren't enough hearts worn on sleeves these days... that crying at movies is something to be happy about simply because you still can... and that the demands of the day would be a lot more bearable if we held back from getting angry and being nasty, but jumped at every chance to be sweet and kind... then I'd like you to look out for my next sentimental Petronas commercial, and find time, if you can, to see my next film.

Monday, August 23, 2004

General Info on SEPET.

sepet banner
Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.


ah loong ... ng choo seong
orked ... sharifah amani
keong ... linus chung
mah ... tan mei ling
mak ... ida nerina
abah ... harith iskander
kak yam ... adibah noor
pah ... thor kar hoong


executive producer ... rosnah kassim
cinematographer ... keong low
editor ... affandi jamaludin
art direction ... ujang & odeng
producer ... elyna shukri
director ... yasmin ahmad
written by ... yasmin ahmad


19-year old Ah Loong is in charge of a street stall selling pirated vcd's. Contrary to what you might expect someone of his social standing to be, Ah Loong is an incurable romantic with an unlikely hobby - he loves to read and write poetry. Quite contented to carry on being the Romeo of the slums, Ah Loong's life takes a sudden turn one day when a 16-year old Malay schoolgirl arrives at his stall in search of Wong Kar-Wai's films.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

A Foreign Critic's views on "Sepet".

ah loong & orked
Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.
(Jan Uhde is a Czech-born film reviewer residing in Canada. He is also a professor and film expert teaching at Waterloo University, Ontario.)

Dear Yasmin,

Many thanks for your letter. I was very happy to make it to your screening. What a coincidence and a pleasant surprise!

Yvonne and I came to KL to meet with Tuck Cheong of the Film Society and his friends. Anchalee was also there and she told us about your film.

Actually, it is I who should thank you for letting me watch Sepet. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

To call it a "little film" would be an unnecessary understatement. I liked your film's sincerity, truthfulness, subtle humour and a sensitive portrait of the two cultures.

I laughed a lot. I recalled the early films of Forman and Truffaut I saw a long time ago and which I still like to watch.

It is refreshing to see people who look and act like real people -- so much unlike the slick Hollywood emptiness.

The Rusalka aria was quite an unexpected experience. I was listening and could not believe my ears: It was in Czech! I know the opera, you cannot be a Czech and miss it, but I have not realized before seeing your film, how close its theme relates to a story far away in time and space.

It is hard to find room for improvement in an accomplished work. But I don't want you to question my sincerity, so here is one detail: I think that a slight shortening of the final emotional scene (mother/ daughter in the car) would be more in step with the rest of the film.

Really sorry we had so little time. It will have to be the next time. Please stay in touch.


RABUN - notes from the writer/director

I made my first film "Rabun" as a way of saying to my parents, "See? I know all your nonsense and your craziness, but I love you anyway."

"Rabun" is about something that actually happened to them many years ago. They've always had this naughty habit of pre-judging people, and in this instance, they got their fingers burnt as a result of it.

I'm lucky that I have parents who are not like any other I know. They play with each other like children. That's why I felt "Rabun" was a story worth telling. To me, it was about something interesting that happened to two interesting people. I hope the end-result is a film worth watching.

Someone asked why I did not fully explore the social issues that surfaced in the story. My answer was, "In the end, I think 'Rabun' is not a film about issues, but about people. When issues surfaced, they were natural to the context of the story. I did not want to stretch them any further than that. Personally, I'm not interested in films that are made because someone wanted to drive his opinions down my throat, leaving me no room to weigh the issues myself."

You may find the way I shot "Rabun" annoyingly still, with hardly any camera move, hardly any cut, and from a distance, almost like watching theatre where everything happens right before your eyes.

The reason for this was, being a first time film-maker, I was curious to see if the full emotions of a scene could come through, without having too many emotion-heightening tricks such as close-ups, reverse shots, or quick cuts. (On set, I learnt what mise en scene really meant!)

Secondly, having directed ten tv commercials before making "Rabun", I was pretty much bored with the fast-cut/fancy-angles/slow-tracking shots that have become a cliche in advertisements.

Finally, and perhaps most accurately, we didn't have enough time, money, or film to shoot "Rabun" any other way, anyway.

I wish everyone who watches "Rabun" reacts to it primarily as a person, and not as a film-maker or a film critic. "Art," as Hitchcock once said, "is emotions." Although "Rabun" may not qualify as "art", I hope it arouses some emotions in people, especially concerning the simple joy of having someone to love in our lives.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

The Interview

the interview
Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.

Question:  Is Sepet political?

Answer:  I don't know. Is it? I can only tell you my intentions which were true and stated in my writer/director notes. If, by advocating the choosing of love over hate, I happen to touch on some political issues, then there it is. I don't care much for politics, and often have very little opinion about it, but I guess no one can fully escape it.

Q: Your director's note may say it's less about race and more a love story. But the cross-cultural juxtapositions, the tangential issues of ethnic perceptions raised throughout the movie AND the fact that you're trying to show racism is superficial, that the underlying problems are more about basic human weaknesses... isn't that political?

A:  Hullo brudder, you just laid out a long list of HUMAN issues, and then asked me if it's POLITICAL. What gives? But to answer at least part of your question, I had to make it obvious at the beginning that these kids were of different races before I could ignore the fact with any degree of aplomb.

Q:  Cinema, for an outsider, can seem to be a strange endeavour where lots of money (and it is a lot) is poured into a project, usually by people who are not exactly tycoons who could easily risk such sums, which is directed (and spent) by people whose abiding preoccupation is the artistic value of the project, and not whether they could make the money back. At least that's how it sounds like from an indie filmmaker. Why do you make films? Do you make films to make money? Do you make films to impress people? What is the filmmaker's responsibility - if you can call it that? Did you set out to make your films marketable, as one of the objectives, if not THE primary objective? What is the market for Sepet?

A: If you think you can become a millionaire by making films in a little country with a population of only 20 million people, you're either insane or on drugs. I make films because I feel I have some stories worth telling, about things I care about, to people that matter to me. I believe my responsibility is to tell that story as well as I can, creating as much pathos as I am able to. Whether or not a film makes money in this country, I think, is not the responsibility of the writer or director, but the people who put money behind the idea. I just write a story and try to make a film. They'll have to decide for themselves if my ideas are worth their financial backing. I can't decide for them.

Q:  What did you learn from making Rabun that helped you in making Sepet?

A:  I learned that if you rehearse and rehearse first-time actors, after a while they stop acting and start being themselves. That was a lovely discovery.

Q:  How do you think local indie filmmakers can or should develop to the next level?

A:  I urge some of us to start writing scripts and making films about things we know and have had personal experience of. I loved Amir Muhammad's "The Big Durian" because it was a funny and sharply-observed story about us. And Yuhang's "Min" touched me deeply because he portrayed the difficulties we have in communicating with each other sometimes, and he did it through such loving eyes. I know of one or two "indie" filmmakers here who are so enamoured by foreign directors like Tsai Mingliang, Hou Hsiao Hsien and Wong Karwai that all they do is try to duplicate the look these great directors achieve in their films. It all comes out hollow, of course. We may be able to make carbon copies of a "look", but feelings and pathos are a different thing altogether. They have to come from the heart and from our field of experience.

Q:  What next. "Pekak"?

A:  I hope you realise that you are about the 576th person to crack this little joke. Usually it's "Buta" or "Juling" or "Tempang", but yeah, "Pekak" is no less un-original. ;-)  Anyway, next, hopefully, is "Gubra".

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

SEPET - notes from the writer/director

“You don’t have to understand people to love them.”

I set myself the task of imparting this feeling in “Sepet”, even before I typed the first word of the script.

When I was a little girl, my father had a thing about a gramophone record of Connie Francis singing Italian love songs. He would play it over and over, until I could sing “O Sole Mio” with great feeling, without understanding a word of what I was singing.

Much later, I read a confession the Irish poet W.B.Yeats made concerning the feelings he had about “Gitanjali”, the Nobel Prize winning book of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore, translated into English from the original Bengali. According to Yeats, he would carry “Gitanjali” with him wherever he went, occasionally lowering his head when his tears flowed from reading a particularly moving phrase, for fear of being found out by the people around him.

And so, “Sepet”. A story about two young people in love, who come from totally different family and social backgrounds.

It’s important to note here that the last thing I wanted was to make the central crisis in “Sepet” a racial one. I have never believed that race was ever a real issue when people hated one another. I have always found, without fail, that racism was just surface stuff. When I scratched that surface and went just a little deeper, I invariably found that that prejudice was rooted in more basic human weaknesses like Fear or Greed.

I also wanted “Sepet” to be about first love. First love has always fascinated me because it happens to you at a time when you have not yet learned to lie to yourself. With first love, within five minutes, you accept the other person for everything that they are, warts and all. I believe that our first love is the truest love of all. Unfortunately, most people I know do not even believe there is such a thing as “true love”. They remind me of the last words in a poem by Wislawa Szymborska.

“Let the people who never find true love believe that there is no such thing. Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.”

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The story begins on the 3rd of August 2004.

at 46, i have directed only eleven halfway decent tv commercials, made one tv movie, and one feature film.

i might call myself an artist if i only knew what art was. i cringe when someone says they like art films, or worse, that they want to MAKE art films.

i watch anything that tickles my fancy. my all-time favourites so far include ken loach's "kes", billy wilder's "the apartment", satyajit ray's "charulata", neil jordan's "mona lisa", and raj kapoor's "bobby". i reckon they're my favourite because i keep going back to them from time to time, over and over again, and they move me every time.

the two living directors whose new works i feel compelled to watch as soon as i can are pedro almodovar and yoji yamada.

if what little i've said so far piques your interest even a little, i'd like to chat about film with you. and if you're malaysian, i'd like to hear how you think we can make better films, because we're presently making some pretty dire ones, and it gets embarrassing for me sometimes to talk about films with my friends from japan, india, china, indonesia, france, and thailand.

welcome to the storyteller.