Thursday, September 16, 2004

What kind of a film critic are you?

Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.
When reviewing a film, I feel it's best to consider its main contention first. By this, I mean its "message", or the feeling, or the personal philosophy the filmmaker wanted to express. It helps to think about these things, even before you consider details like dialogue, acting or editing or camera moves.

(On your first date with someone, you'd want him to tell you how he felt about you as a person -- your sense of humour, your intellect, disposition, etc -- instead of something superficial like your teeth.)

There is a reason for this. Once you have demonstrated your awareness of the film's contention, or the feelings it wants to impart, it automatically qualifies you to judge the finer points of the film. Because then your judgment is no longer willy-nilly or based on petty preferences, but grounded on its maker's intentions.

For example, you could say that the editing for a particular film was too fast, if the auteur's intention was to portray the pain of waiting. Or that the film's overly-red colour-grading was a mistake, given that the characters in the film were meant to be cold-blooded and calculating.

Furthermore, by showing that you have a grasp of what the filmmaker was trying to express, you can even go so far as to state whether or not you agree with what he's expressing. Or, even more interestingly, if he was successful in his attempt to express it.

Some film "critics" here, and indeed all over the world, are really mere film reviewers, and not critics at all.

Comments like "beautiful pictures", "nice music", "poor acting" and "disappointing ending" may be good enough for a high-school magazine, but for a national newspaper, a film critique has to be more than that.

How, for instance, would you review "Buai Laju-Laju", a film I saw recently and liked a lot? It contained no message and propounded no philosophy (none that I was clever enough to detect anyway), and yet it evoked such strong emotions in me. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, I found myself feeling intrigued, scared, and even sexually aroused! And all this, in spite of the shoddy video-to-film transfer that U-Wei is notorious for.

And so to me, "Buai Laju-Laju" is a good film, and more importantly, I'm able to say why. In this case, it's simply because the feelings its maker wanted to impart (and it was patently obvious even to an idiot like me what those feelings were), sank in, and deeply. And even though some of my indie friends dismissed it as "U-Wei's worst", and that "the first half was assured, but the rest of it played out like cheap tv dramas", if I agreed with the great Hitchcock that "art is emotions", then "Buai Laju-Laju" alone is enough to indicate to me that U-Wei is a fine artist indeed.

The sad part is that I can't, with any degree of conviction, say the same about myself, or 95% of the directors in this country, mainstream or otherwise.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Why an Indian film from 1959 is better than any Malaysian film in 2004.

Consider this series of scenes in the film shown here.

A young couple, total strangers to one another, were coerced into marriage. The poor, unemployed young man takes his wife, a young lady used to luxury, into his small, run-down rented room. She breaks into tears. Fade to black.

Fade up again. It's morning. The young man is in bed alone. Stretching himself, he finds under his pillow, a hair clip. He twiddles it around his fingers, smiling fondly. Now he reaches under his pillow again and takes out a pack of cigarettes. When he pulls the top of the pack open, a piece of paper juts out. There is a hand-written message on it. It says, "After meals only. You promised." He smiles to himself, closes the cigarette pack lid and refrains from smoking.

And at once you knew. You knew that the sad young lady was no longer sad. You knew that she could make him do or not do things, without even being there. And because of that, you knew that they were in love.

Best of all, you knew ALL that, WITHOUT ONE WORD OF DIALOGUE.

Can someone out there name just one scene from a Malaysian film, in the last 5-10 years, that's as emotionally-rich, and as intelligently constructed, as the one I've just mentioned?

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

"Even your mother can direct a film!"

Your mother.
Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.
About five years ago, my husband and I chose a Thai director to shoot a Malaysia Airlines TV commercial for us. It was the story of three friends who grew up together, got separated by the war, and met again, in their old age, at an airport.

Deeply-impressed by the way he brought out the soul of our story, we asked Khun Nang, what he felt was the difference between a regular film director and a good one.

This was his reply:

"Anyone can direct a film. If you gave her a good cinematographer, even your mother can direct a film. Just point the camera at some people and tell them to act and say something.

But to be a good director, you have to do TWO things.

ONE, sort out the script. Work and work at it, change it and rearrange it, until you are quite confident that the way you tell the story will move people in the end, and long after the film is over.

(Sounds easy enough, but why is that out of every 100 films that you see, only 1 leaves you thinking and feeling for days after? The rest just merge into a blurred mess of forgetability.)

TWO, choose the right actors.

Once you have got these two things right, my dear Yasmin, the film will direct itself.

End of lesson."

Wait a minute, I thought. That's it? Work on the script and choose the right actors? Hey, that's easy! I can do that.

And then I tried. And failed. And tried. And failed. And then I watched other people try. And fail.

I watched other directors attempt at making me laugh, but instead, I fell asleep. They tried to make me cry, but I laughed.

They tried to be romantic, but came across false and ridiculous. I walked away from their films, sometimes halfway through, if not physically then emotionally, feeling empty and cheated somehow.

Khun Nang's words were starting to ring true.

I remember watching GLADIATOR and thinking at the end, "What brilliant pictures, what lovely music, such grandeur, such a dramatic death, and... yaaawn... thank God that's over."

But at the end of MONSTERS INC., when that blue, furry, goofy creature opened that door, and we heard a little girl inside say "Kitty!", this was a happy ending. But my face was drenched with tears of joy, even after the lights had come up.

Who was I more in love with? Russell Crowe or blue, furry, goofy creature?


Saturday, September 04, 2004

That double-edged sword called "Festivals".

Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.

From:  Linda Blackaby
Date:  Saturday - September 4, 2004, 8:07am
Subject:  Official invitation to San Francisco International Film Festival

Dear Yasmin Ahmad,
 We are pleased to extend this official invitation for your film SEPET to have its North American Premiere at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival (April 21- May 5, 2005).  It is quite a charming and original work which we think will be very well received by our audiences.  We would also like to invite you as the director of the film to come to San Francisco as our guest with the film.
The San Francisco International Film Festival is the oldest in North and South America and is known for its enthusiastic, intelligent and diverse audiences.  We would be honored to present this film and we look forward to learning of your disposition towards this invitation as soon as possible.
 We have attached a confirmation form which includes information on participation in the Festival.
 Should you accept the invitation, we would appreciate your completion and return of the form as soon as possible. The information and support materials we request (English subtitled VHS cassette, press kit, stills, etc.) are essential in helping us publicize your film in our publications and to the media.  Please let us know when you might have them prepared.
 If you have questions or require additional information please contact us.  

Yours sincerely,
Linda Blackaby
Director of Programming
48th San Francisco International Film Festival
April 21 - May 5,  2005

----- So. There it was. On my computer screen, and staring at me. I kept muttering, "Alhamdulillah!" under my breath, over and over again.

This is a festival which Milos Forman, one of my all-time heroes, went to last year, and received a lifetime achievement award.

A festival which, in 2003, gave a nod to a director much more accomplished than me -- my friend Pen-ek Ratanaruang from Thailand.

For goodness' sake, Hector Babenco, Jim Jarmusch, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and their films were at this festival last year!

This is the festival which did NOT accept my first film RABUN when Roger Garcia submitted it in 2002.

I can't lie to you. Having your film selected for international festivals makes your heart leap to your throat. And because it does, it is very tempting, while you are actually making a film, to try and second-guess what festival directors, curators, and judges like.

In other words, you forget what a movie is for. You forget who it's suppose to please, and who's forking out hard-earned money to pay for tickets at the cinema.

Which was why our cast and crew on SEPET sat around in a circle before commencing shoot earlier this year, and made a solemn vow to each other that we'd make an honest film, from the heart, regardless of how "un-cool" the final product may appear to our peers, the film critics and festival judges.

Not surprisingly, when foreign reviewers and curators like Jan Uhde (I posted his reaction to SEPET below) and Roger Garcia came to town and asked to see our film, some local indies cautioned them that SEPET was merely "mainstream" stuff.

Which, I'm happy to admit, it IS. (I don't understand how anyone can claim that they're about to make an "art film" or a "festival film". To me, you just make a film; it's up to OTHER people to describe your film as "art", or not, as the case may very well be.)

But when folks like Mr Uhde wrote to say how much they enjoyed SEPET, and when Mr Garcia announced that it had been officially selected by the San Francisco International Film Festival, I felt grateful, and more importantly, reassured.

It reminded me that my job or jihad as a filmmaker is firstly to be honest with my true feelings and to what moves me and the people in my country. Whether or not the foreign festival judges will think my film is "cool" or "artistic" or even decent, is not in my hands or theirs, but Allah's.