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New Straits Times (Malaysia)

Life & Times Cover Story:
Amir gives his best shorts

July 13 2002

He's young. He's bold. He's doing it.
SURAYA AL-ATTAS speaks to Amir Muhammad about his short films in the first of a series on young Malaysian
filmmakers .

AMIR MUHAMMAD the writer is witty, bold - sometimes a tad arrogant, no, make that very arrogant - and no stranger to controversy. Amir Muhammad the person couldn't be more different.

The 29-year-old comes across as, er, rather reticent and -dare I say it -almost modest about his achievements. Not quite the mental picture you had of the columnist, playwright, scriptwriter, film director.

So where is that cutting wit that you find in abundance in his essays? How come the bespectacled young man sitting before me is not the "upstart" one imagines him to be? And is that a blush working its way up his face as the photographer fusses with getting the lighting right? There is a pained expression on his face as he reluctantly strikes yet another pose for the camera. Ah, so Amir the person is pretty shy then, one who is more at ease with being on the other side of the lens.

As a matter of fact, this interview probably wouldn't have taken place if it hadn't been for the upcoming
showcase of his short films.

Amir is definitely more comfortable talking about his shorts than about himself. "This is basically a one-man show. I wanted some kind of a show and because short films are interesting, I decided to put together six films and present it to the public. These are non-fiction shorts but I wouldn't say they are conventional documentary style films. They're more like video essays." The six shorts include
Lost (about the Malaysian identity card); Friday (set in Masjid Negara during Friday prayers); Mona (about -no prizes for guessing -Mona Fandey, the bomoh who was hanged after being convicted of murdering State assemblyman Datuk Mazlan Idris in 1993); Checkpoint (about Malaysia-Singapore relations); and Pangyau (a personal account of what he thinks of the image of the Chinese race in Malaysia).

Lost -shot in one day on a budget of RM35! -is the film that earned him an award at this year's
Singapore International Film Festival. A first for a Malaysian.

And Amir being Amir, in his jottings on the festival a few months ago, described it as his Halle Berry moment. (Berry was the first African-American actress to walk away with the Best Actress Oscar at this year's Academy Awards).

"I wanted to have something to show there so that at least when I went down, I'd be able to point to my name in the catalogue.

"It was for that reason alone (that I entered the festival)," he laughs. "I didn't know it was a competition. It was the first time Asian shorts were allowed to compete in that category. Previously, the competition was for Singapore shorts and Asian features." He adds that it was especially thrilling for him to be in the said competition as he was up against Indonesia's Garin Nugroho, one of his heroes.

"It was quite prophetic because at the festival, someone asked,'Did you know you're in the competition with him?' I said something like, 'Ah, but I'm gonna kick his ass!" "No, seriously, it was totally unexpected. I think it's the first time a Malaysian has won in the festival. It's easier for shorts, I guess. For features, it's tougher because we're competing against the likes of Korea and Japan. They've got amazing production values and very good storytellers whereas we have to compromise so much.

"That's the beauty of shorts. There's no particular way as to how a short should look. It has a much wider avenue." Amir began directing two years ago, when he made
Lips To Lips, the first digital film set on one day in Kuala Lumpur.

But having been exposed to shorts in university, he decided it was more manageable and less stressful to concentrate on making shorts rather than features. At least for the time being.
 
"Shorts can be done quicker because there are fewer people involved in a production. And it's a more straightforward way of telling a story.

"In our film industry, shorts are practically non-existent. Our system is different from other countries, such as America, Britain, Australia or Canada, where, generally, the way a filmmaker goes into feature films is by doing shorts first.

"It's like your 'calling card'. Here we use TV dramas, which is fine. I'm not saying it's bad... it's just a different way (of doing things).

"But from the start you're told to conform to what a TV drama requires. There's a certain type of storytelling to follow, certain type of stars you should pick, etc.

"If people were more exposed to shorts, I think in the long run it would
encourage a greater degree of experimentations because with shorts, you can try so many different ways of telling a story." That's why, beginning with this showcase, Amir is doing his bit to educate, if you like, Malaysians on short films.

After the showcase at The Actors Studio (Aug 2 to 4) and Sobranie Classics Cinema (Sept 9 to 14) in Kuala Lumpur, he plans to take his films on a campus tour.

"I think it's quite nice to bring this sort of thing to the students because whenever I go to campuses, the students often say they don't have the time or just can't be bothered to go for screenings. More shows should be done this way... travel around, bring them to the students." The screenings, he says, are free because "I don't think people would pay to see shorts. Most people probably haven't seen a short film." Having said that, Amir says organisers of film festivals here could help by recognising short films.

"In the past the Malaysian Film Festival had a category for shorts and documentaries but not anymore. However, there are certain stopgap places like the Malaysian Video Awards.

"Even though the focus at MVA is commercials, there is a category for shorts. It may not be an ideal venue but it's better than nothing." Despite the fact that he's a qualified lawyer, Amir has no interest in pursuing it as a career. His passion has always been for films. This explains his minor in film studies at the University of East Anglia, Britain, and two practical summer courses at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts . But he suffers no illusions when it comes to the local film industry.

"There should be more variety and fewer restrictions. For this to happen, people who are interested in taking the plunge should just do it.

"The censors are still a problem because the system itself is nebulous. For instance, I thought Spinning Gasing was borderline innocuous but the authorities saw it as something really way-out. This proves that they are the ones who are out of touch with the feelings of a segment of the Malaysian populace.

"The issues mentioned in Spinning Gasing are debated everyday by ordinary Malaysians, from politicians to taxi-drivers, so why can't we see them articulated on the screen? "But with the newer generation of talent like Osman Ali (Bukak Api, Malaikat Di Jendela) and James Lee (Snipers, Ah Beng Returns), I think we will someday carve out a name for ourselves when it comes to compelling representations of the country.

"The important thing is to get the right producers who can champion these
works."

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