It started with a bus ride. And a book. And a motherfucking thief.
(Do I have your attention? Good.)
I had taken the bus from Singapore back to KL sometime in late 2001. During the journey I read a book
I had purchased at Borders, a place I try to pop into every time I find myself in that clean and busy country. It was a collection
of film journalism called Totally, Tenderly, Tragically by the American critic Phillip Lopate.
I am of a delicate constitution and reading in a moving vehicle often makes me want to throw up. But
it's a testament to Mr. Lopate's skills as a writer, guide and polemicist that not once did I feel the need to regurgitate
the packed fried rice that had been the bus company's courteously provided lunch. My eyes, to use that particularly gruesome
idiom, were glued to the page.
There was this one piece in particular, "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film." I read it twice --
and shut up you in the back who smirked, "Didn't you understand it the first time?" It begins: "My intention here is to define,
describe, survey and celebrate a cinematic genre that barely exists. As a cinephile and personal essayist, I have an urge
to see these works combined through the works of filmmakers who commit essays to celluloid."
He sets out his five rules for what constitute an essay-film: It must have words; it must represent a
single voice, it must represent an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem; it must impart more than
information; and the text should be as well-written as possible. Unlike the far better-known Dogma 95 "rules", these did not
seem like they were in the service of some monstrous private joke. They made sense.
Lopate was sure of what he wanted to say and yet was not hectoring or dogmatic. His persistent, inquiring,
never humourless tone, not to mention his ability to extrapolate, condense and refine, got me quite excited. I wanted to make
an essay-film too! After all, I had been writing essays for years, and I'd recently gotten interested in making movies, so
Lopate's piece was timely and logical. It was a Godsend.
Perhaps God wanted to give me another push then. A few minutes after stepping down from the bus, my wallet
got stolen, and this harrowing experience set in motion a chain of events that would result in the creation of LOST. I wanted to document what I experienced and also test how it would suit a moving-picture representation. So I borrowed a
friend's camera and revisited the sites: Old railway station, police station, registration department, as well as some sites
that I simply liked going to. It was shot in one day, with no actors or storyboard. The idea was to keep it as freewheeling
as possible while still following a structure.
The other five shorts followed in pretty much the same style although there are variations. I sometimes
broke Lopate's rules to suit my fancy. MONA, for example, veers closer to a campy homage than an essay, but the subject seemed to demand it. Mona has always possessed,
as some have unhappily found out, a persuasive air about her. And PANGYAU is another short that, although based on fact, contains a few fictional embellishments.
I did try to make the visuals correspond to the spirit rather than the letter of the text most of the
time. I didn't want something that looked over-produced, over-edited and overdone. (With the budgets I had, the first was
hardly an option anyway.) I think the fun comes from meeting you, my precious public, halfway so that you can fill in the
blanks, but not be so elliptical and cagey that my own point of view becomes the biggest blank of all.
Most of all, I wanted to take advantage of the mobility and relative inconspicuousness of the DV camera.
Although the guards at KAMUNTING prison camp eventually noticed what my cameraman was doing, we could not even have gotten that far with any other format.
And most of the faithful during FRIDAY prayer did not think it odd that I went to mosque with a camera on that day. There were priceless opportunities to film in
places that would normally be more stringent, such as Woodlands CHECKPOINT. No state secrets were revealed, but people can get awfully touchy sometimes.
Essays are necessarily about ego: You're telling someone that your own point of view is important enough
for them to shut up, if only for a few minutes, and listen. Once you have their attention, it's a privilege to then try and
make a connection. It's useless to disappear into an arcane void, tossing off nothing more than mannerist artiness to your
befuddled viewers. But it's less than useless, once you profess to work in independent cinema, to merely imitate the tropes
of our monolithic and unadventurous big-budget peers. There's a Saul Bellow novel in which a dog barks, and the narrator imagines
it saying: "For God's sake, open up the universe a bit more!" Reader, I am that dog.
It's no accident that literal journeys (by train, in a car, on foot) chew up quite a bit of the footage
here. The quest is one of the great archetypes of story-telling. And I did think of these shorts, though predominately non-fiction,
as stories. There's a Latiff Mohidin poem that ends with, "Siapakah yang kau cari? Kalau tak dirimu sendiri, tiap-tiap hari."
(Who are you looking for? If not your own self, every single day). What am I looking for? You tell me and I bet you will feel
If so, I am happy.
Well, halfway happy: I still didn't get my wallet back.
Amir Muhammad was born in 1972 in Kuala Lumpur. He has a Law degree but does not use it. He has been
writing for the Malaysian print media since the age of 14. His other movies are The Big Durian (2003), The Year of Living
Vicariously (2005), Tokyo Magic Hour (2005) and Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (2006).