Malaysia's Ikal Mayang Film Festival gives a cinematic voice to young female directors
Under an inky and starless sky, families crowd on mats, slurping the popular Malaysian dessert known as cendol and munching on peanuts, their eyes glued to the big screen where a teenage girl is shovelling rice into her mouth and gulping down water. She lets out an enormous belch and the children collapse in laughter.
The short film, “Belahak”, is one of six made especially for the Ikal Mayang film festival. Now in its fourth year, Ikal Mayang celebrates women filmmakers who tell women’s stories. “Belahak”– a two-minute film about a father and daughter’s appalling table manners – is Nora Nabila’s second short for the festival.
“When talking about this year’s theme adat (customs), we tend to focus on the bigger issues,” she says. “We forget about the ‘little customs’, like burping and table manners – small things that the older generation pass to the younger.”
The 26-year-old Nabila has written, produced, and directed 10 films so far and won a string of local and regional awards. But while the accolades are encouraging, Nabila’s passion is her real impetus.
As a teenager, she filled notebooks with her novels. Bookish and bright, the girl with the literary bent noticed that most people were more drawn to TV than books. Undeterred and resourceful, she realised that her ideas could be expressed in a more popular form.
“When I was 13, I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Nabila says.
It was a declaration to herself and to the world. In an industry bereft of female talent, Nabila dreamt of rubbing shoulders with top Malaysian female director Yasmin Ahmad or Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg. She wanted to add a woman’s voice to the world of film, since she’d heard of so few female directors.
The dearth of women filmmakers has long been a controversial issue in cinema. While the boycotted Oscars unspooled in Hollywood last month, savagely attacked for its lack of ethnic diversity, critics were more muted about another, recurrent scandal: the lack of gender diversity. Only 24 per cent of Oscar nominees were women, and no female directors were nominated.
In the 88-year history of film’s most prestigious awards, just one woman has won for Best Director. It’s a sad and sorry state of affairs, one that shores up the widely held notion that women should be directed, not direct.
Cinema is a director’s medium; for all the dazzling good looks of actors and actresses, their talent, and the hordes of paparazzi that stalk their every move, directors make away with the lion’s share. After all, it’s their artistic visions that are acted out on screen and preserved for posterity.
Nabila knows this, explaining the need for women to grab the camera and capture their stories: “That is the reason we have Ikal Mayang. Because of the lack of female filmmakers, most of the stories that are told stereotype women as wives or mothers. We do Ikal Mayang to give women the chance to tell women’s stories.”
Vayshalini Devi is 16. The lanky teen sits hunched over, long limbs tucked under a bench. She is immersed in her thoughts, eyes focused on a faraway spot. Pyjama-clad children play tag around her, filling the night air with shrieks.
Devi stays still, weighing her answers carefully. Her first short film, “Wasiat Nenek Moyang”, will be screened. It’s a charming little tale about old superstitions, set in a classroom where students whisper in front of their lecturing teacher.
“My Bahasa Malaysia teacher asked us to write about adat,” she says. “I wrote an essay and a poem on pantang larang [taboos]. I was surprised when they called my mum and told us that my poem would be made into a film.”
While she confesses to a love of horror and comedy movies, what she really enjoys is the act of creation, the organic process of breathing life into ideas. With a reservoir of stories in her head, she relished watching her poem make the leap from paper to screen.
This year, the organisers of Ikal Mayang accepted submissions from students. Devi’s poem was the only one deemed fit for the screen. “Out of all the submissions we received, hers really caught our attention. It was perfect for the theme,” Nabila says. She was assistant director on the set of Devi’s film, helping the rookie director learn the ropes. Devi was an eager if unsure apprentice, approving the script and critiquing the actress’s performance.
“At first I was nervous, but then all the cameramen and the assistant director encouraged and helped me. I thought it was fun!” she reveals. “I could make small changes and give suggestions.”
On location in Puchong, Selangor, she stood out in her uniform, having rushed from school to set.
She looked on in awe as her story was transformed into living colour. “What I saw was better than what I had imagined in my mind.”
But the teenager is pragmatic, concerned with exams, tuition, and school camps. For now, the future is to be worked towards diligently. She wants to be a physiotherapist, although she dreams of working as a director part time.
“If I have good ideas in the future, I would like to direct. I think being a director is hard, because you have to be creative and hardworking. You have to create good films that can capture people’s attentions.”
As a filmmaker on the job, Nabila understands just how demanding filmmaking can be. She studied broadcasting in university, where she first tried her hand at directing. It was tough work, taxing physically and mentally.
“When I first started, I used my own props, my own cast, my own everything,” she says, sighing. She tirelessly devoted herself to her first film, investing heart and soul in it. Titled “Ibu Mertuaku (Kisah Kassim Selamat Yang Belum Pernah Anda Tahu)”, it takes as its premise P Ramlee’s classic “Ibu Mertuaku”, creatively imagining the two years Kassim is separated from his wife.
When she re-watched it again after five years, she suffered the wretched heartbreak every amateur artist must when they realise the work is not as good as they thought. “I went back and watched it again. There were a lot of flaws, a lot of problems. And I thought, ‘Really, did I make this film?’“
She sounds incredulous, disbelieving, though she ploughed through. Filmmaking is not for the faint-hearted; it takes nerves and guts of steel. Nabila works at her craft, steadily perfecting it.
Her subject is the unexamined life, the often overlooked topics we’re happy to leave in the dark. “I like to discuss issues people don’t pay as much attention to, like issues of religion, tolerance, and more taboo stuff.”
Whatever piques her interest is fair game, raw material to be taken and translated onto the screen. The struggle is staying true to her vision, being the calm centre of the storm on set.
As the director, she makes the executive decisions. Still, she’s open to input from others.
“You have to be very humble,” she says. “You have to want to learn, not just go, ‘I’m the director and I know everything.’ When you’re on set with the actors and director of photography, you have different sets of people who view your script with different ideas. The challenge is how to take all these ideas onboard.”
Ten years from now, she dreams of going global. She envisions herself sitting at a directors’ roundtable in Venice or Cannes. Maybe she’ll meet Spielberg, and tell the legendary director that she loved “Schindler’s List” but can’t stand “Star Wars”.
Who knows? Anything is possible in the movies.
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