How to demystify the ties that blind
Having completed just four films, Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad is bemused by the thought of her retrospectives being screened around the world.
'I used to think retrospectives are for people who are either very old or very dead,' the 50-year-old filmmaker says, laughing. 'I am neither, so at first it felt strange. Now I feel very honoured.'
Judging by the number of retrospectives held in her honour, Yasmin is Malaysia's most famous - if not the most successful - director. Her fourth feature, Mukhsin, was the first Malaysian film to be released nationwide in France, opening at 20 cinemas across the country last month.
A woman filmmaker is rare in Malaysia. In this multi-ethnic country, the population is often defined along ethnic and religious lines and, as the recent elections have shown, ethnicity is a thorny issue.
Yasmin makes a bold statement with her films, showing characters who befriend and even romance people of different colour and faith. 'I want people to think Yasmin Ahmad's films are about human beings, about people,' says the Malay director, whose husband is of Chinese descent. 'As for the multicultural bits, they simply reflect our society.'
Her upcoming film, Muallaf (The Convert), is about two Muslim girls who run away from their abusive father and later befriend a Chinese Catholic schoolteacher.
Set to be released later this year, the film drew flak from conservative Muslim clerics during shooting last year. They called the leading actress, Sharifah Amani, 'un-Islamic' for shaving her head for the role and acting beside a Chinese Christian.
According to Yasmin, the clerics focused on the wrong aspects. 'Muallaf is not about religion,' she says. 'It is about surviving a difficult childhood, finding comfort with each other and learning to forgive.'
The filmmaker shot to fame with the Orked trilogy, named after the central character: a feisty Malay girl whose life and loves defy traditional conventions. The trilogy is partly autobiographical, with the protagonist loosely based on the director, her sister and her mother. 'We were all very gutsy during our childhood,' Yasmin says.
The first instalment, Sepet (Slit Eyes), follows the love story between the teenage Orked (played by Sharifah) and a Chinese boy, Jason aka Ah Loong, an incurable romantic who makes a living by selling pirated VCDs. Their romance blossoms after she comes looking for Wong Kar-wai's film, Chungking Express, starring her favourite idol, Takeshi Kaneshiro.
The witty teenage romance enjoyed a successful run in Singapore and won an award at the 2005 Tokyo International Film Festival. But in its home country Sepet was deemed controversial and nearly banned. Critics not only targeted the film's humorous jabs at Malaysia's ethnic relations but also picked on other trivial things, from scenes depicting Malays dressed only in traditional sarongs to the fact that Jason does not convert to Islam despite courting a Muslim girl. After suffering eight cuts, Sepet was finally released, becoming a box-office hit and sweeping the top awards at the Malaysian Film Festival, including best film.
Yasmin made such a fuss about the censorship that her next films were released without a hitch. The sequel, Gubra (Anxiety), also starring Sharifah as the adult Orked, shows the director's growing confidence, dealing with multiple plots and themes of love, loss, compassion and forgiveness. The portrayal of a religious teacher who befriends a prostitute initially caused a stir in Malaysia, but the critics were quickly silenced after Gubra snatched the country's top film awards.
The director wrapped up the trilogy with the prequel Mukhsin, a tender tale of Orked's childhood and her first love. Considered to be her best film to date, it won two awards at last year's Berlin International Film Festival.
Before directing films, Yasmin had a career in advertising (and still works in the industry). Her TV commercials show her unique talent for storytelling, with a humanist and pluralist touch.
Her father's illness gave her an impetus to make her first film in 2003. Shot in a mere six days, the made-for-TV feature, Rabun (Blurred Vision), is a tale of an elderly urban couple who move to a village to seek a quieter life.
'After my father collapsed from diabetic complications, I wanted to make a film about my parents,' the director says. 'I realised they could not live forever.'
Yasmin jokes she keeps directing films because she finds it both addictive and helps keep her parents healthy. 'It's like a superstition...whenever I make a film, my parents recover from their illness.'