Thursday, December 16, 2010

Great Migration?

Thank you for visiting.
I have decided to migrate the content of this blog to another poskad siti. You'll see me there.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The last lap

The FreedomFilmFest 2010 organiser had allowed us extra time to complete the film, but we wanted to finish this film ASAP.

After last night's screening with the focus group, I noted some corrections that had to be made including a few on the subtitles.

Today, the mistakes were duly corrected and graphics are added to the title page. We made a final check on the film; names of people, places, subtitle, end credit, title, graphics, colour and sound.

After the film preview, we gave Joe the nod to create a master copy. Until today, I have lost count the number of times I previewed the film.

The film, as we proudly called it Kisah Tauke Mancis dan Minyak Tumpah, is completed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Screening to the focus group: my family

Suddenly I had a tight knot in my stomach (where were the butterflies?).

The final cut of the film documentary, all 28 minutes of it complete with title and end credit will be screened in my living room to the most important people: my parents, sisters and their husbands, nieces and nephews and my own family.

  • Age: between eight and 67; 
  • Education background: primary school to postgraduate; 
  • Job background: mostly engineers, banker, entrepreneur, trainer, and a daily news editor;
  • Political views: varied; Malay supremacy must reign, Prime Ministers need not even be Muslims, PKR is only sympathetic to Anwar not to the people, PAS is the way to go, Any party but Umno, No MIC, PAS is too unfashionable, UMNO is the people's saviour and the non-partisans who watch Animal Planet religiously;
  • Hobbies: ranging from photography, violin and piano, Transformers, Nokia, to bargain hunting in Bandung and Bangkok;
  • Common trait: all are seasoned travellers;
  • Common interest: good food.

Their feedback is essential to help me gauge a general response to this film. As a family, they have been supportive of my previous work (including television dramas, docudramas, and a novel) but I dared not speculate their reactions towards this film, largely because it was rather different in tone and subject. But they have been, and for this film could be, critical too.

Could I accept criticism from the people I love? Would I be mature enough to sift between support and honest views? The knot in my stomach tightened.

The family-cum-focus group arrived in batches. After the last one was seated, the lights were dimmed and the final cut of Tauke Mancis dan Minyak Tumpah played. The room was silent, even the young ones paid serious attention to the opening scene.

I stood at the back of the room gazing at the faces of the audience, capturing in mind their expressions and gestures.

They clapped when they saw my name on the title run, cheered when they heard my voice narrating the film in the background, they were loud and generous with running commentary as the film progressed. At  about two third of the film my father walked out of the room. Clearly perturbed, he had to smoke but continued watching from the doorway. My mother sat very still.

At the end of the film, they gave me a round of applause, I switched on the lights, grinned and the knot in my stomach grew into a massive Gordian.

In brief here are the comments:

“You can't change this any more? The intro is just too long.”

“Perlu ke pijak kepala lembu tu?” (The Animal Planet fan club was agitated with the protesters stepping on the severed cow's head)

“What's wrong with PKNS? The residents should have sued them a long time ago.”

“Ehh Ustad tu familiarla. Dia punya ceramah memang best.”

“Can I have the end credit song made into a ring tone?”

“This film should not be shown at international film festival. It is embarrassing to tell foreigners of our internal conflicts.”

“What do we do with the extremists?”

The last comment was the Alexander sword that swiftly sever the Gordian knot. Alhamdulillah.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Adding sound and subtitles: The trouble with meaning

Today is Malaysia Day. After 47 years of formation, this year is the first that it is declared as a public holiday and I was working.

Why only now? I made the mistake of stirring the hornets' nest and Sheridan went into lengthy detail on the political logic behind it. (A year ago, his article on the subject appeared in Aliran)

After work, we were at the Editor's suite making final checks on visual, sound an subtitle. It wasn't quite as simple as we thought it would be.

Timecode editor Joe, fresh from his balik kampung trip last night, had laid out the final sound mix (the audio post-production was done by Christopher Higgs of Higgs Asia) and were pasting on the subtitles to the visual.

At this point, no changes should be made to the duration. Or risk having to repeat another audio post-production. Changes can only be made on minor footage switch, saturation, colour, superimpose text and stuff like that.

Once the final sound mix was laid out on the visual, we previewed the film. I had a funny feeling watching it with enhanced sound effects. The music and sound significantly evoked the mood and gave a certain depth to its meaning. Now I understood the impact of every layer of the process. The writing, the footage, the sound and the effects.

The subtitling, which was the next process, caught us in a nasty tangle.

Both of us had worked on the subtitle and completed it before Hari Raya. We split the film right in the middle, while I took the beginning, Sheridan took the other half to subtitled it. Then we swapped and checked each other's work before handing it to Joe.

Previewing it now at Joe's studio, the subtitle has somehow altered the meaning.

Sheridan and I began our epic disagreement on semantics. Did the professor mean create, draft or craft? What did he mean when he said etnosentris agama dan etnik? Was it extremists? In what context does the pronouns – dia, benda tu, perkara itu, applies to?

While the bickering went on at every other quotes, Joe, who was used to it by now, fiddled with his iPhone and resumed work after we reached a consensus. It was tedious.

When all the subtitles were laid out, we reviewed the film again. The subtitles had added another dimension of meaning to the film. If the audience understands the Malaysian spoken lingo, they will decipher the meaning at the primary layer. If the audience are not familiar with the lingo, they will rely on the subtitles, which offers a translated, paraphrased and contextualised secondary meaning. If they understand both the lingo and English, they will be able to have a deeper understanding of contextual and primary meaning.

Next came the end credit; choosing the right type of font, adding the logos of the organisations involved with the project and making sure all the names were correctly spelt and no persons were left out.

It was past midnight when we finally finished the three processes, and previewed the film again. Today we worked for 11 hours. The film is still unfinished. Joe still have to work on the colour and graphics.

We are coming back to the studio on Saturday.

Note: I deliberately posted this entry on Sept 16, even when the actual event moved past midnight and therefore should fall on the following day.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The second audio post-production

Christopher Higgs, a freelance sound engineer worked on our sound.

Chris at work: That's not the sound of a kapchai, that's Harley Davidson's, said us when choosing the ambience sound for the film. Sheridan wrapped. Sejukkkknyaaa

He tweaked, peaked, sharpened, dulled, lowered, cleared and ultimately highlighted what should be heard on the film. He worked in a freezing temperature sound suite wearing cotton short sleeves and Bermuda khakis, while production consultant Anna, Sheridan and I were wrapped to our necks in flannel blankets.

The eight scores composed by Don evoked the right emotion and heightened the meaning of the scenes perfectly.  It was at this studio that we figured out how to add impact to the ending. We tried so many things on creating a forceful ending but none really worked, like a sentence without a fullstop. It hung, floating about, aimless.

Maybe a matchstick sound effects? Chris added the sound of a match being lit. No, it still did not punctuate the film and gave it a solid ending.

How about this, a fireball? Chris dug it out of his sound library and added to the matchstick sound. He forged those two sounds and what emerged was the sound of a lit matchstick lighting up flammable fume.

It worked. Like magic.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Bahalul reminder for the Caliph, as Syawal approaches

Today is the 28th day of Ramadan 1431 Hijr, and the film is still unfinished. We are way behind our own work schedule.

Our first deadline was August 11. That didn't happen after we viewed our rough cut and realised that we didn't have enough footage. Back to shooting on Aug 14, then we thought we could wrap everything on Sept 1. That didn't happen either.

After the audio post-production followed by critical reviews by the consultants, we had to consider more changes on both audio and visual. Back to the drawing board and we pushed the deadline to today. But fate decided otherwise, and we prayed that this film would finish in time for the producer's deadline of Sept 15.

In other words, my Eid leave will be very short.

Last night I received an Eid greeting from a dear friend, Awang Goneng. Although I'm pretty sure he made this up, the ditty struck a chord:

Eid Day, Harun al Rashid on his steed
Riding in his Imperial robes, into the street
Soldiers clearing the Sultan's path
And the people applauded.

Bahalul the Wise Fool stopped Harun in his tracks
And recited words to guide the Grand Caliph
and through him, down to us -
And the gist of it is this:

The Festival is not for dressing up in fine new clothes.
The Festival for serving Allah and being aware of your Lord.
To celebrate is to be Sultan not of your realm but of your heart.
Sultans of the realm pass into oblivion,
but the Sultan of the heart is never forgotten.

To celebrate the Festival is to be delivered from the
divine punishment at the Resurrection.
The Festival is not for the wearing of perfumes,
but for being regretful of one's sins,
repenting and not committing them again.

It is not for riding on horseback, but for giving up one's faults.
Not about sitting on the imperial throne,
but about crossing the dreadful Bridge,
to sit on the thrones of Paradise.

It is not for boasting about one's palaces
and power, but by bringing the light
to the darkness of the tomb and equipping
it through good works.

The mighty Caliph heard this and wept.


Dear readers,

Wishing you a blessed Eid, wherever you are. Selamat Hari Raya dan maaf zahir batin,

sincerely, nurbaiyah.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Score

We had a meeting with Don, the score composer to work out the changes today. Don was very attentive and after reviewing the cut, he agreed to make the changes in just a few days. We were working against an excruciatingly tight deadline.

Looking at the calender we have a week before Hari Raya but realistically the holidays will begin earlier.  This weekend means last minute shopping to all us, followed by the balik kampung exodus on Wednesday and Thursday.

Who will be able to work during Raya? Seriously.

We only have three days to work on the score before handing it over to the sound engineer Christopher Higgs.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On the operation table, not CSI

How did that happen? What went wrong? Both Creative consultants Anna and Brenda reviewed the film with Sheridan and I and immediately put the film on operation table and started a post-mortem.

I listed down the comments which ran up to 21 items. Half were due to poor audio mix. We had no choice but to repeat the entire post-production. I was worried sick of the deadline.

Do we have enough for audio repair?
Sheridan checked the budget. In a low voice he said: I think we do.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When sound and music do not add up...

After audio post-production, we took the final sound mix to the Timecode film editor Joe, to lay the sound over the visual. When he was done, he played the cut for us. All of us were lost for words.

It was awful.
It was awful.
It was awful.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Wahab fulfills his spiritual quest in 113 days

By Johan Jaafar, NST Aug 21, 2010

 A. WAHAB Hamzah is a dramatist and an award-winning film critic. He is better known as the man behind Stor Teater (literally Theatre at the Store), an initiative taken by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to encourage young and budding theatre enthusiasts to "test" their works.

He was a stagehand who helped me light my productions back in the 1980s beginning with Salina (1986) and Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang (1989). He first partnered Zakaria Arifin to direct Teman, an adaptation of Kobo Abe's play. He took a big challenge directing Sungai Mengalir Lesu, a play adapted by Zakaria from Tan Sri A. Samad Said's novel of the same name.

In 2000, he directed the stage adaptation of another Samad work, this time a long poem on Prophet Muhammad entitled Pesona Al Amin. He directed Amiruddin Ali's Telegram in 2001, Siti Jasmina's Hikayat Qasiq (2007) and last year, he directed Nordin Hassan's Intan Yang Tercanai.

This year, he decided to do something different -- go on leave and travel. That has been his plan since 1999. He started his journey on April 3 and ended it 113 days later in Cabo del Roca, Portugal, the western-most point of the European land mass.

He went through 21 countries from Thailand to Portugal. He spent all his savings (RM30,000) to fulfil his ambition. He had to be thrifty, staying in cheap hotels, motels, railway stations or bus depots, or just shacks, by the roadside and in the fields.

He wanted to trace cities and towns where great Muslim scholars, thinkers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, statesmen and warriors were born, lived, worked or died. It was a quest unlike any other -- for no Malaysian has done that.

He was harassed, picked by the police, almost jailed, mugged, you name it. But he saw a different world -- one beyond the headlines. He met people with hearts of gold. He met strangers, who helped him when he was in dire need. Others welcomed him to their homes. He was feted, guarded and given five-star treatment in the homes of those who survived on meagre incomes.

He started his journey in Kuala Lumpur, taking a train to Haadyai and later to Bangkok. He was caught in the Red Shirt demonstrations. He took a train to Vientiane and later Luang Prabang in Laos.

From there, he took a 24-hour bus ride to Kunming, China. The border city is where Shuncheng Jie, the last remaining Muslim enclave, is found. Kunming's development is at breakneck speed, as a result of which large parts of the historic quarters were demolished. About an hour from the city is the birth place of Zheng He, the famed Muslim-Chinese traveller who started his journey 87 years earlier than Christopher Columbus.

His next destination was Xian, the gateway to the famous Silk Route. Two of the mosques were built in the 6th century and still in use today. A Chinese imam, who spoke Arabic, and was a notable cartographer and assisted in Zheng He's travels made his mark here. Xian is also home to two famous Sufi and Chinese intellectuals, Wang Tai-yu and Liu Chih. His next destination was Lanzhou, now an industrial city and Lixia, where he visited the tomb of Ma Laichi (1671-1766) another famous Sufi sage.

From there, he proceeded to Dunhuang and later to Turpan, an oasis amid a desert. It was another must-stop for the Silk Route travellers of the old days. An important Muslim legacy here is the karez, a complex underground water system that extends hundreds of kilometres that is still functioning.

Urumqi recently saw various skirmishes between ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese. He then went to Kashgar and Yarkant. While Kashgar is known as the place where scholars like Muhammad al-Kashgari and Abakh Hoja worked, Yarkant is proud to have Amani Shahan, the consort of King Abdul Rashititan. She was a famous poet and composer.

He moved on to Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, and later to Turkistan. This is the birthplace of al-Farabi, the Muslim thinker and scholar who had a big influence in the West. In Uzbekistan, he visited places where Alisher Novoiy, Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ismail (better known as Iman al-Bukhari, one of the compilers of the Prophet's sayings), Ibn Sina (another hugely influential Muslim scholar), al-Khorezmi (originator of algebra) and al-Biruni worked and lived.

It was in Afghanistan that Wahab encountered the effects of the war on terror at first hand. He was at Mazar-e-Sharif and later Balkhi, where the famous thinker and Sufi sage Jalaluddin Rumi was born. Balkhi was home to intellectuals Sanih Balkhi, Nasir Khurraw, Rashidin Watmat and the most famous woman poet of the 10th century, Rabia Balkhi.

The journey to Kabul was a nerve-racking eight hours. He visited Herat before he crossed over to Mashhad in Iran. It was near Masshad that Abu Hami al-Ghazali or al-Ghazali, author of the world famous Ilya Ulumuddin was born. Nishapur, his next stop is the birthplace of Ummar Khayyam (who wrote the Rubaiyat) and Farid al-din Attar, a poet. Imam Muslim died there.

From Iran he went to Damascus, believed to be the oldest structured city in the world, then to Beirut, home of Khalil Gibran before moving on to Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The country is still edgy, where an air of distrust among the ethnic groups is still palpable. One of the greatest tragedies of the civil wars of the early 1990s was the destruction of the major library in Sarajevo, which housed rare and priceless Muslim manuscripts. From there, he went to Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Monaco, France and Spain. Spain is home to the grandeur that was Islamic civilisation. Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Ronda and Tariffa are the legacy of the greatest days of European Islamic empires.

He ended his journey on July 24. According to Wahab, the pain was worthwhile. He met many fellow travellers along the way, some in their 60s and many were women travelling alone.

But he noticed something significant: he did not meet a single Muslim traveller along the way.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The bad habit

I have a terrible habit of backdating my posts. It is necessary to be sure.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Taking the last shots

Whatever we need, we have to get it today because today is our last day of filming.

Our second attempt to film schoolchildren returning from school failed. They went home early and when we arrived at the school, the compound was as silent as a graveyard. Pakcik guard tu macam meluat je tengok kita orang.

Bost of us were fasting, and the sun was scorching.

3.30pm, the main entrance of Shah Alam court: This is where the cow's head protesters were charged and recently sentenced. Four of them walked free, discharged but not acquitted. A slap in the wrist, as described by many.

4pm, SACC Mall: Taking a general shot of shoppers, crowd entering and leaving the shopping complex. This is another pickup shots used during interviews to describe the people of Shah Alam.

4.30pm, Bazaar Ramadan Kompleks PKNS: This photo is out of focus but it is the only photo of me shooting without a tripod. By now I have gotten the hang of holding my breath and keeping my hands steady to film.

6.30pm, Masjid Ubudiah Section 19 Shah Alam: After getting the permission from the committee members to shoot during the Maghrib, Isyak and Tarawih prayers, we sat talking to one of the committee members at the zakat counter. Sheridan is listening to his advice on 'mendirikan masjid'.

10pm, wrap: We went home, hoping we had all that we needed.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dare to document

Life and Times, NST, July 17, 2010

A film proposal to unearth the real story behind last year’s protests over a temple’s relocation in Shah Alam has won two journalists top honours, writes DENNIS CHUA

JOURNALISTS Sheridan Mahavera Shakir and Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi have come out tops in the Freedom Film Festival 2010 for Kuil, their proposal to unearth the real story behind the protests over a temple’s relocation in Shah Alam last year.

The annual film-making competition, themed Dare To Document, is organised by Komas (Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat), a human rights and media organisation.

It’s now in its seventh year.

Former student activist Loo Que Lin and Semai Orang Asli activist Abri Chupil are also winners.
Loo’s Campus Elections takes a closer look at student council elections in universities while Abri’s Hak Dinafikan documents the Semai battle to preserve customary land rights in Bidor, Perak.

The winners were selected from more than 30 entries by a panel of four judges, including Universiti Sains Malaysia Department of Communication Associate Professor Dr Mustafa Anuar, Sunway University College Department of Performance and Media head Leow Puay Tin and Komas board member Anna Har.

The winners get a grant of RM6,000 each to turn their proposals into film. Komas will assist in the production. The film screenings will be held in the Klang Valley, Penang, Johor and Sarawak throughout October.

For details, visit

Friday, July 9, 2010

A day out with Malek Abdullah

Today is our third day of filming. Malek Abdullah, an award winning cameraman, helps us film under more challenging conditions including night shots of the temple, Friday prayers and the general shot of Shah Alam. As I do not have to do filming I took this 'break' to take a series of stills on the making of our documentary.

9am Call time: Malek arrives in a pair of shorts, which he termed as 'seluar pendek tapi menutup aurat'. Yeah, but since we will be filming mosques and temples and religious rituals, he has to be 'properly' attired. Here is the briefing session after Malek got himself a pair of long pants...

10am Shah Alam MP office: Malek expertly sets up the tripod, slid the foot and lock the camera in position. Push some buttons, adjust dials, switch this and that, clips and attaches cables and finally puts on the headphones. Like clockwork, his action is mechanical and precise. Malek waits for directions from two first-time directors. I was in awe.

10am Shah Alam MP office:  While Malek sets up the camera, Director One briefs MP Khalid Samad on the questions that we are going to ask, and how he should pause between answers and what the director will do to him next...

10am Shah Alam MP office:  .... Director One gracefulling swirling and dusting beige compact on Khalid Samad. An essential filming process.


1.30pm State Mosque: After filming Khalid we followed him to a mosque at Section 17, before rushing to  set up the camera at Masjid Negeri Shah Alam, the iconic mosque of the city. It is here that the cow's head protesters started their demonstration before marching to the State government building toting the severed cow head.

4pm MBSA: Filming aerial shot of Shah Alam from the tallest building in the city. Malek in action.

4pm MBSA: Director One holding the window for Malek, at the same time peering at what Malek is picking up.

4pm MBSA: And this is what Malek took.

5pm from inside a moving car: We are taking pick-up shots for the film and here we are re-tracing the route taken by the cow's head protesters from the State Mosque to the State Government Building. Of course Malek continues to amaze us with his steady hold of the camera.

6pm outdoor: At the public area between the MBSA building and State Museum. Malek is getting the best shot of MBSA building while Director One strikes a pose.

About 6.30pm: We are already losing light. Moving on to the next location, Kuil Sri Maha Mariamman Section 19. At the next location we manage to film devotees praying at the temple and interview them. Malek again takes some really beautiful shots of the religious rituals, the mingling of the bells and the azan from a nearby mosque, and makes excellent pick-up shots for the film, even under low light. I didn't take any pictures at the temple.

At 9.30pm: Before calling it a day, it is terribly important to keep tabs of the days' filming. I will log and mark the footage, remarking on what we have or missed. While waiting for dinner, Malek takes this picture of me labelling the tapes. Shortly after dinner, Sheridan and I sit to prepared the following day's schedule.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Getting the opening scene

Second day of filming and just before we started, one of our contacts pulled out from the interview. He had asked for payment to appear on the film.

"You do not have budget? Impossible," he said, after I explained that our were independent filmmakers and we were on a shoe string budget.

I felt cheated. Wasn't it two days ago we sat on his posh and lush sofa listening to him bragging about the family trip to South Africa catching the momentous Germany vs England match? He had agreed to do this interview then, but changed his mind just hours before the shoot.

We dropped him like a rock. Biar terbenam.

Near Masjid Ubudiah Section 19, while waiting for Maghrib. We recorded the muezzin call for the opening scene of the film.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Call time, what?

Elena Dardir was one of the first few people I called to ask for advice on film-making. She used to work at a production company and was the one who handled some of my television drama scripts when I began writing for TV in 2003.

You wrote the book, remember? she asked. The one about Shah Alam as a bandaraya and Datuk Abu Sujak was the first mayor. You wrote the book for us.

Seven years ago, the production house had hired me to write a coffee book on Shah Alam but I never got to see the published book. It was more of a copywriting job, my name was not included as an author of the book, so I couldn't really make a claim on it. Very much like writing a slogan for an advertisement.

Elena had declined our offer to be part of the production crew but was more than willing to impart knowledge and experience to us. She stressed over and again on the importance of planning.

You must have a schedule and keep to it. Kena ikut, kalau tak memang susah, she said.

Work schedule: Plan according to the time frame given. In our case from the moment we were awarded the grant to the project's deadline, September 15. The work schedule includes, pre-production (hiring crew, recce, research, interviews, logistics and equipment rental), production (filming, gathering file-footage, stills, graphics, sound recording, music score and more logistics), and post-production (editing, adding graphics, post-audio production, and subtitling). 
Production schedule: Elena asked what was our call time. What? Call time is the crew assembly time at least an hour before filming starts. It is to brief the crew on the day's programme or update on changes. Production schedule covers the filming duration from the first to the last day of shooting. It is also a good idea to have an extra day on schedule for contingency. Be realistic when planning. Allow enough time to travel, set-up equipment, weather, traffic, late interviews and any unexpected turn of events.

Footage list: This is very important, she stressed. Before you start filming, you have to list out all the visuals that you need based on the storyboard/treatment. Check the visual on the list. At the end of each filming day compare what footage is not filmed and re-scheduled it on another day. In that way, it is almost impossible to miss footage when you wrap the production.

Logging the timecode: Log the tapes and what's filmed on it or risk having stacks of tapes with unknown footage or worse, the tragedy of shooting over important visuals.

View the tape: Elena strongly suggested that we view the tapes at the end of the first day of shoot. You must view the tape and make sure that the footage is ok. Anything can happen, off white balance, under exposed, burnt images, too bright, too dark, suddenly green or blue,    not enough head room, wrong sound channel, noise in the background, and etc, etc. Learning the mistakes on the first day will give you time to make the corrections later.

The make-up kit: The basic kit comprise compact powder and applicator, wet wipes, tissue, oil blotter. Don't leave home without it, she said.

So who's the crew? She asked. Sheridan and I gestured to each other. Elena laughed.  Don't worry. You all boleh buat punya. Good luck.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Fanged King: Part 4

WHILE many believe some ruined forts in Kedah belonged to Raja Bersiong, and that an altar at Sungai Batu Pahat in Merbok was where his victims were killed, there is no archaeological evidence for any of it.

The Bujang Valley, a sprawling 224sq km area stretching from Merbok to Sungai Muda, is filled with hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist candi (temples), signifying a vibrant entrepot spanning more than a millennium between the third and 14th centuries before the Malaccan Sultanate emerged.

Merchants from China, India and Arabia traded ceramics, glass beads, spices, and aromatic woods for the locals’ repair services and forest products.

These temples are built using imported materials and technology -- terracotta, laterite and granite bricks cemented together using a mixture of eggs and honey (though the merchants soon found more cost-effective material in sugarcane molasses instead).

The area forms a historical complex at the Lembah Bujang Archeological Museum. These candis were unearthed from various areas in the Merbok area and reconstructed at the museum.

One archaeologist, who wishes to remain anonymous, suggests that Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa was contemporaneous with that period in Lembah Bujang, but archaeology has not so far corroborated the stories in that document.

He says the locals were experts in timber structures, which would not stand the test of time as long as the terracotta, granite, and laterite temples of Lembah Bujang.

"It is difficult to prove the existence of the kings mentioned in Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa based on Lembah Bujang archeological find," he said.

The lack of written evidence also suggests that Lembah Bujang was not so much a city as an international trading hub.

Kedah and Perlis National Archive director Shafie Awang says there was no known correspondence between the ancient Kedah kingdom with others before the 17th century.

“Papers, unless kept in a controlled humidity and temperature, naturally decay,” he said.

At present, the oldest documents archived in Malaysia are letters by Sultan Abdul Hamid from 1882 to 1943, recognised by Unesco on its Memory of World Register.

“We are continuously looking for ancient documents on ancient Kedah history,” Shafie said.

The historians have made a firm stand that Raja Besiong is but a character from an epic and a story adored by romantics, but many Kedahans believed the king’s blood runs in its people.

At her food stall tucked away in a village between Bukit Selambau and Jeniang, Mak Chu (not her real name) wipes her hands on her apron and bends down behind her counter to extract out a tightly rolled piece of paper.

It is a genealogy chart filling the breadth of ten sheets of A4 paper taped together.
“I am the seventh generation of Raja Bersiong,” said Mak Chu proudly.

Raja Besiong had at least two wives, she explains: a Malay and a Pattani. Mak Chu’s father was descended from the Malay lineage, and had travelled to Pattani as a trader.

There he had married another descendant of Raja Bersiong, of the Pattani lineage. Years later, they moved back to Kedah and raised the Fanged King’s seventh generation.

When war broke out between Kedah and Siam in 1821, the princes of various lineages fought over the throne. Those not favoured were hunted down, and their families retreated deep into the hinterlnd of Kedah, discarding their titles to live as commoners.

Mak Chu said they still feared repercussions if the truth be told. “It is not true that Raja Bersiong is a myth,” she said. “He was once the ruler of Kedah.”


This is the final of a four-part series.

NST pictures by Syaharim Abidin and Shahrizal Md Noor

Making cold calls

The dreaded Q popped up again: what do we do now? Followed by the strange feeling of watching the second hand move past the face of a clock just before the alarm goes off.

The organiser has set a meeting on July 3 to discuss on work schedule but both of us felt like we needed to start soon.

We talked about the process, again. I told Sheridan that whatever we wrote in the treatment and our storyboard was just a guide and they would inevitably change depending on the interviews and the footage we filmed later. I had no idea how many times we would re-write the script but at this point of time, I could only imagine this:

How do you shoot a film?
1. Recce ----- 2. treatment ----- 3. storyboard ---- 4.amend script --- 5. view rushes--- 6. amend script ---- 6. post production

All that in mind, the most important thing that we have to do right now is to plan our time, so that we could meet the deadline on Sept 15. We have to fit in film-making in our already mad lives as journalists, in other words we have to be accomplished jugglers.

Set interviews? I asked.

Yeah, he said. We drafted all the possible contacts, block dates on the calender for filming and started making cold calls. Most of the contacts had never known us, we were banking on their generosity to give us filmed interviews.

And the mad rush began.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fanged King: Part 3

HIKAYAT Merong Mahawangsa, a historical epic of the Kedah rulers commissioned during the reign of Sultan Rijaluddin Muhammad Shah (1625-1651), has a chapter on Raja Besiong.

According to the epic, Merong Mahawangsa, the first ruler of Kedah, sent his four children to open new kingdoms. The eldest was crowned Raja Siam; the second prince shot a silver arrow and became Raja Perak; the third, a princess, became Raja Pattani; the youngest, Raja Seri Inderawangsa, lived with Merong Mahawangsa in Kedah.

When Raja Seri Inderawangsa ascended the throne he married a “gergasi” or “ogre” princess, against his father’s wishes. The Kedah History Association’s Datuk Dr Wan Shamsuddin Yusof speculates that she might have been an aboriginal woman.

They bore a son, Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria, who is named in the epic as “Raja Besiong” (translated from Jawi script without the “r”). “The book described him from young as ‘kahar’ (a rogue) and he never outgrew that even when he became the ruler and took a Malay wife,” Wan Shamsuddin said.

“When he was asked to quit killing people for their blood, he shrugged them off saying that the spinach broth was simply too delicious to quit.”

The Al-Tarikh Salasilah Negeri Kedah by Muhammad Hassan bin Dato' Kerani Muhammad Arshad, published in 1927, is more “historical” than the magical realism of Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (which, in Chapter Two, describes Raja Kampar transforming himself into a tusked wild boar, a venomous black cobra, and a ferocious tiger).

The Salasilah names the first ruler of Kedah as Maharaja Durbar Raja I, but concerns itself with nothing earlier than the ninth ruler, Maharaja Durbar Raja II, who embraced Islam and called himself Sultan Muzaffar Shah I (1136-1179).

Philologist Datuk Dr Professor Siti Hawa Salleh, who has done a comparative study on Kedah history and Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, said it was almost impossible to prove or disprove the existence of Raja Besiong.

“Can anyone prove Raja Besiong did not exist? On the other hand, can anyone prove he existed? I doubt it.”

Although Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa was written in an epic style and filled with romance, magic and adventure, the writing is based on ancient Kedah history as far back as the second century.

“There are many things that we do not know about the Kedah ancient history,” Siti Hawa said. “Even the al-Tarikh cannot date the first Kedah king.”

Siti Hawa said much remained unknown of ancient Kedah history, especially on the lifestyle and culture of the people. “Perhaps the killings were influenced by an ancient sect where human sacrifice was an important holy ritual.”

Such rituals, she explained, are described in an old text, Maha Sutasoma. A young person would be sacrificed on an altar. A monk would stab the heart with a dagger, and the blood was collected and drunk. The heart was cut out and eaten by the person who wished to be purified.

Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, although an important text, is not readily available in bookstores. The copies available at Yayasan Karyawan are leather-bound collectors’ editions.

The Kedah Public Library Council has a collection of rare editions of Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa by Pustaka Antara 1965 with a preface by Arenawati. There is also the University Malaysa Press 1968 edition compiled by Siti Hawa Salleh, and a 1898 stone imprint photocopy of R.J. Wilkinson’s compilation of the handwritten Jawi by Muhammad Yusuf Nasru’l-din.


This is the third of a four-part series. Watch out for Part Four tomorrow.

NST pictures by Syaharim Abidin and Shahrizal Md Noor

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Fanged King: Part 2

MANY believe Raja Besiong did not die. Some say he befriended demons who took him away. Some say he repented and became a holy spirit in the forests of Gunung Jerai. Some believe he wailed night after night, repenting his sins but never resting in peace. They say his spirit haunts his prison, now called Bukit Penjara.

At the foot of Bukit Penjara, about 80km from Tok Wan’s house, fisherman Ishak Mat, 40, was sceptical about the whole epic. "I've never heard anyone wailing from the top of the hill".

He was born in Kampung Bukit Penjara (which the Post Office also recognises as Kampung Bakar Arang and Kampung Pantai Merdeka) and lived there all his life, in a house at the foot of Bukit Penjara.

“I climbed the hill when I was a kid, maybe 25 years ago,” Ishak said. “There were three deep wells, which people said were the prison of Raja Besiong, but I think they looked more like a chamber for many prisoners. They wouldn’t build three wells for just one person, right?”

From the top of the hill, Ishak said, one could see the mouth of the Sungai Merbok, the entrance to the ancient Kedah entrepot, the Bujang valley. But there was no track up to those wells any more, and no one had been up there for a long time.

Over the centuries, the story of Raja Besiong became interwoven with threads drawn from Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the oral tradition of Tok Selampit, and folklore.

Thus, while Tok Wan says that “Baling” is derived from the Siamese “Ban Ling”, which means “Monkey Village”, others insist it was named after the route of the king took into exile.

Pak Ngah, or Hashim Yahya, 81, a blind fisherman from Kampung Pulau Sayak, relates that Raja Besiong had fled from from Kota Aur in Kota Kuala Muda to Pantai Merdeka, where he put a curse on the beach such that “no king of sovereignty shall set foot on this land”, before proceeding to the hinterland of Bujang Valley towards Pattani.

“Raja Besiong is not a myth,” said Pak Ngah. “He was a Kedah sovereign, but his demonic behaviour, probably influenced by jinn, caused the people to turn against him.”

Pak Ngah said it was an accepted norm in the olden days for people to associate themselves with supernatural powers as a form of status. To Pak Ngah, the story of Raja Besiong, hardly known now among the younger generation, was an important piece of folklore.

“It is about sovereignty and justice,” he said, “a grim reminder of an unjust king. I don’t think he was a myth. He was a Kedah ruler. I don’t care what other clever people think.”

On his escape from the palace, the king stopped to rest at Kuala Ketil, and brooded gloomily over what he had done. He tried to pull out his fangs but couldn’t. He tried again in Kuala Pegang and Pulai, but it was only in Baling that Raja Bersiong succeeded.

He flung away the fangs with all his might, and they zinged through the air across what now is called Kampung Weng Dalam and Kampung Weng Luar. (The “Weng” is pronounced as wing so as to mimic that sound, apparently.)

The fangs flew with such force that they sliced a hill in two, where Kampung Bukit Sebelah is today. That is where stories like this part ways permanently with reality.

Datuk Dr Wan Shamsuddin Yusof, chairman of the Kedah History Association, said from the historical point of view Raja Besiong never existed.

People’s imaginations were fired by the stories of Tok Selampit, the traditional story tellers who travelled from town to town telling stories by adding and editing parts to keep the audience engrossed.

Tok Selampit stories, Wan Shamsuddin said, could not be termed as historical facts.

“My first posting as a teacher in 1948 in Sekolah Kuala Kupang, Baling brought to me one of the last surviving Tok Selampit, by the name of Mak Mah, or Halimah.

“She told me the tale of Raja Besiong and how these places were named after the route he took when he was banished from his palace.”

Wan Shamsuddin said the Tok Selampit version of Raja Bersiong had become a fantastic concoction of myth and folklore, far removed from any shred of truth.

“We can’t find an original version of Tok Selampit story anymore. What’s left is a mixture of folklore and what the people want to believe.” Wan Shamsuddin shook his head. “Let the story rest. Raja Besiong is not real. He is the figment of people’s imagination.”

But such a great tale can never be buried. In 1968, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj inspired Malay movie stalwart Jamil Sulong to film the the folklore. "Raja Bersiong" became Shaw Brothers’ most ambitious project to date, costing RM750,000 in technicolour.

In 2008, the Petronas Performing Arts group opened the year with an elaborate dance drama on the Fanged King. Earlier this year, TV3 in its “Lagenda” slot screened Siong, a series loosely based on the lore.

But above all, Raja Besiong is immortalised in the classical writing of Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. The entire third chapter of the book is dedicated to the Fanged King or his real name, Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria.


This is the second of a four-part series. Watch out for Part Three tomorrow.

NST pictures by Syaharim Abidin and Shahrizal Md Noor

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Fanged King: Part 1

It begins very much like any other folklore, but the story of Raja Besiong, the tyrant king who drinks human blood, is entwined in myth and fact. Told in one of the oldest Kedah historical writings, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, many believe Raja Besiong once ruled the region. SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI retraces the facts and fiction of the Fanged King.

This is the story of Raja Besiong told to me by my great-grandmother in Tanjung Dawai:

A LONG, long time ago, there lived a prince whose father was a great ruler of Kedah. He was handsome, strong and a skilled hunter.

Sadly, the prince did not take after his parents' fair and kind traits. He was a spoilt and haughty youth, and a rogue even after he became king.

One day, the prince complained to his ministers of a nagging toothache in his upper jaw. A few days later, a pair of long pointed teeth emerged. Since then he was known as Raja Besiong, the Fanged King.

Raja Besiong was a cruel and merciless ruler. Those caught committing crimes, however minor, were severely punished.

One day, a cook cut her finger while preparing Raja Besiong’s favourite spinach broth, and her blood dripped into the dish. She didn’t have time to prepare another pot, so the tainted dish was served to the king.

Raja Besiong immediately tasted the difference. In fact, he found it exceptionally delicious. He finished the broth to its last drop and summoned the cook. He unsheathed his keris and held it to the terrified woman’s neck, forcing her to explain the alien ingredient added to the broth. She told him about the cut on her finger and how the blood had accidentally dripped into the pot.

He spared her, but from that day on ordered a criminal to be executed every day so that he could have blood for his broth.

Raja Besiong’s ministers begged him to stop these killings, but he refused to listen and challenged them to dethrone him. War broke out, and the kingdom was in chaos. Outnumbered, the king fled.

In exile, Raja Besiong repented his bloodthirsty habit, but it was too late. He was captured, and his fangs were forcefully extracted and flung out to sea.

They fell near Tanjung Dawai and became an island. A prison was built there to hold the king, who night after night wailed in pain and asked to be forgiven. No one took pity on him.

Raja Besiong’s grief moved the island to float closer to the land he once ruled, and in time it merged with the mainland to become Bukit Penjara.

Raja Besiong was left in the prison to suffer but it is not known how he died.
Until today, on quiet nights, fishermen off Bukit Penjara say they can still hear Raja Besiong wailing from the prison.

Quite extraordinary, but the story of Raja Besiong, as how the Kedahans would refer him, has many versions.

AHMAD Abdul Rahman or Tok Wan, bare-chested with his threadbare Pagoda singlet slung over his shoulder, grinned toothlessly.

“Raja Besiong?” said the 85-year-old man, in his melodious Pattani Malay accent. “It is a long story… but it’s wrong!”

We were at his house in Kampung Carok Kapas, Kuala Pegang, about 40km from Baling, Kedah, and Tok Wan would tell us the story of Raja Besiong as it had once been told to him by two storytellers from Selama, Perak.

Making himself comfortable, Tok Wan picked up the story from the time when the Fanged King had ignored the pleas of his queen and senior ministers, and had had to flee the revolt of his ministers against his murderous addiction to blood.

Raja Besiong (the storytellers had told Tok Wan) had retreated from his palace in Kota Aur through Kupang and Baling. Finally routed near Sik, he fled alone to Pattani.

There he sought refuge at a farmer’s house, and ended up getting his daughter pregnant. (“They don’t like this part,” chuckled Tok Wan. “It defames the kings.”)

The farmer, Tok Golok, had returned from his orchard to find his daughter crying. “Don’t cry,” the farmer said to his daughter. “Tell me what happened. What did he do?”

“He did like what mum and dad do,” said the girl.

A handsome child was born of that union, and news spread that a king in exile was living over the Pattani border.

The queen and her loyal ministers sent troops to capture the king. “They found him at Tok Golok’s orchard,” said Tok Wan, “and they put him in a lidded cauldron and paraded him back to Bukit Penjara (near Pantai Merdeka) in the most degrading way.”

They imprisoned him in the same secret underground chamber where his victims were killed for their blood.

Tok Wan’s version of the story ended much better for Raja Besiong’s son with the farmer’s daughter.

While the fugitive king was being hunted captured, and thrown in prison, in Ayutthaya in Siam a royal soothsayer had told the court that Raja Besiong had sired an heir.

“The Tok Nujum Siam asked for the White Elephant to be bathed in preparation to invest the prince regent from his humble abode to the Kota Aur in Kedah.”

So while the father had been borne home in a curry cauldron, the son was hailed on a sacred albino elephant as Kedah’s next king, and his mother was invited by the queen to live in the palace.

And all but Raja Besiong seemed to live happily ever after.

Did he die in the secret chamber? Tok Wan shook his head. “He disappeared.”


This is the first of a four-part series. Watch out for Part Two tomorrow.

NST pictures by Syaharim Abidin and Shahrizal Md Noor

Monday, June 21, 2010

Writing, not on paper

Today,  I received an email from Komas congratulating Sheridan and I as one of the  winners of the Freedom Film Fest 2010.  I knew then, I have traded my precious sleep for the mad world of documentary film-making. God help me.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The interview

On the whole, our interview session for Freedom Film Fest 2010 lasted for about two hours yesterday.

Sheridan arrived with glitter dust on his scalp, eyebrow and forehead from the Finas gala night, of which he was awarded the Samad Idris trophy for “All Set for World Class Malaysian Culture” (published in NST last year).

“Eyy saya dah mandi la.” In vain, he desperately tried to brushed the glitter off. The way those dust stuck, I didn't think an Olympic-sized swimming pool could wash it off.

We were ushered into a waiting area by Maisarah Najib, the festival co-ordinator, who then took pictures of us with the poster in the background. Next we were made to wear clip microphones for a filmed interview.

Speak like as though you have already won the competition, Maisarah directed. I didn't like any of it and felt very much like an over-ripe tomato; red and plump.

Then the actual interview began. We presented our story board, I could immediately tell that we impressed the judges but that was just cosmetic. They wanted to know a lot more, amount of research, whether we are confident enough to carry out the project, if we could actually get the people we listed for filming, and most of all, if we understood the concept of telling a story on film.

I was concerned whether we were allowed to film without much  interference from the producers. There were more interests in the cow's head protest rather than the issue revolving around the temple. Our documentary would not dwell on the protesters' racial streak but mainly on the rights of the people in Section 19 and the temple devotees.  Will they give us a freehand in shaping our story? (Insya'allah said Sheridan much later.)

The Freedom Film Fest judges grilled us for a solid 90-minutes.We lacked no words in answering questions. Being a duo helped as we took turns filling in gaps in our replies.

Unabashedly I asked Maisarah when would we know the results. She smiled and said Monday. That's tomorrow. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

The storyboard

My holiday in Ipoh is more of burning the midnight oil, piecing together Sheridan's pencil sketches and our snapshots of the recce. Ideally we will need a board to present the story, but we have to make do with prints on A4 papers. It is tedious but kinda fun. Like making a scrap book for school project.

The storyboard is completed just before I left Ipoh in the late afternoon. Meanwhile, Sheridan is attending a gala night in Finas to receive an award on an article published in NST last year.

Monday, June 14, 2010

From treatment to storyboard

We're in! But the celebratory feeling dissipates within seconds and is replaced by 'what next'. We are asked to attend an interview on June 19, so it is only logical to imagine of the 'presentation' to the judges.

A storyboard.

Too many things are happening at the moment because the school holidays are here. I plan to be in Ipoh from Wednesday till Saturday but since the interview is on Saturday, I have no choice but to cut the family time in Ipoh short. A very unpopular move.

Despite the personal goings on, Sheridan and I must find time to translate the treatment into a storyboard to present it to the Freedom Film Fest 2010 panel of jury. The storyboard is not part of the requirement but we are determined to make the judges see that the story is worth telling and we are serious in our effort to document it (despite the fact that we have never held a camera in our hands).

Treatment is an organisation of thoughts through events but a storyboard is putting the treatment in visual sequence, literally. We have to think of the camera angles, the establishing shots, should the subject be placed on the left or on the right of the frame, location shot and so on (including other stuff that I'm not aware of).

Dusk at the new site of the temple at Section 23, next to Nitto Denko factory. There's nothing there, a vacant lot but the sunset defies this vast industrial area.

We went for another recce yesterday. This time carefully looking at the possible camera angles and how it would put the story into context. We took more pictures and arranged the snapshots to form a narrative.

Sheridan tries his hand at sketching. Bakat terpendam (atau terendam?)

Sheridan will sketch the interviews and email it to me. We will put together the storyboard long distance. Pray the internet connection is good. Amin.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Top 10

We are shortlisted as one of the top 10 entries. The email from Freedom Film Festival 2010 organiser  also wrote that by next week they would second-shortlist the top five. The finalists would have to attend an interview on June 19.

Do you think we'll be selected as one of the finalists? he asked.

Hopefully. We did send in a comprehensive entry. There's nothing left to do but pray that the judges like our proposal. And wait.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The three rivers

I had just landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok when I received the text message from Sheridan that he had hand-delivered the Freedom Film Festival 2010 entry to the organiser. I didn't know what to feel. There I was in Bangkok with the Red-shirt protesters taking over the heart of the city.

My whirlwind journey covered Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City,  in eight days from May 13, which inevitably included the deadly street protests in Siam Square, the killing fields and S21-prison in Phnom Penh, the Cuchi tunnel and the aftermath of Orange Agent in Saigon. Or I could also say: from modern day anti-government protest, the Khmer Rouge atrocities, and the South Vietnam war. All were devastating.

I left Bangkok with the image of smoke billowing from underneath the Rama VI expressway as I headed for the airport. I left Phnom Penh with the images of the Tuol Sleung prisoners of a forlorn mother cradling a baby, a bright eye toddler and eleven year old comrades trained as spies. I left Ho Chi Minh City with the images of deformed babies preserved in formaldehyde in lab jars. I saw countless wats, pagodas and mosques, crossed three important rivers in these landscapes, Menam Chao Phraya, Mekong River, Saigon River, and saw ruins, heritage and hope.

Hanim, the graphic artist, called me a war tourist with a thirst for the macabre, and somebody suggested the Nazi concentration camps should be on my next travel list. I didn't plan my trip to be as such but the trip was nothing as I had imagined. I felt it was 'planned' for me. It jumped on me like a surprise birthday party when it wasn't even my birthday. It's difficult to understand deaths. It is even more difficult to understand cruelty inflicted by fellow countrymen. What madness.

The trip changed the way I look at people, governance, politics and histories, permanently. The history textbooks told me nothing but selected events without context.

And what of the little temple at Section 19? A speck in the universe as compared to the turmoils in Indochina, regardless, it is still an important story to tell.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Watching Mencari Kartika

After months of working on it, Norhayati Kaprawi had flown to Jakarta for her directorial debut as film-maker on Mencari Kartika and yesterday the 40-minute film premiered in this country to a packed audience at Shah's Village Hotel, Petaling Jaya.

As I congratulated her at the end of the event, I saw the unmistakable glint in her eye, the satisfaction of a story told.

Earlier this year she spoke enthusiastically of turning her visuals on Kartika into a movie. Over cups of coffee, we spoke about forming storylines, journalism and writing for visuals. I shared what little I know, and we joked about making a film together, maybe about Chow Kit Road. Hahaha.

Standing in the hall watching the movie, I was touched. Yati had done it. Against all odds; limited resources, collecting visuals, chasing after the subject from Kuala Lumpur, Cherating to Kota Bharu, I was impressed.

Yati talks to journalists at a private screening of her first film, Mencari Kartika

An engineer by training who turned into an activist, a painter and now a film-maker, feverishly working on her next documentary, Yati said: “The shortcomings are allowed because it's a first film. The audience wouldn't be too forgiving on your next.”

Today afer work, I sat talking to a good friend and colleague Aniza Damis, who was also at Yati's premier last night.

When are you going to do a film? I'd like to see it, she said. Cat got my tongue. I couldn't tell her about the film proposal with Freedom Film Fest.

I shrugged my shoulders hoping that she would let me off, but no, Aniza is a journalist highly skilled at ensnaring the subject with her questions and make them talk on topics they avoided most.

You could get help from Komas. They organise film festivals and support first time film-makers, she added.

I pulled a blank face. I dunno, I said, then conveniently wearing a distinterested and tired expression. Eventually we moved on to another subject. The escape artist, escaped.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Unsticking the sticky notes

We have two more days to complete the entry package to the Freedom Film Fest 2010 competition. The writing has gotten more intense but we are yet to finalise the draft. Sheridan is drafting the summary while I draft the treatment.

From notes to draft, and then the chunks of scenes are written on the sticky notes. One scene, one note. One voice, another note. Specific music cue, a different note. All colour coded.

Next I stuck the notes on the placemats in sequence according to the draft. If the writer works alone, he or she may not have to resort to this tedious task but I think this is one of the best ways to 'see' clearly what we want to achieve. It cuts down misunderstandings greatly.

After much re-arranging, this is how the placemat and the sticky notes look

By the end of the day, we have finalised the scenes and I have to compile these scenes into a treatment.

(I haven't done any preparation on my Indochina trip. Aduhhh.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The first draft

Based on readings and the interviews, we drafted a story. It started with a question: what is the story? The story is about... a temple. First we arranged the events chronologically and marked areas that needed further explanations. Next we decided on how to tell the story. Where to begin and where to end:

Point A ------- moving to ------- Point B.

What events will move the story from point A to point B? The sequence of events have to be logical.

We do not have much to work on but enough to string a story. In some areas, we added possible interviews to add flow to the storyline.

Today, we completed the first draft of the film and gave it a working title: Kuil.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Painting the elephant pink

The interview with Ustaz Azrul, Section 23 surau chairman today, went well. We had a general idea on the residents perceptions about the relocation of Section 19 temple to the area. Azrul also talked about the cow-head protest and the unruly dialogue session at MBSA hall, which he had attended.

(I couldn't get the Section 19 temple association chairman. He is out of the country on a business trip. We have to make do without him for now.)

After the interview, we discussed about what Azrul had said:  “Ini bukan isu agama, bukan isu kaum. Ini isu politik.”

How? Sheridan grinned.

We are not doing a political documentary.

It is like having an elephant in the living room. And we are going to paint the entire room to match the elephant, so that we don't have to see it, he said.

We are writing about the people, I said.

Hahahaha. He laughed. Elephant in the living room. Hahahahaha.

In my mind, I saw a pink elephant lounging in a pink room.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Without walls, use placemats

Time is running short. We are juggling with our day jobs and drafting a proposal for the Freedom Film Fest 2010 competiton. Although the deadline is two weeks away, we have to complete it by May 12 because I will be leaving for Indochina the next day.

We have to complete a PDF form, write a proposal including a brief introduction on the writer/director, a summary of the film, working schedule, and (here's the catch) the treatment.

Treatment? Sheridan asked.

A half-script, like 'how would you like to treat the film?'. Writing a treatment for a documentary is not quite the same like a fiction, I realised. While in fiction you can control the narrative and get the characters to say the exact lines, a documentary treatment is merely an anticipation of what the subjects would say during interviews or the turn of the events much later.

If we ever get to do the film we will have to adjust the treatment accordingly. But for now we have to visualise the film. We should have a wall or at least a whiteboard to help us draft the scenes and storyline, but since we floated from one cafe to another for discussions the only space we have were the dinner tables.

I have to get placemats and colour-coded sticky notes as tools to lay-out the scenes.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Recce: Looking for the visual dynamics

Yesterday, we interviewed Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad at his office, visited the temple at Section 19, the residential area at Section 23 and realised that our perceptions on the temple issue was complete garbage. Fit only for the landfill. Alamak.

Khalid gave a run-down of what happened during the elections right up to the protest, the townhall meeting and the update on the temple relocation process.

At the Section 19 temple, the geography of the issue hit home. Sri Maha Mariamman temple was just across the road from rows of double storey terrace houses.

We spoke to a devotee and a resident there. Both offered contradicting insights on the issue.

Next stop was Section 23. As it was drizzling we only saw the proposed site for the temple and the playground and community hall from inside the car.

This was our first recce, it gave us a feel of the place and the visual dynamics to film the story. Without seeing these places we wouldn't be able to create the visual path of the story. Writing for print, the visual aspects would not have mattered as much.

By the end of the day, we knew we had to re-examine 'our story'.

I am not doing a political documentary, I re-affirmed my stand to Sheridan.
I know, I know. But how? He asked.
Talk to more people.

On our list we have two names one is the chairman of the Section 19 temple association and the other is the chairman to the Section 23 surau committee.

I dare not imagine what our findings will be. Still, I feel it must be interesting.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Initial research

A story is built on events, things that happen and how they happen.

I began my research by reading Sheridan's analysis on the cow-head protest, one of his last pieces written for New Straits Times before he chose to became a freelance writer.

This paragraph struck a significant ring:

“The most important question in Section 23 temple controversy is not just whether anyone in the cow-head incident will be punished but whether  the 211 residents who attended a townhall meeting with the Selangor government on the matter were a cross-section of the Malay majority.”

Are Malays largely racists? I don't think so, but that is just gut feeling, which also tells me there is more to the temple controversy than what was reported by the media.

At the height of the controversy, I was working on the controversial death of Mariam Johari and the plight of her family to fly her body home from Seoul to Kota Tinggi, so to a certain extent, I did miss out the high drama of the cow-head protest, the townhall meeting that ensued a week later and the aftermath of both events.

I have reservations about reading all the newspaper reports, watching YouTube or blog postings, they are after all secondary data, an interpreted version of the truth. What I really need is fresh opinions on the issue almost a yeaqr after it happened.

The best way to dig out the real story is to go to the ground and talk to the people. Top on our list is Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad who seemed to be the person who had promised the Section 19 residents that he would relocate the temple during the 2008 General Elections and attended the chaotic townhall meeting between the Section 23 residents and state government on the relocation of the temple near their residential area.

Actually Khalid is all that we have for the time being.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Forming a partnership: collaborating

Collaborate is a fancy way of saying working together, but the word gets stickier when we have to define the shared responsibilites while making this short film.

It is your story.
No it is yours too, he said.

Yeah but it is your idea. We are telling your story.
No, we are telling OUR story, he said, demanding me to claim ownership to the film.

At first I just wanted to help with the proposal and later, well, he could always find a crew.  Largely because I wasn't keen on the subject. I believed the cow-head protest and the townhall meeting was a case of village bullies trying to be heroes, but Sheridan described the incident as a mini May 13. Both of us are gripping at the edge of two extreme ends of the spectrum.

Sheridan is a political writer. I, on the other hand writes just about everything from mangoes to Mawi, excluding politics. Can we actually agree on a story?

That aside, we have to agree what collaborating entails:
  • We will write the story together, meaning we have to agree on how the story is told, frame by frame.
  • We will take turns directing and filming. If one person holds the camera, the other will hold the interview and decide the shots.
  • We will choose the music, the graphics, and share the general workload of getting interviews, becoming runners and getting supplies.
  • We also have specific roles: Sheridan handles the financial side of things, I take care of compiling materials, from scedules, treatment, storyboard to script ie admin work.
  • and Sheridan will keep the make-up kit and therefore touches up the interviewees.
From here on, we have to answer the most important question: WHAT is the story?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bumblebee is not an option

He wouldn't listen and rambled on about doing a short film.

No, I don't want to, but Sheridan Mahavera had conveniently left his ears elsewhere and chose to ignore my replies.

He said the Freedom Film Fest organisers would give grant and technical support to film a documentary. All we had to do, he rushed his words, was to send in a proposal.

And when is the deadline for this proposal?
May 17, he said.

WHAT? It was three weeks away.

And the subject will be?
You know, the temple in Section 19 (shah Alam) the one with the cow-head protest.

WHAT? I'm not doing a political documentary.

I stood up and walked away from our table. He was acting like a kid in a toy-filled megastore who is fixed on a Decepticon model. You either buy the toy or buy the toy. You can't reason with a kid like that. After some pacing, I return to our table and looked at him squarely. The only way to deal with this was to throw questions. Create doubt. Buy time.

It dawned on him the many aspects he did not factor in: storyline, concept, visual dynamics, research, and above all the acutely short time.

Collaborate, he said.

I threw more questions at him. I realised he had no inkling the kind of cliff he was leaping off from. Should I turn this writer away and watch him sink or swim? Delicious thought. But by then I saw something else painfully familiar to me: the burning desire to tell a story, it resonated in his voice and deeply etched on his face. From another point, he was offering me an adventure, to tell a story in another medium. I have written television dramas but this project would put journalistic writing to a non-linear medium. That too, was a delicious thought. Why not?

It was just a proposal, he said. I consented with a long list of conditions.

I felt I had just agreed to buy the kid the fancy toy. Problem was, I would prefer a Bumblebee.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Contrasting strategies at play

TAN Sri Mohamad Isa Abdul Samad and his wife, Bibi Sharliza Mohd Khalid, resplendent in traditional garb, were here at the Melursari Precinct in Bandar Sungai Buaya for a Beramah Mesra Bersama Pengantin Baru event on Monday.

True to its theme, there was a main table for the newly-weds complete with bunga pahar and three-tiered wedding cake, with the guests treated to a sit-down kenduri dinner.

What set it apart from other kenduri kahwin, was that the groom took the microphone and talked politics.

Late-comers braved the rain and many guests stayed on to listen to Isa debating on the credibility of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat candidate and its de facto leader, the crumbling of Pakatan Rakyat alliance, hammering home the point whether such a party was worthy of their trust and votes.

"They can't even take care of themselves, do you think they can take care of you? Rentikanlah." Applause and laughter greeted his colloquial punchline that they should quit dreaming, much less hope, that PKR would ever take up the Hulu Selangor voters' cause.

Also seated at the main table was former Hulu Selangor candidate Datuk Dr Halili Rahmat, who left PKR just that morning to explain his political predicament with PKR, thus lending weight to Isa's debate.

Isa, a seasoned politician, knew how to have the audience eating out of his hand. The air was almost festive.

On the following night at Dataran Bukit Sentosa, PKR brought in stalwarts Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang, who took turns rebutting BN campaign points, defending their candidate and refutting claims that PR was not a "cracked stone waiting to crumble".

"As you can see, we are all here, united and stronger," said Lim , booming through the speakers, an equally experienced politician who knew how to cast a spell on his audience. The air was electrifying.

One ceramah felt like a Zapin Fest the other, a Rock Kapak concert. Obviously, both parties are adopting contrasting strategies of extreme ends.

BN has zoomed in on local issues from sports field, traffic lights, highway interchange, abandoned projects to an Orang Asli cooperative while PR stayed national with the Apco allegations and ISA reforms.

BN is fielding a fresh face close-to-home candidate (P. Kamalanathan is from Rawang) with great charm whom no voters could say no to, but PKR put up a Kelantanese disgruntled ex-minister and branded him as a no nonsense fighter who knows the ropes in Parliament.

BN goes by Sayangi Selangor, Yakini BN (Love Selangor, Support BN), PKR says it with Bersama Selamatkan Malaysia (Together We Save Malaysia).

Cynics would take Kamalanathan as a novice and Zaid as an ex-Umno member fishing for a spot in Parliament.

Fence-sitters are a fickle lot. The Batang Kali state constituency has the largest number of voters in Hulu Selangor with 27,832 voters.

But it was an open secret that during the last general election, many had decided not to cast their votes or deliberately spoilt it as a protest against the BN candidate.

"Traditionally, Batang Kali has been a BN area until the last election, but it was more of a personality issue rather than the party," said BN supporter Abdul Rahman Abu Nawar.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Harumanis debuts in Japan today

By Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi

KUALA LUMPUR: The first consignment of Harumanis, a premium mango cultivar grown in Perlis, will arrive in Japan today, making it the first Malaysian fruit to break into Japan's imported fresh fruit market.

This will coincide with the arrival of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, his first visit to Japan since taking office as prime minister a year ago.

Japanese Ambassador to Malaysia Masahiko Horie described both events as significant and historic.

He said there would be another four consignments of Harumanis on April 21, 25 and 28, weighing a total of 3.05 tonnes.

Horie said a plant quarantine officer was based at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) laboratory in Serdang to observe the treatment process before the mangoes were packed and flown from Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

"We are confident that Harumanis will be accepted by Japanese consumers going by the non-fibrous texture, sweetness, flavour and fragrance," Horie told the New Sunday Times.

The fruits were harvested from the Perlis Agriculture Department's orchard in Bukit Bintang, Kangar. Strict import protocols required that the mangoes undergo vapour heat treatment to eliminate fruit fly larvae.

Premium Harumanis weighs about 350gm per fruit and is packed into 5kg boxes.

Horie said the sole importer and distributor had drawn up a marketing strategy to introduce Harumanis to the Japanese through restaurants and specialised supermarkets.

"Mangoes imported from other parts of the world, especially Thailand, Mexico and the Philippines, are usually available all year round but Harumanis from Perlis is seasonal, making it a rare delicacy."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Still waiting for real change

By Siti Nurbaiyah Nadzmi

AS a registered voter in Hulu Selangor, I am looking forward to an interesting week. It is when the constituency comes alive with VIP visits, official openings and launchings, kenduris and, more importantly, the potholes are covered.
For the upcoming by-election, traffic lights have sprouted overnight at the Prima Beruntung-Bukit Sentosa and the Kampung Koskan-Sungai Choh junctions. The residents in both areas had been petitioning for traffic light junctions for ages.

Meanwhile, the Sungai Choh-Serendah junction, an important pre-war link that connects the southern part of the peninsula to the north, has been resurfaced, making it a joy to drive on.

I soak in the effervescence.

The traffic light marks the entranceway to the Hulu Selangor parliamentary constituency. Just 50km from the Kuala Lumpur city centre, this is the dull backwater of Selangor.

Hulu Selangor has several industrial areas and is home to two automotive plants, Tan Chong Motors and Perodua.

pix_topright The public transport system runs right through the heart of the constituency -- the north and south are linked by the railway line from Rawang to Bukit Mertajam and the federal road from Serendah and Batang Kali to Tanjung Malim. The North South Expressway is the latest addition.

Really, it should be bustling with economic activities.

But unlike the neighbouring agro-based, industry-rich Kuala Selangor district, or the highly-developed Gombak district, Hulu Selangor has remained true to its name -- "hulu" which is the interior, the forsaken.

Hulu Selangor fell prey to property speculators who could not stay afloat after the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit home. Homeowners in Bukit Sentosa, Bukit Beruntung and Bandar Sungai Buaya were left fighting for basic amenities -- from regular bus services to burial grounds. There is still no government clinic here.

As life picked up pace over the decades -- and spanning three general elections -- telephone land lines and mobile phone coverage improved, water and electricity supply became more reliable, bus services were more frequent and more houses were occupied. The townships of Bukit Beruntung and Bukit Sentosa are today liveable. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Bandar Sungai Buaya, where I came to stay in 1999.

Bandar Sungai Buaya was picture perfect. In the morning, mist hung over the township and birds chirped. And, the fresh air.

It was designed to complement the natural landscape, but the 15-year integrated township masterplan could not be completed as planned. Or home owners here would have enjoyed high property value, a clubhouse complete with man-made lake and recreational centres, business centres, colleges and an interchange that would have reduced travelling time to Kuala Lumpur to just 20 minutes.

Call it bad investment, but the victims were not just the house buyers. The Felda Sungai Buaya settlers who sold their land to the developer, Bandar Sungai Buaya Sdn Bhd, were only paid a fraction of their million-ringgit plots of land. Last year, the developer was liquidated.

In the 1999 general election, I bumped into a candidate doing his rounds at the wet market. With fish and vegetables in one hand and a cranky toddler on my hip, I asked him if he could make a change. He huffed and puffed and wiped the sweat off his brow, buying time to give me a non-committal reply, pregnant with rhetoric.

I missed casting my vote here in 2008, but nothing much changed until lately, when Plus Expressway Bhd announced the construction of the Sungai Buaya interchange early next year.
The interchange is palliative. It does not magically wave away the pain and loss of 14 years of development. No one can turn back time, but even the slightest change offers a ray of hope to us here.

So, when I meet him again, I will ask, "Dear Mr Candidate, will there be change?"

And he has two years to make it work before the general election.

Friday, April 9, 2010

It took a builder's unkept promise to break her

A voter in Hulu Selangor was a toddler during the Great Depression of 1929, the significance of which escapes her to this day. She survived World War 2 and went on to become an activist battling the Malay Union. After Merdeka, she was part of the successful Felda revolution. In the end, it was the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis that foiled her hopes. SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI reports.

AS a fearless activist, Timah Ali, 84, walked for eight days from Padang Kota Lama, Penang to Kuala Lumpur in 1946 to protest against the Malayan Union. Now, hunched but still feisty, all she wants is the land issue in Felda Sungai Buaya to be resolved.

Timah is one of the 363 settlers caught in a complex land issue after the developer could not compensate them in exchange for their land titles in 1994. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 shattered their dreams.

The story of Felda Sungai Buaya started in 1965, when the 363 settlers built their lives around planting rubber trees on about 1,000ha of land, 18km from Rawang.

In 1994, they signed an agreement for the land to be developed. In return they were to receive compensation according to the size of their land, some plots were worth up to RM1.3 million.

The 15-year integrated township development plan in Bandar Sungai Buaya was halted following the financial crisis in 1997.

The 1,500-acre leasehold project was developed by Land and General, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bandar Sungai Buaya Sdn Bhd, which went under liquidation last year.

In 1997, the developer completed and handed over 3,000 homes. Located off the North-South Expressway between Rawang and Bukit Beruntung, the township is accessible via Jalan Sungai Choh from Rawang or the Bukit Beruntung interchange.

It was heartbreaking for Timah and other settlers who lost their land and for some, their means of income. Timah said the settlers received the first payment of RM5,000 in 1994 when they signed the agreement.  The payments then trickled to RM2,000 monthly, then dwindled to RM1,000 before it stopped completely in 2001.

"There were no more rubber trees for us to tap or land for us to grow crops, so we have no income. Most of us are just too old to work, anyway. There is nothing to do but hope that our children will take us in," she said as her eyes glistened.

Timah said many of her contemporaries were ill because of old age. Some had died.

She said many of the settlers later were offered unsold housing units in lieu of cash, but the value of the house was only a fraction of the land value in the original agreement.

"We took the offer rather than have nothing at all," said Timah who now lives in Bandar Sungai Buaya.

Today, the Felda is reduced to a cluster of houses in a village called Kampung Sungai Buaya.

New Straits Times, April 9, 2010