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.