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Dain Iskandar Said interview: “A script is not a picture. We all love it to be made into film, otherwise it’s just a piece of paper”

We talk to the director about his latest film, cinema in general, and the differentiability of people…

Dain Iskandar Said is a Malaysian filmmaker currently based in Kuala Lumpur. Since graduating from film school in London, he has directed short and experimental films, TV commercials and dramas, video art, media installations, documentaries and feature films.

Dain co-founded Apparat, an independent film production company, in 2009. In 2011, his second feature film, Bunohan, was only the second Malaysian film to be submitted to the Oscars. Furthermore, it was a big international success, winning awards from festivals all over the world, while it swept the 25th Malaysian Film Festival winning 8 awards.

His last film, Interchange, was released in 2016, and screened as part of the 60th BFI London Film Festival 2016 and 10th Five Flavours Film Festival 2016.

For Interchange, you were inspired from a photograph Carl Lumholtz took during his travels in Borneo. How did that occur? Generally, what inspires you to make films?
I said this before, I was doing some research about 9 years before. I was involved with tribal communities, tribal cultures and then I came across this photo from Carl Lamholtz about some beautiful tribal women and the description was “Women washing themselves from the evil effects of being photographed” . We all know that tribal people around the world believe that being photographed will steal their souls. And then I thought, what if we did something with this idea, and that’s how it started, this whole idea of liberating the soul, but set within a detective story, set within the 21st century. I did not want to set it in the old times, because the photo was taken in 1915.

Regarding the reason I want to make films. In many many ways, it is an amazing media and for any nation around the world, Europe, the US, Japan, their governments, communities, and societies see the value of filmmaking to tell their stories regarding their culture, within the context of the social and the political, even without the filmmakers saying: “We want to tell our stories. And so, when I was very young, I was inspired by this fact, and I thought, this is what I want to do.

You have also written the scripts for both of your films. Do you think it is important for a filmmaker to direct his own scripts?
I quite like the challenge, it provides some kind of excitement for me to also think about directing scripts written by someone else. But of course, I only had to direct films that I wrote the story. But also, for me they are two different approaches. I don’t think one is better, or more invalid than the other. I think it as a challenge to work with somebody else’s script as well. And at the end of day, we all know the script is not a picture, it’s nothing, we all love it to be made into film, otherwise it’s just a piece of paper with writing on it. At the end of the day, you will have your name as a director put on it, but you care about bringing it on the screen anyway.

The protagonists’ names in Interchange are Adam and Iva. Is there a significance for this?
I was playing with the whole mythology of origin, which comes from Christian, Muslim tradition. They share the same kind of stories, but the tribal people have a different kind of belief system and I was really interested in pitting that belief system, against the other kind of beliefs. It is, in a way, also reflecting on the tradition of what we know of Adam and Eve, the tradition of the story of origin. People in the world have different stories of origin, different cultures, different communities. So I was playing with that as a kind of ironic gesture really.The tribal people also have a belief about origin, hence the whole story is like a return to some kind of origin. Because they want to return, they want to die and go back, but I did not want to exoticise, romanticise the fact that they need to go back to this jungle and the origin of something beautiful. So, I kind of played with that. It’s just an idea, you have your stories of origin, we have our stories of origin. We, meaning the tribal people.

Interchange is Iedil Putra’s first major role in a film. Why did you choose him? Generally, how do you choose your actors?
He has played some minor roles. I saw some productions of his and I thought his depth and perspective in the works he has done is pretty wide, and I think he would understand what I wanted to get out of that character, specifically because when I thought of that character, I thought that he distanced himself from the world. He stays in the balcony, he takes photos of other people, other lives, there is a distance, and that really was the way for me to express the existential angst that he has, because he has been taking photos of dead people for much of his career. It was difficult to express that, all that angst does not really exist in Malaysia and actually characterizes the particular character completely. But the West, they have those kinds of characters in literature, in the works of Hermann Hesse like Steppenwolf or in the works of Dostoevsky, and many other writers, where this is the figure of the modern man. His trouble and tribulation is that he exists in a world where he is disconnected. The Japanese have a different way of doing it, they are so good at doing fucked up characters. The Americans have a different way of doing it. And so, I chose him because I thought he would understand the character, despite the fact that we do not have that “currency” in literature and in theater. And after some long discussions, it turned out I was right.

So the actors you choose are the ones that can understand what you are trying to say, this is their biggest trait?
Yes and that is the big challenge, because we all have different culture, different background, different perspectives and to find someone who shares my kind of perspective becomes really important.

Prisia Nasution is a great actress and a very beautiful woman. Do you believe beauty is as important in a film as the acting?
In many ways, it depends on the kind of film that you are making. The idea of Prisya as beautiful derives from a law of the noir, that there has to be a femme fatale. So women in the genre are lit in a very specific way or they are just beautiful. But because most of her shots are actually in daylight, in natural colors, in natural light, I wanted her to be attractive and beautiful, almost fatal in that way,a true femme fatale.

So, why did you choose noir as one of the genres of Interchange?
I looked at the old film noir and I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of the genre and transplant in it SE Asia, where there are garish colors and the world is so full and rich. So I wanted to translate that, because noir is “black-and -white”, and lighting its key element. Of course characterization, the duplicity of the character, the underbelly of the world built are also important, but the key focus was to present a noir film within modern context. In the 80’s they used neon lights, garish lights and then body heat, etc. But in order to apply it to SE Asia I had to use a mismatch of colours, a kind of controlled chaos, because SE Asia is a chaos of colors.

In the film the characters speak Malay and English. Is that the case in real life in the country?
Yes, I’m glad you brought it up, because that is an everyday fact of life. We are three different main races: Indian, Chinese and Malay. What people do not understand is that you also have Portuguese, Indian and Chinese Malaysians. I am from the Portuguese colonies, which existed before the British arrived, and they still exist. They are a small minority but they do. You also have the Arab and Yemeni diaspora in Malaysia. And then you have you have all the tribal people and the tribal elements, who have been there, historically, for a long long time.

So how do we speak with each other? Through English. And also because there was an instruction from the British that all communication with them and education will be in English, through the early days to the 70’s and 80’s. And still goes on and stills carries on, and persists through current generations.

Your previews film, Bunohan was Malaysia’s second submission to the Oscars. Do you consider that an honour?
I consider it an honour, it is an honour, but you do know what kind of films Oscar pick.

It was also successful, both artistically and financially
Commercially, to a certain degree, in Malaysia, at the time. I actually think, in Malaysia it didn’t do so badly. Even though we did not achieve equity, since the funding system is basically a loan, we need to pay back the money, and we are still paying. The year it came out it was really a very bad year for films and in terms of box office it has been going down a lot. And there is a lot of layered history why. In the last two decades this has been happening to a lot of countries, since they are competing against the Hollywood machinery. It’s hard to beat that. Internationally though, we had strong recognition, we were in Toronto, in Rotterdam, in some other countries, in Europe. We were also in Taiwan, where we won the Golden Horse for the NETPAC award, we won the Jakarta NETPAC for Foreign Film and we won a lot of awards at home. But you know sometimes these do not translate into success in the box office.

Why did it took you so long to shoot your next film?
Because funding is not easy to come by, and I think this a problem everywhere. My producer was saying to me that we can make a film every five years and the funding takes too much energy, too much effort and is very time consuming. So what she did was she went to look for equity funding, slate funding (funding for a series of films, in this case five) and she succeeded, so from now on, it will be faster. And this is actually being done through a joint company we have with the producer, Apparat.

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You have started your career with TV commercials. How did the transition occur? Are there similarities in the two mediums?
It’s funny that you mention it and it’s a good point, I actually started on TV. I did dramas, I did entertainment shows, I did music shows and sitcoms. So the problem with that is that I found, although I stayed for only 2.5 years, that there are political machinations and instabilities. I will give you an example: We did our work, but then censhorship came and they chopped up and changed and reedited stuff. And I thought to myself, you don’t get paid, you work stupid hours and your product does not go anywhere. So why would I want to do this? And you don’t learn that much. You learn only of bad things. Because how much can you really learn when everything is cut and censored, and the context is not great. It’s not encouraging context.

At least when I did commercials, we were still shooting in film in those days and that was a great discipline. And is very high discipline because the client is spending money. And so you really needed to be able to tell a story in 30 seconds, in 1 minute, in 2 minutes. And there was lot to learn from that discipline. What I mean is that, in the old days, when somebody is paying 300,000 for 30 seconds, every frame counts. Because the client will say I don’t like this I don’t like that, so every frame counts. I was working with film and in order to see what I did, I had to watch it in black and white video. Later yes it became color, but a lot of times it was black and white. But the time when you see it in color is only when you put in the light. It means you have to pay money to see what you shot. So you better be disciplined because take one, take two, take four, it costs a lot of money. There is no delete button. So it was great training.

Could you tell us a bit about your next project, “Our Mosque turned to ruin”?
It is a co-production with an Indonesian producer, which is set in Sumatra, but it is on a bit of a stumble, because, unfortunately, the investor passed away and then his partner died. He actually wanted us to shoot before Interchange but we could not. So anyway, we have been working on that script for three and a half years. It is about a matriarch tradition. In Sumatra, there are these societies that everything is owned by women, men cannot own anything. The men, when they come of age they leave, they must live in the world before they come home. But what really happens is that they come to Malaysia and they find wealth. They work, so they can own things. And in their own country they cannot own anything. And even more, if you are married to a woman and this woman dies, the family will throw you out. It will be a story set within that context. But because of the problem with the funding, if we do not find money we will shoot this other film which is a sci-fi.

What is the situation now with Malaysia’s cinema?
In general, I think it is hopeful but it is not really reached there yet, due to two decades of copying Hollywood films, copying bad horror, sitcom, rom-com, bad action movies, gangster movies. So the people do not believe in Malaysian Film anymore. So what me and my producer are trying to do is try to find a way to do as the Koreans do, who take a genre and then put in their own culture and they twist it. That is a thing we like and I think in Malaysia also the stories are there, but we must embrace them and exploit them and not just the corresponding hollywood detective genre, in the case of Interchange. We try to inject our cultural beliefs and the kind of troubles people have and all these kind of things that would normally not fit the detective – noir genre. But we still want to talk about our culture, our people. However, the government still censors the films, but we were lucky and they passed everything. There was another film though, a film shot just after ours and it is still not released, it is actually banned because there were so many cuts, because there is a lot of transgender people in it. But this year they have an issue with transgender, the next year with a different set of people.

Is that why you opened Interchange with a scene with trans people?
Because in many many ways, tribal people are marginalized. So, in a way the way you open the film sets the tone of what your film is about and in many ways the theme is about people who are not accepted by society, and they are different or they have a different belief system, a different way of looking at the world. And so that’s why we did it. We set it in a night club, but of course, nightclubs is an accepted face of the landscape and is a great noir opening

What are your most important influences as a director?
I grew up with European cinema. Last year I came here (in Poland) because I love Kislowsky, Tarksofsky but also Skolimowski, so they gave me a whole boxset of Skolomowski stuff. Who does not love European cinema? Also, when I was growing up my love was for the new German cinema. I love the coldsness and the distance in the films of Wenders, Herzog, Fassbinder, the holy trinity of German cinema. But I love Terrence Malick. Badlands is one of the greatest films ever made. And I love Apocalypse Now and all the old noirs, any time you give it to me I watch it. And I have to say this, because you are Greek, I love Aggelopoulos. Ulysses Gaze, but my favorite is The Travelling Players. The man is truly a master, I watch The Travelling Players again and again.

Dain Iskandar Said was interviewed at the 10th Five Flavours Film Festival 2016, which also screened Interchange.

Main images © Five Flavours Film Festival.

About the author

Panos KotzathanasisPanos Kotzathanasis Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos has been a fan of of Chinese kung fu and Japanese samurai movies since childhood, cultivating his love during his adolescence to extend to the whole of SE Asia. Currently he writes for a number of sites regarding Asian cinema and also does some content writing. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter. More »
Read all posts by Panos Kotzathanasis

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