Tales That Bind Women
Posted on 25 March 2013
“Female directors telling women’s stories” is a straightforward concept, yet the fruit of Ikal Mayang is something far more layered and complex. With an ambitious 15 short films in the series, Ikal Mayang’s diverse collective serves as an intricate exploration of the female experience in a Malaysian setting.
Ikal Mayang in the Malay language means long, wavy black hair and refers to the idiom: ‘Rambut sama hitam, hati lain-lain’. Our hair may be the same shade of black, but our hearts hold different stories.
Because of the usual lack of female representation in the local film and TV industry, it’s refreshing to see that women were involved in all stages of Ikal Mayang’s conception. The directors were handpicked by Low Ngai Yuen and Lee Su May of Garang Pictures, along with creative director of Big Eyes Entertainment Ida Nerina. Among the chosen were women in the industry who have worked on both sides of the camera. There is criticism over the fact that most of the women chosen were actresses and not directors themselves but the purpose of this project is for women to tell women’s stories; and there are a few notable directorial debuts here to look out for.
Ikal Mayang follows this year’s International Women’s Day theme “The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum” with the aim to increase female representation in the media as well as to challenge the way women are portrayed in the mainstream. These short films touch on various themes: love, sexuality, body image, female relationships and women’s health.
Inspektor Mastura • Love Story • Jerat Suami
Sharifah Aleya stars as a no-nonsense policewoman in the romantic comedy Inspektor Mastura, directed by Elaine Daly.
Elaine turns the tables on the standard objectification of women in this short by casting a slew of “male eye candy” like Hans Isaac, Nazarrudin Rahman, Hansen Lee and Zahiril Adzim. Not that the tough Inspektor Mastura is fazed by this. She even shrugs at the affections of her colleague (Beto Kusyairi) who always brings her lunch. It’s not until the day he tells her he’s getting married that she starts to feel regret for always putting on a tough exterior.
Mastura has a change of heart after a flashback, realising she has trust issues with men because her mother was raped (and subsequently imprisoned for killing her assailant). The film ends with a hint of budding romance between Mastura and her favourite ayam percik supplier, played by Khairy Jamaluddin.
As a character, Inspektor Mastura makes a great strong female protagonist but it’s unfortunate that we don’t get to see her use that strength in the film. The relationship between Mastura and her colleague is passive and dispassionate, making the stakes quite low. Because of this it was hard to sympathise with Mastura when she inevitably lost her love interest. This incident led to Mastura’s flashback which was placed where the climax of the film should have been. Flashbacks can only show backstory, not character development. In this case, the use of a flashback fast forwarded Mastura’s development and we missed out on being able to watch her transform, which is the core of good storytelling. Essentially Inspektor Mastura’s hurdle in the film was overcome while sitting at a table thinking about her mother. Even with a great cast, characters and production quality, the story unfortunately lost its power to a weak story arc.
In Love Story, director Shamaine Othman plays “Ali”, named after Ali McGraw, the lead actress from the 1970 classic romance Love Story. Like the character Shamaine plays homage to, Ali is a lover of romance films but is unlucky in love herself. For some reason, she always manages to get a first date but never the second. Among the men who never call her back (tut tut) are Ezra Zaid of That Effin’ Show and the king of Malaysian cameos, Khairil Bahar — who was also cameraman for many of the Ikal Mayang films.
Ali has the hots for her colleague Noah (Michael Chen), who asks her out on a date. Ali is determined to make the date work and decides to use lines from romance movies.
The plan backfires but Ali redeems herself, leading to the elusive second date and the next, and the next. This homage-to-rom-coms concept is formulaic but the film still makes for good, light entertainment. Shamaine is likable as Ali and the film is worth a watch just to see a certain tight, lingering shot of Michael Chen as he walks on by (you’ll know it when you see it).
My only other comment since Shamaine comes from a theater background and this is her second short film, would be to take care of how she blocks her actors. The two most notable scenes are in Ali’s apartment when she’s talking to her housemate and the scene where she stands up for the sick waiter. All of the cast was crowded to one side of the room as though it were a stage, facing the camera as an audience. Blocking actors for film differs from blocking actors in theater.
Jerat Suami is a mockumentary directed by Dira Abu Zahar. The leading women are not so much characters but different female tropes divulging their approaches towards marriage. All three women “interviewed” for the mockumentary are career women. The first is a hijab-clad businesswoman who wins over her to-be husband with material things. The second is a career-obsessed woman in her 40s who has unrepentantly roped in her husband using black magic. The third is what we would call a pisau cukur — a gold digger whose only aspirations as an actress is to find a rich datuk husband. The fourth character in the film is a successful male author who has fallen into various marriage traps and has written a book warning other men of these types of women — that’s still misogyny. Even in a mockumentary.
Although the film with its vibrant pop aesthetics intends to be humorous and possibly ironic — it still continues to perpetuate negative female stereotypes that already frequent most Malaysian movies and TV dramas.
Gender & Sexuality
Odah • Hawa
Scriptwriter turned director Junad Md Nor’s Odah is about a teenage girl who wants to cut her hair short like the 90s Malay girl group Feminin. After being berated by her mother (Mislina Mustaffa) for wanting to look like a boy, word spreads to the kampong that Odah wants to cut her hair and “become a lesbian,“ much to the horror of the villagers; most of whom have never met a lesbian before, much less know what a ‘lesbian’ is.
The irony of Odah being the subject of torment for wanting to do a gender bender is that it is her almost effeminate father who manages to sweetly convince his tough, chain-smoking wife to go easy on their daughter.
Junad cleverly goes back to using Ikal Mayang as a central theme to her film by illustrating how society uses hair as a way to measure a woman’s heterosexuality. Odah is a heartwarmingly funny story about self-acceptance. My only technical comment would be to throw out the choppy editing style for a couple of the simple shots, for example when Odah picks up the scissors. The story is strong enough on its own without the pop-style editing.
Sharifah Amani pushes the ballot with Hawa, a film about same-sex relationships. The actress-cum-director plays the title name. Hawa is a Muslim woman who struggles between her faith and her feelings for her best friend Ayu, who is due to marry Hawa’s ex-boyfriend Adam, played by Zahiril Adzim.
Amani is a masterful storyteller and seasoned actress; her strengths lie in realising organic characters with true-to-life conflicts in a Malaysian setting.
Amani is a masterful storyteller and seasoned actress; her strengths lie in realising organic characters with true-to-life conflicts in a Malaysian setting. She has what it takes to fill the large shoes of her mentor Yasmin Ahmad, although after watching her last two short films Sangkar and Kampung Bangsar, I would like to see her move towards crafting films that look less polished and more stylised to match the rawness of the characters she writes. If she can move away from clean storytelling and using pop music as part of her soundtracks, I feel Amani has the potential to dominate our film scene as Malaysia’s next leading female auteur.
[ Editor’s note: Amani clarified during Q&A that Hawa merely has trouble accepting that Ayu is marrying Adam, as she disapproves of him. The film can be read either way — though the official interpretation seems carefully selected to avoid confrontation with conservatives, whereas the film does not avoid the possibility of being interpreted as a love story between two women. ]
Looks Fool • All About Deflowering
Looks Fool by Nanu Baharudin is a satirical short film where jaws drop following a beautiful woman walking down the street. People are nice to her and even the nasi lemak lady gives her kuih for free. It is later revealed that the “attractive woman” is actually a man dressed in drag after a bet with his buddies.
The intended message of the film is in the title — that there is more to life than worrying about your appearance, so be yourself — but another problematic message arises. Society rewards beautiful women, even if the beauty perceived is only a facade.
Comedy is arguably one of the most difficult genres to write. Great comedy is usually written within the premise of the overall story, not in the gags. When a comedy trivialises real issues like gender without rewarding the audience with any profound ideas on the subject, it loses its humour and weight. Gender is more than our biology or the way we dress, and it would be great if the film could more effectively say that.
Mislina Mustaffa’s avant-garde short film All About Deflowering raises the same issues of body image and perception. This is the second film of Mislina’s that I’ve seen where she’s approached her 10–15 minute film in one take with a stagnant camera. The storyline is simple enough. A glamorous, voluptuous, blind woman (played by Sherry Al-hadad) comes back to her humble home. She tidies the apartment and sings ditties to herself.
Towards the end of the film, she comes forward to face the camera and removes her makeup in front of it as though it was a mirror. A badge pinned to her kebaya says that she works as a beautician, which is a paradox to her visual impairment. Her final words are “I’m ready for my close-up”, a line from the film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. It is a reflection of her delusion or rather, society’s delusions of how we define beauty.
Although this voyeuristic approach might grate on some viewers, I can appreciate that as a performance artist, Mislina likes to challenge her audience and in doing so, she drives her point across stronger — what is beauty and why do we keep trying to define it?
If Only • Nawar • The Toast
If only is the directorial debut of actress Carmen Soo. It is a story of an immutable friendship between two old friends Ira and Grace, played by Dian P Ramlee and Junji Delfino respectively.
It’s not often that we get stories about women that don’t require ruthless drama or backstabbing to drive conflict.
It’s heartwarming to see a female friendship like that of Ira and Grace’s — kind, forgiving and selfless. It’s not often that we get stories about women that don’t require ruthless drama or backstabbing to drive conflict. Both Carmen Soo and Soefira Jaafar wrote If Only by improvising as the characters themselves.
We often see stories of domestic abuse from the perspective of older women but Nawar is one that is specifically directed at teenagers. Directed by Aida Buyong and written by Christina Orow, Nawar (played by Sharifah Aleysha) is in an emotionally abusive relationship. Nawar’s mother doesn’t approve of her daughter’s boyfriend and although Nawar defends him, she doesn’t really seem to like him either.
After Nawar’s mother bans her daughter’s boyfriend from the house, Nawar takes off to her grandmother’s house out of town to blow of some steam. Unbeknownst to her, her boyfriend has followed her and is being hostile.
With the help of Nawar’s grandmother and the family cow (yes, cow) they chase off the evil now ex-boyfriend and later file a police report against him. The message behind Nawar is clear and necessary because it’s uncommon for our media to address dating etiquette among teens. One thing though, and some of the other Ikal Mayang shorts are guilty of this too, is I would refrain from naming a short film after the main character if it doesn’t say anything about the story. Every film rides on its title and naming it after your main character can affect the reception of the film especially if it is entered into international festivals where these names are unfamiliar to foreign audiences.
Sue Lankaster’s short film The Toast opens with a scene of two 40-something women, Elaine and Mary, having a picnic in a park. As teenagers, Mary heroically distracted an assailant from Elaine, and was subsequently raped while Elaine escaped. Decades later, Elaine is toasting a glass of wine to her deceased friend.
I have two problems with the story told here. Firstly, the dialogue is theater dialogue, which in this case, didn’t translate well onscreen. Because of this, older Elaine and older Mary’s performances are quite forced. Secondly, I can’t sympathise with Elaine’s character. Elaine doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities and is almost remorseless in recounting this story where she abandoned her ‘best friend’. In spite of this, Mary still adulates Elaine because she had taught her how to read. I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the film but I’m sorry to say — The Toast comes across as a story of subservience and selfishness rather than one of friendship.
1-800-Baby • Terjun • Pantang • Berat Sebelah
In 1-800-Baby, director Sofia Jane touches on an issue that is often subject to controversy in Malaysia – teen pregnancy. This is a topic that’s been done many times before but there is a point of difference with Sofia’s deeply sympathetic portrayal of young, single mothers.
As an independent film collection, Ikal Mayang directors get to escape the sharp, sharp knife of the Malaysian censorship board. It is because of this that 1-800-Baby is able to have a powerful yet grotesque scene of Salmah (played by Nadiya Nisaa), a secondary school student, delivering her baby herself in secret. Right after giving birth, she climbs a gate and abandons the baby on the doorstep of a middle class family.
Fast forward to many years later, Salmah (Norma Damanhuri) is now an aged woman who is a guest on a Jerry Springer-like reality show. At this point Salmah has been working at an orphanage for years and is on the show looking for the daughter she had to give up. Some members of the audience are judgmental and cruel whereas others are sympathetic to Salmah.
1-800-Baby puts a lens to a very real problem and how Malaysians perceive teen pregnancy and child abandonment.
However as a short film, Salmah’s character comes across as two-dimensional. I think her story could have been explored further without the flashback or older Salmah. With or without the flashbacks however, this is a film I would enjoy watching as a feature length.
Producer-cum-director Fauziah Nawi tells of a mother who takes her own life in Terjun (Plummet) because she can no longer cope with caring for her handicapped son. There are some powerful performances from Shabera Shaik and Syafie Naswip, who play the mother and son. It is unclear what the son’s handicap is. In the beginning he seems like a recovering drug addict but the director later clarified that his handicap was deliberately left ambiguous. All we know is that he’s blind and wheelchair bound. Personally I think whatever his handicap is it shouldn’t have to be a secret if it doesn’t change that the story is ultimately about a mother’s sacrifice. The tone towards the end changes entirely when the son who was previously bawling in agony in his bed is suddenly calmly speaking in poetry to his mother as she stands on a ledge.
The film is a little rough around the edges but nevertheless the message comes through – do families dealing with disabilities get enough support and is there anything that we can do to ease their burden?
Two of my personal favourites were Pantang and Berat Sebelah, directed by Vanidah Imran and Melissa Saila respectively. Whereas some of the other short films defined women in relation to their friends, family and partners, these two haunting films beautifully conveyed internal conflict, which requires craftsmanship to achieve cinematically.
Vanidah draws from personal experience in Pantang, starring Dira Abu Zahar. Pantang is about a woman who has just given birth and is ‘confined’ to her house as per Malay tradition. She is tormented by exhaustion, boredom and lack of sleep; teetering on the border of post-natal depression and at one point, even daydreaming of taking her child’s life. Dira Abu Zahar’s performance is impeccable as she disappears into the character of the tortured new mother.
For some women, post-natal depression is caused by a hormonal imbalance, making it difficult to simply “snap out” of. Pantang is the story of one woman’s close call with the mental affliction — a personal hell that many less fortunate women have succumbed to.
Berat Sebelah stars Indonesian actress Ria Irawan. Ria plays Maimoon, a woman who is afflicted with Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). Maimoon is convinced that she needs to have her left breast removed. Her doctor refuses to go through with the surgery and like many BIID sufferers, we watch with our hands over our faces as Maimoon attempts the gory amputation herself. Ria Irawan’s portrayal is deliciously dark. Although BIID isn’t an affliction restricted to women, it’s powerful watching a feminine, straight woman who wants to remove her breast just because.
Stylistically, Berat Sebelah is reminiscent of a horror film and it does this without compromising the seriousness of Maimoon’s psychological disorder. I have only admiration for actor-turned-director Melissa Saila for bravely pursuing such a taboo subject. The film is nicely paced, the music score is haunting, the production design is great and the film title really sticks.
This is Melissa Saila’s first short film and I hope that there will be more to come soon.
The truths in fiction
Ikal Mayang is overall an impressive tribute to women, by women. Whether the portrayal of women is ideal or flawed, Ida Nerina says it all in her short film written with Racheal Malai Ali, She. In She, Ida says that whether or not we agree with them they are all real women’s stories.
She is a dizzy gonzo film about a modern woman with an active social life. She is messy, tardy and unreliable. She tells her friends she’s going to a “posh party” when she is actually working at one as a waitress. Most of the directors behind Ikal Mayang appear at the party either as themselves or as the characters in their films. The camera whizzes around capturing snippets of these women’s actions and conversations. It’s scary and chaotic like hitching a ride on a whirling dervish but Ida is trying to show how crazy but wonderful being a woman can be, possibly summing up the Ikal Mayang experience since all 15 short films were done in 32 days.
Despite Malaysia having a strict censorship board, violence and misogyny still frequent our mass media. Rape jokes are still considered jokes; polygamy can be used as the subject of a romantic comedy without repercussion and marrying your rapist qualifies as a happy ending, not Stockholm syndrome.
Cinema has the ability to provide a greater awareness so more female-centric efforts could effectively serve as an antidote to the social problems faced by women. Whether or not we agree with or like the message behind the Ikal Mayang films, they all uniquely reflect on how women perceive themselves. These are all stories that need to be told before things start getting better for the girls and women in our country.
Regardless of gender, Ikal Mayang is a burst of great Malaysian films. Whatever it is they’re doing, they’re doing it right. A lot of the content is brave, raw, and original.
Regardless of gender, Ikal Mayang is a burst of great Malaysian films. Whatever it is they’re doing, they’re doing it right. A lot of the content is brave, raw, and original. There is talk of a second edition, which would be welcome. It proves that if our film and TV industry wants to produce great work it has to encourage filmmakers to experiment and tell great stories freely and honestly without censorship. ∗
Note: As of now, Ikal Mayang is no longer being screened for the public although the public is encouraged to lobby for local TV stations to screen the films for a wider audience.
Nadira Ilana is a writer-filmmaker from Sabah. Her last film was The Silent Riot for Freedom Film Festival 2012. Nadira is a Berlinale Talent Campus alumni. She is currently working on her feature script Wilderness and is looking for a producer to collaborate with her.
- Low Ngai Yuen of Garang Pictures is also the head of our parent company Kakiseni, and Women:Girls.
- Michael Chen, who starred in Shamaine Othman’s Love Story is a Kakiseni (and Garang Pictures) employee. Actually, if you recognise the faces of Garang Pictures staff, you’ll see them making cameo appearances in many of the short films.
- Ida Nerina works with Kakiseni on other projects — for example, she will direct the upcoming 10th Boh Cameronian Arts Awards gala night.
- The team behind Kakiseni’s Blog (which does not include Ngai Yuen) has nothing to do with any part of Ikal Mayang (but are aware many think it’s a Kakiseni project). As part of our editorial policy, independent writers review events that are organised by Kakiseni, and in this case, one with our CEO’s name stamped all over it.
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