Saturday, 1 August 2009

Yasmin's Malaysia in the united colours of cinema by Dato' Johan Jaafar

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Written by one of my heroes, my old friend from my early days as a budding theatre actor doing plays with the boys of Dewan Bahasa, my old Teh-Tarik-at-Benteng kaki, Dato' Johan Jaafar.

JOHAN JAAFAR
Yasmin's Malaysia in the united colours of cinema

2009/08/01


IT could have been a scene from one of her movies. Old and young, people of different races, filling the floor of the hospital in Damansara where she drew her last breath last Saturday night. Some were sobbing, others huddled together and consoling each other. Many were red-eyed. Sadness and loss filled the air. For a couple of days after she was taken to the hospital, her family members, friends, even strangers, stood vigil hoping for a miracle. Some had never met her in person. They had only seen her movies and TV advertisements. They were drawn to her for her ingenuity, frankness and above all, unpretentiousness. She made commercials she believed in and movies that were almost personal statements of her faith and conviction.

Yasmin Ahmad left us all distraught. She went away too soon, too early. She was in her prime. She was supposed to have many more fruitful and creative years ahead of her. We were expecting her to churn out many more great movies and loads of stylish TV commercials. After all, Yasmin had given us interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking yet memorable, mostly evergreen works for many years.

She started a movement, "Yasminism", single-handedly, to mean not only her tryst with cinematic excellence but a cause associated with it. You know what to expect when you watch a Yasmin movie or TV advertisement -- they are about how our people ought to be -- as one, united and very much Malaysian. Yasmin's works are made of these -- Malaysian at heart and in spirit. Yasmin's Malaysia is thoroughly rooted, not merely attempts at aggrandising the hopes and aspirations of our people like some politicians do.

She was a contrarian among her contemporaries. It is not that they do not believe in films that portray multiracialism, just that many are more comfortable harping on tested formulas. They would rather make movies about their own kind.

Nothing inherently wrong with that. P. Ramlee made largely Malay movies but he captured non-Malay audiences, too, in his glory days. His attempts at multiracialism came late professionally. Perhaps it is better to play safe than invite controversy.


Yasmin's middle name was never Controversy. She was a film-maker first and a propagandist last. She made movies to attract audiences. I am sure she did not want to be Michelangelo Antonioni with his dense and notoriously difficult films. She would rather make movies that touched the hearts of millions. She wanted to make movies in the tradition of Majid Majidi -- the famed Iranian film-maker who celebrated simplicity and warmth in human beings. She was said to be inspired by Majidi whose Children of Heaven and The Colour of Paradise "praised the glory of God". I am sure she had other Iranian directors as her reference. Iranian films are noted for their identity contestation and fearless experimentation. The likes of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, his wife Marzieh Meshkini, his daughter Samira and contemporaries Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Parviz Sayyad and Dariush Mehrjui have all made waves in Iran and outside. Many won international film awards.

Yasmin also made movies about little people, their trials and tribulations, but mostly about hope and aspiration. But unlike many of her brethren, Yasmin dared to be different. She walked a cinematic minefield trying to tell stories deemed sensitive by most. The Iranians deal in a predictable mono-cultural society. Yasmin had to grapple with a society steeped in racial sensitivities and emotional baggage. Yasmin's cinematic domain can be contentious, even dangerous. Sepet was a difficult film to make. A story of love between Ah Long and Orked is not meant to be easy. Undeterred, Yasmin made it into a cinematic feast, visually arresting, emotionally fulfilling and intellectually challenging.

Just take her Muallaf and the controversy surrounding its making. Even the title elicits caution. But Yasmin was determined to tell the story of two Malay sisters and a 30-year-old Catholic school teacher like it was -- without fear or favour.

Yasmin's Gubra, Mukhsin and her latest film Talentime are all about the audacity of spirit and the power of determination, yet anchored in the belief that the subject matters transcend race and creed. We must salute Yasmin for taking a risk meandering through the uncharted territories of race relations in the country.

But why shouldn't she? It is ironic that, despite the protestations that we have been living harmoniously since time immemorial and that we celebrate our differences, we are in fact drifting apart. We live in our own racial enclaves, barricading ourselves from others, most of us, that is. Our values are being pigeonholed by our prejudices and suspicion. We are supposed to be one, but not yet.

Listening to Yasmin narrating her ideas is like watching her movies. My colleagues and I at Media Prima had the honour of watching her tell those stories. She would act them out, replete with dialogue, her voice changed to emphasise, her hands expressively making a point. She made us see the world through the lens of her camera. We were working on some "unity films" before her untimely demise. The story of three lost boys from an orphanage was among our favourites.

Like her, we believed a story like that could help bring our people closer. She had a track record to justify that. True, Yasmin can change very little the residues of racial stereotyping in this country. But she tried hard. She made Tan Hong Ming in Love effortlessly for she saw in the characters the innocence and sincerity in children. Hong Ming and the Malay girl in the advertisement are as close as we get to the celebration of oneness. Just watch her Petronas advertisements, simply awesome -- hey, where were we when we saw them?

Yasmin wanted to show Malaysians as Malaysians -- in the united colours of cinema. Let's keep her idealism alive. Let's remember her as, to quote Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, one of the champions of "One Malaysia", the concept the prime minister is pushing forth for the nation. Let us pass on the torch of hope for a truly united Malaysia.

She couldn't have asked for more.

zulujj@tm.net.my



1 comment:

imasaliza said...

She is one in a million.. I respect and idolised her works...never missed any of her movies..tq Tiara :)