“My intention is not to seek controversy, my intention is to tell a story without self censorship. I seek all my staff not to self-censor themselves at the location. Do not self-censor your work! Do not think about what others will perceive, just do it.” –Yasmin Ahmad (1958 – 2009)
What have I learnt from the films of Yasmin Ahmad? The answer is simple, but not quite: be humble, for we are merely a drop in a much larger ocean.
Yasmin Ahmad is a Malaysian filmmaker who would introduce herself as a film dabbler. She made six feature films – Rabun (2003), Sepet (2004), Gubra (2006), Mukhsin (2007), Muallaf (2008) and Talentime (2009). Her career as a filmmaker started late by conventional, contemporary criteria. Rabun, as with the rest of her five features, was produced when she was in her 40s, but this seems to imbue all her material with impressive serenity – a spillover, necessarily, of her own being.
I recall my first (and unfortunately, only) meeting with Yasmin during a close-door screening of one of her films in Singapore. A film programmer introduced us to each other. As soon as Yasmin came to learn of my situation, she led me to the old stairway of the cinema hall and initiated a discussion of the regime of censorship that had been (and remains) installed in our countries. This, because the programmer, a mutual friend, had informed her of my own troubles with the censors. Yasmin’s advice was reassuring but very emphatic: ‘The worst of all forms of censorship is that of the self.’
Yasmin’s departure (in 2009) was mourned by filmmaking communities from across South East Asia – much like her willingness to mentor me by the stairway the other day, she had been a symbol of strength for various younger voices across the region. She encouraged us to never stop making films, to explore, and to inquire – but this support did not manifest merely in spirit: she even bought a DV camera that anyone could borrow at any point in time to make their films.
Such support can often yield fractal results in independent filmmaking communities – the singular instance of giving and receiving can recur endlessly, ultimately leading to the construction of an entire structure founded on the premises of collaboration, inheritance and generosity. Yasmin was instrumental in the foundation of a similar regime of support for younger filmmakers in the region. For instance, filmmaker Tan Chui Mui has publicly credited Yasmin for her career. The story goes that she met Yasmin while running general errands for her friend. Tan intimated her about an idea for a film that needed RM 2000 (USD600) for its execution. Almost immediately, Yasmin made arrangements at her office and asked Tan to go collect the money to shoot the film. This yielded A Tree in Tanjung Malim, a short that won the principle award at the International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen. Later, Tan decided to use her prize money from the festival to fund projects by other, younger filmmakers. This framework of support has been central to the cause of the Malaysian New Wave, which Yasmin hoped and envisioned to be a pure cinema with no interference or censorship.
Her own films often deal with ideas about the family – as a young filmmaker, they taught me how to step back and observe, to acknowledge my mere position as someone who thought up a semi-fictional character. She once said,
“People who write beautiful things, people who make beautiful films really step back and became nobody.They just step back and observe.”
It is an artistic ambition I struggle with every single day – so simple, and yet, so difficult.
In one of my short films, I wanted very much to employ her approach and observe. I was inside a train heading to Seoul, trying to write a letter to my mother. As is often the case with those we love the most, I was finding it difficult to articulate the entire extent of my feelings for her. I decided therefore to merely observe the three women sitting opposite me in the compartment. It was through them that I could then arrive at the meaning my mother holds for me. The result is a three-minute short film titled ‘Observe’.
Yasmin’s films were often thought of as being controversial in Malaysia. The portrayal of an elderly couple taking a shower together in Rabun was deemed distasteful. Her second film, Sepet, was theatrically released in Malaysia two years after its international premiere. These unfortunate incidents would not disturb Yasmin, who instead invested her entire focus in the production of the next film. A commentator once made a – by all accounts, provocative – observation at the screening of Sepet: ‘…it looks like a TV drama.’ She responded by declaring her love for TV dramas: ‘…some of them are better than the films we watch.’
“I hope my films are more evocative than provocative.”
On Thursday, 23 July 2009, Yasmin suffered a stroke. She was discovered motionless on her chair, head rested on the table in front of her, hands cupping her face. On Saturday, 25 July 2009, more than 48 hours after the surgery, Yasmin Ahmad succumbed.
At the time of her death, Yasmin was involved in the execution of two projects: Wasurenagusa (a Japanese co-production) and Go Thaddeus! (a Singapore production). While these films lay abandoned for now, her spirit still seems to imbue a number of films by other, younger filmmakers with a reservoir of energy.