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The Storyteller

Not having seen Talentime yet, the last Yasmin Ahmad film I watched was a rough cut of Muallaf. She had held a series of private screenings of this early edit at her Menara Olympia offices; artist Shahril Nizam and I had been invited by virtue of us keeping blogs that Yasmin had liked.

“I like the stories you tell,” Yasmin said. Aw, shucks.

Muallaf was a film in which a hesitating teacher (Brian Yap) encounters troubled sisters (Sharifah Amani and Aleysha) who have a tendency to quote progressive verses from the Quran verbatim; he falls in love with one of them. I didn’t like Muallaf.

It was a didactic movie. It was insistent in declaiming a world where people are kind and empathise, where they see beyond race and religion to “love one another” – dismissing those who “come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”. It felt stilted and hollow, a convenient caricature, like some reverse political cartoon.

And maybe that was what it is. Fahmi Fadzil, seeing Muallaf‘s final cut in Singapore, wrote that “setiap babak cerita seperti kaca berwarna (stained glass) yang ada bentuk-bentuk manusia dalam posisi/situasi tertentu, seperti diorama”:

“When seen, stained-glass tableaus aren’t that beautiful – in fact, they seem weird and stiff. As if they were meant to. And we begin to suspect that it is not the glass that we should pay attention to, but the light through it. And, more importantly, that which the light illuminates.”

Fahmi was being a little wanky, there – but its true that most of Yasmin’s films are mirrors though which we could see ourselves.

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Rabun, Sepet, Gubra, and Mukhsin were all beautiful, painfully sweet movies – movies portraying a Malaysia that proclaimed realists knew did not exist. On her older blog, the filmmaker once quoted Kakiseni reviewers: “Yasmin is trapped in her own dreamworld of ideals.”

And that’s exactly right. But through those dream worlds, the dreamers among us saw a Malaysia we wanted. Perhaps through an artist yearning for beautiful, better places – we hoped – our fellow countrymen could be convinced to do the same?

Yasmin was in a unique position of influence. Her Hari Raya and Merdeka commercials are ubiquitous. (Isn’t “Petronas ad” common parlance?) Her films are among the few in that bracket of polish to consistently get both wide releases in Malaysian cinemas, and decent ticket sales.

Both Sepet and Gubra got flak – the former for its interracial love, the latter for its perceived misinterpretations of Islamic (and Malay) values. Sharifah Amani was screwed over in the conservative press for shaving her head to do Muallaf. But these vital skirmishes occurred in the popular sphere, not just among the intelligentsia. They were discussions that reached the average pakwe-makwe, coupling in our cineplexes.

And Yasmin, with her saccharine fantasies, soldiered on.

She sometimes took criticism badly, but in my experience Yasmin never failed to eventually extend to those with whom she disagreed with an olive branch of grace. I like to think that part of Yasmin’s character as her celluloid dreams, manifest. She liked my stories, and would keep telling me so, even though she knew I didn’t care for some of hers.

Today our divisions are deeper, and there are more swords drawn. Our politicians give us terror, our blogs are filled with anger, and in our streets we seem waiting to glimpse nightmares. And we’ve just lost another dreamer.

(ZS)

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