Stutter and shoot
(I wrote this article for the April issue of Plan B, a pretty fine Malaysian magazine for blokes. It was to introduce the Cool Gadgets supplement, of all things. I normally would refuse but the editor who asked over the phone had the sexiest voice. So I present it here as a kind of modest manifesto).
The Indonesians, with their love of shorthand, have a word, gatek, which stands for gagap teknologi. That’s me, always stuttering when it comes to technological gadgets.
But as Fate, that impertinent slip of a thing, wouldhave it, I am sometimes asked to comment on digital technology and the like. This is because in 2000 I wrote and directed what became Malaysia’s first DV (digital video) movie. It’s called Lips to Lips and you haven’t seen it, but that’s OK.
The decision to use digital video rather than film was a deep, considered one that was taken the moment my financier checked his bank balance. I had used 16mm film before when I took a film course (in New York, now that you asked). Our first day of shoot (in New York, that is) had us all excited until we discovered that we had loaded the film in the wrong way, and so what came back from the lab was a perfect expanse of exposed black. We were the only group in the class that had made such an elementary mistake. Looking back, it was the most apposite start, since we had nowhere else to go but up.
When making Lips to Lips I relied very much on our Technical Director, Zalee who is what the Indonesians would call a cowok gondrong (long-haired bloke), who was and is able to wax extensively of CCDs, FireWire, interlacing. These were things I didn’t want to know about. As Katharine Hepburn said, when exasperatedly quitting a tedious Method Acting workshop: "To hell with all that -- I just want to be a movie star!"
The arguments in favour of digital video (as opposed to film) has been made many times in back issues of Independent Filmmaker magazine and its ilk. The democratising potential of consumer-level machinery has been demonstrated time and again, as seen even in the nude ear-squat controversy that royally embarrassed the Malaysian police.
In a society such as ours, it has hitherto not been easy for stories outside the market-driven hegemony to be told. This presence outside the discursive norm can be something as basic as linguistic, since stories not in KL Malay (sometimes sprinkled with English) are not thought to be very commercial.
Digital video has enabled stories like Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road), Mei Li De Xi Yi Ji (The Beautiful Washing Machine), Mu (Sanctuary) and Gedebe (Thug) to be told. This sort of linguistic plurality, otherwise trumpeted in our tourism ads, has caused some self-appointed defenders of National Film Culture to start squealing like stuck pigs, if you can forgive the non-halal simile. "This isn’t the sort of image we want to show to outsiders!" they thunder. Well, tough. The ease and availability of video has moved beyond the realm of the technological to the epistemological. "Permission to narrate" was a phrase of Edward Said’s, but that restrictive need has been blitzed in the neat blur of binary codes,
The Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf likens the availability of digital cameras to the onset of cheap ballpoint pens. Great literature can now be written by anyone, but the number of great new books remains small. It’s the same with films. Most DV quickies will be gone with the wind of the next big fad, but that also is fine because ephemerality carries its own pathos and beauty.
Almost all my movies have been made with digital video. I am a bricoleur; I make do with what I have. Sometimes shortcuts imposed by limitations create a feel that’s more urgent and somehow transcendent. Working with a narrower range can create wonders if the soul’s in the right place; this is why Edith Piaf is a better singer than Mariah. B-movies, made on the cheap and the fly, are more imperishably entertaining than the glossy blockbusters of their time. This somehow relates to the motto I adopted at the time: "Other people can do it better, but I can do it cheaper."
Using video to 'look like film' is a goal of many upstarts but I’ve always preferred to use its inherent mobility and unassuming sneakiness for an aesthetic that’s different from celluloid. Embedded with an Indonesian film crew during their elections 2 years ago, I shot over 80 video tapes which were edited into The Year of Living Vicariously (2005). I was similarly generous when shooting Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (2006), a semi-musical documentary inspired by the life of the communist leader Chin Peng. (On 18 May the latter becomes the first local documentary to get a commercial release in Malaysia. So even if a hundred people see it, it will still become the highest-grossing Malaysian documentary ever, so there!)
Having said all that, I am also this year co-directing a film on good old 35mm Kodak film. I am co-directing because the budget is so big (by my standards) that if Susuk flops I can always share the blame. For the first time phrases like "check the gate" and "how many feet do we have left in this mag?" are bandied around me. An actor’s flubbed line will now cost a few hundred RM in film stock and processing. Even so, non-linear editing is now digital and can solve a few problems. When the bomba failed to materialise during a scene of pathetic fallacy, we decided to just CGI in the raindrops.
The bottom line when it comes to filmmaking or any kind of creative endeavour was articulated by the screenwriter William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything." That is a source of anxiety to investors but a source of excitement for the rest of us, I think that Malaysian cinema is the most exciting in the world simply because there are so many stories we have not yet told, All these electronic manufacturers competing for your moolah creates an atmosphere of enlightened self-interest, if you will only permit yourself to narrate. The very last quote of this article (I promise) comes from Hermann Hesse: "Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another."