The Star (Malaysia). 27 January 2003
WHAT has a durian, a big one at that, got to do with certain socio-political events that occurred in 1987 in Malaysia? It's all in the symbolism. At least that's what Amir Muhammad, director of The Big Durian, says of his new digital-film.
In his write-up on the concept, he says just like the Malaysian king of fruits, the digitally shot film will have many points and will definitely not be for all tastes.
Amir cheekily explains that in Malay the tagline reads a little different. In Malay, it says: "filem ini mungkin nampak berat dan tajam tapi boleh dinikmati untuk segmen-segmennya yang lazat ... biarpun ada juga yang mungkin jadi loya." ("the film might seem heavy and pointed but can be appreciated for its tasty segments ... even though some might find it nauseating.")
One suspects that Amir is not telling all. But enough about fruits; the film revolves around more serious matters.
Let's go back to Oct 19, 1987. For the people of Kuala Lumpur and Chow Kit in particular, it was a time when everyone got a little hot and bothered.
There was this guy by the name of Adam (he was a private in the army) running around in army fatigues with an M-16. Before you could say Malaysia Boleh, word was out that he was apparently running amok and that fact spun rumours of racial riots.
People didn't go to work; parents stopped their kids from going to school, there was a bit of panic in the air that the dreaded race card was being played. Prior and subsequent to this incident, emotions were already running high over origins and rights matters, and education issues. Driving all this were the players: the politicians, judiciary, the royalty, the police, and media, among others.
Nothing was really clear then, and perhaps "overgrown weeds and grasses" obstructed the view of the real situation. So what would be the easy way out, but to cut down those noxious plants.
While Amir is noted for adding social commentary in his writings and film work, they have been mostly between the lines; with Durian, however he delves into the heavyweight category.
Amir was born in 1972 in big bad KL and went from writing "spicy" columns in an English daily to film work. For his first film Lips to Lips in 2000, he was both director and scriptwriter and then he went on to produce James Lee's Snipers in 2001. And if you didn't like the subtitles for films like Dari Jemapoh Ke Manchestee and Jogho, you can blame him for it.
Amir says that Durian is basically an extension of his previous digital piece cleverly called 6horts, which is basically six short films rolled into one. Incidentally one of the shorts, Lost, won a prestigious critics prize at last year's Singapore International Film Festival.
"The fifth and sixth short was about such subject matters as the ISA (Internal Security Act) and being multi-lingual, and race and growing up. This is an extension of that, the next step."
"The period I was looking at is very significant to the nation and I decided to open it up to people for them to explore how it affected them, if at all. We have our official history, the one you learn at school, but there is this other history, the personal history the other history of Malaysia, which is of no less importance," explains Amir.
For him it is also a personal journey of sorts, as he was then 14 going on 15 and the idea of violence, not the physical but the mental intrigued him. Amir cites the looks of fear and suspicion on people's faces at the time and how 1969 was just a paragraph in history books but this was real.
"It was a significant time for many and two of my friends or rather they and their families actually emigrated."
For Amir it is pretty obvious that some issues never go away and as he says the same themes and issues keep recurring.
In the brief, potential actors for the film are told that they will need to rely heavily on improvisation and that the line separating fact and fiction will be blurred.
Some might be appearing as themselves in the film, while others might have to make up some characters and some will just narrate the stories of others.
Stylistic inspirations cited by Amir are a Thai film called Mysterious Object at Noon (for the blurring of documentary and fiction) and Iran's Homework (for individual direct-to-camera recitation). He says he doesn't have a single character in mind and it will be based on what those auditioning say; it will be the raw material to fit into the concept of the film that Amir conceived.
Of course he says that acting experience is preferred for aspirants as they only have a short time for shooting and can't afford anyone freezing on them when the camera rolled. The auditions were kept open though and Amir says he didn't want to just call in established names and people he had worked with before.
"Everyone had to attend the audition, there were no roles earmarked for individuals."
The shooting of the film, which is being produced by another noted name in film and theatre, James Lee, commenced on Jan 20. The shoot is planned to take an amazing five days with a full DVM camera and on a budget that Amir likens to the "nail-clipper budget" for Lord of the Rings.
Rumour has it that Amir, after completing this project, will be going to Japan for six months to make another film.