Interview with Amir Muhammad

by Farah Azalea and Lesley Chow

A very vocal guest at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival was political documentary-maker Amir Muhammad, who has had two films banned in Malaysia, including Malaysian Gods, his current feature on the furore surrounding the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. As a result, Muhammad often takes his films to SIFF; his films have also screened at Berlin and Sundance, as well as a career retrospective in Pesaro. We were curious to find out how Muhammad’s career has been shaped by the international festival circuit, especially since his work is so culturally specific, drawing heavily on local vernacular, humour, culture and politics.

Q: How important have film festivals been in establishing your career?

A: They’re good because we get money and publicity from them. But at the big festivals you become a flavour of the month and it’s difficult. If you have a small film your work can get lost in the huge selection of movies. In Berlin it’s a bit different because they have a whole section of small films. People tell you all the time, “Go and meet this white curator,” but that’s not my priority. Sometimes, though, you have to be pragmatic rather than just chasing the festivals you happen to like.

Q: So other than financially, European and US festivals are not a big part of your agenda?

A: It was important to me that Malaysian Gods have an Asian premiere, which is why I’m having it in Singapore rather than Rotterdam. You have to make a film that communicates with the people around you, even though some might think it’s an old-fashioned way of working. If you make films only for international audiences the work becomes more and more diluted.

Q: But given that most of your public screenings are for audiences outside Malaysia, does it worry you that some of your films’ political context may be lost? Do you adapt your films for a foreign audience, eg, by adding more explanation and background information?

A: I think it’s inevitable that the context may be slightly altered as I don’t think there is any such thing as a universal film. There will always be nuances that a foreign audience doesn’t pick up on; even in Japanese melodramas there are details that I’m sure only a Japanese viewer would understand. It’s a matter of striking a balance between a foreign audience and an audience who knows the subject and doesn’t want to see it explained from scratch.

Q: What has your experience at the Singapore International Film Festival been like?

A: There is a community here and I’ve met so many other filmmakers with whom I can discuss and compare issues. From what I gather Singaporean censors are a lot more “market-savvy” than the ones at home. In Malaysia if you direct a schlock comedy that makes a lot of money, you almost have more independence than a so-called independent filmmaker.

Q: What sort of criteria do you look for in a film festival you’re considering submitting to?

A: For a small production like ours, we do rely on the screening fees from these festivals and of course we would be looking for those with the right kind of exposure. But to be totally honest with you, there are times where I submit them for “vanity reasons.” The bigger the recognition the higher your chances are of getting screened at prestigious festivals.

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2 Responses to “Interview with Amir Muhammad”

  1. Dina Iordanova Says:

    The view that director’s careers are shaped by the festival circuit and by their particular involvements with certain festivals has been developed on the case of 6th generation Chinese filmmakers (and Jia Zhangke in particular) by Ma Ran (a PhD student at Hong Kong University), whose piece on this matters is appearing in the forthcomming Film Festival Yearbook I: The Festival Circuit (May 2009). Check it out, it would be in dialogue with some of the matters that you are raising here.

  2. Ruby Cheung Says:

    First of all, thanks for reporting this nice and concise interview with Muhammad, Farah and Lesley. The exchanges here indicate one important point that is perhaps especially true for many aspiring non-Western independent directors: Smaller but influential, regional IFFs are utilised as springboards / launch pads for small film projects to become highly publicised and hopefully to move on to more prestigious festivals in the West. The downside, in my opinion, is that these directors may unconsciously help to perpetuate the hierarchy of different festivals, which regional festivals often strive to flatten out.

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