Infamous for its royal family, strict laws, and immense wealth, Brunei has only ever produced two proper feature films to date, titled Yasmine and Ada Apa Dengan Rina.
Yasmine is often considered Brunei’s official debut in the film industry. Released in 2014, the silat film made it to the Top 5 of the year-end Brunei box office tally and even garnered Nadiah Wahid a Best Supporting Actress award at the ASEAN International Film Festival.
While not far from the truth (we think it all depends on how one interprets the word “official”) it must be noted that Yasmine is actually the third feature ever produced in Brunei. To this date, a majority of international publications still incorrectly claim that Yasmine is Brunei’s first feature film.
The lesser-known Ada Apa Dengan Rina was also a huge success in its own home country. It was a comedy that utilised an all-Bruneian cast and team (as opposed to Yasmine‘s which included Malaysians and Indonesians in the mix).
Ada Apa Dengan Rina was also acknowledged at the ASEAN International Film Awards in 2013 when it received the Special Jury Award for “introducing Brunei to ASEAN cinema.”
Even more obscure is 1968’s Gema Dari Menara, a government-sponsored film on repentance. According to this piece in the Brunei Times, Gema Dari Menara was said to be controversial because of scenes in the movie depicting sinful acts, which provoked a strong reaction from the masses.
We caught up with Abdul Zainidi, the only filmmaker from Brunei who is exhibiting his work in the Short Film Corner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He is perhaps the only Bruneian in town, as the nation does not have any official representatives at Cannes this year.
Born Abdul Khabir bin Zainidi, the filmmaker is just in his early 30s (“I’d rather forget how old I am”, he says) and is based in Paris.
Abdul is talkative, eloquent and multilingual (he is quite popular with the Tokyo International Film Festival team). He also possesses a certain je ne sais quoi which makes his self-acknowledged narcissism rather charming.
Known to most simply as Abdul, he chose to bring his short film Jentingkai to this year’s festival. The seven minute piece based on Bruneian folklore was shot on a Canon digital camera and featured Brunei’s Tutong Beach.
Abdul’s other projects include the short films Bread Dream, Teluki, Lobak and Haram Queen (which he does not like being associated with so much these days), feature-length experimental piece Ostrich, as well as the web-series Bruneian In Paris. His upcoming 14-minute documentary Vanishing Children is also part of the official selection at The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film (SCI-FI London).
We chatted with him for a bit to glean some information on the film scene in Brunei and find out more about his work in the following interview.
First of all, can you give us some insight into the Bruneian film industry in terms of growth and development?
I think that our country is still slowly developing. We’ve had very good breakthroughs with Ada Apa Dengan Rina and Yasmine. Each film is different in terms of budget, how they’re laid out, and production value. I wasn’t involved in any of them but I fully support them; I am a very pro-Bruneian filmmaker!
However, I would add that the film industry in Brunei is definitely rising; there are going to be a lot more feature films from us in the years to come.
Yasmine is often incorrectly touted as Brunei’s debut feature film. Why do you think it took so long for Brunei to come up with a feature film that got recognized on an international level?
Brunei’s first feature film was actually from 1968, it’s a hidden gem. I don’t remember the title of it but I did see the film when I was invited to a Regalblue event — they’re the ones who produced Ada Apa Dengan Rina. I was very surprised because it had veteran actors in the film and it’s not the type of film you see nowadays: it had dancing and everything.
I believe that in Brunei we have a certain stance on censorship which makes it creatively frustrating to display and express ideas in cinematic form, when compared to our neighbours in Indonesia and Malaysia. But that doesn’t mean you’re unable to make movies here, it’s just a challenge.
Furthermore I think we should have more funding going towards culture. We have the Brunei Economic Development Board but there needs to be more bodies providing funding for film. You can’t just have one body doing it because it makes the funds harder to access. If there were more avenues from where we can seek funding, people will become less discouraged to pursue their projects.
I also think it took so long because acting is seen as a recreational activity and a side activity. The same thing goes for cinema in general, unless you’re a videographer and you can do wedddings and events to support yourself.
We need to have more youth feeling more confident that they can be filmmakers because this hasn’t been the case in the past.
What about yourself? When will you be working on a feature film?
I did a feature film last year called Ostrich, it was very low budget. It didn’t get a theatrical release but it is a feature length film. Ostrich was a horror film based on the rayau horror story in Brunei. I began shooting in January last year and finished in April. The film was shot and edited in Brunei and featured only Bruneians.
I think I could have done a better job with it, but I’m still proud I kinda did something for the industry. I also used 100% local talent as opposed to how it was with Yasmine.
I am actually going to start work on a new feature film this year to be shot in Paris and Brunei and that will be a surprise for some people.
Can you tell us how Malaysian movies perform in Brunei and give us a quick screen-cap of big box office successes that you know of in Brunei?
Highland Tower was very popular in Brunei! Geckoman was famous too, I mean the first one (I think there are sequels?), but Bruneian viewership is mainly devoted to television.
Astro is very popular in Brunei. Maharaja Lawak is so popular here that people actually hang out in restaurants to watch it. Then there are the soap operas on Astro and also that talk show with the three women, I don’t remember what it’s called. The box office is usually dominated by American films — you know, usual popcorn fare — but there’s always a market for Malaysian films.
Most of the films produced by KRU are quite successful too and horror films from Malaysia are very, very popular due to Malay culture and their association with beings like the pontianak.
You made the short film Haram Queen which featured cross-dressers and was also on stage playing the role of Prior Walter in a staging of Angels In America. Does this genre of work put you in a difficult spot back home, given the Brunei government’s strong stance against LGBT rights?
Haram Queen was an experimental film I shot mainly because one of my best friends, Amirul, inspired me. It’s not something I call an LGBT film because for me, it was an artistic endeavour. Most of my films are experimental.
Amirul inspired me to do this during the same time I made Ostrich; he’s an entertainer and he loves theatre so he thought it would be interesting. The only reason why I had to act in it was because my lead actor pulled out.
As for Angels In America, I won a Best Actor award for that at the institution I attended! It wasn’t my first choice to play Prior. I did my work there as a thespian and I had dive into it to figure out what it felt to have AIDS and be this character.
But back to Haram Queen, a group of friends are commiserating the loss of a friend due to AIDS. Yes, it deals with AIDS and LGBT but it’s still a story about friends. It’s about a guy in a universe where he has friends but he can’t really talk about his problem. The dialogue in the piece was influenced by Tony Kushner‘s writing. I thought that with this I can show that I am not just able to do horror; I want to show that I am a versatile filmmaker.
We read that you’ve received death threats back home for Haram Queen. Is this true?
Yes, I received death threats because my main actor uploaded photos on the internet despite the controversial elements of the story. The lead posted up photos on Facebook before he dropped out, and people can misinterpret images.
The film was actually just a fun and frivolous look at a guy who has a problem. We see how his friends deal with it by celebrating the good times and the memories. After the main cast member left the project, I wasn’t going to give up. So I went and acted in it.
People keep thinking it’s an anti-Brunei film, but there’s nothing about the film that denounces Brunei. Yes, Brunei is an Islamic country, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t doing anything that denounced Islam either. In any case, I don’t intend to go back to that sort of genre, I’m focusing on comedy now.
There have been publications in Brunei that say that your films were “selected” or “picked” for the Cannes Film Festival. Do you think this is a fair claim to make given how the Short Film Corner operates?
I knew I was going to be asked something like this.
I let the press choose their own words and I don’t know why they picked those words in particular when describing my participation.
To date, I’m still the only Bruneian that has sent a short film to Cannes. I know for a fact that in 2013 someone I knew sent his film to the Short Film Corner, but his work wasn’t accepted. For me, this indicates that there’s still some sort of selection process and I know it’s not an official selection, but you can’t deny there’s a pre-selection. They will still screen and decide if your material is suitable for their festival.
But as I said before, the media chooses their own words. They’re just particularly proud and patriotic that a tiny sultanate can be a part of this huge festival. I’m listed in the catalogue here in Cannes under Brunei and I’m the only one. It’s been this way for the past four years.
I’m also the first Bruneian to be selected for the SCI-FI London festival so that means something. It’s an official selection; I sent the film off and it got selected and now it will be in the shorts section.
Abdul Zainidi’s Vanishing Children will be screened at the Stratford Picturehouse in London, at 2:00pm on Sun, 31st May 2015, and 8:50pm on Thu, 4th Jun 2015. For tickets, call 0871 902 5740 or book them online via Stratford Picturehouse. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram to find out more of his work.