After the success of J Revolusi, director Zulkarnain Azhar ventures into uncharted territory of Malaysian cinema – hacktivism and cyber-crimes.
We talked to Zul to find out a little bit more about this film and how the inspiration came to be create such a film, considering its timely nature in a world filled with fake news and where the virtual is as dangerous as reality. The movie also boasts a star-studded cast: Ashraf Sinclair, Bront Palarae, Sangeeta Krishnasamy, Remy Ishak, Susan Lankaster, Datuk Rosyam Nor, Faizal Hussein, Siti Saleha, and Adrianna Qasmia.
Proksi is produced by Mohd Shaufe A Wahib and is written by Azril Hamzah and Fairul Nizam Ablah.
THE DAILY SENI: What is ‘Proksi’?
ZULKARNAIN: Proksi is about Aman (Ashraff Sinclair) and Sam (Bront Palarae) who are hacktivists (hacking for activism purposes) with good intentions. They’re against the black hat hackers – or the New World Order power. The film is about their journey from being an honorary ‘hacktivist’ to becoming the ‘savior of the nation’.
TDS: People occasionally criticize hacking in movies. They say that movie people get hacking wrong, whether it’s the culture or the act of hacking itself. How do you overcome this challenge?
Z: There’s a new genre that’s going through a revival right now called ‘techno-thriller’, with films like Blackhat by Michael Mann and a German film called Who Am I. I use them as my references. I’ve always known it to be quite risky, because after I watched a movie called Hackers (1995) with Angelina Jolie I realized that the movie looks crappy, campy and cheesy *laughs*. Even Swordfish (the movie with Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry), it looks very unconvincing. So when I did my research I learned a trick to it. When it comes to film, you get a cinematic license. But there are some parts of the reality that you have to keep, for example, the terms, the usage, how hackers work and the reality of the hacking world nowadays. Timing-wise, now is the best time to show this kind of story in the film.
TDS: Granted not everything about the hacking world is glamorous; how do you stay true to the hacking world but still keep it exciting enough for the big screen? Unlike your previous work in J Revolusi, this one is not all fighting scenes and action scenes?
Z: I’ve met a couple of real hackers. Although they didn’t want to reveal their true identity, I managed to contact them and I met them at a shopping mall where they brought their laptop. They showed me this supercomputer – a really small one – with A palm-sized circuit board. That tiny thing can hack the entire building. That is very useful information to us, so I use that. Can you imagine if they have like a thousand servers to do that?
Z: There’s also a scene in Bangkok, where there’s a safe-house that we call ‘the dumpster‘. In that safe-house, what I want to portray are all the gadgets, from the ’70s until now – to show the revolution of the hacking lifestyle throughout the ages. The main focus is in how I make it lively is through the story line. The journey from zero to hero. It’s all about the character. The hacking isn’t everything. When the character and the journey is interesting then it becomes exciting for the viewers to watch.
TDS: Characters are important, of course, but the theme is still the main thrust to Proksi. Do you think Proksi is a film that is relevant to Malaysia today?
Z: Well it’s not just Malaysia, it’s everywhere. Even in the film, I mentioned about the value of data. Last time it used to be gold, and then it was gold, but now the most valuable thing is data. In cyber-crime, hackers would take these data and profit from it. The industry is worth trillions of dollars, and they get away with it. It’s happening right now.
In the United States, they invested billions of dollars just to neutralize these cyber threat, but they’re struggling too. Proksi then, is like my CSR (corporate-social responsibility) to the public. Towards people out there, even our government, who’s also fighting fake news with sebenarnya.com. If you look at all of these things happening in Syria, starting from the Arab Spring, social media and the cyber-sphere also plays a huge role. All from a small spark that can change an entire nation. The threat is real. It’s happening.
I’m not sure about Malaysia, but we should open our eyes, because it is happening out there and it’s possible that it could happen here too. Proksi is going to bring that idea to light, to put the audience in the know.
TDS: Did you ever use Mr Robot as a reference?
Z: *laughs* Mr Robot is one of my main references! If you love that series, you should definitely watch Proksi. If you look at the actual subculture, hackers are pretty boring people. They can be anyone.
TDS: They’re not Tom Cruise.
Z: Yeah! Like if you look at Bront Palarae’s character in this film, it’s not the good-looking version of him. *laughs*
There’s also a reason when they open the terminal, the words are green and their background’s black. It’s supposed to be easy on the eyes, since they spend days just sitting in front of the screen.
TDS: Is this movie more from the perspective of the hacker or the authorities pursuing them?
Z: I don’t wanna spoil the movie *laughs*. But in the hacking world you have the white hats (good), black hats (bad) or grey hats (somewhere in the middle) – simply put, even the characters in the movie don’t know where they stand. It’s what the movie is about, essentially. We are free to choose…what’s your choice?“. You gotta watch the movie!
TDS: Some would say that a film about cyber-crime would be a heavy film? Do you think about how to make this film appeal to the masses when you direct?
Z: Well, definitely. But I have my ways. I mean my previous movie was very commercial, so what I’m doing with this is to merge many different elements. It’s not just about cyber-crime. In their journey they will encounter thugs in Thailand with their tattoos fighting against mercenaries – the kinda subculture never exposed in a Malaysian movie before. When all of this adds up, hopefully the audience will remain excited throughout.
TDS:Proksi boasts a pretty amazing lineup, can you share with us some experiences working with them?
Z: As a director, the task of a director, to me, is just helping them to go from one direction to the next. Hence, when I get the right tools, everything happens smoothly. That’s why the selection of the cast is something I am very particular about – from the characterization to the compatibility. It’s not just about how the actors or actresses fit the character, it’s about how they merge into the story.
TDS: In your process of preparing for the movie, what was the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about hacktivism or cyber-crime in general?
Z: Absolutely! I read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries. One of the more surprising discoveries to me is the extent our privacy is breached. We’re not secured at all. Previously, we had ransomware (a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid). Now imagine that being used against a nation. That’s going to be a global catastrophe. Total anarchy.
We have our cyber-crime unit trying to catch them, but whenever these people try to trace the perpetrators via the IP address. Let’s say we trace it back to Netherlands, but most often than not it’d be too late. They can be anywhere. We’re fighting a losing battle.
Hopefully, this is going to open a lot of eyes. It’s not just the cyber-crime unit, we as the people would also have to be more responsible.