Q. Speaking with Jin: The Backdrop of History
Today’s conversation with Jin looks briefly at Malaysia’s history, and some of the challenges Zakii faced to become an artist.
JC: “Zakii was born in 1955, and he was raised in an interesting era of Malaysia’s history. Malaysia used to be called Malaya, when it was under British colonial rule. It became independent in 1957 and renamed itself Malaysia in 1963, incorporating Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak as it did so. Singapore split with Malaysia in 1965. Zakii’s politically active father actually gave what is now the country’s biggest political party its name.
“Zakii grew up in a very interesting family… He is the youngest of six, and he was always the rebel. He chose to do art. Which was interesting because in those days, the new republic Malaysia was looking for its own political identity after a period under British rule, and there was a big push for children to pursue engineering, hard sciences, law... Zakii had to really fight for his right to do art, which is what he was always passionate about...
“His time in Malaysia has now spanned 60 years. He has seen a lot of change in terms of Malaysia trying to find its own way. So for me I think Zakii, both in terms of his life and his thinking, represents in some ways Malaysia’s journey as well.”
Q. What advice would you give to yourself at the start of the project?
JC: “Some elements of the film may be controversial to some people; there were certainly people who advised me against touching on certain issues. Yet exploring these dimensions is so essential to a deep understanding of Zakii’s work and of our contemporary life generally. I would like to have been less wavering in those early days, and got to this point of conviction a whole lot sooner.”
Today we'd like to share an interview with Yin Phua, co-producer and co-director. Before working on this project, Yin produced TV programme The Food Detectives, which took an in-depth look at the food on our dinner table. She talks about her experience working on the film to date, her own reactions to the art, and her responsibilities as co-producer and co-director.
YP: “It was an amazing project to be part of because Zakii is a very interesting character. To gain entry into his life and daily routine was quite a privilege and inspiring. The art that he created was a great visual stimulation and the words that he spoke intrigued me, I wanted to dig further about his beliefs in spirituality, in life, in politics, in family. I think to be given that free reign to investigate in another human being let alone a great artist was truly an honour that I don't take for granted.
“A lot of his works had a cheeky sexual connotation and if you were to just appreciate it from that perspective it was beautiful pieces of art, but to be given a deeper insight into why his works centred around sexuality and religion gave a whole new brilliance to the works. I think in the end, what I got out from him was that we are all connected and we are all one, no matter what the religion, what your sexuality may be. It was an idea I was exploring personally and in a way, it felt like a personal journey of my own too.
“My responsibilities on the ground as a co-producer and co-director were to work with Jin and Anne-Marie (the film's cinematographer), decide on the direction we wanted to take and what visuals we wanted to film to accompany Zakii's accounts of his life and works. On the ground, every revelation he presented in turn presented me with new opportunities to explore how we can match it visually, what essence we want to expand on. Working with a small independent team meant that we had the freedom to do it that way, which I loved."
Q. What were your expectations about Malaysia and Johor Bahru before the trailer shoot?
ALV: “I imagined JB to be a little less developed and much more deprived than it actually turned out to be. I had heard that it is a place that is a typical "border town" and therefore dangerous with problems of vice - so I should look after my possessions carefully. I did see a difference in security compared to Singapore, but as a resident of London for over 15 years it didn't feel like I had to watch my back any more than I have to in London. I was very ignorant to the multicultural dimension of Malaysia and really interested in how as a society it is structured.”
Q. Share your on-the-ground impressions of place and people and how did you use those impressions to translate visually onto film?
ALV: “The unique aspect to working on a documentary where you are looking at another person's creative eye, is that you are immediately channelled by their perspective. We were invited to film the fringes of society that are often brushed aside from public view (drug users and prostitution) as Zakii is involved in charity work that helps educate and support sex workers and drug users in the prevention of catching or transmitting HIV.
“Zakii has often painted the contrasting elements of light and shade so it was really exciting to experience the darker aspects of society combined with meditative "enlightened" interpretations of spirituality in real location and without judgement. The difficulty for my role is not to be too prescriptive in the film's interpretation of Zakii's inspirations, and at the same time reflect his environment in a truthful and inspired way.”