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For the Love of Film
We speak to former FINAS director-general Dato’ Kamil Othman on his recent departure from the top national film agency, the state of the local industry, and the possibility of becoming a filmmaker himself.
He may have a background in accounting and economics, but Dato’ Kamil Othman is very much a cinephile who sees films as more than just entertainment – they’re a manifestation of a nation’s spirit.
His passion for film and industry know-how has earned him a legion of supporters in the film industry, as proven by the 1,050 people who signed a petition last November calling for the extension of his term as director-general of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS). The petition, titled “Industri Perlu Kamil! (The Industry Needs Kamil!)”, was started by the Malaysian filmmaking community, but it unfortunately bore no fruit. Kamil was ultimately relieved of his post on 9 November, at the expiry of his two-year term.
The support he received largely came from industry underdogs who welcomed his approach to consolidate and grow the filmmaking economy. However, the decision by the Communications and Multimedia Ministry to not renew Kamil’s contract was never really revealed.
“Maybe I was doing it too fast in FINAS,” says Kamil. “Maybe people just couldn’t take it, but I wish that they had just believed in what I was doing, because I could see the results already emerging.”
Kamil’s wide-ranging efforts, which include emphasising on films’ development stages before production, a review of the wajib tayang (compulsory screening) scheme, and proposal for the FINAS Act 1981 to be amended to change its scope from “films” to “content” in general, were seen by supporters as a long overdue shake up that the industry needed.
In conversation, he romanticises films and directors that were born from a country’s struggle and/or triumphs.
“I buy a product from Korea now with full confidence because they make movies like Shiri,” he says.
Shiri’s release in 1999 came hand in hand with South Korea’s emerging economic boom following the Asian Financial Crisis. It led the pack for a rebirth of Korean cinema that continues to grow.
Kamil further references legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s rise after World War II, whose films catalysed Japan’s reintroduction to the Western world.
“No matter what the US thinks about Iran, the real power brokers, investors, have actually watched films by Abbas Kiarostami and Majid Majidi,” he adds, referring to two of Iran’s most celebrated filmmakers.
The films Kamil is most interested in dissecting speak volumes of his ambition for the Malaysian film industry while at the helm of FINAS. His mandate, as he explains, was to appeal to global demand and grow the pie big enough to be shared among all layers of content production.
“There is room for both the love story and soppy dramas on television, as well as the independent and more universal themed stories,” he says.
Kamil points out that 2015 saw entertainment and media spending in Malaysia reaching USD7.3 billion, with total global spending reaching USD1.7 trillion, according to the Global Entertainment & Media Outlook report by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
This, he believes, is an opportunity that Malaysia is almost primed to take advantage of with its rich culture, if not for the duality in filmmakers’ approaches that is split between poorly marketed arthouse films and the local-centric mainstream formulas without a global appeal.
Kamil goes on to point out that despite Malaysia having produced over 80 films in 2015, foreign movies still take up more than 80 percent of the box office takings.
“What it means is that the activity of making films is there, but what is missing is that push towards greater understanding of the market,” he explains.
He stresses that a big step forward would be to instil entrepreneurial sense in film producers so that they treat the filmmaking process as a business in their management of funding and promotions. This was among the issues he tried to address during his time as FINAS Director-General, by spurring more funding sources for filmmakers.
One such source was a collaboration agreement with MyCreative Ventures Sdn Bhd signed at the tail end of his tenure, which includes an offer for a loan on top of grants provided by FINAS.
Such a source, according to Kamil, would pressure producers to think of returns, which would eventually inculcate the financial sense to seek funding from private institutions –instead of relying on government-linked grants – and grow the filmmaking economy.
“If you want to make something for RM10 million, and the government through FINAS can only give you RM3 million, you need to search for the other seven yourself,” says Kamil.
“So, to get the private sector into this, there must be a close link with producers who understand where to get the money from. Now, is that really something alien? Lelaki Harapan Dunia got their funding from seven different countries.”
Kamil’s successor, former FINAS deputy director-general Dato’ Fauzi Ayob, was only announced on December 29 last year, over a month since Kamil’s term ended. Kamil himself doesn’t know what to expect, but he does hope to see the seeds he planted for the industry be followed through.
Some of said seeds include coproduction deals being brokered with strategically chosen countries, the instilling of an entrepreneurial spirit in the next generation of filmmakers, and the continuation of the Content Malaysia Pitching Centre (CMPC) he established. CMPC consolidates the industry ecosystem to assist filmmakers from development stage all the way to the final product’s promotions, on top of providing a physical space for content creators to attend workshops, participate in industry events, and interact with buyers and distributors.
So what’s next for Kamil post-FINAS?
The former director-general is considering finding a role where he can transform the local music industry. Another idea he’s toying with: making his own film.
“I do harbour some desire [to make a film],” Kamil reveals. “But if I were to make a movie now, it would probably be a satire. I would make a George Orwell-type story. I would probably say something that would be my version of Animal Farm or 1984.”
“Because in a way, I feel that I’ve been misunderstood in my intentions.”
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