Diffan From The Norm

27 March 2016

His latest short, Kekasih, was shown at Sundance Film Festival and received rave reviews. Diffan Norman has surely come a long way from being a talent in a Kiki-Lala ad.

The first Malaysian to showcase their work at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival was Amir Muhammad for his 2003 documentary The Big Durian. Diffan Norman is the latest edition to the roster for Malaysia. He describes himself as a “filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist savagely pursuing my first feature.” Diffan made Malaysia proud when his film Kekasih was selected to be showcased at the Sundance Film Festival 2014, which has been made available online for free now. Besides Sundance, his work has been featured at SXSW, Rotterdam, Raindance, the 42nd Annie Awards, BDA World Gold Design Awards and at The National Art Gallery of Malaysia as well. His impressive portfolio includes high profile clients like British Airways, American Express, Nike, Jeep and Coca-Cola.

Born and bred in Kuala Lumpur before moving to Los Angeles, California to pursue his studies at Otis College of Art and Design, Diffan started his career as a director of music videos and short films. Before Kekasih, he had already made quite a name for himself with his short film entitled Wanita Cosmos in 2004 - that film got him a job with a French production company in Paris. He has also directed music videos for OAG (which garnered him a Best Music Video nomination at Anugerah Industri Muzik in 2004) and was at the helm of Mizz Nina’s music video for "With You". That gained him the Best Music Video award at Shout! Awards 2012.

He shares a pivotal moment in his career with us: “What really fortified my craft and discipline was when I joined a now-defunct boutique studio called National Television in Los Angeles. It was where I got to perform as a designer, animator and technical director. It was hands on, multi-disciplinary and a very special place.”

Before Diffan started his career as a director, he was inspired by the “making of” segments on TV (he was engrossed in everything from Michael Jackson videos to the end credit outtakes of Jackie Chan movies). But it was RTM2’s Cinema Cinema Cinema TV show in the early ‘90s that struck a chord with him, especially when Malaysia’s Shahril Ibrahim appeared on the show to discuss how the visual effects for the movie Species was created.

“The very fact that a Malaysian was describing the visual effects work he did on a movie about a naked alien woman - who was part CG - beamed through Cinema Cinema Cinema really painted a wonderful imagination in my mind. I still get excited when I watch making-of’s,” he explains. Diffan also recalls his first involvement in a production. “I gave a flower to a girl in a Kiki-Lala TV advertisement by a pond. I’m pretty sure it was the late ‘80s. I remember thinking it was gross that the make-up lady used the same lipstick brush on every talent. Other than that, it went very well. I only have one friend today who still calls me Kiki-Lala.”

He cites the late Yasmin Ahmad, Liew Seng-Tat, Syamsul Yusof and Dain Said as his inspiration as he admires the variety and boundaries the directors take on with their work. The 1962 classic Ibu Mertuaku was the first local film Diffan have ever watched and fast forward to a few decades later, Diffan joins this rank of Malaysian directors by making incredible films like Kekasih which is about “a botanist who attempts to pursue a concept of his passed wife. In this process he discovers a divine presence.” The short, but almost disturbingly shot, film stars legendary Malaysian actors Nasir Bilal Khan and Fauziah Nawi and hs received great response since its release.

You would wonder, why would he move back to Malaysia if he was doing so well abroad? Diffan tells us, “It was a combination of my father’s passing and that every previous commitment was a natural progression to what I am presently pursuing – my first feature. I still maintain my working life in Los Angeles and have been spending a lot of time in Kuala Lumpur due to the geographic location of my current project. There are many truths to this. One of them also being that there’s a brewing enthusiasm for Malaysian cinema that I am so sincerely happy to be a part of.” He is also very excited about the local film scene. “The present spirit among filmmakers together with the support and navigation of Dato Kamil Othman and FINAS makes me feel like the universe is aligned. I mean, who isn’t excited about Dain Said’s Interchange?”

When asked about his hope for the Malaysian film scene, he says: “My partner Alet and I feel like our contribution to the local film industry would be to elevate our sense of respect and value for one another. We love, love, love our collaborators or as we like to call them, our warriors.” Diffan Norman isn’t stopping there. He is currently developing a feature film inspired by a book based on a lost Malay film that was produced in Merdeka Studios back in the early ‘60s. “It’s rather vague but we will slowly be sharing more news in time,” he says. If you’re keen to see this vague idea turn into celluloid reality, follow Diffan at @diffannorman or diffan.com.

By Kevin Yeoh

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