Interchanging stories

15 November 2016

Ahead of the Malaysian premiere of Interchange in December, we speak with intrepid filmmaker Dain Said on his films, influences, and what it takes to bring Malaysian audiences back.

Filmmaking is essentially storytelling, which is an art as old as time. The best films inspire a sense of wonder and joy, and are worthy of our acclaim. Yet for many Malaysians, locally made films are often seen as poor imitations and formulaic reproductions of Hollywood box office heavy-hitters.

So it’s no wonder that the works of filmmaker Dain Said come as a breath of fresh air; instead of your run-of-the-mill love story or gangster flick, his films tackle hefty topics like witchcraft (Dukun, unreleased) and the tensions of development (Bunohan, 2011). His latest effort, Interchange, has been described as a ‘noir fantasy thriller’ that crosses genres, involves indigenous folklore and myths, and features a talented, multi-national cast.

“The seed for Interchange was an old photographic image I saw whilst researching for another film,” explains Dain. “It was a black and white image of women bending over a wide shallow river somewhere in Kalimantan. The caption read ‘Bukit women washing themselves from the evil effects of being photographed ’.”

Based on this image, taken by a Norwegian ethnographer travelling through Borneo circa 1915, Dain built a story using contemporary characters and settings.

While Interchange is different from his last film Bunohan, it does share some common themes. For instance, how the supernatural as a belief system is close to nature and, in particular, is part of the worldview of indigenous peoples.

“The overlapping thing is our belief in animals and their place in our culture,” shares Dain. “No matter where the story is set, [or how] we live in the 21st century; it is part of our psyche. It’s in our blood, our bones. And that is the primal.”

Dain goes on to explain that belief in nature and magic is part of the narratives of indigenous peoples as well as our own more ancient or older Malay culture. “These are narratives – be it in the form of myths or folklore – which are not included, or do not make their way into modern Malaysian storytelling and films. And yet they are in our psyche, in our minds. They lie barely beneath the skin of our memory.”

Interchange features both a local and international cast of actors: Nicholas Saputra and Prisia Nasution from Indonesia, together with our very own Iedil Putra and Shaheizy Sam.

“When you start writing, it comes with the creative process that you visualise a character, a face and person,” Dain explains. “So main characters will always suggest themselves at the writing stage, at least for me. The others you may not know, so you go through the process of casting… My goals were to find the best actor so that I could have a great film in my hands.”

But are Malaysian audiences ready for films like Interchange?

“I know that there’s an audience out there,” says Dain. “Malaysians who’ve been driven away from bad horrors, bad gangster films and stupid comedies which appeal to the lowest common denominator. Because filmmakers think that there’s a formula, and they use genre as a template for thinking – a cookie cutter mentality. Hence all the bad Hollywood copies at kampung budgets.”

Ultimately, Dain hopes that films like Interchange will attract audiences who want and expect something different from Malaysian-made films. “I know they are there, because they have spoken to me since Bunohan.”

Interchange opens in Malaysian cinemas on 1 December. Dain Said is also a featured writer at Penang’s annual George Town Literary Festival 2016, happening from 25 to 27 November.

By Myra Mahyuddin.
Dain Said profile photo courtesy of Festival del film Locarno / Massimo Pedrazzini.
Interchange production stills courtesy of Danny
 Lim / Apparat 2016.

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