Big Stories Bongkud-Namaus and Nadira Ilana
Interview with Nadira Ilana
‘If the country (Malaysia) wants to find itself, it's going to have to be through Borneo.’
Nadira Ilana is an independent filmmaker from Sabah, based in Kuala Lumpur. Reviewing her works and involvements, we would describe Nadira’s art pursuit is multidimensional and uncompromising. With a down to earth curating approach, Nadira endeavoured on a film residency in Sabah where she worked together with the community of Kampung Bongkud, Ranau to tell their stories through films and photographs. The content was then screened back to the community first before being uploaded online onto the Big Stories website.
About Big Stories
Big Stories Bongkud-Namaus is the first Malaysian partnership with Big Stories Co. At the helm of this community project is Nadira Ilana, an independent filmmaker from the Borneo-Malaysian state of Sabah.
Big Stories is an internationally acclaimed community storytelling project from Australia, collaborating with local filmmakers across the Asia-Pacific to tell heartwarming stories with local people living in small towns. From outback Australia to rural Cambodia, stories focus on people caring for and creating their community. The project has won numerous awards including SXSW Community Champion and has screened at International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam.
With a tiny population of 1,000, Kampong Bongkud is a tightly knit Christian Dusun community relying on small businesses and agriculture such as subsistence farming, palm oil and farmers markets. Some locals work for Camp Bongkud, a subsidiary of Camps International, a UK-based volunterism company.
Our exchange with Nadira was an informative and inspiring one, we were amazed by the quantity and quality in Nadira’s research over Sabahan cultural context and artistic potential. The following is the Skype interview we went through with Nadira Ilana.
Nadira Ilana recommendation for Sabahan Artists: CAG Asylum, Pangrok Sulap, FilmcampKK, Webcamp, Synergy Dance Theatre, KKIFF, Pit-a-Pat, Greenleaf Theatre, BEFF, PARC, Sabah Art Gallery, Sabah Independent Filmmaker, Sabah Philharmonic Orchestra and Tamu Tamu Collective. Valentine Willie, Yee I-Lann, Chris Pereira, Pete Teo, Jerome Kugan, Chris Chong, Suchung Chong, Lorraine Lee, Hong Yi, Bebbra Charles Mailin
Skype Interview with Nadira Ilana
B: Borneo Art Collective
NI: Nadira Ilana
B: Thank you for your recommendation on artist list from Sabah, it is good to find out most of them seem to carry a strong message in their art approach. While pulling together content every month, it is definitely our aim to dig out those projects executed by artist with longevity of the message in mind. This list will certainly expand our research pool.
NI: Sabahan artists have a lot to offer. There is so little of Sabah in the history books and media that our generation of young artists have had to force ourselves to come up with original content, often within the local context. We don't have much pop culture or nostalgia to refer to the way West Malaysia does. It's exciting to see how many of us in Sabah are utilising our Borneo heritage and trying to include that within modern art forms. It makes it raw and exciting. I think Sabah is going through something of our own 'artistic renaissance' at the moment. Give us a few more years and who knows, we could maybe even compete with Penang.
B: It is good that you find that, since this is how I view current Sarawak as well. There are a few really interesting and serious platforms are going on in Sarawak, which make it interesting to look at overall Borneo artistic movement. We setup this (BAC) because currently there is no equivalent platform showing Borneo artistic landscape as a whole, combining Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei, Labuan and Kalimantan to form a cross border art conversation.
NI: It is quite necessary to explore the Borneo identity as a whole. You get a different sense of our stories and cultural landscape predating Malaysia this way. The concept of a national identity is more of a political one rather than cultural so when we discuss traditions, heritage and anthropology, I find it more relevant to look towards our geographical neighbours instead like Kalimantan, Brunei and Mindanao, even.
B: This is very interesting to know. Let’s shift the focus back to you. I did a lot of social media creeping on what you have done previously and also your projects. I have to say that you are too multi-interesting. You seem to be involved in a variety of aspects, cultural, artistic, politics…
NI: People say I have an opinion on everything. My previous works were definitely more political, but that's what I was exploring then because I had just moved back to Malaysia after studying abroad. Looking at my country as an adult for the first time and understanding Sabah's position within Malaysia, I needed to do a lot of soul searching. Despite being born and bred in Sabah, I had to learn from scratch what being indigenous meant. The concept of politics has taken a different form in my works now. More to do with sociology, anthropology. Observations of the world around us within a Sabahan context. At the moment I am just trying to channel my energy into my films. There's a lot of work to be done.
B: We could spot that transition from your recent Kampong Bongkud project. From the official website, we know Big Stories-Small Town is an Australian documentary project aiming at showcasing Asia-Pacific small towns and cultural-scape, but we are also aware that you took a different approach in setting this up in comparison to your fellow Big Stories film makers. Tell us more about your curating process.
NI: Big Stories has some guidelines. Apart from working together with the community to produce films and photo essays, the content must be shown back to the community first. It's working to tell stories with the community instead of about the community and how we choose to go about this, which topics, is dependent on the filmmaker and community. It ended up taking us a whole year after the Sabah earthquake and during this time I became very close to the community and it showed in our films, which was very special for me. They seem really happy with the results.
There were moments where I wondered why I knew so little about my own culture. I am ethnic Dusun, similar to the people from Kampong Bongkud, but it amazed me how we could be sharing the same genetic make up, but be so culturally different at the same time.
It's a certainty that most indigenous people are objectified or treated as being tokenistic within our media. Sometimes it's blatant, other times it's subtle like when in The Revenant. I strongly dislike films that talk over indigenous people when really, they have so much to say. I really wanted to go further than these superficial modes of indigenous storytelling. Not just to learn for myself what being indigenous means, but also to attempt to restore the dignity of indigenous peoples. The purpose of our workshops weren't necessarily to teach the people in the kampung how to learn the technical aspects of filmmaking, although we were happy to teach anyone who requested - it was really about encouraging them to tell their stories and provide a platform for them too. Sharing, celebrating stories is how we keep cultures alive.
B: The success of this project obviously require a lot of communication, could you tell us how did you communicate among these three groups to ensure everyone understands the fundamental value of this project? How was this organized?
NI: It was very disorganized. (laugh) We went into the community and it took us a while to get to know them, it was not easy because we couldn't always get each other by phone and I'm coming in from Kota Kinabalu to Ranau just to see them therefore it became really crucial for us to be aware of their schedules or just knock on their doors to see if they're home. For instance, they will be in church on Sunday until 12pm, okay, which church? 4pm is when they come out to play football together… we'd take note of things like that and roll with it. If we couldn't shoot this person today, we'd see if another person is free. We were very chill but we made the most out of our time as best as we could. With this project, because we're dealing with a community and people who have their own priorities, we just had to go with the flow and appreciate the time they gave us. It all worked out in the end.
It was certainly a very steep learning curve for everybody involved in the process but I could say I walked away from it with something we are really proud of. Sometimes I still get messages from the kids, like “ How are you? When are you coming back so we can take pictures?” At the end of it, I learnt that it is not just about making a film but being able to form a sincere bond with your subjects. Work aside, it was a project that was good for the soul. Especially when we had the screening because of the excitement that was in the air.
B: Tell us about Kampong Bongkud’s growth in this process? You mentioned that you still keep in touch with them. Tell us how do you see them growing as a team or as an individual?
NI: Our child photographers were fantastic. We started out with more children but it got whittled down to a group of five girls aged 9-12 whom once they had the bsaics, took incredible photos. ProArt sponsored us and they made it possible for us to print out two copies of their photos, one in Malay and one in English. We kept the English ones for our touring exhibitions while the village kept the malay ones for their archive. The photo series is called 'Messages for Future Generations', inspired by school diaries, the kind you'd fill in once you've graduated. The girls are still too young to know yet what they have achieved from this. They probably think that they are just taking happy snaps but someday once they're older they'll understand how people grow and change. They'll realise what a great job they did and I hope it's something they can be proud of. I am extremely proud of them.
B: Tell us how people from Kampong Bongkud produced their film? What kind of guidances did you offer in the process?
NI: Out of the 14 films, 4 were directed by the community. We tried to teach the younger people how to use the equipment but it was too difficult to do that and QC at the same time so we decided that our priority was to help them just develop their stories, which they chose themselves. I just wanted to help them tell their stories in the best way that they could. We worried about the technical bits for them.
We did some mind mapping exercises and story development. Asking them why they chose their stories and how they wanted to approach them, why the relationships between them and their subjects were so important and it was cool because when you're developing stories with people who have known each other all their lives, there was a lot to work with. They were very patient with us, because we did take up a lot of their time. I was there for each of the shoots and the community filmmakers would be conducting the interviews. They turned out to be such pros at the end of the day. I think it's cos in the kampung people are far more adventurous and less likely to be afraid of trying new things. After that I'd go back and edit then show them the rough cuts for their approval. We hardly had to change anything. They were happy with the end product and so were we.
B: We really amazed by the effort from yourself and Kampong Bongkud on this collective documentary process. Tell us what kept you going with this process?
NI: It was always in my bucket list, I said to myself if I could do one thing really really good in my life, this would be it. I can get on to regular productions any day but this is a side of Sabah that no one gets to ever see in the public sphere. I make films that I want to watch, that satiate my curiosity. I wanted to experience life in a Dusun kampung and figure out how to make it work through films. That was why I persisted with it.
B: We could tell that you had a very interesting learning curve yourself in this process. Firstly you were a fiction film maker, and then you turn into documentary film maker. In Kampong Bongkud you curated a collective documentary film.
NI: It was indeed a big learning curve. I probably would not do this again. (laugh) But I would not mind helping others to produce and supervise them on this process if they were to continue on with Big Stories. What I find funny is some people watched the films from this project and commented: “ wow, history is so interesting.” My reaction to that was: “actually, this is the present”.
It is interesting how urban people perceive these lifestyles, even in a modern kampung as being not of this time. It's interesting to see how our media and programming bends these perceptions of people and who we are. We treat the urban and rural divide like it's a crevasse when really, it's a little creek. We all have our own aspirations, dreams and desires. We're all not so different.
There is this quote “… the ages have left nothing; there are no ancient buildings, no monuments, no idols, in fact no vestiges of an older civilization. The natives themselves have no written language, no chronicles that might reveal the mystery of their origin; their only traditions are but fairytales.” - Owen Rutter, British North Borneo: An Account of its History, Resources and Natives Tribes
When I went to Kampong Bongkud, I was excited to find them repeating folklore that I had found in books that were published decades ago. Maybe even a century. It reinforced the notion that Borneo oral traditions still carry on till this day. For younger generations and urban kids like myself, culture is what we learn from TV, from books so I would like to continue taking these old stories and translating them into cinema and art to keep them alive. It's a lot of pressure to put on myself but it's work I enjoy.
B: Tell us about you. We are aware that you studied abroad for awhile until you move back to Malaysia. How did that affect you in your artistic journey?
NI: I started getting homesick when I was studying abroad, I tried to find comfort from a range of Southeast asian films. I came across
Malaysian independent cinema but a lot of it was so unfamiliar. Very little of it reminded me of home when it emphasised too much on the Malay-Indian-Chinese trifecta. It was easier to watch Singaporean films. I understood the mysticism of Thai and Indonesian films, the cultural similarities between Sabah and the Philippines. I wanted to make films in Southeast Asia, most definitely.
Kuala Lumpur has been my greatest school because apart from the creative environment here, it was also the lack of a Borneo narrative that made me want to learn about my culture so badly. It's not always easy because Sabah Sarawak filmmakers are a minority, but it has always been rewarding. Over the years and from my work, I've had young people say that my films have encouraged them to learn about their own heritage. That means the world to me. My peninsular friends are more eager to learn about Sabah Sarawak, which I'm grateful for as well. This year there were actually Kaamatan and Gawai events in KL. It was so bizarre but fabulous as well to see national integration happening at last and I like to think that my films help a little. I do think that despite it's imperfections, Malaysia - all of Malaysia - is full of wonderful, kind hearted people with great stories to tell but with all that is going on too, if Malaysia wants to find itself again, it's gonna have to do so through Borneo.