(Video) Breaking barriers

AT the ripe young age of 55, Syed Zul Tojo has finally achieved his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker. His first feature film, Hijabsta Ballet, will be opening in cinemas on Aug 3.

“You are never too old to make your dream a reality,” says Syed who is the director, producer and co-writer for Hijabsta Ballet.

The film centres on a girl named Adele, who is studying ballet, and has dreams of becoming a world-renowned ballerina.

But when she starts to wear a hijab to her dance classes, her new dress sense does not go down well with her dance mates and tutors.

Adele also has to contend with her ambitious mother Diana who feels Adele is making the biggest mistake of her life and destroying any future she has as a ballerina.

This causes friction between mother and daughter.

Newcomer Puteh Maimum Zarra plays Adele, while singer-actress Betty Banafe plays her mother, Diana. The film also stars Aida Khalid, Aman Graseka, Sally Bruce, and Azeman Aliff.

Shot in Perth, Australia, as well as Kuala Lumpur, Hijabsta Ballet was later shown to some 2,000 test viewers from diverse backgrounds to gauge their reaction.

Syed revealed that 80% of this test audience said they enjoyed the film, while 16% said it was average, and 4% hated it.

The film also touches on the issue of Islamaphobia, drawing interest from several foreign markets.

“I try not to plant messages in my film,” said this father-of-four. “I prefer to let viewers have their own interpretation of the movie.

“[The issue of wearing a] hijab is a popular topic being discussed around the world today, and I am just highlighting that in this film.

“I am just telling the story of a woman who loves her art as well as her religion, and how her two worlds [clash].”

Syed also points out that one test member, an American, did not notice any Islamphobia elements in his film. Instead, the man told Syed that he saw his film as being about a mother-and-daughter relationship.

When asked to express how he feels now that his longtime dream has become a reality, Syed says: “It is like you are running a marathon. When you are running, you do not feel tired.

“But when you reach the finish line, the [fatigue] hits you, and trust me, you’ll feel totally exhausted.”

But Syed’s energy seems to have been renewed as he is already working on his second feature film.

The new film will be about a historical figure, Panglima Awang Hitam, also known as Henry the Black or Enrique of Malacca.

This 15th century Malay warrior was said to have sailed all over the world on a trading ship, before finally returning to his village.

Currently, Syed is looking for funding for the film, which he hopes to begin shooting next year.

Syed’s fascination with filmmaking is partly due to his mother’s influence. When he was a child, she used to take him to watch Bollywood movies.

He was fascinated by what he saw on screen.

He recalls: “I lived in their world and I understood their situations. I could feel their emotions.”

This fascination created a need in him to explore the medium. He studied advertising and joined the industry making commercials. But that was not enough for him.

“I wanted to make feature films,” he says. So he left the lucrative advertising world and started dabbling in various artforms, from photography to short films.

Fulfilling his filmmaking dream has not been an easy task. “I had to face a lot of struggles and rejection,” he says.

“Every artiste goes through that. But you have to develop a thick skin to face rejection, and have perseverance to continue believing in your dream.”

Syed has no regrets that he achieved his dream this late in life.

“You have to understand life before directing a film,” he says. “[It] is not something you can rush into. You really have to take [the] time.

“When you are younger, you have energy on your side. When you are older, your energy will dwindle. But you [will now] have knowledge on your side.”