Transposing Borneo into film

AS modern Malaysia is progressively moving away from their collective past, appropriating Western modernity and sensibilities, a new generation of Malaysians from Borneo are going back to their Eastern roots.

Transitioning from the trippy, sci-fi Dream Cradle, to the political The Silent Riot, and the cultural Big Stories Bongkud-Namaus of last year, Sabah's Nadira Ilana is increasingly cementing herself as a force to be reckoned in the Malaysian Indie film and documentary scene.

Part of a new generation of Malaysian storytellers and film-makers, dubbed the Next New Wave, Nadira's Big Stories is arguably her biggest achievement in the international arena, as the grand, yet modest screening garnered 1,000 attendees in the Bongkud-Namaus village.

"Everyone was filled with this genuine joy from watching the films because it was about their friends and family," Nadira claims before continuing, "Hands down, it was the best day of my life."

You were recently part of Big Stories, Small Towns, an Australian documentary project spanning several Asia-Pacific countries. What was the experience like?

Initially I'll have to admit that I was very awkward, due to being more of a fiction than a documentary film-maker, my horrible Bahasa Malaysia, and although I had grown up in Sabah and am of mixed Dusun heritage, it was the first time I'd been to a village where everyone spoke Dusun.

We had to coordinate a village with limited phone connection, with Ranau being a three-hour drive away from Kota Kinabalu, which is every production manager's nightmare. Being naive at the time, we thought everything could be covered within three months in time for Kaamatan, but so many things happened in between, including the earthquake in June.

The Bongkud-Namaus shorts were a clear departure from the political nature of The Silent Riot. Are you experimenting, or is this an indicator that you are growing beyond producing only one "genre"?

Each film is about peeling away the layers of my own identity. After The Silent Riot and Lastik, I had satiated my interest in Sabah's political history and moved on to questions about my Dusun heritage.

As a landscape film-maker, I'm drawn to how the geography, history and culture of a place forms stories, and this requires that I become a better listener.

After spending a year with Bongkud-Namaus villagers, you ended up with 14 short documentary pieces. How many didn't make the final cut, as it felt like you (and the villagers) had more to say?

We lost one story that we were developing at the beginning because the film-maker had to go back to university to continue his studies; a great story about his elderly grandmother that looked after a reclusive daughter in her 40s.

This was a fascinating project to develop even though we couldn't make it, because our community film-makers were in their early 20s to 60s, and each generation had a totally different perspective on one story. Kind of like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, but in real life.

Is that a generally hard thing you face as a film-maker; editing out elements that are just as good in favour of others?

Editing is instinctual. By the time I get to post-production, my more basic rules are to separate the "nice-to-knows" from the "need-to-knows" and to work backwards from your favourite images.

I watch for rhythm, energy and whether there's room visually and in the story to breathe. I'm not extremely sentimental about what gets taken out; the objective is to create a seamless finished product because that's what people see at the end of the day.

Before studying Fine Arts in Queensland University of Technology, did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

I knew I wanted to study film-making when I was 16 because it was a combination of all my passions at the time; writing, photography, acting and music. I didn't think I was going to be a film-maker or director with absolute certainty.

What was your childhood like that led to you to being so opinionated over a multitude of topics?

I read a lot, and my parents always instilled a sense of justice in me. Maybe it had something to do with watching a lot of superhero cartoons as a kid, but every film-maker and artiste should have something to say. Even when we're entertaining, we should do it with the human condition in mind. I don't think there is any other way to be.

In an interview with Borneo Art Collective, you said "If Malaysia wants to find itself again, it's gonna have to do so through Borneo". Can you elaborate further?

It's simple. Without Sabah and Sarawak, there would be no Malaysia. If we want to realise the dream of Malaysia as our forefathers intended in 1963, an inclusive Malaysian narrative is long overdue and we can't just have West Malaysians tell all our stories for us. That's what diversity really means. East Malaysians aren't minorities, we are half of this country's stories.