Nadira Ilana: Influencing the Malaysian narrative

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PETALING JAYA: It’s the perennial East Malaysian struggle: the fight to be recognised as a people beyond the usual Petronas-advertisement platitudes. After all, most Malaysians are only familiar with the general narrative crafted and endorsed by the authorities, one that seems only to focus on the three major races, i.e. the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

All other races – those used to ticking the “lain-lain” (others) box in official forms – are mental footnotes, cultural caricatures of harvest festivals and… something or other about rice. They live in trees, right?

This state of the matter is particularly close to the heart of Sabahan filmmaker Nadira Ilana, and it is something that she, in her own words, “cannot let fly”.

Born of mixed heritage, as are most Sabahans, (“3/5th Dusun. I can sing karaoke well enough.”) Nadira brought in that attitude to her work directing her two latest short films in Ranau, Sabah.

“I really just wanted to understand what being Sabahan is about. I love Southeast Asian cinema, and I wanted to say something that felt very local,” Nadira told FMT in an exclusive interview recently.

“The whole Malay-Indian-Chinese thing was just a bunch of rubbish that I could not believe in or let fly. But at the same time I didn’t know anything about being Dusun either. So I had to go back, do my own thing, jump into the jungle and do stories.”

According to her, the time she spent filming in Ranau was also a way for her to reconnect with her Dusun heritage.

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“It was just really spending time in a Dusun kampung. It was also my way of getting in touch with my Dusun heritage, because you know – growing up in Kota Kinabalu, you don’t know anything about your own culture.”

The two short films, “We Don’t Want to Forget How our Ancestors Gathered Food”, and “Our Village Made a Sacred Oath”, will be screened at this year’s Freedom Film Fest, the nation’s leading annual film festival on human rights.

They are part of the “Big Stories Small Towns” project, a film initiative based in Australia that has spread to various countries in the Asia-Oceania region, with Nadira’s skeleton crew being their first partners in Malaysia.

“It’s an Australian project that’s since been picked up by South by Southwest (SxSW, American film festival). It’s a franchise, they did it in Cambodia, Laos, so we’re the first partners in Malaysia,” Nadira explained.

Big Stories Co won SxSW Interactive’s Community Champion Award in 2012.

The first of the two shorts, “We Don’t Want to Forget How our Ancestors Gathered Food”, focuses on Ranau natives Geluing and his “gang of tough guys” who go hunting both to wind down and to remember how their ancestors gathered food.

The second, “Our Village Made a Sacred Oath”, tells the story of how two villages in Borneo had made a pagan oath over native land in the 1970s.

Nadira spent more than a year producing the two shorts in Ranau. She pointed out, however, that it was initially meant to take only three months.

“But then the earthquake and a whole bunch of stuff happened,” Nadira recalled ruefully. “Of all the places I had to choose to shoot, it had to be Ranau, right? Like wah, God really don’t like me ah,” she added, laughing.

“It turned into a whole year. We worked with the community, holding workshops, telling their stories.”

Her team ran film and photography workshops in Kampung Bongkud, Ranau, assisting locals in producing films and images with a focus on their Dusun heritage.

Now based in Petaling Jaya, Nadira works full-time in the local film industry, supplementing her income with freelance jobs on the side. She began her foray into film with fiction, specifically experimental films.

“I guess my films always have this sort of fantastical, existentialist thing to it. So, at first I had thought: Wah, European influence. But now I’m starting to investigate more Borneo mythology, attempting to understand the narratives.

“I do like spending time in the kampung, trying to understand their way of life there. That’s what I find really interesting. I feel that being someone who is very Western and Chinese educated, I want to be able to have a more localised narrative.”