Production Talk with Dzafirul Haniff on 'Abang'

'Abang' by Dzafirul Haniff was nominated for Best Director and received Special Mention in the 5th Singapore Short Film Awards.


Chased away by his own mother, Iskandar moves out of the room he shares with his younger brother into the bicycle shop he runs. When Zaki, the younger brother, pays him a visit at the store, the two learn to be brothers. Iskandar teaches Zaki to be the new man of the house while Zaki provides for Iskandar a sense of family he thought he had lost.

How did the story idea for the film come about?

The story idea largely comes from my own experiences with my brother where we've been distanced geographically with him living in KL, Malaysia while I lived in Singapore. As such, from a very young age, he became the brother I sort of never knew. We would meet once a year or so for Hari Raya but never had much to talk about. So when I took some time to live with him for about 6 months, it was a surprise to find that we were rather similar in character and personality. The bond was almost immediate but we found ourselves 'experimenting' and still navigating through the different dynamics of the relationship to find how we functioned best as brothers. In the film, the geographical distance became redundant and was swapped with an emotional distance which worked better for the flow and drama of the film.

Why did you choose to tell the story in Malay?

The short answer would be "I don't know". I have in the past always wanted to craft a film in Malay as a way of exploring a language that is part of my identity but one I don't know well. I'm horrendous in my use of the language. When I set out to write the script for Abang and to make the film though, I wasn't concerned with that desire to make a Malay film. It just sort of happened. Perhaps it was that it was based on my time in Malaysia with my brother and that was a period when I began to find myself utilising the language more, even if my brother and I would still more often than not speak to each other in English; or at least a 'rojak' (mix) of the two languages. In the end though, it worked better for a film about bonding. Retrospectively, I considered that a minority language and race might have helped sell the process of bonding between the brothers through that shared identity. I was very adamant that my actors be comfortable (we improvised a lot of the dialogue on set) with what they were saying and in order to better reflect reality, I insisted that my characters would speak in a mix of both English and Malay.

All this explanation though is based on retrospective analysis. The real answer for the decision making process would still be that “I don't know”. It just felt right.

The learning process of being brothers results from going through a lot of ups and downs in this film. What are the messages that you wish to tell the audience?

The message, if assumed that there is always a message to be conveyed in a film, is most certainly about family not as an inherent concept but something you build and work towards. Blood is just blood. Relationships come from interactions and the work one puts with building that relationship with another. You can be borned into a family but you are not necessarily a family. With this film, I suppose what I really wanted to explore and convey is the definition of family and the responsibility that comes with it.

Tell us more on the journey in developing the film.

The script for Abang came about a month and a half prior to the production of it. It was insanely rushed because there was a schedule to adhere to being that it was our final year project and there were others to answer to with regards to our production needs. I had another script that I wanted to do initially but was deemed too ambitious and large scale by my team who eventually insisted I write a new script altogether. I was an annoyingly stubborn writer then and it took awhile before I was finally convinced that they were right. I am extremely grateful to have a bluntly honest team members who didn't simply quit and give up when I was being my own blocking wall in the journey of making the film but supported me to get out of my own head and work towards something better and achievable.

Within that month and a half before production, I took 2 days to ponder on my failed project then another 2 days to whack out the first page of Abang's script. After I found a flow that worked, it took 2 hours to write the rest of the script. It underwent a few minor changes along the way but those were done in conjunction with the other pre-production work. Casting was a bit of an issue within that short period of time because I had a lot in mind with regards to what I needed from the actors. They had to be believable as brothers, able to convey a lot of subtle emotional shifts in a way and understand the characters well enough to be able to improvise their scenes when required. I was lucky to have found Jaden and Zac who have had similar familial dilemmas and were also acquainted with each other as friends who have not met in quite some time. They really were like brothers getting to know each other.

What is the most unforgettable part of the production?

The most unforgettable part of the production for me was the opening scene, which was also the last shot of the entire production (not including pick up shots). The opening scene was initially envisioned as a long 3 to 4-minute take of the stepfather returning home, verbally then physically abusing the mother followed by the fight scene between Iskandar (the lead) and the stepfather ending with the mother chasing him off. For the pacing purposes of the film, the scene was cut much, much shorter. During production though, we were somewhat rushed for time and were all quite tired. I felt everything that all 3 characters should be feeling while shooting. Rafida Yusoff who played the mother performed wonderfully and by the end of the 3rd take, I called for wrap and had to leave the set for awhile to catch my breath and recompose myself. We've all heard of method acting. I think I was method directing in some ways and while it was an immensely satisfying and cathartic approach, it was also intense and a little draining for me.

If you could have done something differently to the film, what would it be and why?

I would have added in a few wider shots to the confrontation scenes I think. I'm not sure how it would have worked but watching the film now, I felt like there could have been more variations to those scenes. I wouldn't do close ups because I'm not a fan (at least not for the nature of this film) of using close ups to induce intensity and drama. So I think probably wide breathing shots might have been good to add. I think the cycling scenes could have been done better as well.

How did you overcome the challenges during the filming?

When it comes to productions, especially an approach with the somewhat freeform style that we did, there's always a concern of getting everything we would need within a certain amount of time. Knowing the material is key in those scenarios. It helps in making the decisions of what shots could be cancelled, what could be merged into a single shot, etc. And we made the mistake of underestimating the manpower we would need for the shoot. Again, I am eternally grateful to have had such a supporting team and crew who would all pitch in to assist in areas that are not even within our job scope. Without my particular crew, I think the entire production might have crumbled even before it began.

Any good advice to aspiring directors or film makers out there?
I guess if I had any really good takeaways from the production of Abang and other film shoots I was involved with during that period of time it would be that planning is important. But knowing the source material, your direction and understanding what you want to achieve is much much more important. It allows you to be flexible with your production process and helps you to communicate with your crew which is key in any filmmaking endeavours - any creative undertaking for that matter. The other advice is probably a cliche but it stems from knowing exactly what you want to achieve as well. If you want to tell a good story, making everything a servant to the story. If you want to making a beautiful picture, find a story that is a servant to that. A film, at least to me, is created for its entirety and not for the singular elements or scenes that reside within it. Those need to compliment each other in servitude to the bigger whole.

The trailer for 'Abang' can be viewed here and more of Dzafirul Haniff's reels can be found on his official vimeo page.

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