Bringing home the best of Malay cinema today, that's my job

Ever wondered where local Malays get their fix of current Malay language cinema? Many of the latest Chinese language blockbusters find a convenient home in many Golden Village cinemas right at your neighbourhood. Tamil or Hindi film fans can get their Bollywood or Kollywood fix at Rex cinemas. For several decades, watching the latest Malay language hits meant crossing the Causeway to view films in a Johor Bahru (JB) cinema for many Malay families, or watching it on Astro or waiting for the DVD release. When asked why nobody from the community has stepped out to create a platform to make Malay-language cinema available here, local filmmaker and distributor Isnor Dzulkarnain Jaafar, (pictured above) shakes his head, smiles and says he does not have the answer.

“It has been like that for a long time. Even for myself, when I wanted to watch this really great Malaysian animation movie, called Boboi Boy, I had to go JB and I brought my boys along,” said Isnor.

However, Isnor hopes to change this. In March, Singaporeans were able to catch Malaysian blockbuster J Revolusi, starring Zul Ariffin, Izara Aishah and Farid Kamil at Rex Cinema, Golden Mile Tower. The film enjoyed a relatively successful run, triggering an awakening for Malay-language cinema in the theatres. Even makciks could be seen in hordes watching a movie genre typically more popular with the younger cinema-goers. DLUX Entertainment is a film distribution and promotion company started by Isnor, to bring in Malay-language films to Singapore. J Revolusi is their fifth film.
 Zul Ariffin at the gala premiere of J Revolusi in Singapore

 'Makcik power' at the Singapore gala of J Revolusi

About more than 10 years ago, an organisation called the Singapore Malay Filmmakers Society (SMFS) was established to create a de-facto support group for Malay filmmakers. Isnor was one of its founders. Somehow, while independent filmmaking caught on among Singaporeans in the wake of Mee Pok Man’s international acclaim, the scene remained a largely Chinese affair. SMFS hoped to change that. Over the years, it stood as a pillar of support for ground-up filmmaking efforts within the Malay community.

Last year, the SMFS took its first step in organising a film screening event. Redha is a film about a couple dealing with their son’s autism. Despite being Malaysia’s entry to the Best Foreign Film category at the 89th Oscars, its road to lighting up the big screens in Singapore was fraught with hurdles. Originally slated for a general release with major film distributors and exhibitors, it was pulled out at the last minute. In fact, the exhibitors had cold feet just two days before the screening, citing worries about cinema attendance.

This turned into an opportunity for Isnor as he fell in love with the film after watching it. It also helped that the editor of the film, an Apple-certified trainer in Singapore, was a friend of Isnor. A mix of passion and opportunism gave rise to a total of 12 screenings in Singapore, of which 9 were sold out. Getting the word out on the film necessitated a lot of promotional work, including producing the trailers and marketing materials, and piquing the media’s interest. Stapled with a good cause that was in support of Autism Association (Singapore), the organisers magnified their efforts in trying to boost the awareness about the movie. It all turned out to be a moderate success, but more importantly, a sign of better things to come. That marked the birth of DLUX Entertainment, albeit in earlier incarnation.

“We had to rent a theatre ourselves for the screenings to take place since no cinema was willing to try the film out,” Isnor recounted how they pulled off the 4-day screening run.

The same happened with their second film, Rock Bro, about a band of ‘Mat Rockers’. Isnor and his team rented out the Kreta Ayer Community Centre auditorium and turned it into a screening venue. However, it didn’t take long for Isnor to find a screening partner in Rex Cinemas and he is relieved that he can put those ‘homeless’ days behind him, next to other growing pains. All of DLUX’s films will be screened exclusively at Rex cinemas. At the same time, he has not loosened his gaze on the big boys like Golden Village, Cathay and Shaw. Someday, that threshold in audience numbers will be hit.

Isnor makes no illusions about the fact that DLUX has all the hallmarks of a small outfit in which his hands get dirty all the time, as opposed to sitting behind a desk and managing numbers at his computer. His hands-on approach would see him making trips to Malaysia to film gala premieres, interview the cast and invite them down to Singapore for meet and greet sessions. His family also plays a big part in the business with his father providing the financial support to start the business. Friends have also been roped in to help with social media outreach and building their database.
 Isnor holding the fort at the DLUX Entertainment booth at the MegaExpress Halal 2017 fair at Singapore Expo

The DLUX Entertainment team interviewing Malaysian actress Raja Ilya at the KL premiere of Soulmate Hingga Jannah

The question remains. There is a community of Malay artistes, producers, veterans in show-business, why did it take an independent filmmaker to get this initiative started?

In response to the question, Isnor recounts,” There was actually a Malaysian distributor who was covering the Singapore market. But all it did was close the deal on getting the films into the cinemas. They did not run any promotional and advertising activities to engage their target audience and community. They would do just one print advertisement on Berita Harian and that was it!”

“So we saw the opportunity there. As a distribution company, in order to succeed, it’s how you engage the people and the community to come and watch the movie. I think my production and media background, with 10 to 15 years in the industry, helped in this situation. I realised nobody else was doing it, so why not!” he adds.

As to whether Isnor considered working with partners from the entertainment circle in starting this initiative, he related that he did try to reach out to people he knew in Suria and the media circles. The dearth of Malay-language cinema in Singapore did cross their minds, but time was acutely short in supply. It was often a challenge to get them to come down for the SMFS talks and other outreach activities, let alone start a distribution business.

“Our work is not just about running a business. We see a mission in it as well. We want to champion Malay films and eventually help push the envelope in filmmaking among the Malay filmmakers. We hope to send a message to them that says ‘hey now that there is someone who can help get your films out to the right channels, do start putting together all your ideas’.”

Over the last ten years, only two names among the Malay film community have risen to prominence on a mainstream level and they are are Sanif Olek and Raihan Halim. Sanif has honed his craft over more than a decade of TV-work and has produced a dozen short films such as Lost Sole, A La Folie as well as Singapore’s entry to the 2014 Oscar’s Best Foreign Film category Sayang Disayang. Raihan Halim, Sanif’s younger compatriot in the industry, cuts a different figure in the industry with a more universal tune as compared to Sanif’s strong nusantara sensibilities in his works. Raihan made a commercially successful first feature film Banting, about girls taking up competitive boxing, in 2014 and just won two awards at this year’s Hong Kong Film Financing Forum for his second feature film La Luna, again pushing cultural boundaries with a story about a lady who opens a lingerie shop in a highly conservative Muslim community.

“If you see what our neighbours are doing, there are many great things brewing. I have seen  animation works from Malaysia and Indonesia that is on par with some of the Hollywood or Japanese anime productions. There is also some quality work coming out of Brunei, despite the lack of a film school there. Ultimately, we really need people who are brave enough to invest and believe in these stories around us and push it further. And for now, we should explore collaboration opportunities with our Malaysian and Indonesian neighbours to find a bigger platform for ourselves.”

In Malaysia, the film development authority, Perbadanan Kemajuan Filem Nasional Malaysia (FINAS) introduced the Wajib Tayang Scheme in 2005. All cinemas are required to accept and screen any local or joint venture films in the biggest hall of its cinema for 14 consecutive days. Thereafter, they are can be moved to a smaller screen depending on demand. This has led to the flourishing of Malaysian cinema with Malaysia producing more than 70 feature films, a mix of commercial and arthouse, in a year. A film can also play in close to 115 screens across the country, strengthening the market for film productions. With policies and market dynamics like these, filmmakers in Malaysia have a lot to cheer about.

 Adiwiraku, one of the films distributed by DLUX was a heartwarming story about village school students competing in a choral speaking competition

While Singapore does not share the same favourable population demographics nor policies that have powered the growth of Malay-language cinema in Malaysia. Isnor believes there is unlocked potential in the Malay film market in Singapore. If one thinks about how universally successful Malay-language films once were in the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore, getting there is about stirring up the passion again. So perhaps, bringing in the best of Malaysia, and even Indonesia, to Singapore would be a shrewd first step.

“At the end of the day, while we are sharing our neighbours’ stories, I hope eventually, our own home-made stories will fill the best spots on the big screen. It will take time and steps. But someone’s got to start the ball rolling,” concludes Isnor, with his eyes darting between the numerous visitors who have dropped by his booth to ask what DLUX Entertainment is all about.

This interview was done at the DLUX Entertainment booth at the MegaXpress Halal 2017 fair at the Singapore Expo in March.

Written by Jeremy Sing

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