A horror outsider who gets horror right: Interview with Emir Ezwan on 'ROH'


Emir Ezwan’s ROH is the first Malaysian film to premiere in the cinemas in the time of the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO). It is also the second film to come out of KUMAN Pictures that prides itself in making small budget features and paying the entire cast & crew royalties from the film. To quote SINdie writer KC Lee’s review, ‘(ROH) comes from a spirit of doing low-budget horror right’. 


The film is about a secluded family living in the jungle who finds a child wandering alone, decides to take her in and provide her with food and shelter, only to have the child repay their generosity by prophesying that they would all die in the next full moon, before slitting her own throat. Confused and shaken, the family is soon beset by a chain of events that is further complicated by two more visitors, as the family is unable to ascertain if they are their boon or doom.



Over a hot latte in a bustling cafe in Bangsar, I sat down with the director to talk about how he made this debut feature. 


Tell us a little bit about how the idea for ROH came about.


It took me a while to come up with the film because I’m not a horror buff. ROH is a product of a cumulation of many things. I had to watch a lot of horror films, and do a lot of readings. At the same time, I had been collecting a lot of old art that has a lot of biblical & dark visuals. So it influenced me to do something along those lines. So even though the script didn’t start with a religious tone, I ended up adding that element. 


ROH is one of the first three films funded under KUMAN pictures which prides itself on small budget features. How did you take that into account when you made ROH?


Yes, that was definitely one of the main elements of the film. From Day 1, the cost was already there so we worked around the cost accordingly. So from the get-go, it was about maximizing what you have & being realistic about what I can do. It influenced the way we chose the location and how we set up. We had a very minimal setup and only 6 characters in the film. 


Behind the scenes, a lot of us, the cast & crew also worked with a big discount. We didn’t even have a budget for post production, mostly it was only for sound design and a couple of things here and there. So a lot of post-production was pro bono. 


How long did it take to make ROH


Roughly a year and a half. We had about 6 months of pre-production, we shot 15 days and the rest was post-production. We really finished the film in September last year. 


What was the most challenging part about making ROH


Putting in the horror element. [chuckle]


When I started writing the script, Amir (the executive producer) would say “I need more horror scenes”. That was the challenge for me because I was always focusing on how to affect the audience psychologically.  I was always so focused on the story, so it was always Amir that was pushing the horror scenes and elements. 


Directing a horror scene is also difficult actually. You need time. You have to plan the shots & build up the tension. But it’s made easier when your actors understand the tone of the story & manage to carry out their characters right. 


ROH premiered in cinemas in a time where social distancing is a must (a one seat gap between each person). Do you think this is an added advantage for a horror film, or a deterrent? 


Well in the first place, we’re realistically not expecting a full cinema hall for a local film! So 30% of a 50% capacity of the cinema is good enough for me. For the audience, it will definitely enhance the experience because there’s nobody sitting next to you, especially since this film is more about feeling it rather than seeing (the horror) on screen. 


ROH is not your typical jumpscare horror flick. It’s nuanced & quite sophisticated in presentation. Do you think Malaysians will get it? 


Well I hope. I mean, Malaysians keep comparing how local films are made to international films. And there are different types of horror films out there. There are even good period horror folk films that have the same kind of feel. 


ROH is something different from their usual local horror flick. So why not show these films to local films to expose them and let them appreciate the story? To me, I’m probably only going to get to do this just once. So why not do it the way I like it.



Did you ever imagine that your debut feature would be a horror film? Is this a genre you’ve always wanted to dabble in?


No, because I’m not into horror! I’ve always wanted to make a feature but more of a thriller or a mystery. But definitely a dark film. So probably something like ROH without the horror or ghost element.

What do you think is the cinematic power of horror?


I think horror is more of a reflection of ourselves. The horror of being people or our situation - we’re merely dust in the universe. I think horror really gets into that and makes you question yourself and your existentialism.

Also sometimes when you read tales in the Quran or in the Bible, it’s hard to visualise or connect to it, yet you have to just have faith and believe. Unlike Greek myths or Hindu legends, there is a disconnect and it’s difficult to envision. So ROH questions that - are we just collateral damage or pawns to higher beings that we’re made to believe in? 



What do you feel is the subconscious anxieties of Malaysians? 


I think Malaysians are always comparing ourselves to other societies - particularly first world countries and trying to emulate that. Malaysians have kind of lost their identity - they’re trying to be Westernized but also Arabic (because of Islam). We haven’t kept our own identity or our own culture. Like if you look at Kuala Lumpur, there’s no identity. But a city like Jakarta has its own character and is very uniquely Indonesian. 


So in a way, Malaysians are most afraid of being Malaysians. They’re always trying to be something else. It is the same as local films. Malaysians always want to follow a certain style of film. Why can’t you do something else?


Interview by Sheril A. Bustaman

Sheril is SINdie's Kuala Lumpur-based correspondent. She is a freelance writer, producer and also the co-host of The Fat Bidin Film Club in Malaysia in which she reviews Malaysian films exclusively.


ROH is currently in week two of its theatrical release. It is screening simultaneously in 64 cinemas in Malaysia, 8 in Singapore and 3 in Brunei. According to the box office, it is Malaysia's 5th best-selling film and Singapore's 7th best-selling movie for last weekend. For screening times, please follow Kuman Pictures on their Facebook page.


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