Wednesday, February 15, 2017

KAM RASLAN ~ Portrait of a Malaysian Author/Filmmaker/Humorist

Antares: Did you desire to become a filmmaker or writer - or both - as a kid? Or were your early ambitions entirely different?

Kam: Film came first, but I realized straight away that if I wanted to make a film I’d have to write it as well. So although the initial spur was film they went hand in hand. I got the film bug when I was around 17 and it hit me hard when I watched a Russian movie called The Mirror directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a beautiful hypnotic movie and it’s very un-Hollywood - but it suggested to me that film is capable of something exceptional.

Writing for film is a strangely technical exercise that I’ve only really begun to truly understand very recently. Part of my difficulty with writing for film has been that I was inspired by the epic movies of David Lean, who directed Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. I can find myself at the computer wanting to write, “The Red Army cavalry charges across the vast Russian Steppes and crushes the anti-Bolshevik Tsarists.” And then I immediately realize that I can’t afford that unless I can do it with a couple of Bangladeshis and Jit Murad. There are also other technical film narrative story-telling aspects that I won’t bore you with, but after a while they felt like constraints and I wanted to find a way to tell stories that could be realized and accessed immediately. So I started writing fiction and suddenly it felt liberating. Suddenly I could write stories that traveled continents and were set in the past. Also film is a slave to plot momentum, and character can become secondary. If you read the script of Die Hard there is nothing about the central character that you haven’t seen before and the only thing that makes it exceptional is Bruce Willis’ performance. With fiction the character can take over more and can say or, more especially, think things that are not necessarily plot related. But everything I’ve learnt from film has been vitally important, especially the desire to keep the story going and being concise.

A: Your elder brother Karim is an established writer. Does that make your relationship competitive or supportive?

K: I’m the youngest of three brothers. I’ve always looked up to them although we grew up quite separately. Johan is the eldest and he’s the chairman of Price Waterhouse Coopers in Malaysia and then there’s Karim, who’s a writer, lawyer and political consultant. Karim has been writing for a long time and is well-known for his Asean-wide political commentaries as well as his short stories. He has also, I believe, finished writing his novel. Karim and I write very different stuff so I don’t know if there can be any competitiveness. He’s always been very supportive and believed in me even before I did. One area that was a small cause for concern for me was that Karim wrote fiction long before I did and I always felt that was his area. So when I started writing fiction I worried that I was trespassing on his turf but he’s very supportive. All three of us look quite similar so I’m constantly being mistaken for one or the other. If somebody says they’ve read one of my articles in the paper I’ll wait to see if they liked it. If they did then I’ll take all the credit but if they didn’t then I’ll say, “I think you’ve mistaken me for my brother.” Sometimes I don’t bother to correct them at all because it might embarrass them and on one occasion I happened to be standing next to a notable Tan Sri who told me that he had decided to award his company’s business to me. I really didn’t know what to say because unless he wanted me to wash his cars then I really couldn’t have been much use to him. I think I shouted “Fire!” and ran away.

A: How have both your parents influenced you? Would they have preferred your opting for a less "nebulous" profession?

K: Our father died when I was four years old so our mother raised us alone. I can’t imagine what my father would have wanted me to do although I suspect it isn’t what I presently do. He was in banking at the time of his death and throughout my childhood I told people that I wanted to be a banker, even though I had no idea what that meant - anyway, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Malaysian banking. My father’s influence came through his absence and through my imagining of him. Through his absence I grew up quite independently and have by and large discovered the world for myself. But he did leave behind the sense that he was somebody important. Throughout my life I’ve met countless people who don’t know me and didn’t know him but knew of him and respected him. It gave me a sense that one must achieve something big. It’s a blessing and a burden. But he was an avid photographer and he did leave behind hundreds of photographs and two movie cameras that I was obsessed with. I know that I was drawn to film because of those cameras and because they created a connection to him.

But I was raised by my mother so she has had a big influence on me. She worries about my financial state but she’s stopped suggesting I “do something in computers.” As I get older I become more like my mother and whenever my hair grows long my wife calls me Dorothy because I look like her. My mother is always apologizing for my hair as if it’s her fault. She plays the violin and tried to make me learn but I rebelled. It’s an impossible instrument. But the fact that I was always around classical music has had an enormous impact on me because I think it’s given me the patience to be able to appreciate not only things like Wagner but also slow Russian movies. But having said that, I was a very surly teenager and would disappear into my room and listen to David Bowie but recently my mother told me she’s a fan of Bowie. She’s full of surprises. She’s also very independent minded and has always let me make my own choices in life. She’s originally from South Wales and when she married a Malay in the 1950s and then moved all the way over to Malaysia it took either courage or foolish romanticism. I think that dichotomy is what I’ve inherited from my mother. And the hair.

A: As an Anglo-Malay educated in England, do you experience your genetic heritage as advantageous or disadvantageous in terms of "fitting in" with the Malaysian milieu? Do you sometimes feel estranged from the local social and political context?

K: Calling me “Anglo-Malay” makes me feel like an old bungalow overlooking Port Swettenham. When I first returned to Malaysia I was concerned about “fitting in.” I’d spent very little time in Malaysia growing up and worried about my lack of Malayness. It took me quite a while to realize that there is no genetic cultural inheritance and that I am what I am. And that is a Malaysian. My friend Dato’ Hamid likes to think of himself as a Malayan and I would go along with that too. I think there are over 20 million different Malaysias and over time I’ve found mine. There have been several epiphanies along the way but one was a story that a friend told me. She was standing at an isolated phone on the east coast when a girl walked up. The girl called her boyfriend in KL and he obviously told her that it was over. The girl pleaded and listened, put the phone down and walked back along the long, empty road. People are always more than how they are defined by their IC. Human stories, that we can all understand, happen everywhere.

A: One of your literary trademarks has been an acute sense of irony expressed as dry, sardonic wit. Does that come naturally or was it a conscious decision to write in that style? Have you tried other forms of writing, e.g., poetry, scifi, horror, journalistic?

K:  I have tried, sometimes too hard, to be humorous whilst talking about serious issues. Expressing public opinions can sometimes be tricky in this country and I need to couch my words so that people will “get it” but without necessarily being overt. In trying to find another way of saying something I think I’ve discovered for myself some interesting connections. Besides, reading people’s rantings can be dull and I only want to write stuff that I myself would want to read. I don’t want to appear arrogant but if there is one trait that I know I do have it’s a sense of humor. I am quite funny. I don’t know where it comes from but I can remember the first time I used it. It was one of my first days at school in England when I was 5 and only a few bewildering months after having left Malaysia. Suddenly the rowdy English kids picked me up and were about to carry me away to beat me up. I had never been in a situation like this before and my mind raced to think of a way out when, I’m ashamed to admit, I blurted out, “Hey, do you want to hear what a Chinese person sounds like when he’s angry?” I did a quick impression of our old Hainanese cook, Ah Chong. The kids started laughing and put me down and went off and beat up the school’s only Chinese kid. (I made that last bit up, but it would have been funny – in a dry, sardonic kind of way.)

A: Having spent the last 10 years as a scriptwriter and film director, does that tend to make you a visually oriented novelist? Do you, for instance, see your novel being turned into a movie?

K: Actually, it’s over 20 years, but, yes, I think it does help make me be aware of the importance of the visual. But to be visually concise because movie scripts waste very little time on description. I think that, very often, long descriptive passages are unnecessary. The reader needs to know where they are, what it looks like and what it means but often that can be simply stated as, “It was a big, scary-looking house.” People interact with and are influenced by their environment and I want to show that. I have a relatively long descriptive passage in one of my stories that describes the east coast monsoon but I did that because the monsoon is an essential backdrop and even a character in the story. My film background has also taught me the importance of sound and I’d like the reader to be able to hear the story as well as see it. But what I enjoyed while writing was being freed from film constraints. I wanted to be able to write an unfilmable epic without worrying about the money. If any movie producer read a script that said “The monsoon covers the land as far as the eye can see” they’d throw it away because it would mean waiting for the rain that might not come, and I know from experience that if you point the camera at the rain, it doesn’t look like it’s raining. So I think that the novel can be turned into a movie in the reader’s mind but I never wanted to write it with a view to filming it. But if anybody wants to, then please make the cheque payable to “Cash.”

A: What was the interval between the conceptualization of your novel and its completion? Were you working in a disciplined, regular way - or only when inspired?

K: This was a tale of blood, sweat, toil and tears. I wrote the first story in 1999 and finished the last one at the precise moment when Italy equalized in the World Cup final of 2006. One story alone took five years to write and it’s only 3000 words long. After I wrote the first story I realized that I could write a lot more and it took a while for it to coalesce in my mind. I tried to be disciplined but I failed every time. It was hard work but much later, when they were serialized in Off The Edge magazine, I read them again and I couldn’t see the blood, sweat, toil and tears at all. The stories seemed to flow easily and I couldn’t believe that I had written them. The only way I could make it easier for myself - and I recommend this to any aspiring writer - was to break the story down into small scenes. Then I tried to write one scene each day and tell myself that I had achieved something. As for inspiration, that has always come in a flash and the whole story reveals itself in an instant. Then five years later you’re still at the computer trying to convert it into words. I know that Karim is much more disciplined and I wish I could be too.

A: How would you describe your worldview? If you possess no specific worldview, would you care to explain why?

K: I’m a secular humanist and I believe in liberal democracy. Because of where I grew up I consider myself to be innately middle-class – a race of people who, in this country, are easily pushed around. Malaysia’s politics of race means that nobody will stand up for middle-class aspirations because that would create a connecting thread between the races. Instead, for instance, Malays with universal middle-class aspirations find themselves trapped by somebody else’s definition of what it is to be, for instance, Malay. To step outside that is to be a race/religion traitor. Our notion of democracy has boiled down to the majority vote but democracy is also about minority rights and the rule of law. Perhaps because I grew up in a country where I was the only Malaysian for miles around I am interested in the minority but not just the obvious racial or class minority. Many of us, even when we are amongst our family or community will feel separate or alienated for some personal, emotional reason. I am interested in those moments and I am drawn to what it is to be outside.

A: Would you consider yourself prone towards pessimism or optimism? Does thinking about the future inspire in you despair or hope?

K: I always think that things can be better, which is a form of hope or optimism. All of us can do something to make things better, but I don’t think many do. I’m always astonished at how we can absorb rubbish into our lives and imagine that that’s just the way things are and we accept it. We’re too scared to be angry. I’m very worried about the future of this country. I certainly believe that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” After a brief moment when it looked otherwise our style of democracy is now entrenched. It’s like a train that’s waiting at the platform about to leave for the next stop but latecomers keep rushing in and the conductor keeps squeezing them into the train. The train will never leave. My only hope is that the rest of us, who know that we have no choice but to go to that next station, will build our own train.

A: Are you already planning, or have you begun, on a new novel? Any hints about the subject matter?

K: Now that I’ve finished the book I miss Dato’ Hamid. I imagine that he’s on holiday somewhere in the South of France or tending his orchids but that we’ll meet up again soon. One of the stories in the present book is a murder-mystery and I’d like to do another where somebody is murdered at an MCKK Old Boy’s reunion.* I’m also toying with the idea of the Dato’ being at the fall of Saigon but I’d really like to do one with him in Africa. The problem for me is that I wrote the last stories on the basis of what I already know in life but if I’m to write anything new then I need to have new experiences. I fear that the Malaysian market is so small that I’ll never be able to generate enough income from here so I must sell outside. The book I’d really like to write is non-fiction looking at post-conflict nations. News organizations always report a conflict but leave when it’s over. I’d like to see how people have resolved conflict and learnt to live with each other. I’m thinking about things as diverse as The Emergency, the American Civil War or Northern Ireland. But to write something like that I’d have to sell it overseas because no Malaysian publication would have the resources to pay for it. I guess the next thing should be a movie but I get worried thinking about telling the man with the money about how it’s set in Kuala Kangsar in 1917.

A: How has marriage affected your work as a writer?

K: I feel like I’ve known my wife all my life but we’ve only been married for a few years. She’s very patient with my slow rate but wanting to achieve something for her, or for us, is an important spur. She’s always able to contradict or inform my assumptions and, however painful it might be, we learn the most when we are wrong. Knowing her and her family has really broadened my horizons and their opinions and insights constantly reappear in my writings.

A: Have you discovered your life purpose... or given up the quest?

K: A long, long time ago I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night because in a flash I had understood my life’s purpose: “I must learn how to feed my body through the process of photosynthesis!” Since that night I’ve not really tried to think about it. I’d like to be able to write books that people want to read and I want to direct the movies that I want to direct. To be honest, my quest is to do what I want to do. And this might sound strange but with the Dato’ Hamid stories I want to show that the history of Malaysia is more interesting and epic than reading the papers might suggest. There are stories in between, alongside and behind. We may not be aware of it but we have all been part of a great big, global drama. Ultimately I want to do a piece of work that’s as perfect as a Beatles album. But that’s impossible.

*MCKK = Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, elite residential school established by the British Colonial government in 1905 to groom the sons of ruling class Malays for public office.

[First published December 2006 in The Hilt & posted here 28 June 2012]

Monday, February 13, 2017

Money As Debt ~ a short film by Paul Grignon

Paul Grignon's 47-minute animated presentation of Money As Debt  tells in very simple and effective graphic terms what money is and how it all is being created. It is an entertaining way to get a very important message out. Highly recommended as a painless but hard-hitting educational tool. Every thinking person concerned with the present unsustainable monetary system on planet Earth is encouraged to circulate this viral video. Do it soon and wake everybody up - before the Final Financial Meltdown (coming real soon to a market near you!)

[First posted 18 August 2007]