Telemovie focuses on life in Iban longhouse

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KUCHING: The latest telemovie shot in Sarawak, ‘Kumang, Sulu Ati Aku’, hoped to give Malaysians a glimpse of life and culture in an Iban longhouse.

‘KUMANG’ FAMILY: (seated, from left) Shevenna, Jennifer, Normala, Mustapha, Shashi, and Hanson. (standing, from left) Saipul, Nomiday, Amar, Iwan and Winfario.

Speaking to The Borneo Post the day after they wrapped up filming, Megaday Media Sdn Bhd managing director Mohamad Mustapha said that Sarawak has a lot of unexplored heritage.

Mustapha, who previously worked in Sarawak for six years, said that he has seen and experienced a lot of the state during his time in the civil service.

“That’s why I try to portray Sarawak and the lifestyle of its many ethnic groups,” he said on Megaday Media’s first venture into East Malaysia.

He was optimistic about returning with more projects to fully show what Sarawak has to offer.

“This is the beginning,” he said. “In a way, we want to help the state promote tourism so people in Peninsular Malaysia will know about Sarawak.”

The telemovie received support from the Chief Minister’s Department, Sarawak Tourism Board (STB), Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV), as well as from Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) and its chairman Datuk Talib Zulpilip.

Executive director-producer Normala Mantali said that they also wanted to promote local talents and artistes by casting them into the telemovie.

“We want them to be able to stand together with their counterparts from Peninsular Malaysia,” she said.

Scriptwriter Amar Arafat said that it took two months to research and write the script. But even the best of plans may not be enough when faced with reality.

Upon arriving in Kuching, he and director Saipul Bahri Othman had to rewrite a few scenes to better fit the location and logistics they had to work with.

“The challenge here is to make it believable,” he said. “I want the Ibans to watch this and find that we’ve portrayed their culture accurately.”

Despite it being the first time working away from Peninsular Malaysia, director Saipul said that they received generous support from the locals.

“We had a lot of help from Sarawakians in looking for locations and casting local actors,” he said.

They shot scenes around Kuching, at Annah Rais longhouse, in Serian and at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

Saipul said that they opted for SCV because a real longhouse will pose several logistic problems.

“We filmed scenes in Iban and Sarawakian Malay. I needed help from the locals when we shot in Iban because I don’t understand the language!”

Saipul, an industry veteran with 24 years of experience, count ‘Kumang, Sulu Ati Aku’ as his twelfth directorial project.

“I started from the bottom up,” he said.

Production manager Winfario Haj also started from the bottom, but with half the number of years. He may know a lot about how movies are made, but he and his crew were still shooting in unknown territory.

“I was afraid of offending the locals with my lack of knowledge about their culture,” he said, adding that everything went well thanks to the help from locals involved in the production.

‘Kumang, Sulu Ati Aku’ follows David, a reporter from Kuala Lumpur who was sent into rural Sarawak for research on Kumang Gawai.

When stopping in a small town onroute, David photographs a girl he found attractive but left without speaking to her. Unsurprisingly, she turned up again as a contestant and winner of the Kumang contest he attends.

Desperate to meet her, David secures an interview with the Kumang, Cynthia, for his research. Cynthia’s father, tuai rumah Apai, welcomed him as a guest of the longhouse.

But trouble soon reared its head. Longhouse resident Jombat realised that he had competition for the lady’s attention and convinced Apai that David took advantage of Cynthia during a river rescue.

Shashi Tharan, who played David, had one thing in common with his character – they are both from Kuala Lumpur and was dropped into an unfamiliar culture on the other side of the country because of work.

“But I enjoyed the experience more!” Shashi said. Working in Sarawak was a new experience for him, especially when he was the only non-Sarawakian actor onboard.

“I didn’t experience any difficulty because we have a very good director. He is very into it when working. He takes the time to explain exactly what he wants out of you in that scene,” said Shashi.

He was also impressed by the people he encountered here.

“People here are very humble. In West Malaysia, people are always very busy. Over here, they still have time for friends and strangers.”

Local singer and actress Jennifer Jack portrays Cynthia, the quintessential Iban girl who who gets caught in a tug-of-war between David and Jombat.

She didn’t have to look very far for inspiration on how to be ane ethnic beauty queen; Jennifer won the state level Kumang Gawai competition in 2003.

“I loved working with the cast and crew of this project. They helped me with everything and gave me advice on how to improve. I got to hone my acting skills,” she said.

Jennifer is looking forward to the launch of her album next month.

“There are 12 songs, a lot of ballads done in a modern concept,” she said, adding that her fans are messaging her on Facebook expressing their eagerness to get their hands on it.

Iwan Dasri helped in the initial casting process and ended up getting cast himself.

“I’m the bad guy,” he said, before quipping about how his character got to cause trouble but not getting to score any quality time with the object of his affection.

Iwan had warm words for his fellow cast members and the telemovie crew.

“Having good casting is good support and gives you more energy to be what you want to be,” he said. “Even after work is over for the day, we still have a good time together.”

Iwan and the youngest cast member, seven-year old Shevenna Eleesa, were clearly not done plying their acting chops against each other.

“Where is the bracelet I made for you?” Shevenna questioned Iwan sternly, while he heemed and hawed over a reply. “I told you never to take it off.”

Shevenna, who hailed from Miri, and spoke several languages and dialects, said that she enjoyed her acting experience.

“I like working with them,” she said, replying with an enthusiastic “yes!” when asked if she’d act again.

Her fellow cast members were full of praise for her.

“She is very talented,” said Normala warmly.

Hanson T Rapah, who plays Apai, was so keen on acting that he once travelled to Hollywood to audition for a role in The Replacement Killers.

“I was rejected because I didn’t speak Cantonese,” he said. “I gave up my acting dreams right there.”

When an opportunity came knocking on his door, Hanson’s first instinct was to ignore the noise.

“I’m happy I decided to do it,” he said.

Hanson, who does production work of his own, found his experience with the Megaday Media crew enlightening.

“It was an interesting experience. They’re very organised and more advanced than Kuching,” he said. “I also have much respect for Mustapha and Normala. They’ll be on the set with us no matter what time we finish.”

He described his character as a serious, angry character. “But with a soft heart,” Hanson added.

Nomiday Dajie followed Hanson to the set one day. Next thing he knew, he was roped in as David’s editor in KL.

“They needed someone and I happened to be there. I tried to get out of it,” he said.

He said that the hardest part for him was remembering his lines.

“I’m very bad at memorising anything,” Nomiday said. “But they taught me to go through the script and ‘feel’ it. It’s not about memorising lines, but about the flow and knowing what you need to get across in that scene.”