Singaporean Sanif Olek's 'surreal' Oscar shortlist

By David LeeMovies - 22 October 2014 9:00 AM

Singaporean Sanif Olek's 'surreal' Oscar shortlist

Television and short film director Sanif Olek’s first feature ‘Sayang Disayang’ has been selected to represent Singapore in the Best Foreign Picture category of Hollywood's Academy Awards.

The 44-year-old Singaporean, who is a veteran short filmmaker and director of TV programmes, has been working as a director in Singapore’s film and media industry since 1998.

He is an alumni of the pioneer batch of graduates from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film Sound & Video, which also produced fellow alumni such as Anthony Chen and Oak3’s Jason Lai. 

David Lee caught up with Sanif in an exclusive interview for InSing 

Congratulations on ‘Sayang Disayang’being selected to represent Singapore at the Oscars. You have made a number of short films since your debut short ‘Lost Sole’ in 2006. What motivated you to make ‘Sayang Disayang’ your first feature film?

I think it has always been the dream of a film graduate to eventually make a feature film. When ‘Lost Sole’ was released, it never occurred to me that my humble and personal short film would amass the reception it did from all over the world. It was made at a time when it was unheard of to make Singapore films about the Malay community and produced in the Malay language.

‘Lost Sole’ opened my eyes to the nature of contemporary films produced from the Malay-speaking region. These films were national-centric and the cultural issues that were dealt – if any – were so macro that the audiences from these respective countries often find them alienating. It’s very hard to name a Nusantara (the Malay archipaelago in Southeast Asia) cinematic icon that can stand among the Chinese and Indian cinematic icons familiar with international cinema audiences.

Thus with these factors in mind, I decided to work on a story concept that anybody from the Nusantara will find familiar, yet universal in theme. When I pitched this idea to some people in the industry, many were impressed yet remain cautious about audience reception because it hasn’t been done before. While many were supportive, they were adamant that it won’t work.

Being inspired by the early films of Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige from China, I have to admit that all these factors were the genesis for ‘Sayang Disayang’. I want to challenge myself as a filmmaker. If films like ‘Raise The Red Lantern’ and ‘Red Sorghum’ can find an international audience, a non-national-centric Nusantara film that "unites" diverse cultures can find an international audience.

This region has so much potential with its stories. While in the middle of shooting ‘A La Folie’, and writing ‘Ameen’, my second and third short films respectively, I had already formed an idea about ‘Sayang Disayang’.

‘Sayang Disayang’was six years in the making. Why was there a break in between? What were the main challenges and struggles in the whole process to finish the film in 2013?

There will always be challenges when something seeks to be done for the first time. People are uncomfortable to step out of their respective comfort zones. The same goes with ‘Sayang Disayang’. Many supporters of the film backed out at the last-minute just before production.

There were efforts to raise money via online crowd-funding and a day-long concert by Singapore- and Kuala Lumpur-based musical artistes. These drives raised awareness but did not raise substantial funds required to complete the film. We also actively sought film grants but were not successful. Because of the lack of funds, we had to stop. 

The genesis to complete the film came from my fear that the digital file format in which the film was shot (P2 HD) will get outdated.

What was the most poignant moment for you in the whole journey?

It was the dawn of 30 May 2013 when I had completed assembling the first cut of the film. I revisited the footage for the first time since 2009 at the encouragement of peers who had worked very close to the film. It was spiritually poignant too because it was completed just before the Muslim prayer call at dawn. 

In December 2013, the film received the Jury Prize for Best Asian Film at SalaMindanaw International Film Festival as its first award. Many of us who had worked in the film saw it as a victory in perseverance. And of course, the film’s recent nomination by the Singapore Film Commission to represent the country at the Academy Awards. The shortlist seems so surreal.

What was your immediate reaction upon learning that your film was shortlisted for the Oscars?

I first learnt about it from an email one morning. I first read it while I was still half-awake, so I didn’t really think much about it and fell asleep again. It was much later after that the news finally sunk in. I think the disbelief was because the Academy Awards is something that never, ever crossed my mind. Even though the road to nomination is akin to winning a lottery, being selected to represent Singapore at such a prestigious event is truly an honour in itself.

Do you feel any pressure with the Oscars race? What do you think are the chances of ‘Sayang Disayang’ making it to the final nine shortlist, and eventually making the final five nominees?

Good question. No I don’t feel the pressure. ‘Sayang Disayang’ is a quiet little film. The people of the Nusantara has always been known as non-narcissistic, refined and strong-willed. I think these values are translated into the film. 

It requires one with an acquired, sophisticated taste of the Nusantara to appreciate the movie. I don’t think many international audiences are familiar with this cultural aspect of the Nusantara.

The movie has been shown at film festivals such as the Mexico International Film Festival and the Hawaii International Film Festival. What was the reaction from the audience?

I was present at many of the film festivals to interact with the audiences. Although they can relate to the universal themes of family, dejection and loneliness presented in the film, most of them were more mesmerised by the "exotic" cultural aspects of the Nusantara, such as the songs and the gamelan music.

My acting leads, Aidli Mosbit and Asnida Daud, have beautiful voices. Many audiences were surprised to know that all the songs in their scenes were sung acapella and recorded "live" during filming.

The movie premiered in Singapore as the closing film of the Southeast Asian Film Festival and was screened for a one-week run at The Arts House during National Day week. What was the response of the Singapore audience?

I am pleased to say that the screenings were well attended by Singaporeans of all races. For many, it was an eye-opener into the various Malay cultural nuances beyond the superficial traditional dances and songs that many are familiar with at your typical Malay cultural showcases and exhibitions. Many who are familiar with the narrative structure of the Wayang Kulit could also relate to the narrative structure in ‘Sayang Disayang’.

What do you hope for ‘Sayang Disayang’ to achieve as your first feature film? Is there something you hope audiences, both at home and overseas, can take away after watching your film?

Films from the Nusantara, made well, can stand alongside Asian films such as the best from Japan, Korea, India and China, if only international audiences open their eyes and look deeply into this region. We have so many stories to tell and unique ways of telling them – from our perspective.

What's next after ‘Sayang Disayang’ ?

My second feature film, ‘Voluptas’, is still in post-production. It stars Aaron Aziz, Ariati Tyeb Papar and Suhaillah Salam. It is a psychological thriller that was filmed in 2011 but has been in the backburner because of my television commitments.

I am also collaborating with writers to bring to the screen two film concepts; a very important World War II event and a contemporary drama. I don’t necessarily want to neglect my television and commissioned work commitments just yet since it still helps to pay the bills. 

"Like" ‘Sayang Disayang’ on Facebook to receive the latest updates and news about future screenings

A film buff, David Lee lives and breathes cinema. The former TV producer and writer is the vice-chairman of the Singapore Film Society