Arts & Culture

Abdul Zainidi Blends Brunei Elements and Surrealism

An introduction to Brurealism

Words by
b-side staff

When we think of art house films, we don’t usually think of Brunei. But Bruneian filmmaker Abdul Zainidi has been trailing international film festivals with his own brand of Bruneian art house cinema he calls Brurealism, a blend between Brunei elements and surrealism.

Trained as an actor, Abdul has gone behind the camera to tell his own stories. He has made many short films, and Bread Dream was selected to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. His first feature film, Anggur in Pockland, is also Brunei’s first art house film and made its debut at the Asian International Film Festival.

He shares with us his approach to filmmaking and how he translates Bruneian elements to the world stage.

What is your view on the Bruneian filmmaking scene and where do you think it’s headed?

Being a relatively small country where the focus tends towards other sectors, there was little emphasis on the arts in the past. But that has definitely changed. Musicals and theatre presentations have slowly increased in popularity in Brunei since drama studies was introduced to the curriculum. And that was fairly recent, only about six years ago.

The same evolution can be seen in filmmaking. When I started out in 2010, there weren’t many local youths dabbling in the art of making movies from a DSLR. Many were merely recording wedding videos and taking portrait shots. The major filmmakers were mainly from a television background and at the time, Brunei did not have a film school. So handling a DSLR was purely for recreational purposes.

Nowadays, there is a handful of filmmakers who make stories, group actors and showcases on YouTube etc. Some, like me, prefer to present our work in international film festivals, promoting not only our brand of work but also our country. I believe this progression will rise steadily.

From acting, you went behind the camera and started filmmaking. What prompted that change?

I was trained in theatre. I would say I was fortunate to be able to take on the art and even prove my worth on the theatre stage. For me, stage acting is a discipline that you carry with you throughout your life, and it can be applied pretty much anywhere. When speaking to the public, it has proven to be very useful to ‘captivate’ people and allow them to listen to your stories or ‘pitch’.

While acting, I was always playing somebody else’s words and at some point, I, too, felt that I wanted to make my own ‘words’. So I decided to write a scene every now and then, and that became a story.

The fundamentals of storytelling for me always goes back to Aristotle’s rules of storytelling. For me, characters, a conflict and a resolution are the main ingredients of a story. But I tend to turn up the ‘mystery’ factor.

I like to allow my viewers to question and be curious through my stories. This is what I focus on more than anything. For me, telling a story allowed me to be in a position that I enjoyed very much, so I shifted to do mainly that. It’s immersive, like being in a space suit and space is the film we make and inhabit.

Can you share more about your approach to filmmaking?

I don’t consider myself an expert filmmaker. For me, the story I ‘conjure’ holds more weight than the film itself. It’s like being a magician, I suppose. After all, you are conjuring a fictional world.

If I write a scene about loneliness, I tend to film my character overlooking a desolate jungle field, or even a dead ant being marched over by other ants to heighten the sense of loneliness in a poetic and peculiar way.

For me, filmmaking is like an art tableau. I tend to film a lot in guerrilla mode whenever I am on the go. Sometimes I just capture what I see around me and then if I feel it is suitable, I would use it and write something about that particular scene or landscape. This was how I did my ‘vanishing children’ series.

I take a very ‘Terrence Malick meets Edgar Allen Poe’ approach to filming. Graduating from the Busan Asian Film Academy, I learnt a lot about filmmaking and being a director of photography. Very few directors can master the art of both directing and cinematography, but I think Alfonso Cuaron (Roma) has been able to do both well.

You’ve coined your style as Brurealism, a mix of Bruneian elements and surrealism. What shaped or inspired this style?

Brurealism is indeed a blend of Bruneian elements and the surreal. I wanted to distinguish myself from other filmmakers in Brunei. They had bigger budgets and more manpower and so, I decided to be more ‘humble’ in my approach and focus more on the story and make it unique.

Even as an actor, I’ve always wanted to stand out by being the dark horse or the odd one out.

I would say my style fluctuates more towards filmmakers and culture that inspired me. I adapted from the French art scene a melancholic beauty that I diffuse into my Bruneian films. In Anggur in Pockland, my first feature film, I decided to tackle unemployment and the feeling of being desperately idle in a poetic and subtle way à la Française. So I used the grapes as a metaphor. Anggur means grape in Malay, but anggur also means stagnant and the grapes transport the protagonist to Pockland, a place free of woes.

The general Bruneian audiences don’t go for art house movies. I have often been criticised by my fellow peers and the public for being ‘obscure’. However, some audiences do appreciate the deeper message in my films and that is why my films travel the world. They don’t necessarily depict a common image of Brunei, albeit a darker truth. I am an avid admirer of David Lynch and also French cinema, Truffaut and Jean Pierre Jeunet, but I also take inspiration from video games and manga. I borrow and take from all sources, much like we all do, and spit them out on to a frame of work, which is my country.

While based in Paris, you incorporated not just Bruneian talents but also Bruneian motifs and elements. How do you think they have connected with an international audience?

In Paris, I made a short-lived web series called Brunei in Paris, which is about a clown from Brunei called BIP who finds himself magically transported to Paris where he speaks Bruneian and also gets the French to utter a few words. It was an ‘experiment’ of sorts and once again, the idea is to give a taste of what it is to be Bruneian in a foreign land.

I donned the traditional Malay dress complete with songkok and that aroused the curiosity of Parisians and also made room for some interesting drama. So I called it Brunei in Paris. My plan is to continue this in April this year before heading to the Cannes film festival, where I will attend and present my second feature film project, Worm and the Widow.

It’s definitely hilarious for Bruneian audiences and for the international audience. At least they get to see a bit of Brunei even if it’s in a surreal fashion. For me, I always try to promote Brunei in an original manner and not in a plain fashion.

What are you working towards now?

I recently spent a year in Busan, where I was awarded a scholarship to study at the Busan Asian Film School. There I developed a deeper and richer understanding of Asian cinema, and I also developed Worm and the Widow. It’s a story about outsiders: a mute and a widow live in a remote village where everybody knows everybody’s business, and their friendship causes a controversy.

The project was pitched and won an award at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, and I plan to bring it to Europe in countries like France. I also finished several short films that I shot in January — Anak-anak hilang and Teluki, both of which are horror-themed. Anak-anak hilang is the latest in my vanishing children series and is 100% in the Bruneian language, whereas previous films in the series have been narrated in English.

I will be attending many other international film festivals and have been fortunate to be selected for Tokyo Talents and the American Film Showcase workshops as well after Busan.

How do you hope your films will influence the film culture in Brunei?

I don’t consider myself mainstream in Brunei. Our ministry looks down on art house films at times and almost considers them a disguised political message. I feel that even with the support I have from some bodies in Brunei, the ministry does not always recognise the efforts of people like me who bring local art house and experimental films outside of Brunei.

I feel that our film industry is booming, but only a handful are helped and others are relegated to the side.

It is often these outsiders like myself who are able to do more for the country than those who are on the inside, and for that, I am proud.

Especially of my recent award win at Bucheon International Film Festival.

I’m confident I will be an important contributor to Bruneian cinema outside Brunei even if my own ministry fails to recognise that. As I mentioned, it is often the dark horse that pulls it off when others least expect it.

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