Sunday September 28, 2008
A zeal for telling people’s stories
By RIZAL JOHAN
As an all-round filmmaker, Zan Azlee is well-placed to showcase a wonderful slice of life.
LAST year, freelance documentary filmmaker Zan Azlee travelled alone to the Middle East to find out more about Islam from the perspective of its youths. Apart from that, the Johor Baru-born lad also wanted to learn more about himself - a Malay Muslim in this post 9/11 world.
So he set out to visit four countries: Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. During his month-long tour, Zan went from city to city, staying on average five to six days in each country and spending his nights in small hotels or hostels. And his diet consisted mainly of shwarma which, according to Zan, is “like kebab and bread”.
What he did, however, was not the stuff that a typical tourist would cover. He was, after all, on a mission to further understand Islam and his own identity. Not forgetting too that he is a filmmaker and one who does everything himself: he produces, writes, shoots, and edits his documentaries which he has been making since the new millennium.
Zan recorded his experiences on film and they were eventually encapsulated in a feature-length documentary with the very personal title, I’m Muslim Too!. It was aired over Ntv7 in four half-hour parts on Thursdays during this puasa month.
If you’ve missed it, you can catch the documentary again this Hari Raya as it will be presented in its entirety on Ntv7 at 11.30am on Thursday.
During his trip, Zan conducted interviews with members of the Iranian heavy metal band Arsames, discovered a Syrian version of Kuala Lumpur’s techies’ paradise of Low Yat Plaza in the capital city Damascus, hung out with Palestinian refugees in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, and even discussed the subject of sex with some Jordanian artists.
Interestingly, it was the first time Zan had travelled to the Middle East.
“I was scared at first,” the 30-year-old admitted in a recent interview. “Like in Iran, I heard you’re not supposed to bring in video cameras. They stop you if you have a video camera. But the immigration officer just asked me where I was from and when I said Malaysia, he just laughed and stamped my passport. I found out later that the stamp said ‘unlimited stay’, so I was alright.”
He did have a scary moment, though, when he was in Lebanon. “I was detained briefly by the military but once I showed them my Malaysian passport, they let me go.”
Communication was no obstacle either as most people in almost all the countries Zan visited spoke English.
“In Lebanon, while there are people who speak English, most of them speak French,” he said.
Zan had made basic travel arrangements and some preparation for his documentary before flying off to the Middle East. He had already contacted the Iranian metal band Arsames and had help from the United Nations to get into Beirut. Other than that, Zan only knew that he was going on a journey of discovery.
“I didn’t know what to expect, honestly. I knew that I wanted to observe the lives of the youths. I wanted a young Muslim perspective on things.”
And after meeting, talking and observing as Zan set out to do in the Middle East, he found something completely unexpected as a Malay Muslim.
“People are not judgemental over there and religion is not all that important to them. ‘Yeah, I’m a Muslim, so what?’ they say. They have a completely different attitude over there compared to here in Malaysia,” Zan noted.
The auteur returned home with 20 hours of video footage and began the long process of editing the documentary which took him about six months. Following its recent airing over Ntv7, Zan has been getting comments about his work.
“I received a lot of positive feedback from people who’ve watched it,” he said. “A lot of the comments are from the young people who appreciate the different points of view. It’s also very different from what is usually shown on TV, especially where religious-themed programmes or documentaries are concerned.”
A sample of the viewer comments showed that many were impressed - and a few were in awe even - with I’m Muslim Too! though there was one who thought it was boring. While one remarked that it was “refreshing”, another said it was “an eye-opener to those who have yet to visit the Middle East. Gives me a different perspective on people living there”. One viewer e-mailed: “It’s about time someone did this kind of documentary.”
Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi last year wrote on his blog Screenshots: “I feel great when young Muslims portray Malaysia the way Malaysia should be.”
Incidentally, Zan is working on a bio-documentary on Malaysia’s famous blogger-turned-MP.
I’m Muslim Too! marks Zan’s second feature documentary. His first, Pandang Ke Timur (The Look East Project), was commissioned in early 2007 by Ntv7 under its Festival programme which encourages and highlights independent filmmakers in Malaysia. As an independent documentary filmmaker in Malaysia, Zan feels he has been lucky.
“You know, two of my features have been picked up by Ntv7 so I’ve been lucky with my endeavours,” said the accountancy grad from UiTM (he graduated in 1999).
Soon after that, Zan took a different path from what he was academically trained for and joined an English daily as a journalist. He went on to pursue a master’s in broadcast journalism from the Staffordshire University in Britain. He returned as a journalist briefly before joining a local TV station as an assistant producer.
By 2003, Zan started freelancing for print and broadcasting companies and set up Fat Bidin Media, which provides services such as producing, directing, scriptwriting, videography, news reporting and consultation.
He also lectures mass communications at HELP University-College, Kuala Lumpur. His documentaries have garnered awards and been screened at international documentary festivals.
Zan is hugely influenced by American documentary filmmaker, cinematographer and Harvard University professor Ross McElwee, who is known for autobiographical films about his family and personal life.
“I also like documentaries by the BBC. I basically take my lead from the one-man filmmakers. I’m interested in telling people’s stories.”
Zan has a few assignments in the pipeline besides the bio-documentary on Ooi, whom he has been following for the last two years. The man is also hoping to go to Kosovo for another project.
‘I’m Muslim Too!’ will be aired on Ntv7 on Thursday, 11.30am.