BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – When you step into the sleek hallways of Brunei’s first filmmaking college – with its slick film studio, sound and editing suites — it’s like being transported on to the set of a Hollywood movie.

The Mahakarya Institute of the Arts Asia is the brainchild of local director Siti Kamaluddin and her producing partner Munji Athirah, who both felt the country had a strong talent for content creation but lacked one key ingredient — proper training in the art of filmmaking.

Siti, whose first feature film, Yasmine, met international acclaim, last year released Hari Minggu Yang Ke-Empat (The Fourth Sunday), a movie filmed on location in a perpindahan, with an entirely Bruneian cast.

“I really loved the process of making of Hari Minggu Yang Ke-Empat because of the crew we trained. We tried as much as we could to use locals and I was really impressed by their passion and dedication to filmmaking,” she says.

Film director Siti Kamaluddin, on the set of her film ‘Hari Minggu Yang Ke-Empat’. Photo: Origin Artistic

For sure, Brunei has an under-developed film industry, with only a few local movies made in the past five years, including Siti’s films and the Apa-Ada Dengan Rina franchise.

Even fewer have been screened internationally.

“In Brunei we don’t have enough feature films and it’s a great way to share stories with the rest of the world,” Siti says. “I personally grew up with Malaysian black and white films, P. Ramlee movies. And when I think about it it makes me sad that we don’t have that history of filmmaking.

“We should start and it has to start with very local stories — we need to make content locals can relate to.”

The Mahakarya Institute wants to nurture local talent in order to showcase Bruneian identity on the big screen, as well as create a sustainable ecosystem for filmmaking and creative content in the sultanate.

Inside the Mahakarya Institute of the Arts Asia, Brunei’s first film school. Photo: Courtesy of Mahakarya Institute of the Arts

The film school is offering a two year Diploma of Screen and Media, which focuses on teaching skills needed behind-the-camera such as content creation and production.

They partnered with TAFE Queensland to help design the diploma programme, and to give students a chance to gain industry experience in Australia. 

“When they graduate in two years, there are a number of pathways they can take. One of them is to go straight ahead into the industry… or they can also choose to continue their education in Australia, where they can enter a degree programme at partner universities,” says Dr Alexander J. Fischer, dean of Mahakarya.

The students in the first intake of the diploma programme will get the chance to work on Siti’s third feature film, a comedy which is scheduled to begin shooting this year.

The quest for Bruneian screen identity

With the desire to drive better training and standards in the local film industry — beyond slapstick comedy and self-indulgent action flicks —  the Mahakarya team says it wants to bring forth a new age, where there will be more content that is “undeniably Bruneian”.

One way they hope to do that is by staging an annual short film festival, dubbed the Brunei Film Blitz, which is now in its second year.

Through the film blitz we discover a lot of talent, says Siti, such as local comedian Babu Sinur, whose short skits satirising Bruneian culture became hugely popular on Instagram and gained him a devoted following.

“When I saw him starring in one of the competition entries I thought — ‘Why hasn’t anyone made a film for this boy?’ He is hungry and dedicated, and has created this very edgy character that is uniquely Bruneian.”

Kai Anwar, the comedian behind the turban-wearing Babu Sinur, later went on to star in Hari Minggu Yang Ke-Empat.

Dr Alexander J. Fischer, dean of the Mahakarya Institute of the Arts Asia. Photo: Hazimul Wa’ie/The Scoop

While Babu Sinur is the exception to the rule, Fischer adds that most local filmmakers fail to be daring enough to create content that is unique to their experience, and instead replicate what they see in global media.

“The pool of potential in this country is amazing and it’s just a matter of giving people the opportunity, which is why we want to help Brunei to develop not only its filmmakers, but the audience as well, because these will always influence each other.”

While Siti acknowledges that there are filmmakers who are trying to showcase Bruneian identity on screen, she believes that it is still not representative of the whole Bruneian experience.

Finding a Bruneian screen identity is much more than using kedayan language or shooting on location in Brunei… When you watch a film it has to be instantly recognisable.

“The country has not produced enough content yet to establish itself uniquely, because most Bruneians are growing up nowadays with foreign content, Hollywood films and TV shows from neighboring countries… There is just not enough Bruneian content for us to consume.”

But telling local stories is important to give voice to our shared experiences, she says emphatically.

“We want our school to become a great community for filmmakers, where it’s all about education and being creative. We believe in people’s ideas and stories, and their voices should be heard.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of The Scoop Magazine