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Dain Said
Photo: Blink Studio

Dain Said interview

The charismatic filmmaker talks identity, literature and his distaste for nostalgia

Written by
Wai Yeng Kong

Dain Said is not telling us his age. ‘You’re judged by your age,’ he says with a faint British accent. Age is often seen as something to be feared, to be patronised, as if we’d be penalised for not looking and ageing a certain way. Dain, like Madonna, is telling us that we can’t live outside time, but we can still tell a story – build a legacy, even – that could outlast ourselves.

Dain spent most of his formative years in the attic of his London home, where his family had relocated to from their kampung in Tumpat, Kelantan. He left school at 15, but was constantly devouring books and poetry, which spoke to him a private language of love and nuance, whose fictional worlds enlarged him as a person. ‘“Iskandar”, my friends used to call me that in the UK. “The headmaster is asking for you”. I had a very checkered educational background.’ Thomas Hardy, Susan Sontag and Joseph Conrad may have a place in Dain’s personal literary pantheon, but it is film that truly fascinates him. The filmmaker graduated from London’s University of Westminster in Film and Photography in 1990, before directing short films, TV shows, advertisements and two feature films locally: the unreleased ‘Dukun’ in 2007, and the awardwinning ‘Bunohan’ in 2012.

‘Bunohan’, a product of Dain’s unifying aesthetic and dramatic sensibilities, earned its rightful place as Malaysia’s entry for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. It’s a tour de force of cinematic energy, where action clashes as mightily as the disparate characters, where lustrous cinematography and powerful dialogues are as definitive as icons. The drama thriller, culled from the richness of our local culture and folklore, testified to the fact that Malaysia still harbours many stories to be told, that we needn’t fit contentedly into established, predictable genres.

‘Interchange’, Dain’s latest about a cop and a photographer investigating a series of ritualistic murders on a reality-supernatural continuum, will merge neo-noir with the traditional myths of Borneo. ‘It’s a fucked-up fairytale,’ the director statement proclaims. We should probably believe him, but we can’t help feeling hopeful either.

Iedil Putra (Adam) and Prisia Nasution (Iva) in ‘Interchange’

‘Interchange’ is folkloric, but you’re also introducing the phenomena of the modern, like a seemingly innocuous camera. How are you setting the stage for Southeast Asian mythologies in a contemporary world?
I was doing research for another movie, way before ‘Bunohan’ maybe, and I saw this image of a group of women hunched together over a stream and the caption read ‘Women washing themselves from the evil effects of being photographed’. It was a picture taken by a Norwegian ethnographer called Carl Lumholtz who travelled around Borneo between 1913 and 1917. So I just thought, what if the stream they’re washing or cleansing themselves in meets another stream with a source that came from a Western perspective? Tribal people all over the world believe that photography – the camera – steals their soul. But if you look from the Western approach, we talk about what the image is, what the image does, or the way it represents or misrepresents. It’s all about representation. So I thought that would be an interesting idea to explore and see what we can do as a story.

Just how messed up is this fairytale?
In many ways, it’s like you’ve got these two worlds that clash against each other. It’s fucked up in the sense that it’s a strange journey the characters in the film, Adam (Iedil Putra) and Iva (Prisia Nasution), take. Adam, being a forensics photographer, takes photos of crime scenes, and in a tribal sense, steals whatever soul is left of the victims. He has dealt with one too many dead bodies so when you see him the first time, he’s a bit reticent, a bit distant from the world. Iva, a person from the past, is trying to release the souls of her tribe that are trapped in glass negatives. They cannot die until they’re reunited with their souls. Then there’s Belian (Nicholas Saputra), the totem spirit who’s trapped in a body of half human, half spirit. In many ways, everyone is trapped.

And you believe in the possibility that the image can steal your soul? Your sense of self?
I think that ‘image’ has become a kind of blockage, that the camera becomes an instrument, as if validation of the world is through a lens. This is also the metaphor of breaking the glass in the film; it’s not just releasing the tribal souls but it’s almost, you need to break through the image to get through to an authentic experience. People have forgotten how to imagine. It’s sad. I was at a café in Bangsar the other day and I saw these two girls. Their food, whatever they ordered, came, but they spent at least, I kid you not, three to four minutes just photographing different angles of their food. And then, they took a photo with themselves in it! I was like… I was fascinated. I felt like I was David Attenborough, watching this rare species.

Technology has landed us in this situation.
I mean, I make no judgments. I find it fascinating as to where it’ll lead to as a human race. What does it mean in terms of the articulation of our experience in the world? Where would that lead to?

'‘There’s always a part of yourself whenever you write’'

Identity is a fragile thing; it’s malleable. But not stories, or folklore – they help develop a strong life narrative; they’re transcendent. Is that why you keep revisiting these stories that gave meaning to your childhood?
I think it’s so easy to forget that myths and folklore are part and parcel of our storytelling tradition. Everyone has stories – spirits, ghosts, and all these elements – they’re usually on the surface. Just scratch and they’re there. I mean, how come we don’t use more of it? These stories add a rich dimension to our storytelling . That’s why I think we all live with contradictions: On one hand, the modern that we live with. And the other, a much darker, primal state resides in our consciousness.

Each character you build – these troubled souls – has its own distinct emotional baggage. Do you have a personal moral empathy for them?
I guess so. There’s always a part of yourself whenever you write. Maybe it’s because of the cultural milieu that I grew up in, and the cultural milieu I move through. I think troubled souls and darkness are always far more interesting than happy people. Also, the world that’s built in it, I think it’s far more interesting than happy, shiny people.

You got Luka Kuncevic to score the film. Does your love for Tom Waits, Sigur Ros and The Velvet Underground influence the sound of the film?
My taste is quite eclectic, and I’d like to think that my musical taste is quite varied, from classical to traditional music, to modern, rock and jazz. It depends on what mood you’re in, and what world you want to build, then music becomes important. For ‘Interchange’, I knew I wanted it to be modern but I wanted it to hint at a traditional aspect. What Luka did was, he went back to the thriller music of the ’40s and ’50s, and he used that, if you like, as a colouring in his whole approach to composing the music, which I absolutely love.

There’s a hint of nostalgia?
There is a sense of nostalgia. The nostalgia is a reference, a homage, but it’s not something I necessarily wanted as an emotion. I don’t like nostalgia in general.

Not at all?
I’m suspicious of it. I don’t like it. I’m not saying therefore that nostalgia is necessarily excluded. I see it for what it is. Nostalgia and sentimentality – I fucking hate it. Of course, I remember when I’m writing, I remember certain emotions, certain stories, certain moods and feelings I had when we did ‘Bunohan’ and ‘Interchange’ which hark back to a certain time that is lost, the temps perdu. I like it [nostalgia] as an emotion, as a daydream. I don’t like living in the past – it’s a form of wallowing. It’s false. It’s very dangerous in terms of narrative because it’s a form of myth, it’s mythical time.

Photo: Blink Studio

Unlike other crafts, directing doesn’t have a built-in mentorship, which is a shame because you can learn so much by observing other people.
It’s not only that but also education. And I mean education in film and the arts. We don’t have image literacy. And I’m referring to paintings, studying of literature. Read Thomas Hardy for example. When he’s describing the landscape of a certain place, he’s externalising the internal, of what the character is journeying or feeling. There are many other aspects of filming. Wardrobe – it tells what kind of person you are. It defines your personality, and it speaks abundance. The architecture of a place: Look at Bertolucci’s films set in fascist architecture – he wanted to speak of the times of the era and how the characters move through. Everything is a form of visualiation. That’s how you learn from literature.

It’s also the facility of language.
Yes! I mean, look at realism. People think realism means you don’t really have to write the script or the dialogue. But the dialogues in my film, I like them to be written, but not in a way people would speak normally. It’s like Roy Batty who runs into the pyramid of his maker in ‘Blade Runner’, and he goes ‘I want more life, fucker.’ There was a discussion whether he said ‘fucker’ or ‘father’. Either way, I like both. These are words that speak volume. The line is loaded. In ‘Bunohan’, Pekin says to his father. ‘Ayah, people are interested in our land.’ And the father said, ‘If you sell our land, what will happen to our stories?’ In Kelantanese, ‘Kalau mu jual tanah itu, lagu mana cerita kita?’ See, it’s the way you say it. The line has to be loaded.

Everyone is a critic now. But we need criticism; it’s a sign that the democracy of opinion is well and alive.
I believe in criticism. When I fell in love with literature, I also fell in love with critical writing. My favourite works were Susan Sontag’s – they taught me how to think, analyse and read intellectually. Which is why I value and love reading criticism. And also, Terry Eagleton’s ‘Marxism and Literary Criticism’ – it’s not about Marxism, but the way you approach Marxism.

‘Bunohan’ was very successful, and suddenly, there are expectations to be addressed. Have you gotten to a point where you’re brave enough to say ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t ultimately care if I’m not the best’?
I still care. Whether you’re an artist, a writer, a filmmaker, a chef… once it’s out there, it’s in the call of public opinion. It’s legitimate. People will like it, some people won’t. And that’s in many ways, a good thing because that’s the whole function of creating something. It mirrors, or tries to explore part of a reality you’re in, be it culturally, socially and politically. Expectations don’t burden me. I grew up in a time when things aren’t judged by the box office, or by money. You judge it by what it is. It’s like ABBA might be the biggest thing but so is Bob Dylan. No one had expectations of me. I’ve lived my life exactly the way I wanted to live.

And you have no regrets?
None. I mean, I don’t think so. Well, okay, we all have certain regrets. My regrets are people, relationships, friendships, and stuff like that. You were young, so you try to pick up the values that are inculcated in you from your parents. But shit happens.

More people are coming to know you and your work. How are you coping with all the attention?
I can handle it better now because of the consequence of what I do. Fame is overrated to me. It’s a chore. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not adverse to it but I don’t court it. If it’s called upon me, and I have to do it, then fine. It’s not my really my language. It’s not my everyday language.

'Interchange' opens December 1.

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