The Originals. A series of portraits with some of Malaysia’s most original and disruptive talents.
Episode Two. Nadira Ilana. An Original Film Maker. Founder of Telan Bulan Films.
Brought to you by The Glenlivet
Nadira Ilana, a Kadazandusun filmmaker from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah does not hold back when she speaks to UNRESERVED. She paints a vivid picture of her journey as an independent filmmaker from Sabah. Her sheer curiosity and urge to tell untold stories led her to create groundbreaking projects such as The Silent Riot, a documentary about the Sabah riots in 1986. It was the first East Malaysian movie to receive the Justin Louis Grant from Pusat Komas. Subsequently, it also won the Best Human Rights Award at Freedom Film Festival in 2013. Some of her other work includes Dream Cradle (2011), Lastik (2012), Were the Sun and the Moon to Meet (2020), and Mansau Ansau (2021), amongst others.
Below, she talks about everything, from her “time travelling machine”, to her resilience in overcoming barriers, and her drive in capturing the authenticity of the minority communities through the art of cinematic language.
In The Beginning
Ever since she was young, she has always been obsessed with the idea of film. Her favourite activity was to watch the adventures of Lois and Clark. In her hometown in Kota Kinabalu, she remembers the beautiful cinema Poring. Whenever she visited there, it just felt really majestic. As she was watching movies her mind grew curious. “It’s something to do with how my brain works, I suppose, like when I watched these films, like The Matrix, and I was watching and going like ‘whoa! how do they do that?’ and I wanted to break it down. But when I think about it too, I was obsessed with watching TV. They’re always telling kids ‘don’t watch so much TV’, turns out it actually paid off.”
As a Malaysian filmmaker and independent film programmer, she holds a BFA in Film & TV from the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. During that period, she admitted to feeling homesick from time to time. Her cure? Watching Southeast Asian films. “When I watched those films, I just felt a sense of longing to go back to Malaysia and to understand what my Malaysian story would look like, because basically the Malaysian film industry is the West Malaysia film industry. Borneo doesn’t really have a part of that. So, when I first started making films, I was very much of the mind of like what do I look like, because I don’t have that representation.”
In the beginning, discovering and expressing her voice was not always an easy journey. She shares “I don’t have access to my own heritage the way that Malays Indians and Chinese do, so it meant that wanting to tap into my culture I literally had to take oral tradition, or you know stories from my travels with people and think about how to translate that into a cinematic language. That’s actually a lot more complicated than a lot of people tend to realize.”
“My real struggles as a filmmaker didn’t happen until I moved to Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian media is very Peninsular centric, and a lot of people take that for granted because they think Oh well the capital city is KL you know, like naturally all the development will happen here. But there’s a fallacy in that, because Sabah and Sarawak are 2/3 of Malaysia. Our landmass is bigger than that of Peninsular Malaysia. And that’s when I realised that being a minority is not so much about your population but it is actually about your visibility about how humanised your narrative is.”
Even as a kid she felt like a minority. “I was always the minority in the room. I did seven years of Chinese school and I was like the only brown girl there and then in high school I was the artsy girl, so I’ve always been a little bit awkward in that sense and then when it came to film, at the end of the day on a lot of occasions, I was the only East Malaysian in the room. I had to almost get used to the idea that I will always shock people when they first meet me, or that people might not like me when they first meet me, because I don’t assimilate.”
Although not consciously, she lives for breaking norms. “I think that the way I think about things, I’m always sort of looking at things from different types of angles. I just want to get to what is that other layer, how do we look at things differently. And, I suppose that’s how I came to be doing what I do.”
She continued, “there’s something very powerful to make a story as personal as possible. And, when you make something as personal as possible, that’s actually when it touches the most people. I think my process also is just about really working on myself and trying to be the best person and generous with my time. And being present with people.”
Her Time Travel Machine
Regardless of the number of people Nadira has met, there is nothing quite like having someone close to home. Nadira grew up with amazing stories shared by her 91-year-old late grandmother, who started writing a blog when she was 86. Only two weeks before the interview, her grandmother, Lola, passed away. In a slightly emotional tone, Nadira recalls, “I really appreciate how much she told stories constantly about her life and it’s very simple storytelling but what was remarkable was her propensity for details. I mean she was just able to sort of capture details. I call her my “time traveling machine” because Lola’s stories can take you 70 years back.”
For a minute, the room was silent. “I think that really molded the way that I want to tell stories. I was going through her stories recently, and I decided like OK I’m going to deactivate my Twitter. I’m going to go off social media because I think that her ability to capture all those moments was ultimately because she was very present when she was with people. And that’s why when she saw all those details, she could retain them and so that has sort of raised the bar for me.”
Her Lola’s stories were the awakening call for her to better understand the incredible power of storytelling, which gave her a renewed sense of appreciation for what she does.
Nadira’s source of inspiration doesn’t just limit to a family member but people, in general. “Everybody has a story to tell. I mean we walk past each other all the time, but when you spend enough time with a person, usually you get to know them better. Everybody’s got this really interesting story to tell. It’s just great that you have an infinite amount of people and stories to explore, and I think that’s what makes life worth living.”
Without hesitation, Nadira admitted (with a little giggle) to being an obstinate person. And a nerd. It’s not the fact that she refuses to listen to other people’s thoughts, but her addiction to history and doing solid research gives her the advantage to stand for her own opinions with a lot of assuredness and confidence.
The Comfort Zone
Again, perhaps unlike many other people, stepping out of her comfort zone is when she thrives the most. She posits that she never really grew up with people who are like her. “I know that when I’m in those situations, I’m absorbing a lot and that’s actually a lot of fun. Because sometimes when we stay in our comfort zone, I get bored with what I have to talk about. I get bored with myself and the things I have to say. So, I like being in situations that challenge me in healthy ways, that challenge my own preconceived notions, that challenge my own prejudices ‘cause I’m not perfect either. And, every single time I do that I can feel myself grow, and that is what excites me.”
While most people run from fear, amazingly, fear excites her. She charges into it. “Fear is an indication of the things that are unknown to us or sometimes I think of it as the Calling.”
When being asked about her definition of original thinking, without hesitation, she answered, “we think that ideas are original when we compare them with other people. But I think that the most important thing is just how you feel about your own ideas, and you feel it’s a general expression of yourself. And, that what you have to say is really important. People should stick with that.”
Nadira believes she owes it to herself as an artist to be the most authentic, unapologetic voice of herself, and produce films and stories that increase understanding in the world, especially stories about minorities, and stories that have not been told before. Her latest project, Wilderness, a feature film, is a testament of this attitude, having spent years developing the story by talking to different communities in Sabah and diving into Kadazandusun folklore.
You will not catch this ‘obstinate’ filmmaker developing a well-known story. “I just don’t think it’s interesting. That’s not why I spent three years in film school. That’s not what I was put on earth to do.”
Watch the video of her interview here.
Nadira Ilana is an original filmmaker and one of UNRESERVED’s The Originals.
This series is brought to you by The Glenlivet