Carolyn Talks… ‘Silat Warriors: Deed of Death’ with Writer and Director Areel Abu Bakar

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Silat Warrior: Deed of Death

For his debut of his first feature length film I interviewed to  Malaysian director Areel Abu Bakar about, Silat Warriors: Deed of Death, an action film that places aspects of Malaysian culture and identity at the heart of its story. As an action film Abu Bakar delivers an entertaining martial arts film that despite the very serious implication of its title, Silat Warriors: Deed of Death,  provides a nice message of family and faith with a hefty dose of impressive sequences.

When the youngest member of of a family loses the deed to his family’s home and land in a bet, he brings trouble to their doorstep in the form of the local gang leader who’s come to claim the property. But he’s met with resistance when the family refuses to back down and give in.

Silat Warriors: Deed of Death stars Khoharullah Majid as Ali, and Faiyna Tajudin as Fatima, Mat Arip’s older siblings, and veteran actor Namron as their father Pak Nayan. The film is distributed by Well Go USA. Read my full review of the film here.

Writer’s note: This interview was conducted via email, with the Areel Abu Bakar’s  answers translated between Malay and English.

Carolyn Hinds: When the film starts, it begins with the morning adzan, Muslim call to prayer, which I thought was a different way to begin a martial arts film. In the neighborhood I grew up in in Barbados, there were mosques close to my house, so I was accustomed to hearing the Muadhan, but since I moved to Toronto, in an area where there aren’t any Mosques, it was kind of a bit of nostalgia for me to hear it. I wanted to know if beginning Deed of Death this way was an intentional choice to in a way signal to international audiences about Islam being a significant part of the film and Malaysian culture.

Areel Abu Bakar: Firstly, I want to tell you that it was unexpected for this film to go international around the world and is still screening in a few countries. When I chose to put the adzan in the beginning of my film is because I wanted to tell the audience about the faith in my country, because the majority of the population practices Islam openly.

 As you might not know, the meaning of the adzan is God is powerful from everything in the world. That’s why I chose those words, and this is not only Malaysian culture, but faith in Malaysian people. It’s important to tell the audience when you practice Silat you must be very good in spiritual and physical. It works for your daily routine and makes you a disciplined person to wake up early in the morning when you hear the adzan.

CH: For you and you co-writer Hafiz Derani, did the idea of centering the story around Mat Arip’s gambling addiction, and the tie-in of gangsters swindling people out of their property come from any real situations? I think it makes a pretty good statement about the different ways capitalism manifests in the lives of ordinary people, where those with even a slight advantage in power use it exploit and victimize those without.

AAB: TRUE, this situation is indeed very rampant here and in the world. We tell this on a small scale so it’s not to too hard to criticize certain parties who practice the capitalist system.

This situation pressures the people or public consumers to live a normal life because they have to follow their biased conditions. You can see who the hidden hand in the story (wait till the end), and this is a very subtle tactic to manipulate desperate people.

CH: To me most of the fight choreography are styled in two specific fashions. For characters like Ali and Fatima, there is a more technical, practiced and stylish approach, versus that of the thugs who to me, fought dirty because they didn’t have official training in Silat, or if they did, their amoral behavior (for lack of a better word) meant they didn’t respect the spirituality that comes from the teachings of Islam. Would you say that’s an accurate interpretation of the fight scenes?

Fighting is not an Islamic way of life, and Silat also teaches us to avoid fighting. In a new state of compulsion (did Areel mean ‘confrontation’ perhaps? Would that work for what he meant?), we are told to fight off enemy attacks in order to defend our rights. Martial artists will not attack if not attacked. Fatimah’s moves are more to protect herself when she’s attacked but still in ‘polite’ movement. Ali’s movements are very firm and shows his leadership when he finds and protects his family. Islam teaches us not to create fights.

CH: One of the things that set’s the film apart from others, is that you found most of your lead cast at fight competitions, and you did this because you wanted the scenes to be as realistic as possible. Did you ever have any doubts about doing this as it meant they were new to the acting experience?

AAB: No, because I am so proud of them because they gave me their full commitment for this film. And I was never disappointed to choose them to be part of this film because of course I needed real originality in their fight scenes. I enjoyed every action scene they did without the professional stunt actors.

CH: What was your casting process like considering where your talent pool came from? What were the qualities they – Fad Anur, Khoharullah Majid – had that stood out to you, and how much was your fight choreographer and stunt team involved in the decision making?

AAB: Khoharullah is a former world champion in Silat 3 times if I’m not mistaken. Fad Anuar is indeed an actor and has the basics of martial arts, and Azlan is also a Silat practitioner. And the characters given in the script are indeed worthy for them to hold their respective characters.

For the choreography, I entirely left that to my action choreographer Azlan Komeng. The decision for a fight action needed to be discussed with me, and the abilities of the actor whether he is capable or not or the stunts too dangerous to be done. It depends on the location, conditions, as well as the risks. If the risk is too high, I change the technique of the fight without disfiguring the action scene as we are not a large production studio that has large facilities or capital to support for the safety materials.

CH: Do you yourself – or anyone in your immediate family have any experience with Silat Melayu, and if you do, did that play a part in the creation of the story, and made the characters more relatable to you?

AAB: I also learned martial arts while in school, therefore I am very excited to make this martial arts action film. I’m lucky 90% of actors in this movie are my friends and some also still learning martial arts. That makes all the actors fit in with their character as well as more convincing in action.

CH: How did some of the cast being inexperienced performers make you adapt the script and your production plans?

AAB: I don’t force them to act professionally but just let them be themselves. That way they are more effortless and natural although there are certain part that’s a bit stiff. I don’t expect them to be like award-winning actors, just that they can understand the character they are responsible for. Alhamdulillah, they did their best.

CH: Did these challenges change your perspective as a filmmaker and storyteller?

AAB: No. I am more happy and excited to explore as a storyteller through pictures and language. I am more free and “hungry” to produce good works of art. When we make a film, we have a very different perspective than how other people think. The filmmaker is a very unique and special thinker.

CH: For Ali’s fight scenes, played by Majid, were there any particular discussions with the fight choreographer about how scenes would develop in difficulty until the final one?

AAB: For sure, they must discuss the fight to be fought. They don’t have a big problem as they are all practitioners and they exchange opinions to get a more realistic and logical fight with the situation as well as the ability to act.

CH: I loved that the first big fight shown was of Fatima (played by Faiyna Tajudin ) in hijab and traditional long sarongs that practicing Muslim women wear, beating the thugs up. As the only female with a significant role in the film, I appreciated that we got to see different sides of her as a person, especially the fighter. Could you tell me about the process of choreographing the first fight with her?

AAB: For this scene, I want to show that women are not weak, and Islam requires a person to maintain her dignity when threatened. If you appreciate (would observe work better her?) the fight, Fatimah uses only small step as far as the steps we walk normally but can break the attack from the enemy from various ways. This scene wants to tell the audience that women are not just for in the kitchen or even sex symbols. They can also fight like men. And Fatimah is also a Silat practitioner. This character was inspired from Tun Fatimah in Malay legend history.

CH: What was the importance for you and Derani, in showing Fatima having agency as a woman and  member of her family?

AAB: While writing this scene I tried to describe the situation of a woman defending her rights in the family. I said to Derani, this scene is rarely found in Malaysian films while Fatima is wearing a hijab. The importance of this scene for me and Derani is to elevate the dignity of women because everyone has a mother. The mother of a woman to be respected.

CH: What has been the reaction of women to Fatima’s scenes, particularly young girls and women?

AAB: Of course, they were very surprised because the women in Hijab were skilled at fighting and wearing sarongs, became an inspiration to female Silat practitioners and ordinary women in Malaysia when the film was screened in 2019. I am very happy and proud of this scene being mentioned.

CH: At the beginning and end of the film there’s a voice that speaks to the audience and the characters about ‘men who came from the land, who should walk on it with humility, before being whitened with time. The land will reward those who take care of it with wealth. It can lead to conflict and war, one with out and end’. I’ve assumed she’s meant to be the matriarch of the family who’s passed away, giving a reminder to us to never take the land or each other for granted, which ties into the story’s underlying theme of connection to family and Silat through faith.

AAB: The voice is the advice of a mother (Haryati) to their children Ali, Fatima and Mat Arip. The words are meant to unite them so as not to quarrel, as well as defend their rights. In general, the advice reminds us also to take care of our families as well as love our families. We come from the land and return to it. It shows that the relationship between Silat and Islam is close. Islam is very beautiful and rich in love.

CH: Can you speak a bit about creating this context within the film, as it relates to you personally, and Malaysian culture and identity?

AAB: This context is very important to me because I want to introduce the culture from Malaysia which many more are not raised especially Silat because Silat originally from Malaysia and was recognized by UNESCO last year (2020). Now the film is gaining attention in a few countries. I really appreciate those who value cultural arts like you, and this is one of the ways we get to know and share the uniqueness of other countries cultures.

CH: Its interesting how you connect these words with action or violent aspect of the plot. There’s an unexpected contrast with the imagery of Mat Arip street racing and fight sequences.

AAB: The race scene shows a race in life in search of uncertain satisfaction. For the street fight batting scene, it shows we don’t need to get our hands dirty to get something, just by waiting for the outcome of someone else’s pain.

CH: How did your experience and philosophy as a cinematographer inform these scenes, and the film overall with it being your debut as a feature director?

AAB: Of course, all the scenes in this film have a philosophy from the first shot to the end shot for those who want to study. I want to convince all scenes with full emotion and by putting something in it the thing should have a reason. It’s not just a shoot to have a picture but it definitely has meaning.

CH: Silat Warriors was originally released in 2019, is there anything that’s changed about the way you see the film creatively, from then until now?

AAB: Filmmakers should look at films from various perspectives so that we become more creative and innovative thinkers to produce new works in the future. I see after Silat Warriors, so many YouTubers in Malaysia made short action videos and digital platforms grow rapidly.

CH: Do you have any plans to make another action film, or are you looking to branch out into different genres?

AAB: I will be releasing a film titled WALID (Father) also an action film. This film has more action and more to emotion on love. I hope that this pandemic will end so we can start shooting as usual. Amin…

Translation by Eeman Teoh