Photo credit: Victor Pogadaev / Wikimedia [cropped]

Yasmin Ahmad 1958-2009

Life is never just humorous, never just tragic – Yasmin Ahmad

Director and scriptwriter Yasmin Ahmad was known for her touching films and television commercials that explored multiculturalism in Malaysia. She also worked as the executive creative director at Leo Burnett, an American advertising company based in Kuala Lumpur. Her best-known commercial works were fifty short films for Malaysia’s nationalised petrochemicals company Petronas challenging ethnic separatism. She started making feature films at the age of 46. They won international recognition for their presentations of everyday life, although they were considered challenging by hard-line Muslims. Her films frequently featured inter-racial and inter-faith relationships and friendships, expressing a hope for a unified Malaysia. ‘I want you to forget about the race of the protagonists half an hour into the film,’ she said. She had a great faith in the power of love, humanity and empathy to bridge social divisions, creating a ‘passionate cinema’ focussed on intimate relationships between people.

She was born in Muar, Johor, close to Singapore. She studied for an Arts degree in the United Kingdom, at Newcastle University, taking modules in politics and psychology. After graduating, she briefly flirted with banking before joining IBM’s marketing department. Meanwhile, at night she played piano and sang blues. She joined Ogilvy and Mather as an advertising copywriter. In 1993, she moved to Leo Burnett, where she moved from joint creative director to executive director of the Kuala Lumpur branch. Her adverts were effectively emotive, using nostalgia, humour and affection for their impact. She continued to work in advertising throughout her film-making career. Her commercial work provided a source of financial support for her film projects, since she didn’t want to scrimp on production as other Malaysian filmmakers were forced to do. She also operated a popular personal blog, sharing updates on her work – and her faith. She married twice: her first husband was an Indian man with whom she had a daughter, and her second was Abdullah Tan Yew Leong, a Chinese Muslim.

She made her first full-length feature film in 2002. Entitled Rabun it followed the experiences of an elderly Malay couple spending time in the countryside and introduced the character of Orked who would feature in later films. Her next film Sepet featured a romance between Orked and Jason, a Chinese man. This was a Malaysian equivalent to Romeo and Juliet, featuring a relationship which crossed the boundaries of ethnicity and class. Interracial tensions are a perennial topic in Malaysia and her depiction of cross-cultural romance was considered inflammatory. It could not be released in Malaysia without eight minor cuts of material considered to be too intimate by the censors. However, pirated versions of the turbulent, bittersweet love story were widely available. It was awarded the Best Asian Film at the 18th Tokyo International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the 27th Creteil International Women Directors Festival, catapulting her into the spotlight. She reacted with surprise and humility: ‘I told my mother not to expect me to win anything, I didn’t expect to win with all these films from Brazil, Spain, and the United States competing,’ she said.

Her next film Gubra is a sequel to Sepet, in which Orked is unhappily married and encounters her former lover’s brother. The pair connect by sharing their memories of Jason, and by looking through his poetry and photography. Mukhsin, the last film of the Orked trilogy, is a prequel focusing on her first love. It follows the relationship between Orked – as a 10 year old tomboy – and a 12 year old visiting her village. It was one of her most popular films in Malaysia.

Her next film Muallaf (The Convert) addressed religion directly. It featured two young Muslim sisters who run away from an abusive home and find support from a Catholic schoolteacher. It was filmed and screened first in Singapore. Malaysian censors had demanded the removal of key scenes. However it was screened in Malaysia a year later, with a few dialogues muted. It won Special Mention Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film at the 21st Tokyo International Film Festival. Her final drama Talentime was a musical comedy set in a high school, where young students take part in a talent competition. It won awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 22nd Malaysia Film Festival, as well as a Special Jury prize for ‘Implementing Humanitarian Elements in a Motion Picture.’

In 2009, she worked on her first project to be filmed in Singapore, intended as an inspirational film linked to the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Entitled Go Thaddeus, it was based on a book about a Singaporean triathlete written by Belinda Week. However, she suffered a fatal stroke during a meeting. Despite surgical intervention, Yasmin died at 51 years of age. She was buried at the Muslim Cemetery in Subang Jaya, Selangor.

Her films and commercials have been screened at international film festivals. In 2014, she became the first Malaysian to be featured on a Google Doodle. A museum was opened by her family and friends to honour her work at Kong Heng in the same year. In 2017, Malaysian Edmund Yeo produced a retrospective of her life called Yasmin-San which captured her vitality and warmth. Tilman Baumgärtel described her as ‘a filmmaker who could take on serious topics such as racism and intolerance with wit, intelligence and humour,’ who documented and celebrated Malaysian multiculturalism, exploring its taboos with compassion.

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