Yasmine is a coming-of-age tale about a girl who wants to become a champion at silat – Brunei’s hypnotic and dance-like answer to kung fu. It represents a number of firsts for this country of 406,000: not only is the $2m project Brunei’s first ever box-office movie, it is being directed by the country’s first female director and stars a number of first-time actors.
“Everyone is going through a learning process,” says Siti Kamaluddin from her director’s chair on set, where she is filming a silat scene in a university auditorium near Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
“Working with inexperienced crew is challenging, and it’s my first time directing a feature film, so all of us are going through this,” she adds. “It’s been a wonderful journey, but I’m not going to kid anybody by saying it’s easy.”
Although Brunei boasts the second-highest standard of living in south-east Asia (just behind Singapore, according to UN data) and its population is among the richest in the world – thanks to vast oil and gas reserves – its culture remains, for the most part, deeply traditional. The last film ever made here was a 1960s how-to guide by the ministry of religious affairs about being a good citizen.
“We are creative people,” explains Khairuddin during a break on set. “We’re full of poets and writers and I want to showcase Brunei in ways that haven’t been done before.”
The siblings – who together run Brunei’s first film company, Origin Films, and its sister company Origin Artistic Management – have spent the past four years working on Yasmine and have drafted in expertise from all over the region due to Brunei’s lack of local technical and creative know-how. Silat stunts are choreographed and directed by one of Jackie Chan’s right-hand men – Hong Kong stunt veteran Chan Man Ching – with other crew and actors hailing from Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
But the film’s protagonist, Liyana Yus, is a 20-year-old Bruneian and novice actor who has spent the past year “getting into character” in a very Hollywood-like way. After dropping out of school, she has gone only by the name Yasmine and spends five hours a day with Chan Man Ching working out and practising silat.
“All of my friends have been asking me, ‘How did you get the part?'” she laughs shyly. “Being an actress never crossed my mind, but I thought I’d go for the audition and I got the part.”
The Kamaluddins hope that Yasmine – aimed for distribution in south-east Asia next year – will help show the “real” Brunei to outsiders, who largely know this former British protectorate as a tax-free haven that often tops “most boring tourist destination” lists.
ndustry experts have pointed to Brunei’s nascent film scene as a potentially lucrative source of income – its jungles and mangroves providing a unique backdrop for action and wilderness films – and the Bruneian government has backed Yasmine with some $120,000, telling the Guardian that it hoped the film would “inspire and encourage more locals to follow [the Kamaluddins’] footsteps”.
But Siti – who insisted that every actor use the Bruneian dialect of Malay for authenticity – hopes for a wider and more encompassing outcome: a regional understanding of her little-understood and oft-maligned nation.
“You see a typical Hollywood high school movie – it’s all about their lives,” she explains. “When Yasmine goes to school, she’s wearing a tudong (hijab). She has her boy problems, she fights with her parents, her grandmother eats ambuyat (a local delicacy) and lives in the water village and uses a water taxi [to get around]. I make it look really normal. Not like in a documentary-style film, but in an everyday setting. I just want to show that, yes, this is part of our culture, but actually, everybody is the same.”
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