Silat In the Movies: Yasmine

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.

A still from Yasmine

“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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