Like other school children, Nadira Ilana recited the national pledge of allegiance and sang national songs. She grew up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in East Malaysia.
After studying abroad, she moved to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. People kept asking her how long she had “been in Malaysia” as though Sabah wasn’t part of the country.
As a filmmaker, she realised then that telling ‘local stories’ wasn’t going to be simple. The Malaysian film industry is mainly peninsular-based, and most West Malaysians knew little about East Malaysia.
More importantly, Nadira knew little about being Sabahan herself.
This spurred her on an extraordinary journey — in her own small way — to bridge that cultural divide between East and West Malaysia.
In the last five years, her work has had a significant focus on Sabah’s socio political history. And now, she has gravitated now to an interest in native Borneo cultures.
Last year, she embarked on Big Stories, a community participatory project that sent her on a year-long film residency in rural Sabah, in search of her native Dusun roots.
She spoke to us about her motivations and challenges in trying to make stories for her people, her grandmother, and for the world.
Here are our takeaways:
#1 – How she found herself at the frontline
Nadira only realised in her teens that she was an ethnic Dusun, the indigenous majority of Sabah. And as a young adult, she wanted to know more about what that meant in the context of Malaysia.
This challenge is mired in the complex socio-political narrative of Malaysia, the lack of representation of indigenous people in mass media, and representation of indigenous people that wasn’t exoticized.
“As a filmmaker, it was hard for me to imagine my own stories. I didn’t know what I was looking at, in terms of the Sabahan landscape. The two East Malaysian states, Sabah and Sarawak, did not appear in our history books. I didn’t see myself on screen. It meant that despite growing up in Sabah, my identity was a blur.
“I realised that Malaysian cinema didn’t represent me. I wanted to tell stories from home (in Sabah), but I was also trying to get film experience in Kuala Lumpur.”
It’s challenging having to be on both sides of the country at once. She started her research from scratch, from archives and academic papers to tireless interviews and collecting oral traditions.
“Sabah has a rich oral tradition, but this tradition is also perishable. A lot of Sabah’s popular history is in black and white ethnographic photos taken during colonial times.
“Unlike West Malaysia, we don’t have a lot of accessible pop culture. We make telemovies for public TV and for local consumption but most of our visual entertainment is imported. I don’t think it’s a question of whether East Malaysians are making media content, it’s our distribution that’s tricky.
“Before Big Stories, I read old texts published in the 1950s by British anthropologists, which was all I had to prepare me for when I went into the villages, asking people about Dusun lore.
“The villagers make the best teachers. My generation knows knowledge as something passed down from books, the Internet or TV, so it’s fascinating to go from one village to another far away and hear the same folklore that’s been passed down through generations.
It’s a humble start, trying to uncover these stories. I’m still only just scratching the surface.”
#2 – Making films that her grandmother could watch
With Big Stories, the Dusun community of Kampung Bongkud and Kampung Namaus became her subjects, her filmmakers and audience.
“It was extremely challenging physically and mentally, but I couldn’t back out because I needed to know what Dusuns looked like on screen, untampered, because usually for mainstream programming they would have to speak in Bahasa Malaysia instead, get censored, or have their culture simplified to tailor for a “mass audience.”
“I wanted to capture their authenticity but also ensure that the films would be easily accessible for cultural purposes, especially to Sabahan youths like myself.”
“Culture isn’t just something just good for postcards, or tourists. It provides meaning for our existence. Social memory never really dies. Even when you don’t know what that is, it will call to you.
“I realised the more I learned about being Dusun, things about myself started to make sense. For example, my love of storytelling and nature, and how coming from a matrifocal society influenced me.”
Nadira remembers watching Indonesian TV shows with her grandmother when she was young. She wanted to make Dusun films they both could connect with.
They communicate through other languages, but Nadira felt that to really know her grandmother, it had to be in Dusun. And if she couldn’t, maybe she could do so through her films.
“I challenged myself to make most of the Big Stories films in Dusun. Native Sabahans don’t have a written history, so I learnt a lot of the language through karaoke sessions in Ranau!”
“I can understand a little now, but Dusun Ranau is still very different from Dusun dialect my grandmother speaks, Dusun Gana, which is spoken only in the district of Bingkor.
“I wonder sometimes if my ancestors could appreciate my films. But I am still mentally preparing myself for the possibility that the language could disappear in my lifetime.”
#3 – “I had never felt more present in my life”
Big Stories became a massive project spanning a year instead of three months, when an earthquake hit Ranau during her residency. Nadira was in Kota Kinabalu at the time and recalls nearly being thrown out of her bed.
But she and her team persevered with the support from the community. Together, they produced 14 short documentaries, two photography exhibitions and a giant wood-print banner by a local art collective.
It was unveiled at Bongkud Village, and it was a film premiere to remember. The national film development authority, Finas, was a sponsor.
“The villagers built 14 huts exhibiting their Dusun heritage. Someone brought a headhunter’s sword with 5 notches on it, marking how many heads it had taken. They even tried to feed bat to my guest of honour! It was the best film premiere ever.”
About 1000 people showed up, including her grandmother from Keningau.
Observing how they responded, watching them laugh and cry, Nadira says that “I had never felt more present in my life.”
#4 – “There’s always the question of being indigenous in the modern world.”
Nadira says that her experience isn’t unique, and that she realises that that many communities throughout the world share a similar struggle.
“It took me a long time to realise that I’m an indigenous filmmaker because I grew up in the city, and there’s always the question of being indigenous in the modern world.
“Not knowing that I was Dusun made me realise how important cultural representation is. This is why I’m an advocate of storytelling that provides for a more holistic representation of multiethnic Malaysia.
“Apart from my films, I have been quite outspoken about this, only because under these extraordinary circumstances, I feel there is a need to contextualise my work.
“I don’t want to apologise for that because I have my own heritage at stake and I think everyone has the right to seek a space for their own stories. Homogenised media is boring.”
#5 – Making stories that say something about humanity
For Nadira, it’s most rewarding when other young Sabahans tell her that they started to think about their history and heritage after watching her films.
“In hindsight, I was stitching my historical timeline as a Sabahan together through Big Stories, Silent Riot & Lastik (hyperlink). It isn’t just about being Sabahan though. I want to be able to make films anywhere in the world but in all my work, I hope to tell stories that say something about humanity.”
Read about the two other outstanding personalities featured, the accidental filmmaker Ang Geck Geck who shocked everyone with her debut short film
And the producer Bianca Balbuena who only takes on projects that scare her!