Brunei's first female director ditched chemistry for film

Brunei's first female director Siti Kamaluddin put aside her chemistry training to pursue her first love - films

Yasmine, starring Liyana Yus, is the debut film by director Siti Kamaluddin (above). -- PHOTO: SHAW
Yasmine, starring Liyana Yus, is the debut film by director Siti Kamaluddin (above). -- PHOTO: SHAW
Yasmine, starring Liyana Yus (above), is the debut film by director Siti Kamaluddin. -- PHOTO: SHAW

Because the tiny state of Brunei has no film-making industry - television shows and commercials are made there but all movies are imported - Siti Kamaluddin never imagined her dream of making films would amount to anything.

She did what her parents wanted, studying chemistry at university in the United Kingdom. After coming home in 2000, she taught A-level chemistry. That was not for her, so she began working in Brunei television as a writer and presenter.

But the urge to be a movie-maker stayed and she was especially curious about the craft of film production.

"I wanted to see how our friends in Indonesia and Malaysia make movies, not so much about the story, but how the whole thing is organised," the 36-year-old tells Life! over the telephone from the capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan.

She left television and moved to Kuala Lumpur, finding work with veterans such as actor-director Aziz M. Osman. She did everything from continuity to working the clapper board to being the assistant director.

With the release this week of martial arts drama Yasmine, which she directed, Siti has finally realised her goal, one she has had since she was seven. Besides being the work of the country's first movie director in decades, the film also stars first-time actress and Brunei native Liyana Yus. The film opens tomorrow in cinemas here.

Siti says of her ambition: "Coming from Brunei, it's just one of those things that you would never think you can ever have."

She and her producer brother, Din, took the Yasmine screenplay by Indonesian writer Salman Aristo to investors because she felt it had a "cool idea" and with its elements of silat and action, "maybe it's easier for people to believe in the project".

The film raised US$2 million (S$2.4 million) from investors, which include US$120,000 from her government, and was made through the Kamaluddin siblings' production house, Origin Films.

Siti grew up with black- and-white classics on television, featuring Malay screen idol P. Ramlee.

Yasmine's theme of underdogs who win, with echoes of Rocky (1976) and the kid-hero works of Steven Spielberg such as E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), also appealed to Siti.

"I'm a big fan of feel-good films and I wanted to make sure that people who watch Yasmine will leave happy," she says.

Yasmine has been screened in festivals in Europe and North America, and the press there describe her as "Brunei's first female director".

She says: "Actually, I don't think about it that way. I made the film not as a woman but as a film-maker. My thing is to make movies and keep making movies. It's as simple as that."

Lead actress Liyana, 21, also speaking over the telephone from the Brunei capital, says she had never trained in silat before making the film.

After she was cast, she trained under a national silat champion for a year, after which Hong Kong action director Chan Man Ching took over.

She and the rest of the cast trained a bruising six days a week. It was tough-going at first.

"We got used to it, we took vitamins and it's a good way to stay healthy," she says.

The first-time actress' encounter with martial arts was a brief wushu course she took in school. She says she was moderately sporty, involved in running and hockey, among other activities.

She took a hiatus from her pre-university studies to work on the film. That break could carry on for quite a while, she says. "I plan to continue as an actress, for sure. I love it. I love my job."

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