Rural schoolchildren not lazy, they're poor - Adiwiraku director wants viewers to know

Sangeeta Krishnasamy (above) plays the lead character in Adiwiraku, the first feature film by Eric Ong.
Sangeeta Krishnasamy (above) plays the lead character in Adiwiraku, the first feature film by Eric Ong.PHOTO: SOL PICTURES
Sangeeta Krishnasamy plays the lead character in Adiwiraku, the first feature film by Eric Ong (above).
Sangeeta Krishnasamy plays the lead character in Adiwiraku, the first feature film by Eric Ong (above).PHOTO: SOL PICTURES

Through the children who make up his cast in Adiwiraku, film-maker Eric Ong learnt that small-town students are caregivers and breadwinners too

The rural schools of Malaysia are a world apart from the urban ones film-maker Eric Ong is familiar with.

Born and raised in Seremban and now a Singaporean, Ong, 52, says his eyes were opened last year when developing his first feature, Adiwiraku.

"Urban students always have money in their pockets. Going to Starbucks is not a problem. They will never know that in one corner of the world, students are struggling with day-to-day living," he says.

Adiwiraku is based on the true story of volunteer teacher Cheryl Ann Fernando. Posted to a school in the town of Sungai Petani, Kedah, she had to drop assumptions she had grown up with as a city dweller, to deal with the problems presented by her students' rural environment.

The inspirational drama is among the works screened at The Inaugural Malaysian Film Festival In Singapore, which launches tomorrow, Malaysia's 60th Merdeka Day. Ong will take part in a panel discussion after the screening.

Ms Fernando, played by actress Sangeeta Krishnasamy, is a volunteer with Teach For Malaysia, a non-profit organisation that places participants in areas where they are most needed. The marketing professional realised that she had to "think out of the box" to raise English standards, says Ong.

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The film tracks how Ms Fernando starts a choral-speaking group, a team of students who narrate verses on stage and take part in competitions. Through her eyes, the audience learns why success in school is elusive for rural children, even if they are willing to work hard.

Ms Fernando consulted on the film and shares screenwriting credits with Ong and writer Jason Chong.

Ong, who owns production house SOL Pictures, based in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, decided that except for a few of the heavier parts, the film's younger characters would mostly be played by the nonactors at the centre of the story.

"Who better to play the students than the students themselves?" he says. He shot the film last year at the school in Kedah, using a short window provided by the March school holidays.

In getting to know the stories of the children who make up his cast, he saw that small-town students are not just students. They are also caregivers, employees and, sometimes, sole breadwinners.

"There are a hundred and one reasons why a student doesn't do well in school, or why she might drop out. The student might be looking after a sick parent. She might have to work to feed the family. She can't take part in after-school activities because she doesn't have lunch money," he says.

"She's not lazy. The issue is poverty."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Lesson on rural students' struggles'. Print Edition | Subscribe