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Thursday April 9, 2009

Hitting the books

Amir Muhammad is taking a break from filmmaking as he concentrates on his new venture in publishing. WE’RE sitting in a restaurant in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, and Amir Muhammad is looking comfortable, relaxed and calm.

Well, he always looks comfortable, relaxed and calm anyway. Word is out that the man credited for kick-starting the whole Malaysian independent filmmaking scene (along with James Lee), specifically with his first (and only) fictional film, Lips to Lips, has decided to “retire” from filmmaking.

Surely there would be some who would not remain as relaxed and calm upon hearing this? Amir has, since 2000, racked up an envy-inducing number of accolades. His documentary films have travelled to all corners of the world, and he was also the first Malaysian filmmaker to have a film screened at the famous American festival of independent films, Sundance.

Infamously, he is the first Malaysian filmmaker to have not one, but two of his films banned at home (Lelaki Komunis Terakhir and its sequel, Apa Khabar, Orang Kampung).

With this impressive trail of firsts, why quit now?

Filmmaker-cum-publisher Amir Muhammad with the tomes published under his Matahari Books banner. – VICTOR K.K. NG/The Star

“I’m taking a long break,” says Amir, calmly, of course. “I want to publish 50 books.”

Yes, the 36-year-old newspaper columnist-cum-filmmaker now has one more title to his illustrious career – publisher. His line, Matahari Books, has released six tomes to date – Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things Vol.1, New Malaysian Essays, The Malaysian Book of the Undead (an encyclopedia of ghosts and other supernatural beings), its Malay version Kitab Pengetahuan Hantu Malaysia, Buku Untuk Filem Kami (script book for the film Kami), and the latest Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things Vol.2.

The books are all non-fiction, and all of them have been in the local non-fiction best-sellers list.

The seventh Matahari publication is coming out this month. It’s a book of conversations with Singaporean taxi drivers titled Taxi Tales on a Crooked Bridge, by Charlene Rajendran.

“I have a target of a few books I want to publish, and I can’t be doing a few things at the same time,” says Amir.

But why such an exact number as 50 books? “Saja (just because),” he says. “Why not? (Laughs)”

I point out that there seems to be a consistency running through both his films and books – they’re all non-fiction.

“Because I think non-fiction is for people who don’t understand reality!” he says wryly. “Only when you really understand reality should you retreat behind make-believe stories.”

But sometimes these endeavours do take on a life of their own. His current anthology project, Body 2 Body, which he is putting together with the help of Pang Khee Teik of The Annexe, Central Market, and former editor of Kakiseni, and singer-songwriter Jerome Kugan, turns out to be mainly fictional.

“But that’s a collection of essays and stories,” says Amir. “But you know, there are so many other publishers doing fiction, so why not (do non-fiction)? You might as well specialise.”

Born and bred in KL, Amir has a law degree from the University of East Anglia, Britain, but has never practised as a lawyer. He began writing for a newspaper when he was only 14, doing book reviews that sometimes included bits and moments from his own life. He turned to filmmaking out of boredom, he says.

“The same reason I do anything else,” he says. “I’m always on the brink of boredom.”

Asked why he chose publishing, he replies: “Well, why not? Because I’ve done work for other publishers before, and I’ve seen how it is done. I did some work for the Silverfish New Writings anthologies and a few others.”

It would seem that the man does everything on a whim. One starts to see how the relaxed and calm demeanour is probably a reflection of his approach to life. But isn’t it a bit dangerous to do whatever comes to mind?

“Well, it’s better than the alternative!” he laughs. “I don’t think I have the kind of aptitude that you need for fiction. I don’t really think of (Lips to Lips) as fiction. It’s more like a catalogue of different movies.”

Matahari was established (or more accurately, registered) in July, 2007. Its first book, Malaysian Politicians Vol.1, was launched two months later. The next year, five books were released, and for this year, Amir has six books lined up. Among them are Buku Untuk Filem Estet and Buku Untuk Filem Pisau Cukur, script books for Mamat Khalid’s and Bernard Chauly’s upcoming films respectively. The former will be a little different as it will feature the first draft of Mamat’s script, while the latter will be packaged like a Malay romance novel.

And in all honesty, Matahari Books isn’t doing too badly. Its first book sold 7,000 copies, which, as Amir says, is a bestseller by Malaysian standards. The second volume of Malaysian Politicians sold 3,000 copies in the first three months since its launch.

Amir feels that in general, local books are outselling foreign ones.

“The last Harry Potter book sold 75,000 copies, but a Malay romance novel sells more than 100,000 copies, as some claim,” he says. “For non-fiction, it depends. Something like May 13 (by Dr Kua Kia Soong) sold about 35,000 copies.”

Amir is currently writing a book, which will be about 120 Malay movies from 1948 to 1972. It will be launched in October and he hopes to have it translated into French. He has bought and amassed more than 200 Malay movies, and chose the more interesting ones to write about, watching them chronologically.

As for filmmaking, his final film – for now, that is – is Malaysian Gods, a documentary that revisits the locations of the 1998 street demonstrations sparked by the expulsion and subsequent trial of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. This one is peculiar because a one-day public screening was held last year after the Censorship Board approved it, after which Amir destroyed the film, and reshot a completely new one (and in Tamil, too!).

He believes in embracing the Internet wave instead of fighting it, and thus, if he should make more films in the future, they would be “Internet-specific,” he says. In fact, Malaysian Gods will be streamed on the Internet for free for a couple of days, prior to its DVD release by Da Huang Pictures.

For now, Amir plans another two volumes of Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things – one to be set in the 60s and another in the 70s.

“I don’t really feel like doing a volume on the present day,” he says. “It would be too much. Unless I do something specific like, say, the ‘Najib era,’ perhaps. I don’t know. But for now, I aim for four books.”

And has any politician given him a hard time over the books?

“No. I don’t think they go to bookshops,” he laughs.


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