Using animation and wayang kulit to spread awareness about domestic violence

The Dalang's Tale portrays domestic violence using shadow puppetry and cutouts, and aspires to encourage women to tell their stories. Photos: Irwan Junaidy

Shocked at how many women experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner – globally one in three women experience some form of violence – filmmaker Irwan Junaidy and scriptwriter Maizurah Abas decided to do their part in creating awareness about domestic violence.

But here’s the interesting part: They have chosen a novel way to present their story – through animation and wayang kulit.

“People don’t talk about this sort of thing openly here, ” Irwan said during a private interview with StarLifestyle recently, when he shared how he and “Mai” (as he fondly refers to his longtime collaborator and friend) came up with the idea for the short film, The Dalang’s Tale, slated to be featured late this year in an original animated anthology of shorts called Spectrum, co-produced by Singapore’s Robot Playground Media and Malaysia’s The R&D Studio. The anthology will consist of seven short films inspired by the heritage and shared culture of Singapore and Malaysia.

Irwan, who graduated from Britain with an architecture degree, is the co-founder of The R&D Studio which released the award-winning Batik Girl short film not so long ago. Irwan has a passion for telling stories, particularly those that are inspired by the people, arts and cultures of South-East Asia. Which is how wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) found its way into the mix. Maizurah works in The R&D Studio as Head of Story where she writes scripts and edits.

“Both of us know people who are or were in abusive situations. And, one day, Mai asked me what I would do if I knew for sure that someone was being abused. Often, we are content to leave things abstract. We think that there is abuse, we see the signs but we don’t talk about it. We keep it inside. So when the question came up, we were forced to think it. We ended up saying that we have to speak up when we know something is happening, ” Irwan said.

Irwan and Maizurah were at an animation workshop in Manila, the Philippines in February 2019, organised by the Annecy Film Festival, when they found themselves pitching the idea for their domestic violence story.

“We pitched Dalang, were chosen, and then refined it with a team of experts from France. With their help, we were able to view the project more objectively, add some finesse and take it to a much higher level than when we started out, ” Irwan explained.

The Dalang’s Tale is told in seven minutes and 45 seconds, without any words. The animation, colours, lighting, music and symbolism do all the “talking”. Two stories are carefully carved out and converge at the end. One of a father and his growing impatience with his young son as they journey to a wayang kulit show. The other, which is the wayang kulit itself, is the horrific, tragic story of the breakdown of a family and abuse of a wife and mother told in grim fashion.

The Dalang’s Tale is told in seven minutes and 45 seconds, without any words. The animation, colours, lighting, music and symbolism do all the “talking”. The Dalang’s Tale is told in seven minutes and 45 seconds, without any words. The animation, colours, lighting, music and symbolism do all the “talking”.“We actually portray that in the story. Some scenes are shocking but we wanted that. We want people to watch it and think, okay, if we don’t do anything about this, there are going to be really dire consequences, ” said Maizurah, adding that the short film is targeted for an audience aged 12 and above.

Irwan added that they purposefully chose not to use allegories or metaphors. “We wanted to keep it real, and for those not in that situation to understand what it’s like to be beaten up. So it wasn’t a very easy project for us. It was disturbing. While we were doing research, we often needed to take breaks. But that was a luxury we could afford. Victims aren’t given that break. They live through it day and night. Which is why we felt that adding another voice on their behalf, in the form of this short film and animation, was so important.”

Maizurah said that she was initially concerned about telling the story. She shared: “Many people have told me their stories of abuse, but I didn’t want them to think that I was freely retelling their story without respecting their privacy. You know, it’s not nice. But we came to the conclusion that ultimately these stories must be told to prevent more suffering, possibly even death.”

For the past two years, the duo has done some research and met with experts including women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah to learn about real-life cases.

Irwan said: “Before speaking to Ivy, we were viewing the topic through the filter of research, but when we began working with her, that’s when we realised how heavy and real the problem is. More people should be aware of what’s happening and collectively do our jobs to prevent this scourge in society. In Dalang, we look at how patriarchy, control or lack of it, is at the heart of domestic violence. But we also focus on how telling one’s story can be a form of catharsis.”

With production design by Atiqah Mohd Abu Bakar, the short film is currently being ably fleshed out. Having already signed up with a broadcaster, The Dalang’s Tale should be available for viewing by 2021.

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domestic violence , abuse , family


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