Several creative endeavours and a full-time government job later, Zara Kahan finally arrives on Astro First with her directorial debut, Hey Orang Kita. Here, the young director recalls the very steps that led her to a career in film.
After spending a year as assistant producer at radio station BFM with Ezra Zaid, I joined Popdigital, a subsidiary of Popfolio — which also owns Poskod.MY and Tongue-in-Chic.
For a while I was actually one of their Digital Leads, doing boring stuff like digital campaigns. Hardesh Singh, my previous boss who was behind the idea of The Effing Show, managed to talk me into doing a series of Youtube videos as I had some social media notoriety from popularising the hashtag LOLDewanRakyat.
What started out as a work project however turned into something bigger than we imagined. Soon enough, the first video hit over 100,000 views and people started seeing me as a vlogger.
But I never thought of myself as an industrious vlogger — these were people like Anwar Hadi and Matluthfi — and I hardly ever spent time on Youtube prior to Giler Selamba Jane. I started seriously watching vlogs for research, and found myself enjoying and following Matluthfi’s videos!
Neither was I anything like my character in Giler Selamba Jane — I was uncomfortable in front of the camera even though I wrote all my material.
Eventually, I left Popdigital hoping to work in film, which was something I’ve always wanted to do. I knew Lina Tan (Managing Director of Red Communications) for a while through social events, and was supposed to join Red Films to helm one of their digital platforms.
However, an offer arrived from Khairy Jamaludin and I now also had the option of joining the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which Lina asked me to consider seriously. “Why don’t you serve the nation instead?” she asked.
I took the offer as I’ve yet to do something for my country, and went to work under the Youth Development Division. However, I soon learned that you can’t be a part-time writer/director and still work in the government.
I tried to bite a little bit more than I can chew when I did the Hey Orang Kita web-series for FEEFO.TV; those episodes were shot while I was still working for the ministry.
After I turned down Lina’s initial job offer, she asked me to write something for Red. So I pitched a musical comedy series but Lina requested for it to be a drama.
I was very degil about the music and sent her scripts for the first four episodes as a musical drama. She liked it, we proceeded to talk about casting, and soon she hooked me up with a producer — Lina Tan works really fast.
Eventually, we were doing 12-hour shoots while I was still with the government, and I would use up my leaves. On some days after filming I would go to work and respond to requests like we need three paragraphs on these programmes. Sleepy and tired, I soon realised there was no way I could continue with how I was going.
I served the ministry for three years before leaving to pursue film full-time. In all honesty, I’m happy to have done what I did with the government. Along the way, I gained a lot of new-found respect for those in my division.
But in shooting the web-series, nobody took me aside to tell me “this is how you direct”.
I did a lot of googling to find out about things like call sheets! When the day came, I was really glad to have an award-winning Director of Photography — he’s one of the best in the business. Known as the “steady-cam guy”, Haris Hue (Istanbul Aku Datang, Songlap, Polis Evo) gave me lessons on set.
On our first shoot, he took the time to explain how filters worked while the whole crew waited impatiently. I remember the very first scene I ever directed in my life: it was of Clayton’s feet walking over a trail of blood. We shot the scene 14 times until I was satisfied with the way his feet moved and our producer was like, our schedule is so busted.
It was then that I learned about balancing quality control and time management.
For example, I could try and chase natural light but in that case I cannot be too precious with my shots. On top of that was making sure to schedule time for tea. Breaks were important as we were a small team with a short schedule trying to get the job done, and people were really pushing themselves.
When we were shooting a scene of Hartini crying against a wall, it was already 3:00am.
I wanted to write out the scene after I saw how exhausted some of the crew had become but my team were against the idea. Our production manager, Vicky Ting, reminded me that everybody on set was relying on my vision as a director, and it was my duty to “chase that shot and complete the story”.
Magic happens when you see something real on screen.
Talitha Tan mentioned that I liked her on camera when she’s tired, but when you’re tired it’s just raw emotions and nerves — her hantu jepun scene was done in just two takes and she was running a high fever at that time.
My favourite exploration of character in the film was of Clayton; he embodies the saying “air yang tenang jangan disangka tiada buaya“. When we were shooting the scene of him getting kicked by his mom, I remember feeling very disturbed. I’m a Sabahan, and what his mom was saying sounded so authentic I could barely take it.
As for Hassan, I wanted to have someone intentionally douchey. This is a guy who will do everything to show that he’s strong; he’s supposed to be so macho it’s annoying!
But in one scene when the boys are about to rob a house, I had the camera focused only on Raja Syahiran‘s face and told him, “you don’t really buy into the idea that you’re that tough”. The results really impressed me, and I trust that by choosing the right roles he can go far as an actor.
To anyone who’s ever considered making a film, just do it. I used to think that I had to go through like ten other steps before I could even start. But I learned that if you hold off because you’re waiting for the money and the right story, it will never begin.
Perfect conditions will never happen. Do whatever you need to make them happen, but don’t wait.
It might suck in the beginning and it might be out of your depth, but nothing can give you a real lesson like a trial by fire.