Ekin Kee Charles is an evocative storyteller. Her short film Pace, which won the grand prize at the BMW Shorties 2019, is a coming-of-age film about a young girl and her struggle with being confined by gender perceptions, especially among a group of boys. Touching on topics such as innocence and identity, the film brims with emotions despite its sparse dialogue. It was Ekin’s first entry for the BMW Shorties and she also became the first Sabahan to win since the competition’s inception in December 2006.
When she was younger, she dreamt of being an architect. But that changed when she took a course in cinematography. “It was after our first project, a music video. I loved it so much, so I decided to pursue [film-making],” she says.
After graduating from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) with a Bachelor of Arts in Cinematography, Ekin worked as a full-time production assistant. What attracted her to this medium was its reach.
“Film is not just about one country. Film is about the world, and that’s what I like about it. You can travel just by looking at the screen and you can see other people’s lives and the different nations. Film is a medium that should be accessible to everyone because everyone has a story.”
It is no surprise then that her upcoming film, funded by a production grant from BMW Group Malaysia, explores a topic close to home. “Rama Rama is a story about a little girl in a small village in Sabah. She grows up being aware of a traditional beauty pageant called Unduk Ngadau. While she doesn’t look like your typical beauty, she joins the pageant, then starts thinking about whether she’s doing this for herself or because she doesn’t want to disappoint her mum,” Ekin tells Options.
Unduk Ngadau is one of the main events during Kaamatan (harvest festival) in Sabah and it is held to commemorate Huminodun — the daughter of deities who sacrificed herself to feed her people. Ekin says that while the pageant for children is meant to introduce them to the traditions, the adult pageant has numerous requirements, from height to skin tone.
“Actually, I wanted to join. But people told me I couldn’t because I was too short ... I was a bit sad. When we were younger, my cousin used to follow this competition because her mum — my aunt — was one of the people who sewed the traditional attire. She also played the mother in Rama Rama,” she adds.
Ekin’s aunt is not the only family member in the film. The young girl Yaya is played by her niece Alyaa Sharyana Erisha, who was also the star of Pace. “For Pace, it was just me and my friend who did the filming. For Rama Rama, we had a team. So, I was afraid that Yaya would be shy and not want to act. But she did well and now wants to be an actress. I’d say she’s very curious. Every time I write, I love to imagine her in that situation because she is growing up before my eyes. And I know her as this girl who’s very curious and has a big imagination.”
For all her films, Ekin prefers non-actors as she wants genuine feelings from her cast. “I believe that they are the character. And the character should become them, not the other way around,” she says.
Her niece’s role in particular was a complex one. “I was very surprised by Yaya’s performance in Rama Rama because she’s only eight years old. She doesn’t have any acting background, only Pace. There were multiple heavy scenes in Rama Rama, where she didn’t have to cry or anything but needed to portray her reaction through her eyes. She did that really well. Her acting, I think, is something very different from the other talents that I’ve seen.”
Inspired by the likes of Sean Baker and Wes Anderson, Ekin’s films are a realistic portrayal of life. “I really like my film to be raw. There is not much editing or anything like that because they are about human life. I want to imagine you sitting there just looking at life.”
It took Ekin three months to finalise her script. “I had the script ready in a month but I would question myself, ‘Why is this scene like this?’ and ‘Why is this scene like that?’ I think every film, a good film, makes people think after watching it. I want people to question, ‘Why did Ekin construct it like this? What is the message behind it?’ It was a long process getting to the ‘why’. The script evolved.”
She hopes that viewers will question their beauty and physical aesthetic biases as well as re-evaluate how they teach their children. “What I really want to say sometimes is, when you have kids, you tend to think of a certain path that you want for them. The strongest form of listening is observing — because maybe, when you’re observing, you may actually see what your kid is trying to say through how he/she expresses himself. We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we did. But if they don’t make their own mistakes in life, they can’t learn what they actually want to do,” she points out.
Due to Covid-19, the filming of Rama Rama (which means “moth” in English) was pushed to July. Ekin recalls that it was tough to shoot as only 20 people were allowed on set, including the talent. Still, they managed to put together a film that will premiere on Jan 2. The virtual premiere (from 3pm to 6pm) will include musical performances and a panel discussion.
While the topic of beauty is universal, Ekin’s story is unique as it is told from the Sabahan perspective, one that is underrepresented in the film industry. Rama Rama challenges our perceptions of beauty, looking at it from the standpoint of innocence. “I think we really need to let people understand that it’s okay if you are not a typical beauty. It is okay. You will bloom in a different way. You don’t have to become a butterfly. You can be a moth, and that’s fine,” she says.
Watch the trailer below:
The virtual premiere of 'Rama Rama' is from 3pm to 6pm on Jan 2. To tune in or to learn more, see here.
This article first appeared on Dec 21, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.