First-time director Mohd Shahreel Abu Bakar — or Areel, as he is known — is a man of action, not words. Three years after starting work on Geran (Malay for “land grant”), he gave up hope of getting funds and decided to produce it himself.
It took another two years of scripting, shooting and editing before Geran opened in Malaysia and Brunei on Oct 10, 2019. The film stayed on the cinema circuit for one month, followed by a few screenings on Astro. After that brief buzz, things came to a standstill because Areel’s production company, Layar Pictures, did not have the budget to market it further.
Then, out of the blue, he received an invitation to show his directorial debut at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) 2020. The 19th edition of the event, held virtually last August, was presented by the New York Asian Film Foundation, Film at Lincoln Center and Smart Cinema USA.
“The organisers saw the trailer on my Facebook and read bloggers’ reviews. When they approached me, I thought it was some scam,” Areel says. “But artists who had been involved in the NYAFF checked for me and said I was lucky to be invited to take part.”
Lady Luck continued to shine on him and Geran won the Daniel A Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the festival, an achievement he least expected, considering the competition. “I was shocked because you had to fight with entries from other countries that are powerhouses in action films, like Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand.”
Herman Yau’s Ip Man: The Final Fight was the winner in 2013, the year the award was added to the festival. Fellow Hong Kong directors who have lifted the trophy include Yue Song (for The Bodyguard, in 2016) and Dante Lam (Operation Red Sea, 2018). Korea’s Jung Byung-gil won in 2017 for The Villainess.
Geran is about a young man who falls in with the wrong crowd and takes to gambling, drag racing and street fights. When a ruthless gang shows up to collect on a debt, his older brother and sister are forced to fight to save the family’s land and their sibling’s life.
The film features various forms of silat and has martial arts practitioners in the cast, most of them first-time actors who also choreographed and did their own stunts. Popular actor Namron plays the father, Pak Nayan, a Silat Gayong teacher, and veteran actress Fatimah Abu Bakar is the mother and narrator. Others in the cast include Khoharullah Majid, Feina Tajuddin, Fad Anuar, Azlan Komeng and Megat Shahrizal.
Geran opened in US cinemas on June 4 under the title Silat Warriors: Deed of Death. Netflix has bought non-exclusive rights for three years and started showing it as The Deed of Death two months ago. Recognition and reward have brought distributors a-knocking and there is interest to have screenings in the Middle East, Australia, South Korea and the UK by year-end.
“After 10 years in the industry, I wanted to do an action film because action is a universal language that can attract people,” says Areel, who studied broadcasting at Academy TV3 because he was interested in how people work behind the scenes on movies and TV programmes. He started out as a camera assistant before becoming a freelance director of photography, hopping from one project to the next.
Still amazed by the turn of events and more convinced that action speaks louder than words, Areel plans to start shooting his second movie, Walid (“father” in Malay), after the Movement Control Order (MCO) ends. It is about love and family, community, education, human trafficking, the exploitation of children and martial arts.
He will, again, be the scriptwriter, cameraman, director and producer. Being an independent filmmaker gives him the freedom to follow his heart, but if funds do come in, Areel will hire help so he can focus on writing and directing.
“I like real stories, not fiction or imagination. I often travel with my wife Eeman [Teoh], and like to see what’s happening in the country. I get ideas from watching people and their lifestyles. I read books and other things and create realistic plots — straightforward, and viewers get the information. I don’t like art, art sangat till people don’t understand.”
Ask him why Malaysian films usually do not go far and he says it straight: “We come out with syiok sendiri [self-satisfying] productions and we copy others.”
Copycat movie makers lose out because whatever they do, others do better. “There is a need to have originality so people will know us, that we are from Malaysia. We have to find what is unique to our country. So, culture lah.”
Areel feels proud that Geran has drawn outsiders’ attention to silat. “In interviews, when people hear about silat, they think it’s from Indonesia. But Unesco has announced that silat, a combative art of self-defence and survival, is rooted in the Malay Archipelago.”
Areel shot the movie in different parts of Kedah — Alor Setar, his birthplace, Yan and Jitra. It is boring to always have stories set in Kuala Lumpur when there are lots of other places to explore, he thinks. The cost is different, too, when you take the crew out to the smaller towns. Besides, locals can be roped in as extras.
He plans to film Walid in Langkawi, where he lives with Eeman — a former journalist who now takes care of his media releases — and is in the midst of renovating what will eventually be an art space. The setup, in Pantai Tengah, will have a screening room, merchandise corner and areas in which to hold acting, writing, cinematography and art classes.
Layar Pictures is based in Wangsa Melawati, KL, below the Geranian Studio Centre, which Areel opened three months ago. The studio has professionals to train anyone keen on mixed martial arts, silat and stunts.
The MCO has stalled the progress of both the art space and Geranian, but it has not taken the wind out of Areel’s sails. Layar, which means sail in Malay, reflects his dream: “I want to sail far, far.” Few would doubt he can do it.
This article first appeared on June 21, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.