The fireworks were more subdued this Hari Raya, thanks to the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO). On the positive side, one can say that immediate family members got to forge a stronger bond and enjoy quality time together. Still, for many others scattered around different parts of the country, or even the world, it was a celebration that undoubtedly stirred emotions of rindu.
That would be the case for the Zainuddin siblings, the family of five created by writer Honey Ahmad that portrays family dynamics most of us can identify with in one way or another. This is no saccharine feel-good festive film, though in a naturalistic way, Honey still weaves in just enough nostalgia and romanticism to suit the occasion.
In keeping with the temporary migration of socialising and entertainment to the virtual realm, Quarantine Raya premiered on Facebook and was then uploaded to YouTube on the eve of Hari Raya. The story behind its creation is indicative of the times we are in.
The inspiration came from Honey’s most recent project before the MCO was announced, a Raya telemovie conincidentally titled Raya Hampir Tak Jadi.
“When it became clear that a shutdown was imminent, I joked with the TV executives, saying that maybe the only thing we could do was film a Zoom movie this year. That thought stayed with me, and I wondered how the narrative would pan out. And being still in a Raya mood, I was inspired. So, I wrote something in a day, and cleaned it up a bit the next day.”
She initially only wanted to get some actor friends to do a table reading just for fun. But having been in conversation with theatre and film actor and director Gavin Yap on possible collaborations, she decided to send him a copy of the script.
“He came back to me and said he wanted to direct it. And that became the game changer,” laughs Honey.
Yap didn’t want to just do a table reading. “Everyone was doing a table read online. I felt the format that this was written in actually lends itself very well to how we’re all communicating right now, so I thought we could try to do something a little more ambitious and interesting, a little bit more fun, you know?”
With most of the scenes being played out on a screen, Yap decided that it could work as a film.
That is how we find ourselves watching Kak Long (Tina Isaacs), Zaman (Tony Eusoff), Elisha (Nadia Aqilah), Zaireen (Siti Farrah Abdullah) and Fendi (Nabil Zakaria) on various Zoom chats, as they face their first Raya after the passing of their mother. The father, Abah, had gone for his umrah pilgrimage in Mecca and is stuck there owing to global restrictions on travel.
What is interesting is the style and tone of Quarantine Raya, which feels at times like a documentary and reality TV show, at other times, like a play. Yap explains, “Honey’s script was originally written for the stage — heavy on dialogue with monologues thrown in.
“It’s not quite your typical telemovie or film, more like a weird Zoom hybrid do-it-yourself telemovie.” Honey has a more eloquent description, calling their project a “screen-play”.
The no-budget, no-frills experience has been refreshing, according to the scriptwriter and director. All footage had to be shot using the actors’ mobile phones, placed above their webcam during actual Zoom calls. “When we decided to do this, I called my friend Khairil M Bahar, who has edited quite a few things I’ve done,” says Yap. “We realised very quickly that recording the actual Zoom session screens was not an option, because the internet was so bad.”
He and Honey also decided on the actors together, some of whom they were acquainted with or had worked with. “It became a running joke for us that when we asked, ‘Would you be available?’, they’d say, ‘Let me check my schedule. Yes’,” laughs Yap.
Being in quarantine allowed the production to come together at incredible speed. “That’s the best part,” says Honey, “We’d ask if everyone could meet at this time, and it was always yes. We had a group chat and by the end, we’d become a bit like family. It’s nice.” Yap chimes in, “We rallied pretty quickly. From the reading of the script to casting and first read took a total of 48 hours. We rehearsed, shot and edited everything in three weeks.”
Honey adds that the process of putting together a production in which the focus is only on the narrative was what she enjoyed most. “It’s almost like going back to the roots. It feels more intimate.”
Yap concurs. He chose to rehearse for a week before shooting, which is the norm for theatre but not a movie. Directing remotely also meant the actors had greater autonomy and input, from make-up to clothes, props, location setting and even ad libs. “We broke down the script into segments, Honey and I would give them notes, and we’d be in the Zoom sessions, but muted. I tried not to do more than three takes for each scene, because the camera only has so much storage space. It also takes a long time to send the files over to Khairil to check and make sure we don’t need to reshoot everything.”
That lends Quarantine Raya its naturalistic and intimate tone. While not autobiographical, the authenticity also stems from Honey’s own experience of having to spend her first Raya without her mother when the latter passed away some years ago. “We are also five siblings in our family. But that’s about the only similarity,” she says, though she admits that perhaps having processed those moments herself, the story emerged easily.
Those familiar with Honey’s work such as I Eat KL will know that food is always involved. In Quarantine Raya, it is mum’s rendang recipe, with Siti’s character trying to recreate it. “What happens when the rock of your family is no longer there? Most families are dysfunctional, and there are all these interesting dynamics when you have a large family. There’s enough drama to mine,” she observes.
The storyline in Quarantine Raya is not complicated nor is the conclusion dramatic. In fact, it tapers off the way many family conversations do, only to be picked up again where it has left off. But then again, Honey notes, “Ultimately, you know that despite your differences, you’ll stick together somehow.”
This article first appeared on June 1, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.