Sinakagon: Malaysia’s first Dusun-language movie celebrates cultural heritage and community pride

'Sinakagon', which means bloodline in the Dusun language, is the directorial debut of Timothy Stephen.

The movie is inspired by the legend of Huminodun (All photos: Sinakagon)

The premiere of Sinakagon at selected cinemas in the country on June 13 was a milestone in the local movie industry. Directed by newcomer Timothy Stephen, it is Malaysia’s first Dusun-language movie and is resonating deeply with the East Malaysian community.

The vibrant culture and stories of this ethnic group have finally found their place on the big screen. More than that, the movie is a powerful testament to the importance of representation in cinema. Imagine the pride and joy of those whose voices and narratives have long awaited their time in the spotlight.

“I’m experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. I feel relieved, excited and nervous all at once. This marks my directorial debut. Previously, I was primarily focused on my role as a cinematographer,” says Stephen, of his feelings over the release of the film.

He is particularly excited about how it portrays the rich culture of the Kadazandusun-Murut community. However, Stephen is a little nervous about how audiences will perceive the film. “There is a lot of room for improvement on my part,” he says, acknowledging the continuous learning filmmaking entails.

Sinakagon, which means “bloodline”, is inspired by the legend of Huminodun. Stephen put his own spin to the plot to create the “bloodline” point. “Please bear in mind, this film is purely fictional,” adds the 41-year-old Dusun descendant who lives in Tambunan.


Director Timothy Stephen resonates deeply with the East Malaysian community

According to legend, Huminodun, also known as Ponompuan, was the daughter of Kinoingan and Suminundu, and renowned for her kindness and wisdom. When famine struck, Kinoingan learnt that the only way to save his people was to sacrifice his daughter. Despite the heart-wrenching decision, she agreed.

After Huminodun’s sacrifice, her spirit emerged and brought about a bountiful harvest. She is revered as the founder of Momolianism, which is credited with improving the lives of the Nunuk Ragang community through abundant food and cultural practices like rites, ceremonies and the sumazau dance. Legend has it that Huminodun’s spirit greatly influenced the bobolians (Dusun shamans).

“The inspiration for my film came from Yee I-Lann’s artwork, Huminodun, which depicts a pregnant figure. This painting sparked an idea to bring her descendants to life on screen. I wondered if they truly exist, embodying the spirit of paddy and celebrated annually during the Harvest Festival. From a short film, I started developing a full-length script in early 2020,” Stephen explains.

Pre-production commenced late 2020 and went on until May 2021. It involved casting, location scouting, crew selection and script development. The shoot officially began on May 15 in Tambunan, Sabah. Coincidentally, the date marked the 73rd birthday of male lead Ejin Dinting, who portrays Bobolian. Other film locations included Tambunan and Kota Kinabalu.

Most of the leading cast members, including Fiona Josepher (who plays Eve, the last fictional descendant of Huminodun) and Lisa Christie who were selected after nearly two months of casting sessions, are newcomers. “Recognising their potential, a month-long intensive acting workshop was conducted by Terence Blantocas, a UiTM diploma of performance art alumnus, to help them prepare for their roles. Language interpreter Jeffry Martin assisted in coaching and supervising their Dusun language skills. This thorough preparation ensured the cast could authentically portray their characters in the film,” Stephen says.

Making a debut film can be a daunting experience. He tells us his main challenge was having to work with a tight budget, despite receiving a grant of RM200,000 from the National Film Development Corporation. This amount is just half of what most other productions receive. “Unlike some, we did not receive additional marketing funds for Sinakagon. Due to these financial constraints, we had to reduce our production team size, including minimising the lead and supporting cast as well as keeping the filming locations within manageable distance. The equipment used was my own, not high-end.”

Fortunately, Stephen had a dedicated team. Most of them were new and highly committed, a factor for which he is deeply grateful. “If given the opportunity to start over, I would strengthen my original script and reshoot scenes that could be improved,” he says. “Everything is a learning process and I am determined to improve and do better on my next film.”


Ejin Dinting (right) portrays the character Bobolian, a Dusun shaman

He says audience response in Sabah was encouraging on the first two days (June 13-14) of the movie’s release. Efforts are being made to promote it in Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia. Stephen predicts that filmgoers in the other states may find the premise of the indigenous film somewhat unfamiliar.

“But this is my journey of showcasing and promoting our native culture on the big screen. Through the Mandatory Screening Scheme, Sinakagon will be shown for a week and screening will continue if it is supported by audiences. I am very hopeful that it will gain the attention and support of people from all walks of life, ages and cultures. Native voices are rarely heard in Malaysian cinema, making this film a unique opportunity to celebrate our country’s multicultural diversity.”

Stephen has garnered significant support from international audiences through Sinakagon’s participation in foreign independent film festivals, some for which the results have not been announced. The film has already clinched the Best First-Time Director award at the Milan Independent Awards and is a finalist at the Prisma Rome Independent Films Awards. These will be catalysts for Stephen to expand his networking and marketing opportunities abroad, with the hope that it will lead to continued success.

This article first appeared on June 24, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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