Monday, December 31, 2012

Ohio University in Malaysia shooting “Home for Hari Raya”

Associate Professor Frederick Lewis and his team of students from Ohio University’s School of Media Arts & Studies are in Malaysia shooting my short story “Home for Hari Raya” from my Malaysian collection of short stories Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), winner of the 2009 Popular Star Reader’s Choice Award.  They are working with Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), in Shah Alam. 

Last December they contacted me about filming another story from the same collection, but after they read the revised MPH version of “Home for Hari Raya”,  they decided to film this instead. They then sent in their filming proposal at Ohio University as part of its Education Abroad program.

The filming project became official in May 2012 when it was announced in the Ohio University Education Abroad, Centre for International Studies for students to sign up for the six credit program.  There was also this brief announcement in the Faculty Director E-Newsletter: 

“Frederick Lewis, along with students from the School of Media Arts and Studies, will produce a short narrative film based on ‘Home for Hari Raya,’ a short story by American/ Ohio ex-pat, Robert Raymer.  Robert is a writer and teacher who has lived in Malaysia for more than 20 years. This program will run over winter break in December 2012-January 2011.” 

During a ninety minute Skype session in October, I finally had a chance to meet with Frederick Lewis, Willem Holzer and Jeremy Parolini who found the old Heinemann Asia version of Lovers and Strangers in their library that led to their decision to contact me.  Mostly I spoke with Willem Holzer the director, who also took over the script writing from another student who had graduated early.  I answered his questions about Malay culture, religion, and Hari Raya. 

The script underwent ten drafts—the last five I got heavily involved with by line-editing each and making several suggestions to improve the scenes and to make them more authentic.  Willem also got plenty of feedback from Malaysians, including students from UiTM-Shah Alam and Habibah Ashari, the Tun Razak Chair at Ohio University whom I once Skyped with her class of students.  The script does veer away from my original story (as movies often do), with some minor characters added along with a series of flashback scenes.  

Originally 15 students were scheduled to arrive in Malaysia for the shooting but at the last minute Jeremy Parolini was unable to come.  To help raise funds for their flights and production costs, the students took part in several university activities and even made an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek video which they posted in early November.  They sure look like they had fun putting this together.

This is a truly Malaysian-American joint project between Ohio University and UiTM.  UiTM’s Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation has been handling the casting (and supporting roles), the locations, the art direction, the wardrobe, the equipment, the audio, and a lot of other stuff behind the scenes, like transportation and making sure everyone from the actors to the production crew gets to where they need to be for the shooting with the equipment and wardrobe intact. 

A Facebook account had been set up a couple of months in advance so students and staff from both universities could introduce one another, exchange production ideas, clarify their individual tasks, sort out what equipment will be available in Malaysia (and how they can get access to it), and work out logistics over their arrival and any last minute glitches.  In addition to exchanging ideas and suggestions, UiTM showed their Ohio counterparts a typical Hari Raya TV commercial, displayed photos of the set from a house they were able to rent for two weeks for the shooting as well as the casting videos of hopeful actors keen to fill the various roles.

Just before they departed for Malaysia, an article was written about Lewis and the filming project at Ohio University.

The first casting director Frederick Lewis tried to work with via Skype had some issues regarding fees, no doubt thinking this is Hollywood production not a university project.  Then Farid Ramlee of Red Films, a major production company in Malaysia, came to the rescue and helped cast the three sisters and their younger selves, needed for the flashback scenes.  Lewis said it was wonderful how Red Films made time for their ambitious student production.

Students from UiTM did all of the casting of the supporting roles—many actors were faculty members or students in their Theater Program. 

Also a huge help was Bryan Olinger, a former student of Lewis at Ohio University and now a Los Angeles-based director of photography.  As the technical supervisor for this project, he was responsible for the day to day production.  He not only worked tirelessly but also did a great job teaching the OU and UiTM students the proper protocol on set and how to handle the equipment.  According to Lewis, Bryan was the filming project’s "insurance policy" in case anything went wrong technically and saved the production several times with his expertise.

When I spoke with Lewis on Christmas Day, he said that he and his team has been working 12-14 hour days since arriving in Malaysia since some of the actors were only available for short time periods.  Also, after losing a day to a torrential downpour, they couldn’t afford any more weather related delays since they were already on their own tight shooting schedule.

Now that the actual shooting has ended, post production has taken over, which Lewis and his team will continue to work on while they visit Penang for about a week before returning home to Ohio University.

Lewis said that once the film “Home for Hari Raya” is ready it will be shown with three others film projects at Ohio University at the end of April 2013, and then submitted for film festivals in the US and overseas, including in Malaysia.  Hopefully it can generate some interest and manage to win some awards.

Eventually it would nice to see the film featured in Malaysia and also in the US, even on TV, to show a wider audience a cross-cultural production between two countries and two universities that showcase Muslims in a whole different light, about three sisters coming to terms with the recent death of their father while celebrating Hari Raya. 

For 2013, I'm wondering (hoping) what other stories from my collection will catch a film director’s eye?  So far the individual stories from this one collection of 17 short stories set in Malaysia, has been published 82 times and filmed once.  Not a bad way to end 2012! 

*Update: Ohio University posted HHR on YouTube  (It starts at 1:55, so scroll back to the beginning)

**Lovers and Strangers Revisited just celebrated its 20th anniversary! 
Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 
—Borneo Expat Writer