Friday, September 7, 2018

Beheaded on the Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I

Robert Raymer and actors,  Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed 
Last year I was in a French documentary discussing Somerset Maugham in Sarawak, but this year I found myself getting beheaded in the Malaysian documentary Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Re­claimed.  The documentary, a Rack Focus Films production, is the Third Season in the highly suc­cess­­ful Road to Nationhood series, and originally scheduled to be aired 16 September 2018—on Malay­sia National Day—on the National Geographic channel, Astro.  Because of some unexpected delays, it would more likely be aired sometime in October.

Malaysia was formed when Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and the Sarawak Crown Colonies joined the Federation of Malaya on 16 September, 1963; however, two years later,  Singapore separated to become an independent republic.

Thirty years laterI was an extra in several notable Hollywood filmssuch an Anna and the KingParadise RoadBeyond Rangoon, and the French film Indo­chine.  It was on the set of Indochine—Oscar winner in 1993 for Best Foreign Lang­uage Film plus an Oscar nomination for Catherine Deneuve for Best Act­ress—where I met Rob Nevis

Christmas Party scene, Indochine 

Catherine Deneuve and Linh Dan Pham, Indochine 

Rob Nevis, center, on the set of Paradise Road

Back then, Rob worked with Film Lo­ca­tion Services, but now he was a pro­ducer with Rack Focus Films.  A few months ago, Rob and I met in Kuching where he told me about the project and asked if I would be interested to take on a role, possibly Charles Brooke, the second of three White Rajahs—who ruled Sara­wak for one hundred years from 1841 to 1946.

Charles Brooke and author
James Brooke

The first White Rajah was an Englishman James Brooke.  After help­ing the Sultanate of Brunei fight piracy and an insurgency among the Dayaks, he was rewarded the city of Kuch­ing.  The third and last White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, was mostly an absentee ruler.  Following the Japanese Oc­cu­pation, he con­troversially ceded Sarawak to Great Britain at a time when they were shedding their British Empire.

Giovanni and Ivan at center

Giovanni as James Brooke

After finding Ivan, a Hungarian friend who is more muscular and younger, to play Charles Brooke, and Giovanni, an Italian who is taller and younger to play James Brooke, I was asked to portray various colonial officers and officials.  My first role would be Alan Lee, a colonial officer, who unfortun­ate­ly was killed during a battle with Rentap’s Iban warriors.

Alan Lee’s beheading proved to be a turning point in the Rajah Brooke’s deter­mination to cap­ture or kill Rentap (which he never did—his famous translated quote was “still alive, still fighting”) and defeat the Saribas and Skrang Ibans, notorious head­hunt­ers who routinely attacked Bidayuh settlements throughout Sarawak including Quop, where my wife is from—deci­mating the population.

Several days before filming began the cast were called to Kayu Malam Productions, opposite of Crown Square, for wardrobe fitting and briefing by the director, Fendi, and Rob, our executive producer.  This was the first time that the Kuching group would be meet­ing the Kuala Lumpur group (Rack Focus Production) and those they brought in from KL to assist them, like Johnny Goh, Prop Master.

Bani making adjustments

Johnny Goh and Rob Nevis

Bani, Wardrobe

Bani, in charge of Wardrobe, separated us by groups:  Iban warriors, Chinese miners, Istana people, Malay extras, and a handful of Caucasians portraying Colonial Officers, Captains and Fort Guards.  We took photos of one another in various costumes.  The heavy wool coat that I tried on looked good; however, it was a little long in the sleeve and rather im­practical for the tropical Sarawak climate.

Robert and Giovanni

During the briefing we were told that, unlike feature films, the budget for documentaries was minuscule, so compromises had to be made—there wouldn’t be endless takes from all angles.  Also Season Three of the series would be the most difficult to film.  Road to Nation­hood: Journey to Independence  Part I (1945-1957) and Part II (1957-1965) in Season One were largely made from historical archives, but since there were very little archives for early Sarawak, scenes had to be re-enacted, hence the need for actors and extras.  I was told we would not be speaking (only perceived to be speaking or having a dis­cuss­ion) while a narrator pointed out the historical significance of what was being viewed.

Filming was originally scheduled to begin near the end of July but had to be pushed back a month because the produc­tion permits for filming in Sarawak were held up.  The French crew had the same problem.  For this project, it would be a big problem, which meant the time for post-production was being compressed.  The moment all of the footage was shot for a par­ticu­lar scene, it had to be sent, without delay, to post production to work on and be pieced into the docu­men­tary.  Unfortunately, films or documentaries were rarely, if ever, shot se­quentially.

Jimmy, one of the extras, set up a WhatsApp Group so we would all be in the loop, which made it easier for Prisca, Unit Production Manager, to find someone, or for Mark, Transport Manager, to clarify who needed transportation to Sarawak Cultural Village, where most of the shooting would take place.


Prisca and escorts

Al­though shooting began on 28 August 2018, I wasn’t called in until two days later on Thurs­day, 30 August, for my first scene.  Thanks to all of the photos from the shooting posted on the Whats­App Group by Jimmy, Prisca and others, I could keep up with the filming.  Since it was a re­latively small cast, about 30 of us, with everyone play­ing mul­ti­­ple roles, I recognized many of the faces from our pre­­vious meeting.

We were told to be at Kayu Malam Productions by 7 am, so I was up at 5 am to avoid all of the school traffic.  En route to Damai, three otters ran across the road in front of our van, which I took as a good sign.  Not long after we arrived at the Iban Longhouse in the Sarawak Cultural Village, our base of opera­tions, Bani and Sheila from Wardrobe outfitted the Iban Warriors and then the makeup crew and the tattoo specialist led by Dedek, got to work, creating some elaborate Borneo tattoo pat­terns all over their bodies including the exposed parts on their upper thighs and buttocks.  Others tried on wigs.

As we sat there waiting for our turn, extras in their respective native outfits would walk by carrying shields and spears and swords or rifles.  All of the Chinese characters, I noticed from the photos taken on the first two days, had the front half of their heads shaved and a long queue added to their hair, fitting the Manchu style back in the 1840’s.  Some of the Ibans had their hair cut as if someone had used a bowl; more likely they were wearing wigs.

Johnny showed me my head that he made and asked, “Does this look familiar?”

At the briefing we were told to expect a lot of wait­ing, something I had experienced on pre­vious productions.  I had brought a book; however, I mostly talked with others in the cast and the crew, getting to know them.  We were also free to roam around the set and watch other scenes being shot, which I gladly did.

Ivan Evetovics as Charles Brooke

“Can you see the camera?” the director called out to Ivan, who was portraying Charles Brooke, surrounded by extras.  “If you can see the camera, then the camera can see you.”

During the previous meeting, I met the actor who would portray Rentap, the leader of the Skrang Ibans, who was quite large like the real Rentap, but then he was replaced by Ernesto Kalum, a world-renown tattoo specialist with a London law degree, who looked a whole lot more fierce….Later, when I was intro­duced to Ernesto on the set, I was told, “This is the man who is going to behead you.”

Ernesto Kalum as Rentap

I was unaware that my scene was a night shoot, so I could’ve come a lot later.  Several others like me had to wait all day long, not that we minded….Twelve hours would pass before I was finally asked to get into my costume—white shirt, blue trousers, gray cap.  I was asked to bring my own black leather shoes, which I did.  Giovanni forgot, so they had to cut a new pair of shoes in back for his size 13 feet.

Although we were supposed to finish the day at 9:00 pm we didn’t finish shooting un­til 10:30 pm.  While waiting for the other scenes to finish, I posed for a few shots with Rentap and his Iban war party before they had a chance to behead me.

I could see the fort area where I would be killed.

Then I heard Fendi, our director, call out, “Bring the dying man.”

He was referring to me, but it sounded like I had some incurable disease….In position, we watched the Iban war party approach the makeshift fort.  One of the Fort Guards, Alex appeared, but then he went one way while the war party, who had been hiding, went the other.  Be­fore I was called in to be killed, they gave one of the warriors, Watt, a real Iban sword, and they had him swing down hard on what appeared to be a coconut, as if he were chopping off my head.  Once that segment was completed, they switched out the real sword for one made of plastic.

Watt and wife (real)

When it was my turn to come on, I removed my glasses, which made it difficult to see.  Pre­viously, I wore contacts.  The director told me to ditch my hat, so I tossed it aside.  Mean­while someone marked my position in front of the camera with an upturned leaf that I could not see without my glasses.  All the leaves seemed to blend in together, plus it was dark out­side.  An assistant and the cameraman kept telling me to stop “here” at a particular leaf for a close up shot of my being killed.  Without my glasses I couldn’t quite see which parti­cu­lar leaf they were pointing to.  For a close-up shot, an inch here or there made a huge difference.

“What seems to be the problem?” asked the director, and someone explained that I couldn’t see the leaf without my glasses. 

Finally someone set down a white folder just out of camera range and told me to stop just be­fore the folder.  No problem, I could see that.  The director then asked me to breathe heavily as if I feared for my life.  I was to stop at my spot, pivot, look right and then left….We ran through the se­quence several times.  When I turned to look right, and then left, the Iban warrior would come up from behind me and bring down his sword.

Before the actual filming began, I approached Watt and felt the sword to make sure he did in fact switch them, prompting laughs from everyone watching, about twenty-five people includ­ing the extras and technicians.  I de­finitely didn’t want any unto­ward mis­haps involving my head.

The first run through, Watt clipped my ear with his sword and it stung a little.  He duly apo­lo­gized.

Fendi asked me to fall to the ground the moment I got hit, which I did.  I thought I was pretty convincing.  Maybe too convincing because it suddenly hurt around the ribs; I must’ve landed on my elbow while trying to protect my glasses secured in a pouch inside my shirt, not want­ing to crush it.  We did two or three more takes and the last one, Watt got me pretty good on the side of the head.  It sounded really loud.  There was this startled hush when I collapsed as if I real­ly had been killed.  I stayed down a long time for dramatic effect, thinking perhaps Watt was a little too realistic on that last one, hoping there would be no more takes, not sure how many more blows my head could take.

This is not me, but you get the idea.

When the director called, “Cut!” everyone, no doubt, thought I really did get cut by that sword.  They all heard the im­pact on my head and saw me drop dead, again rather convincing if I don’t say so myself.  Watt kept apolo­giz­ing profusely.  He told me he couldn’t stop the mo­men­tum of his swing in time.  Luckily he was not using a real sword or I would not be writing this.

Several people rushed over to make sure I was in fact okay.  I kept assuring them I was fine.

“See, no blood,” I said.

The blood would come next.  Not mine, but the blood mixture meant for my substitute head.   The director took a closer look at that head.  Although the face did look like me, they got the hair wrong.  I tried to point it out earlier to Johnny before they attached the hair, but he as­sured me that the thick black hair didn’t matter because it would soon be covered with blood.  Still, I thought, it looked way too thick—blood or no blood.

The director didn’t like the way-too-thick black hair either and asked if it could be cut from the head.  Then they decided not to use the head in that scene, since it was pretty ob­vi­ous when Watt got me the last time, he had severed my head.  Not wanting to waste the head and the blood that they were applying, someone suggested it could be used for a scene with a crocodile at a nearby swamp.  So they carried away my former head and covered it with more blood and filmed it by the swamp.

In a later scene, Iban warriors were seen carrying away their heads in makeshift rattan holders.

As for me, as I walked off the set, I carried my own head exactly where it belonged—on top of my shoulders.

          —Borneo Expat Writer
                                                                            #  #  #

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II 

         Joseph Conrad and Me 

         Somerset Maugham and MePart I-V 

See the trailers:

Road to Nation­hood: Journey to Independence part I(1945-1957)

Road to Nation­hood: Journey to Independence part II (1957-1965)


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