In an email correspondence with Open Brunei Abdul Zainidi explains BruRealism, the Youtube series “Brunei In Paris” and the performing arts industry in Brunei.
BruRealism is a concept that I created which combines Bruneian elements with surrealist art, it mixes the strange with the ordinary.
For example an element of Bruneian culture such as the “buluh” (bamboo) could be interpreted as a wooden straw cannonball or as a flower pot inversed. A Bruneian cake, the “penyaram” (deep-fried pastry) can be seen as a flying saucer.
I like to play with objects and see them in a strange light. It’s these odd interpretations that gives BruRealism projects a quirky original edge.
In my short films, as well as, my plays such as “The Boor” and “The Langsat”, the motif of BruRealism has always been prevalent. Very often in both my short films and theatre production there has always been a motif of food, I play around with this in “Bread Dream” and most recently “Teluki”.
Brunei In Paris (BIP)
In my underground – and I emphasize this – artistically absurd work web series “Brunei In Paris” starring the Bruneian clown nomad BIP, who was partly inspired from Marcel Marceau’s character also named Bip the Clown. I was partly inspired to concoct a similar personage and make it Bruneian.
Coming from a theatrical background and studying mime I developed BIP into a more absurd Bruneian character wandering Paris “lost” and “hilang”.
BIP maintains his Bruneian identity by using Bruneian Malay whilst singing “Balik Kampung”, this is in reference to returning to Brunei. Along the way – what makes this absurd – are his encounters with Malay speaking French folks which in turn renders the situations in Brunei In Paris even more absurd.
Brunei Is Paris is not a linear based series. Each episode is different, much like the animated MTV series Aeon Flux. I grew up loving the cult show by Peter Chung and was intrigued by the main character.
Each episode in Aeon Flux showed a different life. Aeon would die in one episode and be alive in the next. BIP’s universe it follows no linear chronological pattern. He can be murdered in one episode such as “Halloween Special” and come back as a zombie in “Zombie Walk Special” and even have a coffee with Macbeth in “BIP MacBeth”.
BIP is a constant component in my absurd universe of Bruneian, French and philosophical basket of fruits. I am not sure which direction BIP can take, it can go from one extreme to another. Journeying through words and situations which is what I feel I am tasked to do as a writer.
The objective of BIP is for others around the world to hear the Bruneian language with French and English, and maybe to see the strangeness and beauty in it. Patriotically I use Bruneian Malay as a paint brush to colour my stage and short films. Brunei is not my backbone but more the “lungs” to my work.
Pushing out racial stereotypes
One of the driving forces has been to establish my own racial identity and to push out against stereotypes. In drama school though fun, the competition was fierce and I always had to prove to the others that Asians were potentially just as talented. My racial identity paradoxically was also an advantage as it helped me stand out and give me an ‘edge’ which is where the ‘absurdity’ and ‘need to be different’ was born.
Cinema is more centrifugal, theatre is more powerful
At heart I’ve been trained with a Western theatrical eye but what makes it unique is that I also combine it with Asian acting techniques.
I studied the craft of theatre at a Paris school of drama called Cours Florent where actresses such as Diane Kruger and Isabelle Adjani studied. I was passionate about theatre and felt, if I can make one person feel the art and passion of acting I can also convey this to others. I want to establish and share this knowledge to the Bruneian youth one day.
I earned a Lesley Chatterley Best Actor Award in my acting in English Program in the third year where I proved that Asians can make a splash in an understandably predominant caucasian environment. The award was named after the founder of acting in English at the course at Cours Florent who sadly passed away in 2008, I was fortunate to be one of her students and she remains one of the reasons why I love the craft of acting. Most of what I learnt can be attributed to her.
I encourage my the viewers to interpret what I write and direct for themselves. I am a firm believer that one’s art should be open to interoperation and it is our duty as writers and directors to provide as little response or answers to our work.
One of my biggest cinematic influences is David Lynch since he takes you into a dangerous, psychotic and surreal universe. He doesn’t invite you in, he literally grabs you. Lynch’s world I feel is both theatrical and cinematic at the same time. Video projects such as “Birth in Paradise” and “Beverly Hills Brunei” all share Lynch’s themes of theatricality and strangeness.
Inspiration and creativity in the absurd has been the foundation of my work. I think some serious themes can be conveyed through the absurd, such as the meaning of life or the inability to progress. These themes are visible in Eugene Ionesco’s works.
Actors in Brunei
The difference I think with Bruneian actors in comparison to those abroad is that they do not have discipline on stage. This is perfectly normal since we did not grow up with a theatrical culture like the Greeks or the English.
With “The Boor “ and “The Langsat” I had to discipline my actors to utilize “The 4th wall” which is the barrier that indicates to the audience that this is theatre. The actors address this wall to speak to the audience and not keep it “intimate” like in the cinema. I often indicate to my actors to speak to the audience or “The 4th wall”.
I believe I succeeded in relaying, “The 4th Wall” with my students for all the plays I have directed. To date I have directed several; “Death of a Salesman”,”The Blue Prince”, my experimental French play “Les colonnes vegetables” and most recently “The Boor” and “The Langsat’” which for a surrealist play was a success.
I believe what I produce is art and not for commercial gain. Absurd art is not necessarily a medium which touches a lot of people but I have been touched at how my universe and situations have been able to be transcribed into Malay, English and French. It is a joy and luck that I am able to share my love of languages and art.
Creative Industry in Brunei
Living abroad has taught me to be more patriotic and appreciate my motherland despite the “unreactive” performing arts industry, which I believe will soon hopefully “react” more vigorously and bloom. I write Bruneian sketches that spans drama to comedy and languages such as English, French and Malay which are a binding factor in my work.
All human beings are separated by territory and languages while some see that as an obstacles I believe the opposite. Even if our ears are not attuned to a foreign language not our own, I think it helps to emphasize the musicality and emotional essence of a character.
Inspiring a new generation
I intend to work with more Bruneian youths this summer since BruRealism will be holding a drama workshop that will end in a showcase. An audition will be held at the BruRealism theatre school, after which candidates will be trained and taught the craft of acting.
BruRealism offers clown training, respiratory exercises also the American and French craft of acting. I am proud to bring the knowledge I have acquired abroad and share and nurture in in our Bruneian youth and I hope that this trend will continue. I can make a difference in this ever-changing artistic world we live in.
- Playlist for BIP (Brunei In Paris) 1
- Playlist for BIP (Brunei In Paris) 2
- Playlist for Beverly Hills Brunei
Abdul Zainidi Interviews
- Interview with The Brunei Times for NiE – http://www.bt.com.bn/files/digital/NIE/Issue149/BT16Apr.1.pdf
- Feature story in The Brunei Times – http://www.bt.com.bn/features/2012/06/07/bruneian-filmmaker-makes-it-cannes
- Borneo Bulletin article on the screening of “Teluki” at 2013 Cannes Film Festival – http://borneobulletin.brunei-online.com.bn/index.php/2013/06/07/local-short-film-selected-for-public-screening-at-cannes-festival/
- Video Interview November 2012 – http://youtu.be/YspnQYaemkw
- Interview with Borneo Insiders Magazine (BIG) cached from Google – http://www.borneoinsidersguide.com/big-talk/abdul-zainidi.html [broken link]
Tell us how you got your start in acting.
I’ve always been the storyteller amongst my friends and family, and watching movies and television shows growing up, I observed how these actors would tell their story. It looked like fun and I wanted to be a part of that. But what really set it in motion was a chance encounter with a French film director who was casting for his film. He asked if I was interested in acting, but unfortunately my French wasn’t up to standard yet. He advised me to take classes, so I enrolled at the Cours Florent, a highly acclaimed drama school in Paris.
How did your family react when you announced you wanted to be an actor?
Initially, I planned to work in the hospitality industry with hopes of being an interpreter in the future, so my parents were disappointed at first. But the way I see it, acting is a job like any other in that it provides a service, except that in acting, the service is to show the world the fantastical, the realistic or even the silly side of life. My parents saw the passion I have for this and eventually came to terms with it.
How challenging was it to adjust to learning in a completely different language?
It was definitely daunting being the only Bruneian there and I certainly got picked on for my strong accent, but over time I learned to conceal it as my French improved dramatically over the next three years.
How welcoming is the French theatre community to a foreign actor? Is it difficult to get roles? And in the roles that you do get, is there a tendency to get typecast?
There is a tendency in Europe to cast more European actors, but similarly to Asia, this is mainly down to territorial reasons. However, they have been open to casting actors of other races when they have something different to offer. I believe an actor should be judged by his content, not his physicality. My drama teacher once said that the best way to win over auditions is to be myself, with something a little different. I pride myself on being atypical. If I do get typecast though, it would be for playing teenage roles, even though I am no longer of this age category.
What is your view on the current state of performing arts in Brunei and how do you see yourself making a positive difference?
Performing arts in Brunei is mainly based in traditional dance and singing on stage with the occasional play performed in schools and cultural centres. If I were to introduce a performing arts centre, I could train and inject fun into acting and show that plays can be educational as well as fun. Since I have gained experience in acting abroad, it would be selfish to keep that experience to myself and not share it.
Where are you most comfortable performing – on the stage or in front of the camera?
Camera acting and theater acting are two different forms of discipline. The camera magnifies and looks into our soul so we use the force of our facial expressions; we cannot fake how we feel and we must act as naturally as possible. With theatre acting, we need to be bigger than life in order to convey our emotions. An audience of 500 people needs to feel the emotion on stage and our voice, face, feet, arms need to work harder. I love the live sensation of an audience and feeling their reactions live so naturally I am more comfortable working on stage.
Which plays , films and actors have made an impact on you and why?
I enjoy absurd surrealistic plays from Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, but I also admire the naturalistic plays of Tennessee Williams and Antonin Chekov and classics by William Shakespeare and John Webster.
I understand you also write and direct, and your next project is to see your short film make it to Cannes’ Film Festival. Can you tell us about the film?
It’s a short film called “Bread Dream”, which is a play on the term “bad dream”. I collaborated with Adam Groves, a talented Bruneian who shot and edited the film. I describe the film as a Malay version of Alice in Wonderland as it is about a young man named Arish, who finds a portal in an old Malay house and sets off on an adventure. It deals with art and I use bread as a metaphor for imagination. I am sending this film off for several film festivals in France and hopefully it will be selected. I plan to bring Brunei to France and hopefully they will like a piece of our Bruneian bread.