Malaysian filmmaker struggles with hardline Islam

KUALA LUMPUR, June 29 (Reuters Life!) - Often ridiculed by Muslim clerics at home but admired abroad, Malaysia’s controversial director Yasmin Ahmad says only God will stop her from making movies.

Malaysian film director, Yasmin Ahmad, speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur June 27, 2007. Often ridiculed by Muslim clerics at home but admired abroad, Malaysia's controversial director Yasmin says only God will stop her from making movies. Picture taken June 27, 2007. REUTERS/Zainal Abd Halim

The religious authorities in mainly Muslim Malaysia has taken exception to the award-winning Yasmin’s “Muallaf” (The Convert), after her lead actress, a Muslim, shaved her head for the role and acted beside a Chinese Christian, saying it was unIslamic.

But the outspoken 49-year-old, one of Malaysia’s best story-tellers, remains defiant.

“We have nothing against them. We wish they will stop attacking us,” she told Reuters in an interview.

“Only God can deter me,” Yasmin, herself a Muslim, said as she sat outside a sound studio, smoking a cigarette.

Yasmin’s plight underlines a deepening Islamic fervor sweeping the country.

Many Muslims are dismayed by a rising tide of conservatism that has changed the face of this modern but moderate Muslim society. Music, dance and now films have suffered because they are frowned on by the strict interpretations of Islamic laws.


In Muallaf, 21-year-old actress Sharifah Amani plays an intelligent young teenager who runs away from her abusive father. A Catholic schoolteacher later befriends Sharifah’s character and is irresistibly drawn to her.

Yasmin defended the controversial head-shaving. “It is either that or I show her father sexually abusing her. It’s about parents who strip their children off their dignity.”

But some senior Muslim clerics were not amused.

“Unlike Muslim men, going bald for women is forbidden in Islam. It is also sinful for men to act or behave like a woman and vice-versa,” said Mohamad Tamyis Abdul Majid, mufti from the central Selangor state.

“As Muslims, we should not sacrifice our religion for the sake of wanting to be popular,” said Harussani Idris, his counterpart from the northern Perak state where Muallaf was shot.

Yasmin, who tends to explore sensitive subjects such as inter-racial relationships and religion, is no stranger to controversy. Her previous efforts were criticized at home but some went on to win awards at film festivals abroad, garnering her acclaim.

“It’s rare to find a woman filmmaker in Muslim society, and even rarer when she is an outspoken talent unafraid of controversy,” wrote Roger Garcia, former director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, of Yasmin.

Muallaf, which cost one million ringgit to make, is due to be released in Japan in October, but Yasmin said she would not be surprised if the film was banned in Malaysia.

“I never look for trouble, just making a film,” said the director who counts Charlie Chaplin as an inspiration.

“Chaplin always infuses humor with great drama. I think that what life is. Life is never just humorous, never just tragic.”