Saturday, April 05, 2008

[SIFF08] Road to Mecca (World Premiere)

Similar to road movies to Mecca like the 2006's Le Grand Voyage, which was a Pan-European travel from France to Saudi Arabia, Road to Mecca is director Harman Hussin's solo overland journey from Singapore to Saudi Arabia, but more so about the journey charted than the destination. Being an independent project, he started to raise funds though activities like selling T-shirts, and had to travel on a tight budget of planes, trains and automobiles, having resorted to selling his bike (his Plan A) to raise money.

Road to Mecca isn't about religion per se. It's about humanity in general, a demonstration of the epitome that this is a world without strangers, in the truest sense of the phrase. As a documentary, it employed the simplest of techniques with still images, and a number of talking heads with random strangers Harman chances across during the travels. It's also quite perculiar to have little or no voice narration accompanying the moving images, but being dependent on the subtitles by the director in sharing his thoughts and comments about any particular situation. For the most times, Harman's comments contained good natured humour involving laughing at ourselves,

The images captured too were richly textured, and deserves a second viewing to soak them all in. I was chuckling when he, more than once, captured the utilization of public toilets, and you have to keep your eyes peeled for a Mat Rempit fleetingly caught in his lens, performing a stunt. At times, he consciously lapses into "tourist" mode with his capturing of places and activities of interest, such as the changing of the guards at the India-Pakistan border, where most, if the media were to be believed 100%, would write off as being totally unsafe to be in. But he did.

Which brings to question that in life, it is always best to see and experience things for yourself rather than be relying on media skewed television coverage to bring the world to us. More often than not they have their own agenda, whatever it is. Harman, through his film, breaks down these set conventions, and asks point blank questions about conflict zones in the countries travelled to, and about the Muslim community in general relative to the community they're living in and are a part of, and these opinions are obtained from the man on the street. And when I say candid, I mean candid, where the Pakistani border guards do not mince their words to whom they regarded as their enemy.

Having done his travels during the Ramadan month, we get to share in his experience in breaking fast with different communities. This is something which I always appreciate when watching documentaries, where it provides a catalyst to spark interest in, and opening minds to different cultures and their customs. Conversations about fasting in general were extremely candid too, though I believe should the film travel overseas and be screened to foreigners not familiar with the rituals and intricasies of this aspect of the religion, to have the opportunity to ask questions, discover and clarify. After all, this is all part and parcel of understanding, isn't it?

But it's not always all about Islam, as Harman also had the opportunity to venture into the "mecca of the Sikh" community at Amritsar, and show us, as much as he could with wielding a camera, the sights and sounds over there. It's also not all on the road actually, as he had to resort to flying a bit part of the journey due to unexpected red tape. And I had initially thought that the film's running time printed might be in error, until its rather "shocking" conclusion, which I felt was a pity. However, we're reminded again, as the introduction of the movie would have it, it's about the journey and not the destination, and in that, being introduced to communities around the region, set to a beautiful theme music, was sufficient enough to say that this is highly recommended, perhaps to see that indeed we must "always have the right intentions", and set out to see that through.


From Left: Tania Sng (SIFF), Ellery Ngiam, director Harman Hussin and executive producer Isazaly Mohd Isa

The Q&A session after the screening was a combined one, but here are those questions that were relevant to Harman Hussin's movie. As usual, I have paraphrased (for the better I hope) for clarity and readability. For those who are spoiler wary, please read something else, though I have tried to be deliberately vague in the Questions posed. You have been warned.

Q: During the road trip, how many people were involved?
A: It's just me, alone with the video camera and the still camera.

Q: How did you get people to talk to you?
A: I just went up to them with the camera and talked to them. And to do that actually required a lot of energy. Sometimes I wanted to give up, because it was incredibly difficult to go at it alone, and without peer moral support available.

Q: Are you going to do the trip again?
A: Yes of course!

Q: Where did you stay throughout your journey?
A: I stayed with friends in Kuala Lumpur, and a cousin arranged my accomodation with a friend in Thailand. I travelled on a budget of S$3000, so it was guesthouses, and I had to cut down on food as much as possible. I had another S$3000 in the bank to be used for emergencies only, in case I needed to fly back home.

Q: What was the reason for the rejection?
A: It's probably the letter that didn't explain "To Whom it may concern". I learnt that different visas are required for different areas/activities.

Q: I suppose to have a lot of footage that you had to leave behind in order to come up with this 60 minute movie?
A: Yes it was difficult to decide what would make it to the final cut, but I had to make a stand, otherwise the movie wouldn't be completed on time!

[Here, Isazaly revealed that it was just a week ago that Harman had met with an accident where his bike was totally wrecked, and he was thankful Harman was relatively unscathed from the accident to have completed the movie.]

Q: What is your next project?
A: I took a lot of still images, some of which you've seen in the movie. I'll probably be publishing a collection of them, so am now looking for a publisher. I am also looking for space to hold a photography exhibition too. After that, I'll probably look for a new interest, and from there to make a film about it.

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

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