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Polymathic Spree

  • January 10, 2007

By Benjamin McKay

A celebrated photographer, filmmaker, writer, and actor (for stage and screen), multi-talented Bernice Chauly is also an activist and educator. She took time out of her busy rehearsal schedule – Bernice appears in James Lee’s production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre – to chat about how she got started and where she thinks we are going.

The following is part of The Young and the Restless, my series of interview with Malaysian arts practitioners under the age of 40, in an attempt to discover the undercurrents of creative practice in Malaysia. This is an edited transcript of a much longer conversation.

Learning the Ropes

Benjamin McKay: In looking at the diversity of Malaysian cultural practice, you, in some ways, appear to personify that diversity. You wear so many caps: photographer, filmmaker, actor, activist, writer. Maybe we could talk about what you don’t do that, perhaps, you wish you did.

Bernice Chauly: Dance. I used to dance. I took classical Indian dance lessons with Ramli Ibrahim. I understand the discipline required when it comes to creating work – but if it is very classical, that hinders me, in a way. I am classically trained as a pianist, as well. For years I played all these classical pieces – but when I stopped playing them I just forgot everything.

There is this lapse – I learn the rules, and then forget about it and do my own thing. I am a very firm believer in that whatever it is that you are trying to do, you have to know the rules, study the form – you have to live with it, read it, practice it.

I started taking photos in 1994 but I only had my first solo exhibition in 2004 (A Personal Journey Through Italy, The Photographers’ Gallery) because it took me ten years to have the strength and confidence to call myself a photographer. I am not trained as a photographer, but in those ten years I taught myself what I needed to know.

BM: Did photography come out of your earlier work in filmmaking?

BC: No, it came out of my work as a journalist. I was working at Men’s Review in the 1990s a full time staff writer and I was sent on a trip to Bulgaria. I had to write the story, and Karim Raslan, who was my editor, said they needed photos as well. I didn’t have a camera so I borrowed Karim’s, which was a small, little Olympus. I was really surprised – because with that small, little camera I took some really nice photos.

About six months after that I was sent on another trip to Italy. I spent six weeks doing the trip – north, south, east, west – and I took photos. When I came back and developed them I thought: These are not so bad!

There I was, in a foreign land with a camera, and it felt great. I had no idea that I even had an eye, no idea I could even take photos. But wherever I have gone – Thailand, Bali, Paris, London – the camera became an eye: a third eye, in a way.

I also spent a lot of time in the dark room. It is a shame, really, now that Asia is going through this digital revolution and a lot of people who have taken up photography have not started with the basics.

Getting Started: The Basics

BM: I was speaking with a friend the other day who was surprised to hear that you were opening in a play, as she only knew you as a photographer. Do you need to compartmentalise, or does one form of creative practice feed off the other?

BC: For me, one thing feeds off the other. When I was young I just read pretty much voraciously. My father left a pretty substantial library. I was reading some pretty heavy stuff, even at twelve – and it was at that point that I knew that I wanted to write, because I had begun this love affair with the word, the English language and literature. I fell in love with the language. I used to practice Shakespeare in the mirror at home – and at 16 I wanted to run away and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. I got into elocution and won some state-level competitions. So it was books and the word – and then, with the elocution, it branched into drama and theatre.

BM: And then filmmaking.

BC: Yes. The visual side came out. My father was a painter so we were surrounded at home by his work: his paintings and sketches. We had another uncle who was also an artist.

My mother, Jane Chauly, was an activist, a human rights activist – she was most active in an organisation called Joyful Vanguard, a Catholic organisation fighting for children’s rights, but was involved in many other things, as well. Our home was a hub of activism – politics, human rights, social issues. She would take us to the slums where poor people lived, and that was how I was first exposed to poverty.

So literature, social awareness, visual stimuli – I guess that is why I now do what I do. My parents were teachers, as well.

BM: And you are a teacher, too.

BC: And I am a teacher.

Personal Art

BM: With that environment of social activism, it is probably not surprising that one of your early films was about the Bakun Dam project. There is a lot of crossover between artists and activism in Malaysia. Are artists politicised as a response to the restrictions imposed by the state, perhaps?

BC: I think it is a choice, really. I can only speak for myself, but I think that best art comes out of a social kind of politics. Personal politics. Art is political anyway. To make the personal universal leads to a kind of politics. I was exposed to this from a very young age, so combining the creativity of that impulse to create with the social reality of certain things – a lot of my work has been about real stories: sex workers, child abuse, Bakun, the displacement of native peoples. The documentary series that I initiated was about dying art forms in Kelantan and Terengganu. This is my way of creating work that has a social relevance, a purpose.

My last show at Reka, in:sights:out, combined, for the first time, my art with my own personal stories. It was now time to tell my stories – it was personal because it dealt with marriage and divorce, but even then this is also political. These are social realities: being betrayed, breaking up, going through a divorce.

BM: You mention betrayal, which is a convenient segue to discussing the Pinter play, Betrayal, that you are working on now.

BC: Pinter wrote this out of semi-autobiographical experience. You make it personal and create art of it. The point is to present something that is very real. People get betrayed all of the time. The genius of this script is that you realize that no one is guilty. There is no blame – everyone is guilty and everyone is guiltless, at the same time. Yes it shows that affairs can, and do, end badly – but it is the process in which people come together and share something special, within or without a marriage, that is relevant. Marriage is a social contract. Some people marry well, some people don’t. But that doesn’t stop people from loving each other.

Growing Up

BM: As we approach Visit Malaysia Year 2007 and the 50th anniversary of independence, there has been an increase in the discourse on what it might mean to be Malaysian, and in that process what it means to be Malay, Chinese, Indian and Other.

BC: The main thing here is to accept that we are Malaysians, first and foremost, and that race is irrelevant.

My mother is Chinese and she came from a very staunch Buddhist family. My maternal grandmother got off the boat from Canton at the turn of the century. My father was second generation Indian – Punjabi – and his father got off the boat in Singapore. When my parents married they converted to Catholicism – so you can imagine the opposition.

I was raised a Catholic while, at the same time, being exposed Buddhist rituals and Punjabi rituals. My sister is a Buddhist, I am a Muslim covert out of marriage, and my brother goes to Church occasionally. I celebrate the Chinese New Year, Christmas, Deepavali, the Sikh New Year and Hari Raya.

This experience is very unique, it can only happen here. I am going to turn 40 soon, and I have spent time in different countries, but there is absolutely no question that I want to be here. This is my home; I could not imagine living anywhere else in the world right now. All the stories that I want to tell come from this land. The country continues to inspire me – when it stops doing that, then I might leave.

When I came back in 1990 I wasn’t in a very good space, because I didn’t want to come back to Malaysia. It was after Operation Lalang. A lot of the people my mother knew had been arrested, and I was very afraid to come back. I thought that if l did the kind of work I wanted to do, I would be arrested.

The turning point came when I was working in a bookshop in Winnipeg, and I saw this documentary series: Lawrence and Lorne Blair’s Ring of Fire. There was one episode, in particular, which featured the Penan from Kalimantan. I thought: My God, these people live in my country. I had never seen visuals of them or a documentary and it just blew me away. These people were just luminous and beautiful and that was when I decided to come back.

So I came back and called some people and said that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I want to be a part of the scene. So I started stage-managing and sweeping the floor for Ramli Ibrahim’s show at the Malaysian Tourism Centre auditorium.

DIY Malaysia

BC: What is happening in Malaysia is very interesting. A lot of us who want to do things are not necessarily afraid, but there are so many obstacles that we have to go through: censorship, politics, race – it is sometimes tiring and tedious. So that is why I think we dabble in so many different things. We don’t have a choice. I could just teach and be very happy teaching in a college, but it is not enough – or, at least not enough for me.

We do not have platforms here in Malaysia and we have little support. We might have the Arts Council, now, but we have very few patrons. We have no literary agents here. People do not represent us. We don’t have a system where, if someone writes a novel, someone can take a look at it and publish it without fear or favour.

We have to do things for ourselves, we don’t have a choice, and yes, it is very difficult. You are up against so many obstacles. There is a responsibility, as well: once you start something you have to keep it up. If you have made a name for yourself – someone like Amir Muhammad for example – you have to keep doing it and keep making the work.

In my case I just have to keep doing what comes along. This play came along and I wasn’t going to turn it down – it is a fantastic role. Rey Buono called me up and asked me if l wanted to teach at Sunway’s Department of Performance + Media, and I said yes. We are not in a position to say no. We have to say yes – and it takes a lot of persistence and courage to put yourself out there.

Malaysians are very critical – which is fine and good, but sometimes overly critical. The industry is very young. Ten years ago there was no indie scene to speak of – literature, music, art, film – and now there is. I take my hat off to these people. They have put Malaysian film, for example, on the world map. That is what you have to do: just go out and do it all yourselves.


BM: But have things actually got better – or is it still a case of having to go out and do it all ourselves?

BC: There has been progress. We just need to be clever, and learn how to work within the system. Ho Yuhang’s films are now being screened at GSC. It didn’t seem possible a few years ago. There are some grants available, and the Discovery Channel is commissioning young Malaysian filmmakers, so things are happening. Ten years ago this was inconceivable – but where we are today is because people are doing things, taking the first step.

BM: It is in fact exciting. You mentioned fear before – what fears do you have now?

BC:  Well, the ISA is still a reality. There haven’t been any major arrests in the past few years – but it is still there. And for what reason, we do not know. And this whole debate between nationalism and patriotism and religion – it is all just muddying up who we really are. We are Malaysians.

We also have to remember that the country is not Kuala Lumpur.

BM: But, if you want to make it in the arts, do you still need to come to KL?

BC: Yes, you have to – but that does not mean that you have to stop exploring the rest of the country. There is so much to explore. I was commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme two years ago to do a series of photographs of Malaysians for the Millennium Development Goals Project. When I got that job I thought: Thank God, because now I got the chance to go all around the country and photograph a whole cross-section of Malaysian society.

It was fantastic – just me and my camera. I was very humbled: there are a lot of people out there who still have nothing. Poverty is real in Malaysia but we do not want to talk about it. That is heartbreaking. Once you leave KL, people still lead very simple lives – and sometimes we just need to remind ourselves just what Malaysia really is.

BM: Any final thoughts?

BC:  We live in interesting times, and there is not a better time to be in Malaysia. I look forward to a lot of good work continue being made. I have children. It is going to be interesting to see how they turn out. To see what kind of country they grow up in. There is an energy, now: people are awake, and there are things to be done.

First Published: 10.01.2007 on Kakiseni