Abdul Nizam – A Special Feature for From The Director’s Chair
Just a few things we would like to share about our friend Nizam
While 2016 has been provident as a year of good cinema, it has also been a heartbreaking year with the passing of our friend and fellow local filmmaker Abdul Nizam just some months ago in June. As a Festival, our relationship with Nizam goes all the way back to 1999, when his short film Datura won the Best Singapore Short Film at our 12th edition (we are 27 this year). Subsequently, he served as Jury Member in 2002, and we had since followed his career with most of Nizam’s works receiving their first public screening at SGIFF.
In this year’s edition of the Festival, we will feature a retrospective of Nizam as a mark of our close ties and friendship over the years. As much as it is a time to commemorate the man and his memory, we would like to invite in particular, audience members who aren’t as familiar with him to be introduced to this remarkable artist. Here are a few words about our dear friend Nizam from some of his closest friends, colleagues, and widow:
Dennis Tan (close friend and sound designer for Nizam’s films)
Nizam was a curious man. When we met he was the oldest among all of us in school. He was eloquent, likable and personable. We were both into reggae, and we even recorded a concept album which has yet to be released (but will be due for release by this year.)
Our trip to Mekong was sometime in 2014. That trip eventually culminated in his short film To Paisan, and that was my first trip overseas with Nizam, along with Jeremy Hiah – the artist in Breaking The Ice. Back then Nizam didn’t even know he was sick yet.
When one makes films, one can sometimes be forced into a particular way of working. Nizam was quite stuck in that traditional filmmaking process. When we went to Mekong, that had to change. We were working under a more artistic structure. Even myself, I had to adapt. To Paisan was totally about that as well. He was working with a performance artist. There was something very alive about that process. Through this experience he managed to break away from that.
Sometimes you wish there were more things that could be in the film. But you see To Paisan and whatever he captured, and captured it quite well. He got the right moment. It was a memoir to our friend Paisan.
Nizam’s passing is a loss to the world, and to Singapore. If only Singapore recognised him as one of its voices… But Nizam is a very humble guy and doesn’t wish to be put in the limelight. What is important to highlight about Nizam is going back to the idea of being pure. That drive, the passion and the truth seeking – that is the most important thing about Nizam.
Mabelyn Ow (longtime film producer):
One of my more memorable memories was shooting Haura back in 1999/2000. We were at a vacant house, very old school-looking and very eerie. The more sensitive members of the cast claimed they could feel spirits. For Nizam, he was also drawn to the place, even if he had heard the concerns by his crew. He decided he wanted to stay overnight because he wanted to soak in the atmosphere. I remembered being very worried for him, and passed him a Turkish talisman evil eye. When I passed it to him we shared a moment. It was his way of speaking, soft and grateful and you felt like in that moment it was a very nice exchange. He knew it was risky, but for him it was necessary to go after that authenticity. He stayed through the night in the end.
Victric Thng (filmmaker)
VT: Our short films met in 1999, SGIFF, in the Singapore Shorts Category.
I remember watching his competing short – Datura, and was totally mesmerised.
There is something magical about that film while watching it, couldn’t really explain why.
His film won the grand prize that year.
Much later, we met at some film events at The Substation
and I told him those feelings I got from watching his film.
SGIFF: What were some of your fonder memories of Nizam?
VT: We didn’t meet enough or chat more.
However, if you have a chance to talk to him, you know immediately
that he is the kind of person that is very down to earth and unassuming.
He is the guy that you can hang out over coffee and have long chat and
laugh at anything under the sun. You feel at ease and comfortable with him.
He flows with you.
I can never forget the mole on his face. It looks so charming and endearing on him.
It’s like when he smiles, his mole smiles at you as well.
Vincent Lee (close friend and band mate with The NoNames)
The NoNames are still around, and we have been around since the 80s. Myself and one of the guitarists have known Nizam since sec 1. Whatever ventures we go through in our lives, we are always friends first before we talk about the music. I guess that is why we are still very close.
Often when we sit down for a kopi or teh tarik or a prata, the conversations go very deep. It goes beyond religion or friendship, to what’s going on behind the director’s mind, what’s behind that whole story. I think it has got to a level where we are so close, we draw on each other’s energy. That’s what made it so magical.
If you talk about being “soulmates” – Nizam and I were the rhythm section. There was always telepathy between us. He was the drum and I was the bass. In that sense, we were the foundation. With his passing, suddenly half of me died. I even went through this period where I questioned if I were to play music anymore. Sure I can play with any other drummer, but it’s not the same.
We didn’t even expect him to be a filmmaker, even though we shared the love for watching movies. Right at the very birth of the SGIFF, we were excited to be able to catch a cult film – I remember Tetsuo particularly well – and the feeling that you were finally getting to see raw new movies. It stemmed from the whole wish of trying to find an identity. We were searching for what would work for us.
I have seen a lot of his films and he respected us enough to be his critic and his confidant. Every time we saw one of his finished films, we always ask – “is this an Abdul Nizam film that has gone commercial?” This questioning wasn’t for the sake of trying to be different for difference’s sake, but when he is doing something we can sort of tell when he’s trying to style after something. He would say “alamak you saw that’.
We would be involved in his films as well. On Breaking The Ice – we (The NoNames) had to help him out with one particular song. Usually we would start with ‘what would you like’ and he probably has an idea. But he was so into the film, to the point where he was living with the installation artist, that he made us watch so many aspects of it – “Now, this is the part, these are the emotions that were running at this scene, and this thing happened, and I wrote this song and I meant to say this.” That is the kind of person Nizam is. He needs to bring you on that journey, and the way he has evolved from the past to the present.
It is a real shame that he has left us.
Lau Hon Meng (close friend)
SGIFF: If you had to introduce Nizam to a stranger in Nizam’s presence, how would you do it?
Nizam is all about self-deprecating humour, taking the mickey out of the establishment and not seeking personal glory. He’s possibly one of the most qualified but humble person I know. He chose to be that little voice that speaks to our quiet consciousness.
SGIFF: What was your friendship like with Nizam? How long do you guys go back?
My earliest memory of Nizam was when I was in school (in the mid 90’s) with him and doing crazy stuff together. I had no idea that he was a founding member of some band and heavily involved in the local music scene – there was just no pretensions about him. He comes in the scruffiest collared shirts that the ‘older, mature folks’ wore. He is always cracking jokes and roaring with hearty laughter, an irreverent act in the stratospheres of serious musicians.
I recalled we were always the last two or three students left in that section of the library where we got to watch all these obscure videotape titles. We had fun times talking about The Seventh Seal, Bunuel, Nietzsche, Caravaggio, Freudian thought, The Mahavishnu Orchestra & Juanita Zhou’s (one of our lecturers) dissertation of Godard’s Breathless“, just to name a few ‘streams of consciousness’-typed conversations we had.
I was assigned with Nizam to do Industrial Attachment at this production house and that’s when I realised that despite all his jokes and easy banter, he was dead serious about his work, editing and re-editing some crappy video till the final deadline was up. Our friendship extended to when we had to make a living & shooting commissioned work by then-Art Central and a couple of Malay language dramas by Prime 12. Although given a lot of artistic leeway, Nizam struggled a little in the constraints of commissioned programming. I think he felt liked a caged animal answering to production executives. Possibly that, and how Nizam took a long time to craft his stories, spiraled him into a hermit-like existence and relocated him away from the mainstream confines of Singapore.
Some of my fonder memories of Nizam included being stuck in an old two-room rental flat in Beach Road into the wee hours with Abang (ed: Malay word for brother – reference to Nizam) shooting a school project. I was his cameraman and we had to shoot this rather easy piece about some guy reading a book. I had problems loading this flipping Bolex camera and that damn thing chewed up every available daylight spool that we threaded into. We took turns to run that thing and it kept jamming, although I recalled Abang liking how much of a character that camera was, almost effusive in his praise. I was fuming inwardly in a passive aggressive way but Nizam was like, “never mind lah Lau, I think we got some shit lah”. Little did I know that i was in the hands of a magician who made shitty rushes come alive in the edits somehow.
It was refreshing to witness how he worked with actors. He’s in every sense an actor’s director who gave actors a lot of freedom to experiment but within the confines that he set. He eschewed over-the-top acting and toned down these old-timers who have grown familiar with Mediacorp-style dramatisation. I slowly tuned my photography to his toned down sensibility. He has a firm sense when we should go for noir-like images or overblown highlights. He always encourages me to experiment with the angles, the light, the blocking. There is something very understated about his art.
I once remembered shooting this scene in Malay and I couldn’t understand a single line of dialogue and neither did the script supervisor. At some point it grew strange because Nizam started having these conversations with the actor as if he was part of the scene. I turned to look at the script supervisor and we both shrugged shoulders. Turned out the actor fluffed up his line sometime ago and Nizam cooked up some ad hoc dialogue to play along with his fluffed lines. We had a good laugh after that when Nizam painstakingly translated all the jokes into English for the benefit of the rest of us. That’s really it – that line between acting and actualising is nicely blurred for Nizam sometimes.
Close friend who prefers to be unnamed – Personally, I felt that Nizam made movies that he had a personal interest in and also he was very concerned with the human condition. Even in Koridor, it was all about the condition, stories about love. This was what he was concerned about, being very exhaustive, meticulous and his works a product of extensive research.
If most artists peak in his 50s, Nizam never hit his peak. He has had a very good body of work, but never had the chance to really blossom. It’s a loss for our arts scene. A nice guy, very relatable, no airs about him. Nizam was a real person making real films.
Siti Nafisah Bee d/o SA Kader (wife)
SGIFF: How was Nizam like when he was making art – either in film or music – and when he was at home? Was he different in dealing with one or the other?
When he was making art or music, he would get into what I call “serious” mode. When he is in that mode, I will usually not bother him unless absolutely necessary. He will totally concentrate and put his full heart and soul into any work he is working on.
However, when he is at home, he will try to put his work aside. He will play with his three cats whom he really loves, will listen to all sorts of music genre., What I miss most, are the heart to heart talks he has with me about anything and everything. At home, he is much more relaxed!
SGIFF: What are some of your most striking and best memories of Nizam?
I guess one of my more unforgettable memories of Nizam is when he brought me for a short trip to Redang Island. Without going into too much detail, we had too much FUN and it brought out the best in him and us. He had that carefree laugh that one would see in a little boy without any worries of the world!
Another striking memory about him is whilst he was working on his last work- the Tribute film. I was helping him in the production… and could empathise and see for myself how much he puts his heart and soul in it… his passion for the Art, and how best to integrate his ideas into the film, whilst taking on comments from his co-workers.
Nizam is best remembered for his character – humble, good hearted, truthful, respectful, helpful, honest, passionate both in work and family. He is someone who treasures friendship a great deal and that has taught me a lot about life.
SGIFF: If people ask about him now, what would you say?
His integrity as a person… that was always reflected whenever he worked on a piece of music or film. He is one in a million – a caring husband and a wonderful friend. I have lost a great partner and I am very proud of him and miss him very much.
For Nizam: A Retrospective screens over 5 sessions during the Festival at The Arts House. BUY TICKETS