Making movies for the world
Award-winning film creatives on the pursuit of commercial and critical success
Acclaimed composer Omar Fadel remembers his initial briefing with Egyptian director AB Shawky, whose first feature film, Yomeddine, was running behind schedule. Fadel came into the project late – he had just four weeks to complete the original score – but first he wanted to know what the film was about.
“It’s about a leper, an orphan boy and a donkey who go on a road trip together,” Shawky said.
“Is this set in Biblical times?” Fadel asked.
“No, this is current day,” Shawky replied.
“So leprosy is still a thing?”
Shawky explained that while leprosy is an issue in some parts of the world, being a social pariah is a universal condition.
Fadel remembers spending the four or days “just trying to wrap my head around what the film is about”. “I also remember the director saying specifically to me: ‘I don't want a Middle Eastern score. I don’t want it to come off as a regional film’,” Fadel says. “He said that this is a uniquely human story that could take place wherever, and he wanted the score to reflect that.”
Yomeddine has already been a successful vehicle for Shawky and Fadel. The film won the François Chalais Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and has been submitted as Egypt’s foreign language entry for the Academy Awards. Los Angeles-based Fadel has been nominated for Best Original Score at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) in Brisbane. Films eligible to compete in the APSAs come from as far afield as Egypt, Turkey and Russia.
Fadel, an award-winning composer who was born in Texas but raised in Dubai, has created music for projects across the globe, including films, television shows and video games. Every movie he works on has its own tonal challenges, he says, and it's often hard to know when the job is finished.
“It’s like: ‘How do you know your spaghetti's done? You throw it against the wall and it sticks,’ Fadel says. “A film score is exactly the same. You will know the music is working as soon as it ‘sticks’ to the pictures. It just sits there, exactly where it should, and you have this moment of clarity. You're like, ‘OK, that's it’.
Fadel says there is no such thing as a “typical” movie produced in the Middle East or Asia-Pacific. All directors bring their own experiences and have specific audiences in mind. He says the key to any successful creative project is having something fresh to say.
“What separates the good art from maybe the less good art is having a unique take,” Fadel says. “It’s about finding a way to kind of hone that unique perspective into a particular film or project.
"For me, there's always that challenge of trying not to repeat yourself. I also want to do something that I can look back on and say, ‘It was a difficult process, but it turned out in a way that I could never have imagined'. This is certainly one of those scores."
Power of storytelling
Another nominee in the APSA Best Original Score category is Filipino musical legend Ryan Cayabyab. Over his long career, the musician, composer and conductor known as “Mr C” has worked on ballets and television specials, as well as theatre productions and film scores.
What gets Cayabyab excited is the chance to help Filipinos find their voice. “I believe it’s very important for people to tell their own stories, and in their own language,” he says. “Each area has their own story to tell. For me, the most important stories are personal stories. Even in a province that is 200 kilometres away, the experiences are different.”
For as long as 64-year-old Cayabyab can remember, the Filipino story has been the struggle for identity. With the country occupied at various times by the Spanish, US and Japan, the Philippines only claimed independence after World War II.
Things, however, are changing. Technology developed over the past decade is finally helping Filipinos – as well as filmmakers and artists across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond – tell their local stories.
“Anyone can write their story; anyone can film their own ideas,” he says. “There’s a resurgence in really digging deeper into the roots of the Filipino because of independent film and music. We’re finding ourselves in a different situation – it has been democratised.”
Cayabyab’s latest project is another step on the road to building the Filipino identity. He created an original score based on a 20-year-old musical, Ang Larawan, which itself was based on a 1950s play by Nick Joaquin, The Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.
Having already written tunes for the musical, Cayabyab was given the chance to create a more cinematic feel. “In the live performance, I only had a six-piece band,” he says. “[The producers] allowed me to rewrite the entire score to make it more detailed, more colourful in terms of timbres and dynamics, and they gave me a symphony orchestra to work with.
“I was like a boy in a playground.”
Mix of West and East
Exciting young Singaporean director Yeo Siew Hua thinks he might have developed a new genre for his award-winning horror film A Land Imagined – “monsoon noir”.
“We were shooting the film during the December rains – monsoon season,” Yeo says. “It’s a strange, wet, slick, hot and very humid kind of noir film that came out of it.”
Yeo’s dark and stormy film has been nominated for the Achievement in Cinematography category at the 2018 APSAs. It has already received the Golden Leopard prize at this year’s Locarno Film Festival.
Yeo says he enjoys mixing Eastern and Western film styles. “I played similar tropes with femme fatales [and] at the same time I flipped it on its head,” Yeo says.
“The politics in south-east Asia don't fit in with the post-world kind of narrative that's coming out of the film-noir tradition from the West. Maybe that's how I see the stories from my own experience – feeding off differently from stories elsewhere.”
Yeo says growing up in this intersection of cultures and styles makes his Singaporean stories unique. “We're coming from a very south-east Asian context but at the same time, because of its large Chinese majority, there is a very strong sense of this east Asian aesthetic,” he says. “At the same time, Singapore has a very strong relationship with Western culture.”
In 2017, Yeo graduated from the Asia Pacific Screen Lab, a year-long incubator program for promising regional filmmakers. The lab is claiming A Land Imagined as its first feature film. Yeo calls it his “love letter to Singapore” although he says he has a bigger mission in mind.
“The film is called A Land Imagined, and this land is Singapore,” he says. “At the same time, the language I use is quite international. I’m trying to reach out wider because of the important voices in this film – the voices of the migrant workers. They require a larger audience to hear them out.
“It's not just my story. It's a story of the migrants, and they have no voice. As a filmmaker, I have that voice to lend to them.”
APSA Nominations 2018: The Complete List
The Asia Pacific Screen Awards has unveiled the full list of nominees for the 12th annual awards held in Brisbane, Australia. From Best Actor to Best Documentary Feature, find out which of the region’s films landed a coveted spot.