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Meet Abdul Zainidi, a Bruneian actor and filmmaker in Paris

Kabir3Abdul Kabir bin Zainidi is a Bruneian actor who is currently residing in Paris, France. He trained at the Cours Florent acting school in Paris from 2007-2010, where he won the best actor Lesley Chatterely Award in 2010 for his acting in a production of ‘Angels in America’. He is perhaps best known in Brunei as having the first Bruneian film selected into the Cannes film festival – ‘Bread Dream’ was selected for showcase in the 2012 short film corner.

Tell me about yourself.
Greetings. I am a Bruneian-born French-based artist called Abdul Zainidi. Granted, an unusual choice for a stage name but since arriving in Europe and mainly studying in England I have come to accept being called Abdul Zainidi instead of Abdul Khabir Bin Zainidi. Plus I was born with this name so to avoid further dismaying my parent's intentions, I prefer to keep my birth name as they had wanted. I feel it keeps my Bruneian roots and Islamic standing intact. At the same time the Zainidi name adds a touch of exoticism.

I consider myself truly an artist from Brunei, with my Bruneian short films made in Brunei 'Bread Dream' and 'Teluki' and 'Gagak dan Merak'. At the same time I am also a writer and I am influenced a lot by Gothic English and American literature and the writing of poets. Most of my work is rich in imagery and symbolism and draws upon symbiotics – I am influenced by Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith and Sylvia Plath to name just a few. (There are more where that came from and as endless as the bottom of a well in the middle of the North Pole). I recently shot sequences of a music video for a DJ from Lyon, called DJ Bobot Wallas and that diverted away from my usual standard surrealistic work. It was a good experience, and shooting in the heart of Paris at the Eiffel tower proved unforgettable as the people you encounter. These small comforts are what make the task of making films bearable. It is an occupation that I try to live by and have learned to love. Although it certainly does not come easy to earn a steady income as such – what can I say? It is more about the artistic recognition that comes when you are part of very few from a humble country trying to make a difference.

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Walk us through a typical day in the life of Abdul Zainidi, filmmaker.
Well on a general basis my daily routine consists mainly of getting up at least at nine in the morning because I feel the brain is active at this time and going jogging. Only during summer though as in other seasons I could risk freezing my talent and other nether regions of my body. I feel that artists should stay physically active and fit and this is accomplished through sport – I usually jog and swim and even partake in collective dance classes.

This may shock many people that know or follow my work but I rarely consume breakfast because I just don't feel the urge to glorify the most important meal of the day. I drink in its absence a sinful amount of coffee (an artist's beverage and filmmaker's ambrosia). Then if I have a shoot I consult with my actors or colleagues what time we are to convene and meet usually in the afternoon where I avoid eating completely. I only reward myself with lunch after a shoot. I feel that eating before makes me lethargic.

After a shoot, which could last for up to five hours, I then assess whether I am 'famished' and whether I have accomplished my objective for the day with a shoot. For me eating and making film are closely associated. There is a recurring theme of food in my work. I then return home after spending social time with friends / actors / collaborators. I don’t ignore dinner, on the contrary, I savour the feast as much as possible.

Being in my line of activity allows me to keep quite slim and active. Actually it is sport, moving the camera, processing the brain, resolving shots, following the actors with your lens. The myth is that actors exert more force than the filmmakers but in actuality it is the filmmakers who are more exhausted. Which is why I tend to sleep well after a good day's shoot - typically around 1 am in the morning, depending on deadlines.

Your work generally straddles and draws on your experience as a Bruneian and in France. How would you define a Bruneian artist? Conversely, do you think nationality has a place in art?
I feel that I represent a surreal, art-house, independent style of film movement from Brunei. As opposed to my other fellow Bruneian filmmakers who emphasize mainly action and comedy. I respect their work and suppose that residing abroad mainly in Paris has 'seeped' and 'leaked' itself into and shaped my work.

I am a fan of abstract art. I am influenced in equal measure by modern and contemporary art as well. The works of Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper are a few I am inspired by. Andy Warhol, Jean Basquiat and Yoko Ono are also artists I borrow some 'artistic tools' from. What I mean by 'artistic tool’ is that all of us artists - be we writers, painters, directors - we all have a certain feature that defines our work and just like in fashion, we all borrow and lend from each other and recycle it. In other words all artists are inspired by and borrow from each other. I have definitely borrowed, in my short films, the artistic tools of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Charlie Chaplin…to name a few. It is to an extent all acceptable and as the saying goes 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' However outright copying identically a style is just plain plagiarism.

I feel that my surrealistic style of mixing Bruneian elements and the surreal – a style I have coined the word 'Brurealism' for (also the name of the production company I founded) without a doubt defines my style of filmmaking and writing. Brurealism elements are palpable in my short films 'Bread Dream' and 'Teluki' and most notably my series ‘A Bruneian in Paris.' How much more surreal can you be when you juxtapose a Bruneian dressed man and place him in the picturesque city of Paris. This paradox is what forms the large body of Brurealism. The only drawback from personal experience and the commercial market of technology we live in at present is that the market or interest for 'abstract film or art' is fairly humble in Brunei. I suppose I could say that my art is more appreciated in France given the artistic appreciation of the French.

That is not to say that Brunei doesn't appreciate my form of filmmaking, it is just not as mainstream. So I too have opted to venture into other genres. My short film 'Gagak dan Merak' deals notably with the taboo subject of cross dressing and the rigidity of society. This is certainly a short film that differs from my usual structure. It touches on a sensitive subject about a boy who dresses up as a woman and is caught by her overprotective mother in an Islamic conservative society. The film stars Elisabeth Sim, one of the actresses I worked with in my play The Boor and the Langsat.

There is an increasing interest in local theatrical performance and production. How do you feel you fit into this scene?
Being from a theatrical background and having a French degree in Theatre training I am glad to say that I am also able to juggle (like Kenneth Branagh) a love for theatre and cinema. And these are two obviously different experiences to feel. Brunei is becoming more open in terms of stage expressivity but I fear that content (understandably is limited) and staging a play from John Webster or Lars Noren may prove to be challenging. Certain artistic liberties need to be taken to avoid censure. I feel that these liberties limit and reduce the range of expression of actors and even the director's vision. On the other hand it does provide an interesting challenging way of going from a Rated R film to a PG film.

Working in France without constraints in content is amazing - coming back to Brunei and endeavouring to share the knowledge and experience of theatre with constraints is frustrating. It is like going from HBO to the Disney channel in one sweep. But that doesn't mean we cannot entertain. That is what my play 'The Boor and the Langsat’ was about. While trying to remain innovative and 'visually unforgettable' the notion of being an entertainer in an ugly world. 'There are trolls and demons in my mind' – a line I wrote in reference to doubt and critics but how we still must entertain even though we are sick. Being professional means to go on in the midst of problems and hardship. There were problems before the actual play but I kept going and I felt that I accomplished a lot with this by adding elements of Brurealism. Blood and comedy and the surreal were what made ‘The Boor and the Langsat’ work.

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What is next for Abdul Zainidi?
Having already taught courses in Brunei as a means for extra income for myself – the culmination of these courses was the staging of ‘The Boor and the Langsat’, which was meshed with a personal play I wrote about a young man who is dying from brain cancer but still yet desperate to 'entertain'. The objective was to educate and give and share my experiences in theatre in Paris and share that with Bruneian students keen on the performing arts.

My next play which will be staged in UBD will be another mash-up of personal creation and an existing play – most likely another Anton Chekov one – perhaps ‘The Cherry Orchard’ or ‘Uncle Vania’. Part of the proceeds will go to a charity for orphaned children in Brunei. I have already started preparations and booked rehearsal space in UBD .And I look forward to putting on another unforgettable play and 'surprising' my audience.

While maintaining my position as an independent filmmaker from Brunei, I will further shoot and produce short films and submit them to various film festivals, most notably next year's Cannes film festival Insha’Allah. I will also be attending this year’s SEA arts festival, for which both ‘Bread Dream’ and ‘Teluki’ have been selected for showcase.

Abdul Zainidi catalogues his work at Brurealism.com, where updates on upcoming showcases and films can be found.


ubudcomp KathrinaDaudAbout the Contributor: Kathrina is usually a lecturer of English Literature and Creative Writing at UBD, but is currently on a year-long sabbatical. She received an MA in Writing from the Uni of Warwick and completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the Uni of Manchester in 2011. At the moment, Kathrina lives in Oxford, where she spends her time researching the Venn diagram of Islam, Southeast Asian literature and popular fiction, watching plays and being rejected by publishers. She will move to Seattle in December, where she expects to do more of the same, plus snow.

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