SIFF 2008 - An Interview with Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.

I had the privilege of catching the World Premiere of Harman Hussin’s Road to Mecca recently at the Singapore International Film Festival, and had the opportunity to discuss some of the issues that were touched upon during his road trip. Slight spoilers ahead in the interview as we discuss some key moments, so tread with caution if you please!

Stefan: As you noted in the movie, Singapore to Mecca takes about 9 hours by plane. What made you decide to embark on the road less travelled, especially since with limited funds, and on a tight budget. Were you at any time persuaded or discouraged not to go the unconventional way?

Harman Hussin: Like I said during the first screening, “it is my dream - when you see it you'll believe it”. It’s a dream to pass through this land with an open heart.

I would say there were plenty of indirect discouragements and also of course there were encouragements as well – some of these discouraging and encouraging words are there in the documentary. However, I was never discouraged by those words, but I got to admit it really took a lot of my energies – though in fact it kept me going.

Stefan: As a first time feature documentary filmmaker, what was the experience like in documenting your personal journey in attempting the Haj, with the notion of sharing this experience with an audience?

Harman Hussin: I was working on both for the first time, as a feature documentary filmmaker and the journey. The direction that I embarked on was pretty tough, tough in many ways before, during and even after the journey, but somehow this is what I chose and I really appreciate what I’m going through.

I submitted a couple of proposals to many organizations, none approved; many said they don’t support anything or any content that has the element of religion – very sensitive. Probably the title of the film is a giveaway - ‘Mecca’ - and worst of all some didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. Well I guess that’s how the system runs here.

Anyhow, we witnessed that most of it is about my point of view throughout this journey. Metaphorically, it’s a journey of life rather.

The notion of sharing is for those who believe in seeing this happen. This journey started with very little funds, which is less then a few dollars. Those who had supported me in buying those hand-printed t-shirts are the one that I want to share with first, because they are the ones who believe in making this happen. So In a way it’s not a one-man journey, it’s also a journey, which is owned by a few others who supported me in their own ways. In a humble return, the end product is the documentary of the journey that I have to share with them.

S: I wished that I’ve come to know of this project earlier, and could’ve bought the T-shirts to support it! It’s very indie-like, the way your production sought after funds, and it’s admirable! The only other time I saw a road movie to Mecca, was in the narrative film Le Grand Voyage (2004), written and directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, where the protagonist travelled from France to Saudi Arabia, in a mostly Pan-European journey. Yours take us through a Pan-Asian one, and I felt that you managed to get some really candid and honest views from the folks you talk to. How did you manage that, and did you find it challenging to be alone and without a crew to support you?

HH: Challenging?! Absolutely! No doubts about that. Try imagining I have to put on a production team in me – which could consist of the Producer, Director, DOP, Scriptwriter, Best boy and so on – of course it’s a low budget production but still, can we imagine, cutting across many countries covering more then 30000 km? I went through alone, it was challengingly tough, and I’ve to admit. Then again, if I had a crew and a big budget, it wouldn’t be how it is today.

With regards to the candid shots, all I could remember was I approached them with smiles. And of course there were places where they don’t like the idea of being recorded on camera and that really drained out my energy in trying to convince them.

I love that film Le Grand Voyage. I managed to catch it in Orchard Cineplex couple of weeks before I left for the journey. Always have this idea and question, how it would be like if Road to Mecca was a narrative film.

S: I suppose one can usually disarm a tense situation, or a nervous one at that, with a genuine, friendly smile! What made you decide not to include the usual voice-over narration by the filmmaker for a documentary, and had the subtitles do the work for you?

HH: If I were to use voice-over on this documentary, I find that the audience will listen through their ears – like lots of factually driven documentary do, it hardly hits emotion - what I mean here is - the possibility of “left ear in and right ear out” is high. I want the audience to have the closest experience on what and how I feel on a particular moment, so I decided to feed in words/subtitles. How I see it; when the audience read for themselves in silence, the words get straight into their hearts. And that is the soft part, where I want to tell the story.

S: Could you share with us a memorable episode which moved you the most during your journey? And I believe during editing you have to leave out certain scenes? How did you choose what to include, and what to leave out?

HH: Those discouragement and encouragement words moved me. Of course, behind that are such things as – spiritually, emotionally, mentally – types of support that I got from friends and even strangers.

Indeed, I had to leave out certain scenes, even though all those scenes are sentimental to me. Strongly, I have to stand on whatever scenes that I’ve revealed. If I were to put up all those scenes, the film will be boring and the audience will be snoring in their comfortable sofas. No one would want to watch me 24hrs - they have a life too. All they are interested in is the gist of the story. So it’s my responsibility as a filmmaker to lay out the frames in order that the audience will not snore while the film is running.

S: Haha, no, I didn’t hear anyone snore, so you have succeeded in that aspect! Would you be able to explain the different kinds of visas required for the trip? It does seem rather complicated, and I believe those who have watched it definitely felt a sense of pity.

HH: It’s the Haj visa that I require and it’s a seasonal visa. Before I left, I tried to apply but the application was closed. It’s about the red tape again. So I made an enquiry from the Islamic Council of Singapore, they gave me an acknowledgement letter, which unfortunately the Saudi Embassy doesn’t recognize.

S: It’s really a pity, because we would have loved to see you complete the journey and to share your experience with us. But I guess that it’s all in good time. And I'll be asking all filmmakers in this interview series the same last question, what do you currently feel about the Singapore film industry (if we can already start to call it so!) at this point in time, given that the SIFF has finally enough material to come up with a Singapore Panorama section, with an unprecedented vast spectrum of 13 features and documentaries making their respective premieres in Singapore?

HH: With this I hope it will perpetuate us to a real film industry and not being stagnated as a film community anymore.

S: Thank you for your time Harman, and I do look forward to that photography exhibition of your soon where you’ll exhibit the photographs that you took during the journey, and the companion book to Road to Mecca too!

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