SIFF Review: ‘Keronchong For Pak Bakar’ by Abdul Nizam Hamid4 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Going by the surface of things (the SIFF programme catalogue and website for instance) there certainly were sexier films to include on your list of must-sees than Keronchong For Pak Bakar by Abdul Nizam Hamid.
A “keronchong” is a tribute in the form of a song, and here it is sung visually on basic video tapes and addressing Pak Bakar, the prolific cameraman behind those classic films of the golden era of Singapore/Malay film in the 50s and 60s.
This documentary was born as much from the instant of a rare opportunity finally presenting itself after much anticipation and waiting, as it answers to the genuine need and professional soul-searching on the part of the man who does the filming in this one. Although, there are two of them actually. Initially it was meant to be a documentary on P. Ramlee (director of films such as the “Bujang lapok” series or “Ibu mertuaku”), then switching to focussing on his Director of Photography Pak Bakar instead, it brings us close to this honourable dinosaur of the craft.
He is seen in a makeshift and rather instantaneous interview situation while handling his handheld Bolex camera, which he hadn’t picked up in three decades. Right away anyone will notice and understand by those pictures the kind of dexterity that comes with countless years of dedication and experience – the earned professionalism which cannot be taught in schools, only life.
Raw as it was made on a shoe-string budget (which is to say no budget at all), this film has us time travelling not for the sake of it, but a virtual (memory) train travelling with impressions that tell of industrial history as a logical background, and the history of an industry — that of filmmaking of course. By simply observing the man Abu Bakar Ali, who just turned 80 this January, and by listening to his reluctance in answering questions about his work back in those days when Malay Film Productions Ltd. turned out entertaining and well received (as well as moderately profitable) movies, you will be touched by the apparent modesty and simplicity of the man. The less than one hour long footage allows for a partial acquaintance with the older generation of film professionals from an era gone by. It brings to mind the important question whether nowadays it is at all possible to restore a lost connection.
I can’t recall when last I saw a documentary that was so readily congruous with its own subject matter; so close to the object of observance sans analysis. The videotaped kudos in intimate words of a voice-over that tells of the filmmaker’s very personal journey into the heartland of Singapore’s history in the movies is affecting, not kitsch. This film is incomplete and far from perfect, but it has something to tell and to show which may not be glamorous but important nonetheless.
I wished that this would become mandatory for every young and aspiring film school student in Singapore (and some of their mentors, educators and peers as well) to watch; for them to see that the essence of filmmaking as a serious profession and art form can not be picked up just randomly. The inner need to explore the medium, the passion to express oneself by practicing film in accordance with storytelling essentials and an intimate knowledge of the core workings of any visual time-continuum representation, this drive has to be paramount and natural. If there is no fulfilment in the practice itself, filmmaking becomes just another cup of vanity and you won’t ever be original, let alone near authentic.
This man’s example should come as a test not so much to your willpower and determination — they only breed pointless, self-serving ambition. But what this serves as a reminder of, is the simple truth that all art, if it is meaningful on a human scale, has to come from within; only than will it truly relate, and affect others. That’s the way of all communication: that it can at best establish a connection that reaches out from one inside to another (which is what this film does exactly, being a dialogue in spirit between the director and his interviewee). At the end of the day it is not about technical perfection, your polished production and beautiful picture; it is not even a matter of resources, money or a studio (and we revisit this site in the film as well) — it is something else entirely that makes a great craftsman, no less a good filmmaker, DP or director. Keronchong For Pak Bakar proves this point with astonishing ease. So watch it if you don’t know all the secrets already; you might discover some otherwise well hidden hints right here.