With international debut at Rotterdam fest, ‘Maryam Pagi Ke Malam’ hopes for chance on local silver screens

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 3 — Local film Maryam Pagi Ke Malam — which marks the return of leading actor Datin Sofia Jane to cinema — is set to premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2023 later this month as the sole Malaysian representative.

With the film yet to secure any screening here, producer Mohamad Lutfi Hakim Mohamad Ariff said his team hopes this international entrance will be the first push towards ensuring that Malaysians can all catch it in the cinemas.

“Of course, we’d love for as many people to see it and this is something that we are working on.”

“We are still in talks with parties and open to explore,” he told Malay Mail.

Director and screenwriter Badrul Hisham Ismail previously told Malay Mail that the route for the film, and its other contemporaries, to reach the silver screen is exacerbated by the lack of independent cinemas here.

He explained that films with smaller budgets cannot afford to get distributed locally due to a lack of promotion funds.

“We only have multiplexes; we don't have independent cinemas," he said.

Maryam Pagi Ke Malam illustrates how the titular character — a gallery owner in her 50s from a noble Malay family — played by Sofia, who wishes to marry Damien, her younger partner from Sierra Leone, but faces opposition from her father (Omar Abdullah).

The title ("Maryam from morning to the night" in Malay), refers to her journey in a day "overcoming bureaucratic challenges that prevent women like her from choosing their own spouse".

When asked what the film’s themes are, screenwriter Faisal Tehrani said that it touches on several hot-button topics in Malaysia, ranging from feminism, xenophobia, and sexual orientation, to class struggle, the monarchy, and racism.

The acclaimed author and poet said Maryam herself is based on the Abrahamic religious figure Maryam — the mother of Prophet Isa or Jesus Christ, who is also known by the name Mary.

The original Maryam was a woman who was also isolated and chastised by society, he commented.

“So here is the modern-day Maryam: A respectable virgin looking for ways to defend her dignity," he said, referring to Mary's standing as the Blessed Virgin.

Lutfi also highlighted how the film’s test audience recognised a strong theme of repression faced by the lead character.

“Interestingly, another feedback we’ve received from our test audience was how much repression was central to the storyline, especially for women and marginalised communities,” he said.

But ultimately to Lutfi. the film is a complex analysis of a social paradox that everyday Malaysians can identify with.

“For me, the story is multi-layered; it’s a commentary on the cognitive dissonance between how we as Malaysians like to present ourselves as, and what we are actually like in private, yet at the same time an illustration of the extent of state influence in our daily lives,” he said.

However, the story started out very differently, according to Faisal. He was initially approached by Badrul with a completed screenplay including a different Maryam and a different narrative.

“I told him if I am included I will write a totally different story as I don't know how to alter the one given,” he said.

He was given a few months to catch up, after which he pitched an idea to Badrul that was well received, birthing the film in its present form.

“My idea was to look at a slice of life of a person: The 12-hour journey of an individual,” he said.

He also felt very strongly about Sofia playing Maryam, saying that he told Badrul that “only Sofia Jane can play this”.

Sofia Jane's film 'Maryam Dari Pagi Ke Malam' is directed by Badrul Hisham Ismail (right) and produced by Anomalous Films' Eddy Abdullah (middle). — Picture by Choo Choy May
Sofia Jane's film 'Maryam Dari Pagi Ke Malam' is directed by Badrul Hisham Ismail (right) and produced by Anomalous Films' Eddy Abdullah (middle). — Picture by Choo Choy May

Sofia Jane's film 'Maryam Dari Pagi Ke Malam' is directed by Badrul Hisham Ismail (right) and produced by Anomalous Films' Eddy Abdullah (middle). — Picture by Choo Choy May

Badrul Hisham previously told Malay Mail that the focus on how much the religious institutions affect Malaysian Muslims’ private lives was a deliberate choice when he was crafting the character of Maryam.

The International Film Festival Rotterdam 2023 will begin on January 25 and end on February 5 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Funded by Penjana Kreatif and the Arthouse-Festival Feature Film Grants from MyCreative Ventures, the 90-minute film also stars other renowned names in the industry such as Susan Lankaster, Vanidah Imran, Roslan Madun, Azman Hassan, Pekin Ibrahim and Bella Rahim in supporting roles.

Badrul was trained at the New York Film Academy, and his films have been featured in a number of international film festivals, including among others the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Art of the Real at Lincoln Center in New York, the Singapore International Film Festival and the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival.

The film is produced by Anomalous Films, most recently known for the series Keluarga Baha Don which won Best Comedy Series and Best Comedy Programme at the Asian Television Awards in 2020 and 2021, and Rhu Graha, a development studio under multi-disciplinary creative service provider Gunung Cherita.