Amanda Nell Eu brings the 'pontianak' to Venice International Film Festival

She's the first female Malaysian director to show at the prestigious film festival

By Verinia Khoo | Published: 22 Aug 2017

Amanda at VIFF
Photo: Amanda Nell Eu

Filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu is the first female Malaysian director to have her work shown at the Venice International Film Festival. Her short film Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu has been selected for the festival's Orizzonti Short Films Competition.

Amanda, 31, was born in Kuala Lumpur but moved to London at the age of 10. She went on to finish a degree in graphics and design at Central Saint Martins before leaving for London Film School to study filmmaking (she graduated in 2012).

Ahead of Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu's screening this 7 September, Amanda talks to ELLE about her work and what it's like to pave the way for aspiring female directors in Malaysia.

How do you feel about becoming the first Malaysian female director to have her work shown at the Venice International Film Festival?
I don't think it matters whether I am male or female. I'm just happy to be a Malaysian director showing her work in Venice this year. What I am super proud of however, was the opportunity I was given to make this female story. I feel very honoured for a story like this to represent Malaysia at the Venice International Film Festival this year.

Tell us about your film Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu.
It's about a girl called Rahmah who forms a friendship with teenage girl from next door in her kampung. Rahmah also has a slight obsession with her new friend, always spying on her through her window. But she soon finds out that her friend has dark secrets: she's a pontianak. All is good though, as friendships remain strong and they will stand by each other no matter what.

I got the title from an old Malay proverb; in its full form, it's "Lagi senang jaga sekandang lembu dari jaga seorang anak perempuan" (in English: It's easier to take care of a herd of cattle than to raise a daughter). I thought it was perfect for my film. Why is it so difficult to raise a daughter? What do you fear about them? Why are we so different to sons? My film is about two girls who do what they want together, and there is no stopping them.

Sofia Sabri as Rahmah's mysterious neighbour.

What are your thoughts about the other films selected for the Orizzonti Short Films Competition?
The other films will also have their world premieres in Venice, so it means nobody has ever seen them before. I've never been to a festival this big either, so I don't know what to expect. I am looking forward to watching all the short films selected. Of course I'm going to feel like the small Malaysian director who isn't as connected or confident compared to everyone else, but I'm excited to go and have this experience.

Where did you get inspiration for it?
I've always been interested in horror characters, and coming back to Malaysia, I fell in love with our monsters again, but now through the eyes of a grown up! I like to understand why these monsters exist in our culture and society.

The pontianak is one of my favourite monsters – I think she is a super badass strong woman who has had a terrible and sad backstory. What if she was just a normal teenager before? I know that when I was a teenager, my parents probably thought I was an actual pontianak! Jokes aside, I love the idea of what she represents. To me, she is strength that comes from violence and suffering. I wanted to respect her in my story and also respect how a teenage girl feels, growing up.

Sofia Sabri as Rahmah's mysterious neighbour.

If you had to pick one director, dead or alive, to meet, who would it be?
Abbas Kiarostami. I am a big fan of his films – who isn't? My jaw drops when I watch his work. How he conveys so much honesty in his storytelling – I love films like that. He passed away last year, which was a great shame. He seems like someone who would be a good teacher and mentor for any aspiring director.

What is your favourite movie of all time?
It changes according to my mood and I do have a top 5 films-that-changed-my-life list. But maybe of all time, I'd have to say Mean Girls. I can pretty much quote that whole film.

We heard you're working on your first feature film. Can you tell us more about it?
It's very early stages but I'm excited about it. You can expect similar themes to this short film. Definitely a coming of age film again, has to do with teenage girls, body image and also body horror!

Amanda behind-the-scenes with the crew.

What are the challenges that you've faced in filmmaking?
I think film in general is just one massive challenge. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong and you just grow together as a team, having accidents along the way. That's why my biggest challenge is in post-production. It's putting together the 'accidents' you collected and trying to rewrite your story to that. It sounds quite simple – work with what you're given – but I could be more experienced with it. I find it difficult to let go of anything, even though I can be so ruthless when I am rewriting draft after draft in the script stage.

How did filmmaking come into your life? If you weren't making movies, what would you be doing?
Films have always been a passion of mine ever since I was first introduced to 1920s black-and-white cinema when I was a teenager. I fell in love with that magic and it opened me up to watch many other different types of films. But I never thought of it as a career. It's actually still unreal to me. If I wasn't making films, I'd probably try to be a pole dancer. It's a hobby and slight obsession of mine. I think making films is so unhealthy for your body, so if I wasn't doing that I'd do the complete opposite and be totally fit as a pole dancer!

What would you want an outsider to know about the film industry?
That making a film is incredibly difficult. It's not just about getting a camera and some actors to point and shoot. The development and scriptwriting alone can take years. Films take time and a lot of money and you'll never know the blood, sweat and tears that go into them when you walk into a cinema or download a film on your computer to watch for an hour or two.

What do you think about the Malaysian film industry today?
I think our industry needs to take more risks. Everyone is too afraid and always wants to play it safe. They throw money into projects that apparently are supposed to be formulas to make box office hits, and most of them fail. Risks may lead to failure, but within them you also get great success and surprises. Making this short film was a risk and I am happy for Astro Shortcuts to give me that opportunity. I do hope there will be more coming in the future!

Watch the trailer for Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu below. The 2017 Venice International Film Festival runs from 30 August to 9 September 2017.

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