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5 Questions With… Honey Ahmad

Gendang chats with the writer of ‘Quarantine Raya’, a unique new Hari Raya ‘ScreenPLAY’….

These have been trying times for everyone, and the arts scene is no exception. Stage shows, concerts and performances remain on the ‘Prohibited’ list, but there was some good news when the government announced that TV and film productions will be allowed to proceed with strict SOPs after the Hari Raya holidays.

Before the restriction was lifted though, a bunch of talented people that we know and love had come together to produce a different sort of Hari Raya telemovie (without flouting any laws!). Directed by Gavin Yap, ‘Quarantine Raya’ stars Nadia Aqilah, Tony Eusoff, Siti Farrah Abdullah, Nabil Zakaria and Tina Isaacs, and is described as a ‘ScreenPLAY’. And here’s the writer, Honey Ahmad, with all the deets…

Honey Ahmad

This is such a pleasant surprise. How did you get involved with the project?

Well, I was working on a Raya telefilm script for Media Prima when RMO hit (this script was ironically called ‘Raya Hampir Tak Jadi’ – chew on that nugget) and, later I joked to them, “Eh, maybe the only Raya movie you can make this year is kinda like a Zoom Quarantine Raya, mostly video calls and for B-rolls, find actors who live with DOPs and shoot it gonzo.” I don’t think they were amused, but this thought stayed in my head. So one day I sat down and wrote it.

It came in this rush, characters taking shape, (practically shouting at me) and I also thought about how it can work in a video chat format. The original idea was to do a table read for fun. So I sent it to (director) Gavin (Yap) and some of my other actor friends thinking it’ll be a bit of a laugh to do. Gavin came back and said, “Let’s do it. I want to direct”. Holy smokes, that changed the game. We quickly roped in other actors and Khai (M Bahar) to edit. It felt exciting, experimental and something we could do fast and dirty, not to mention timely too. Quickly it took momentum and I was quite moved by how everybody got on board and was really enthusiastic about it. I think at a time like this, everyone needed a little project to focus on – the right people, at the right time.

We’ll do a take and a message will chime in or someone’s cat would knock over the phone or somebody forgets to press record. Once Tony recorded his entire segment upside down!

Tell us what’s it all about.

Simple, really. It’s about five siblings who are trying to figure out how to celebrate Raya in a time of social distancing and Covid-19.  I think this has been on a lot of people’s minds, this strange new normal we are living in. So ‘Quarantine Raya’ follows Keluarga Zainuddin’s video conversations and group chats as they work their way through their personal hang-ups and issues with each other while trying to keep calm and Raya on. To break up the conversations, I wrote some monologues (I’m a huge fan of them) so as an audience you’ll get ups and downs of emotions and also quiet moments. Well that is ze plan lah.

 

How did you write the psyche of the characters, and did you talk to the actors at all in shaping them?

I come from a family of five siblings and whenever I think of an adik-beradik story, five is the magic number. Mainly because there are enough age gaps within the family and, there’s opportunity for ganging up, feeling left out and little factions that happen among siblings. Also imagine five versions of the same thing, it makes for an interesting dynamic.

Like most families, The Zainuddins are a little dysfunctional and all coping with the lockdown in their own way. If that’s not hard enough, it’s also the first Raya they are celebrating after their mum’s passing, while their father who went for Umrah decided to wait it out before coming home. So it’s just five of them trying to hold the fort and figure out a new social order without the stability of their mum or dad.

Once the actors came on board, they brought chemistry into the mix. Some of them like Nadia and Tony already have a brother-sister relationship with each other, while others have worked together or know of each other. This industry is small. I sit in during rehearsals and give character notes sometimes and once we’ve done a few reads I take their feedback and what they brought to the table, and tweaked the script to play to their strengths (this is one of the most fun things about a collaboration like this).

But in general, all of them were experienced enough to run with it and added a naturalness to the exchanges. The group chats are especially fun to watch because everyone is doing something interesting in their window or reacting to each other. We really had fun with the medium. It was great to watch Gavin direct too. Last year, ‘Goldrain and Hailstones’, which he directed was one of the best things I’ve watched on a local stage in a long time. He’s an actor’s director being an actor himself, so watching them work was super fun. Definitely perked up my beige RMO afternoons.

What were the production challenges? 

None of us had done anything like this before. Rehearsing in Zoom, and the actors had to do everything themselves from setting up their camera phones, sorting out wardrobe and make-up if they wanted, and propping their space. Good thing this is set during the RMO so kalau muka bersepah, hey it makes it more real. Also all of them have a theatre background, bonus! They understand the immediacy of a performance.

As for challenges, well there’s no technical crew or lighting people. Nada. We’ll do a take and a message will chime in or someone’s cat would knock over the phone or somebody forgets to press record. Once Tony recorded his entire segment upside down (we’re still not sure how he did that). We’d do a take with good light and then in the next take it would thunder and grow dark. Khai ingeniously devised a method where everyone reacted and acted on a Zoom chat but the main footage and sound was recorded on their camera phones which has to align with the laptop camera. So eye-lines went a little awol at time. And no one had the same camera. But again that made it real.

Siti had to legit cook rendang for her scenes, which being a trooper she did and then sent us all a portion of it. In three weeks, we all kinda became a little family. It was so DIY, paring down everything to script, directing, acting, editing but the bare bones feel of it also made it feel more intimate. Since I already wrote it like a play to work with our limited conditions, there were no major rewrites. We did originally wanted it to be 30-40 minutes because we thought seeing a person’s face full on scene after scene might be too much but I guess that is our new normal too. I think the finished product came just under an hour. Now we just have to bite the bullet and let it free into the world.

And how have you personally coped with these strange times we live in?

I wrote this long emotional thing on FB. God I can’t shut up, can I? Even this Q&A is running long. I’ve actually found this RMO bizarrely productive. I think it’s because I am easily distracted by going out to makan lah, having coffee with friends lah, all kinds of things that just eats away at your day. Suddenly with no place to go I find myself getting more into the zone of writing. It really helps to have creative projects and I cook a hell of a lot, or else I’d probably go a little mad and start chewing my arm off.

I confess I felt quite vulnerable at times. So many of my friends in production are growing vegetables and thinking of a second career in something more ‘essential’. It’s sobering when you see people working the frontlines, doing things to keep people alive, while your skill is to write something amusing. Bad enough that writers are usually a little neurotic to begin with. However, so many performers and creatives have done so much during this time to help people through this pandemic and have been incredibly giving with their time and talent.

For me I’ve felt the solidarity of my peers but also pangs of loneliness (and it really doesn’t matter if you live alone or with people). We’ll be processing this for a long time I reckon. I do hope that after this, people will value the intangibles more. As one of my good friends said, “Arts might not prolong your life but it gives it quality”. I’ll just hold on to that when the chasm yawns.

‘Quarantine Raya’ will be premiering on Unrestricted Stage’s FB page at 9pm, Friday, 22nd May 2020 https://www.facebook.com/unrestrictedstage/ It will also be up on Youtube the next day. 

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