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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 15 — How does one reconcile a performance art that showcases the grace of the human form with Islamic doctrines that demand the same body be covered?
Hijabsta Ballet, an upcoming local film, depicts the struggles of aspiring teen ballerina Adele Shakiri when she decides to don the headscarf associated with Muslims but which is not allowed under the strict attire rules of ballet.
Muslim women often don the headscarf to cover their hair, which is considered by some to be part of their aurat, or intimate parts of their body that must be concealed by clothing.
First-time actress Puteh Maimun Zahrah plays Adele, who must grapple with the dilemma of choosing both ballet, seemingly a symbol of the liberal West but intolerant of diversity in attire, and Islam, compassionate yet unrelenting in its demand for modesty.
“To me this film is like a love story, but it’s not your typical girl-boy love story, it’s Adele’s love for ballet and Adele’s love for her religion.
“So this is her story trying to combine the two loves and in her eyes it is a perfect world, but to everyone around her it’s so impossible and nobody can accept it, so this is her struggle, her fight about what she believes is right,” the 20-year-old told Malay Mail Online and ProjekMMO in a recent interview.
Hijabsta Ballet’s director, Syed Zulkifli Syed Masir, who was also part of the scriptwriting team, said the film tackles the global issue of the hijab, an instantly recognisable icon of Islam that is already accepted in arenas such as gymnastics, weightlifting and swimming.
“We know we are going to do hijab (for the film), we have to find the opposite of hijab and the real opposite is ballet something that really stops hijab from moving forward is ballet, I mean ballet does not allow hijab to go into its territory.
“That’s why we bring the nemesis to hijab and put them in a fight, in a contest or rather in a territorial bidding,” he said when explaining the decision to highlight ballet as one of the disciplines that still does not permit the hijab.
It was only after they came up with the story that they discovered a real-life example in Australia, where teenage Muslim convert Stephanie Kurlow wanted to be a ballet dancer despite wearing a hijab.
But for Syed Zulkifli, he felt that Adele differed from Stephanie or even Malaysia’s own award-winning and hijab-wearing singer Yuna.
“Adele wants to combine both worlds, Adele wants to create a new system, she (Stephanie) just wants to be accepted, that’s the difference between Stephanie Kurlow from my point of view, from the film’s point of view. She just wants ballet to accept, Adele wants both worlds to accept, so two different things, but the fact is the same — ballet and hijab, but the core of the fight is different,” he said.
While Yuna might face the same challenges as Adele, Syed Zulkifli said the singer is trying to fit into an industry that did not have self-imposed rules while Adele was attempting to break the rigid conventions that govern ballet.
“Adele is different, she is controversial, she charges in, she attacks, that’s the difference. In terms of hijab and the world where they live, there’s a similarity, but in terms of the struggle it’s a different platform,” he said.
Act of courage
Syed Zulkifli said the film is inspired partly by his observations abroad on hijab-wearing Muslim women, whom he called “ambassadors of the faith” with the courage to openly display their faith amid Islamophobia and sometimes hostile environments in countries that are not Muslim-dominant.
He said this was not something Muslim men must face, as the Islamic rules on male attire do not force them to wear clothes that announce their religion.
“But for a Muslim woman, no matter where she walks whether in Jakarta, in London, in New York or Johannesburg, she walks and tells the world ‘I am a Muslim’ and she is very brave there, and we see the bravery of someone to uphold what they believe, which is very difficult with the world’s view that hijab is oppressive. She can stand tall and walk, we have to acknowledge that,” he said.
Syed Zulkifli feels that the film will draw the attention of international audience that he said is familiar with the hijab and restrictions such as on the modest Muslim body-covering swimwear, burkini, in France.
The film is driven and dominated by its female characters including Adele, her mother Diana and grandmother Maimun, which Syed Zulkifli said is an intentional decision by the all-male local scriptwriting team of four.
“So it’s a story about women, it is a story about family, it is a story about the society carried by women,” he said, noting that the relationships between the three generations play a key role while the male characters that impact Adele’s life have relatively lesser screentime.
But peeling all the different layers of the film’s theme away, Syed Zulkifli said the heart of the film is ultimately a tribute to the personal struggles that everyone has to face in their life and the choices they have to make.
“This is not a dance movie, it is not even a religious movie. It’s a movie using dance and religious issues as the platform of struggle,” he explained.
Extremism and humanity
In the film, the adversary to Adele is a local Muslim extremist, Zubir, who takes it upon himself to punish the dancer by physically attacking her for doing what he perceives to be the unacceptable and wrongful act of combining ballet with the hjiab.
Alif Azeman, who previously played a supporting role in local film Terbaik Dari Langit, feels his character Zubir is not evil as may be perceived, however, arguing that he instead represents a slice of Malaysian society with strongly-held conservative religious views.
“For me, I feel that Zubir is not an antagonist but that is his stand, because some among our society think that way, some among our society can accept and cannot accept, so he is neither an antagonist nor a protagonist,” the 24-year-old theatre graduate said, noting that some may feel that Zubir had acted so based on his beliefs.
Explaining the motivation for his character, Alif said Zubir was adamant that the two elements, ballet and the hijab, could not mix; Adele must choose one or the other, but must not try to combine the two.
He added that he had to research the psychology and thought process of an extremist, as it was completely different from his own personality.
Life imitating art
The potentially controversial combination of the two subjects was also demonstrated in the real world.
In an unscripted moment during shooting in Australia, two American women chased after Puteh Maimun in the middle of filming to comfort her and even gestured obscenely to an Australian actor who had spat at her hijab-wearing character.
“The two women who ran from behind thought it was a real incident where the man spat at Adele, so they gave a finger to that guy and wanted to support and calm Adele. The response was a natural response,” Syed Zulkifli said, with cast members weighing in to say that the incident restores faith in humanity and showed that not everyone was racist.
Puteh Maimun recalled the incident: “Actually they are from California, but they are studying in Australia, so they didn’t know we were shooting and I had to walk and the guy would spit at me and call me a ‘terrorist’, so he did that and OK, I just walked away.
“And I didn’t know these two girls were following me until I went off and then they came to me, ‘Are you OK? Oh my goodness, are you OK? I can’t believe he did that.’ When I made sure it was cut already, I went ‘Actually we are shooting a film’,” she said.
A real-life struggle or just celluloid?
According to Syed Zulkifli, the events depicted are based on actual incidents and not plucked out of the air, citing research done on how there were people who gave up wearing the hijab because of strong objections and those who persisted in wearing it.
Puteh Maimun, who learnt ballet at four like Adele but branched out into tap dancing and, later, Broadway jazz under veteran dancer Farah Sulaiman’s tutelage, said the fictional struggle in the film plays out in real life as well where her friend gave up dancing after donning the hijab.
Ballet-trained Afeera Rahman and fellow freelance dancer Danny-Syaz, who play Adele’s best friends in the film, agreed that wearing hijab would go against ballet’s very nature of requiring form-fitting attire for the technical dance’s aesthetic lines.
Both said Malaysian traditional dances would be examples where a hijab-wearing dancer can be accepted, with Danny-Syaz saying that Malay traditional dances would typically be suitable while also noting that the practice of wearing the headscarf may not be welcomed for dances of local indigenous tribes which have their own costumes.
Prior to shooting the film, Syed Zulkifli said they consulted ballet institutions as well as Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) and Institute of Islamic Strategic Research Malaysia (Iksim) to find out the guidelines and constraints, noting differing requests that both sides gave with the former hoping that Adele’s dreams will not be dashed while Iksim asked that Islam not be associated with ballet.
“But God-willing, we found a way to unite those two worlds that could not be united and that is our proposal to the world, meaning if the world watches (our film), that is our proposal to the world...[we have what the ballet world and Iksim want], but you have to watch the film lah,” he said, later adding that he hopes the film will encourage Malaysians to confront issues and find solutions.
The film is expected to be released locally by end of this year or early 2017, with plans to screen it internationally. The official trailer is not out yet, but two teasers have been issued.
The cast also includes veteran artistes Betty Banafe (Diana), Aida Khalida (Maimun) and Aman Graseka (Adele’s father Shakiri). The international cast members are from countries such as Russia, Macedonia, France, Australia, Indonesia and Kazakhstan.