Malaysian husband-and-wife filmmaking team, Effendee Mazlan and Fariza Azlina Isahak, have gone against the grain of the unabashedly commercial Malay-language film industry with Songlap, a drama about the illegal trafficking of babies.

Produced by Lina Tan’s Red Films and local studio Primeworks, the film premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival and has had an extraordinary festival run. It screens in Abu Dhabi in the New Horizons competition for first and second-time filmmakers. Screen spoke to Mazlan on the second day of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.  

Where did you get the idea for the story of the film?

We got the idea from an article that was in the national newspapers - then we created the main characters based on research. We met with NGOs who had handled cases of babies from unwanted pregnancies that were being sold. We decided to make this a narrative film rather than a documentary because we thought it would be more challenging for us, and we like movies, although we’ll probably make some documentaries in the future.

How did you get into filmmaking?

Neither me or my wife ever went to film school - we are just movie lovers who wanted to see a different kind of Malay movie that wasn’t being made. We thought the kind of reality-based films that we wanted to see would probably never be made, so why not do it ourselves? The Malay film industry makes a lot of gangster, horror and comedy films - these are fine for entertainment. But we wanted to see something else.

We’ve made one feature before this - Kami: The Movie - which was more commercial,about teenage angst, and was our first experiment. But for our second film we wanted to do something different.

Have you been able to release Songlap in Malaysia?

We released it in December 2011 on 70 prints all over the country. We managed to recoup the budget, surprisingly, because we went head-to-head with Hollywood blockbusters like Mission Impossible 4 and some mainstream Malay films.

Did you have any trouble with the censors as it deals with a serious social issue?

It was rated 18, which we thought was strange, as there are some movies that feature sex and drug scenes but haven’t been rated 18. They didn’t ask for cuts but they beeped out some dialogue when it was broadcast on television - just one phrase - a quote from the Prime Minister that one character uses as joke.  

How did you get a major studio like Primeworks to invest in the film?

We worked with producer Lina Tan for our first film and then she helped us to pitch this one. Primeworks is one of the two major studios in Malaysia along with Astro Shaw. The film was a tough pitch but Lina is very supportive and also persuasive!

Is the Malay-language film industry healthy these days? Malaysia seems very diverse as the country also produces Chinese and Indian-language films.

Yes because we have funding from FINAS (although my film is privately financed) - so there are more commercial films and the box office is increasing. The situation is good but also challenging. Previously, two local films were released within a two-week period, so they had a long window, but now there is so much production that two local films are released every week. Hollywood films are also strong. So we have a lot of competition.  

What do you think about Songlap’s international prospects?

Honestly me and my wife were very surprised when people started calling us, because we didn’t make it for international distribution - just for the local market. We premiered in Udine and then went to the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival and Hamburg. After Abu Dhabi we go to Poland. We still have a long way to go in educating people about Malay-language cinema. But the main thing is that we focus on strong stories - there’s no point being technically good is your story is weak.