The film industry in Malaysia seems to have a knack of producing quality independent films. Through impeccable storytelling and outstanding characters, films such as Sepet and The Journey managed to pluck audiences’ heartstrings. Closely joining the lineage of Malaysian indie films is Adiwiraku, a heart-warming tale that depicts the story about the struggles of a teacher as she guides a group of rural school students in a district-level choral speaking competition against elite schools.
Based on a true story, Adiwiraku has generated much buzz since the debut of its trailer, attracting coverage from the likes of Astro, The Sun Daily, and Lite FM. Screening in 52 cinemas nationwide starting March 9, Adiwiraku is a film produced by SOL Pictures.
“I think it’s a feel-good, inspiring, underdog kind of story. When you watch Disney films, you always feel good towards the end because against all odds, the underdog achieves something inspiring. So when I first came across this story on Facebook, it gave me that exact feeling. As I did more research into the school, SMK Pinang Tunggal, and more research into Cheryl Ann Fernando’s [a teacher based in SMK Pinang Tunggal] story that she wrote for The Malaysian Insider,” says Jason Chong, executive producer of SOL Pictures. “As someone who grew up in rural areas, it made me realise that we’d gone through all these before, and because we’ve been in the city for so long, we have already forgotten what that was like.”
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this production is that the filmmakers decided to get the actual students to star as their on-film counterparts. “They surprised me, and we had a decision to make—whether to get actors to play the students or get the students to play themselves. Both decisions would have their respective set of challenges,” says Chong, pointing out the challenges upon taking such a bold direction. “Eventually, we decided to have the students to play themselves. So the challenge now was, how would we turn them into actors? I did a workshop with them, four days before the shoot, it was just me and Eric Ong, the director, and then we had the cast, as well as Sangeeta Krishnasamy, the actress playing Cheryl. So we sat them down. The funny part was when I handed them the script for the first time, they were very cold and distant. Just imagine when they were in school, nobody would’ve asked them to read through a whole stack of paper in one go,” reveals Chong as we burst into laughter. “During the first day, it was more about convincing them that we were going to do justice in adapting their story. To them, they had a very special relationship with Cheryl, so the first important step for us filmmakers was to gain their trust. After that, they started opening up, and their personality really shone through, kids are like sponges, absorbing everything.”
In response to Chong’s remark on Cheryl sharing a sacred relationship with her students, Cheryl reveals her secret in teaching. “I think the most important thing is the connection with the students, so not to see them as my students, but to have that connection with them. I once read a quote that says that students won’t learn from someone they don’t like,” she says.
“Actually before Chong, there were other people who expressed interest in adapting our story, but it didn’t follow through. And when I finally met Chong, he already had a film treatment, and he really did his research, and I was like ‘okay he’s quite serious’. Of course, initially there were some hesitation, but knowing that it’d be shot in the school, and my kids would have the chance to act, I gave them the green light to do it,” says Cheryl, recounting her reaction when the filmmakers approached her in adapting her story.
Playing a vital part in the production of the film, EduNation is the official promotional partner for Adiwiraku. “EduNation provides free content to Malaysian school students, primary and secondary schools, right now we have about 4,000 videos online, in four different languages—Bahasa Melayu, English, Mandarin and Tamil. We also go to schools and provide training to teachers, in blended learning specifically,” says Jennifer Low, chief operating officer of EduNation. “As to why we’re involved with Adiwiraku, everything we do at EduNation is about equipping teachers, inspiring teachers and helping students. We feel that Adiwiraku has the potential to reach out to a lot of teachers and students, which is why we want to play an important role in supporting the movie.”