‘It was terrifying but screw it’: the director who had to disown her film to get an Oscar nomination

‘It was terrifying but screw it’: the director who had to disown her film to get an Oscar nomination

The director Amanda Nell Eu has always been a bit of a rebel, she says over video chat from her home in Kuala Lumpur. “When I was a teenager, I was sometimes labelled a monster by my parents and teachers. I probably wasn’t the most obedient child.” Now Eu has turned the horrors of puberty into an actual horror movie. Tiger Stripes is her feature debut, a funny and political film with a whopping air punch of girl power. Set in a conservative Muslim school, it mixes body horror with Mean Girls energy and a sprinkle of Malaysian folklore.

Eu cast her trio of leading girls during lockdown, putting adverts on Instagram and searching through TikTok profiles: “Schools were shut, everything was shut.” Zafreen Zairizal plays 12-year-old Zaffan, a rebel who is constantly yanking off her headscarf and daringly wears a bra to school. Zaffan’s body is changing: hairs sprout and spots erupt. Then, when she becomes the first girl in class to get her period, she’s ostracised by her two best friends. “You’re dirty now,” adds her mother.

The shame still associated with periods in Malaysia was highlighted in 2021 by media coverage of period “spot checks” in some schools. Reports detailed the practice of girls who’ve not attended prayers because they’re on their period having to prove it. “Sometimes a prefect would give girls a Q-tip and wait outside the toilet. It’s very invasive,” Eu says. “I remember seeing a hashtag, ‘Make schools a safer place.’ Because sometimes they’re not at all.”

Tiger Stripes takes society’s fear about female bodies and turns it into a triumphant narrative. Zaffan gains autonomy over her body by literally becoming a monster: a powerful girl-tiger, the feline equivalent of a werewolf.

Mean Girls meets Malaysian folklore … Zafreen Zairizal (centre), Piqa and Deena Ezral in Tiger Stripes.View image in fullscreen

Eu got hooked on horror movies in her teens. “It’s my safe space,” she grins. “More realistic films terrify me a lot more than monsters and blood.” She always loved the range available to women in the genre: “It was a place where I could see female characters be evil or selfish or greedy or wild.”

In conversation, Eu is funny and forthright. She lived in the UK for 17 years from the age of 11, and her English bears a trace of the home counties. In January she cropped her hair short, which only adds to the cool-girl aura. So, too, do the photos of her at Cannes last year dressed in a custom-designed jumpsuit of pink-and-black satin with giant rosettes – a look that was punk-meets-Poor Things. Tiger Stripes was the first film by a Malaysian female director to play at the festival, winning best film in the Critics’ Week strand.

Eu’s own experience of school was drastically different from Zaffan’s. She was sent to the UK to attend a Buckinghamshire boarding school. In her teens, she had a rebellious angst-filled phase, “breaking rules, running away from the school.” Did she get expelled? “No! I never got caught.”

Was boarding school at that age a shock? “Actually, the biggest shock was coming back when I was 27, having spent so much time in the UK. I felt like such an outsider, and it was really painful.” After A-levels she’d studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins in London, thinking it would offer better job prospects than a film degree, but she spent most of her time dabbling in animation and film. Her tutors would ask: Why are you here? “I was like: ‘Please let me pass. My Asian parents will kill me!’” After graduating she took an MA at the London Film School.

When Eu moved back to Malaysia aged 27, she was home, but didn’t feel like she belonged. “I didn’t know who I was. That was a big struggle of identity. Part of it was: I am Malaysian but I don’t feel Malaysian. I didn’t speak like everyone else. I didn’t behave …” She shrugs. “ I think that was really what made me realise the kind of films I wanted to make.”

‘Pontianak is like the Beyoncé of all the monsters’ … Amanda Nell Eu put folklore into her film.View image in fullscreen

What kind of films? “Films about outsiders and misunderstood characters trying to find their own place in society or in the world.” Before Tiger Stripes, she directed a pair of short films featuring spirits from Malaysian folklore. One of them, the Pontianak, a beauty who entices men only to attack them, features in Tiger Stripes – and has long history on the silver screen. “I always joke that the Pontianak is like the Beyoncé of all the monsters, the queen bee, an iconic character.” When she was little, tales of these characters thrilled and terrified her, but in her 20s, they became her heroes.

Tiger Stripes was selected by Malaysia as its Oscar entry for this year’s awards. But the version released in Malaysian cinemas last October was censored in such a way that Eu released a statement disowning it. She’s not allowed to talk about what was cut, but the Guardian previously reported that deleted scenes included one showing period blood on a sanitary towel, and another in which Zaffan dances in a waterfall – full of joy, hair to the wind.

That last edit was particularly painful. “As Malaysians, we know that we have to go through censorship. You’re ready for it. But what hurt was the things they cut out were the heart of the film. It was censoring the beauty of a young girl, her freedom.” Her instinct was to pull the film from cinemas. “With the cuts, the film is pointless,” she shrugs. But to qualify for the Oscars, it had to be released in local cinemas for seven days. So holding their noses, Eu and her producer agreed to the censored version – and wrote a statement disowning it.

“It was terrifying. But I had to say something at the end of the day. I was like: screw it. Let’s just do it.” If nothing else the experience has shed a light on censorship, she adds. “We were celebrated and selected for the Oscar entry: ‘You make Malaysia proud, but don’t show this to Malaysians.’ It’s almost comedic. Painful and comedic at the same time.”

Wasn’t that risky, putting her neck on the line so publicly? “I don’t know,” Eu says with a dismissive hand wave. “I mean, I’m always a very risky person. I follow what I believe in, follow my heart. If I strongly believe in something, I’m not going to back down.”

Source: theguardian.com