By John Lui, Film Correspondent
At 23, Shahrezza Zuhri has done a lot. He has made award-winning student films. He will direct a feature film based on a script he penned and he has worked on the local feature film The Days, which is now showing in cinemas.
He has also been in prison.
'I was arrested for rioting. I was in a gang fight,' he says in a matter-of-fact voice. Now a student at ITE College East, the soft-spoken student, Rezza to his friends, worked on The Days under a scheme that encourages school staff to take paid leave to work on movies. Students like him can then participate in the shoot during their school holidays, gaining experience and contacts otherwise denied them.
He is open about his three years in Kaki Bukit Prison School, where he was held from 2003 to 2006, because his student films are based on his own crime and punishment.
The film The Days is, appropriately, about teens who are seduced by the allure of gang membership. Working on the production crew as a 'grip', Shahrezza's job was to help set up film equipment. He was one of 21 ITE College East students who spent their March holidays this year making the film.
He joined a gang when he was 13. It was mainly for the money, he says. He collected membership fees from other members.
'They had branded clothes and I wanted them too,' he says. In return, the gang offered protection from rival groups. The Malay boy fit easily into the Chinese gang, learning Hokkien words. He was arrested at 17 and detained in Kaki Bukit Prison School. With the encouragement of the staff there, he discovered a passion for music and video.
With the support of the wardens, he made and submitted a short film to the 2005 Singapore School Video Awards, where his 60-second public-service message, telling how he came to be a prisoner, won a silver medal in the advertisement category.
He is proudest of the fact that his work was shot and edited entirely behind bars, using only the props and facilities available to him. In one scene, he flicked light switches on and off rapidly to simulate a nightclub.
In the ITE, he has made another short film of his life in the gang which he has submitted to the Akira Kurosawa Short Film Competition held in Japan. Results will be announced in November.
When he graduates in December this year, he will finish developing a feature film he is planning to direct. The Malay-language Perkataan Cinta (The Word Love) is likely to be produced by the same team behind The Days, Originasian Pictures.
Randy Ang, a producer with Originasian, says he is impressed by the story and themes in Shahrezza's edgy social drama and sees its potential to do well not just in Singapore, but also in Malaysia and Indonesia.
But for now, Shahrezza is a second-year student in Digital Audio and Video Production. When course teacher Kwong Chee Guan, who directed The Days, interviewed him for entry into the ITE course, he was impressed by the boy's frankness.
'He didn't try to cover up his past and his sincerity and passion for making films were touching,' says Kwong. Shahrezza's prison films were also 'very polished' despite the limited resources, he adds.
The Days marks the first time a full-length feature film screened in mainstream cinemas has been been created with the support of a local school. Kwong took six months of paid leave this year to direct the film under ITE College East's Real To Reel scheme, which helps students get work experience by giving staff the freedom to create their own films with student participation.
He says the on-location feeling among the crew was memorable. 'We were like a family. No hierarchy, all working on one objective,' he says. Students had the chance to work with and learn from an industry professional. Shahrezza was supervised by a professional grip.
Problems tested the team to its limits during shooting. Actor Derrick Rajamanickam, for example, is a full-time national serviceman. His unit was activated in the search for Mas Selamat during the shoot and his absence caused a painful last-minute rescheduling of crucial shoots.
'It was very good training for us but very stressful. Many of the students were close to breaking point and wanted to quit,' Kwong says, but in the end, things worked out and no one walked out.
'You can't find a more passionate bunch anywhere,' he says. He adds that these are students who have a lot to prove and are working extra hard to make up for a poor early showing.
Another student, Alan Geoy, 18, was second assistant director on The Days. It is a job not normally entrusted to newcomers, says Kwong.
Geoy's job was to organise the movements of the 80-plus actors and extras because of his flair for getting people to do what he wants.
By shouting or using a loudhailer, Geoy would get them into position for the big gang-clash scenes. But that was nothing compared to what he had to do when there were absentees.
He recalls calling his friends, who were unpaid extras, and saying: 'Please, it's going to be the last time, we'll be done quickly.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 17, 2008.
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