Real Commando story

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03 Dec 2018 | PEOPLE

Real Commando story

// STORY Benita Teo

// PHOTOS Tan Yong Quan & courtesy of Mr Sanif

English Melayu

Ever had an experience so impactful you made a movie about it? Local filmmaker and ciNE65 mentor Mohamad Sanif Olek is doing just that.

"Old Commando, old Commando!" Mr Sanif said with an embarrassed chuckle as he limped cautiously. He was nursing an old hip injury that had acted up during a weekly run with his former National Service (NS) buddies.

Yet he struck up pose after pose for the photoshoot, joking and apologising for taking too long.

Who would have believed we were actually in the presence of the filmmaker behind Singapore's first Malay language film to get close to an Oscar nomination?

One big step for SG filmmaking

Director and writer Mr Sanif, 48, is no stranger to local television, having forged a two-decade-long career producing Malay language programmes. But behind the big screen is where his passion and talent lie. 
In 2015, his debut feature film Sayang Disayang (My Beloved Dearest) — a Malay-language tale of an Indonesian domestic helper’s relationship with her wheelchair-bound employer — became Singapore's official entry to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. 

"I made the film because I believed in the story. I just wanted to talk about Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) food and music. And I wanted it to be identifiable to everyone in the Nusantara," said the veteran filmmaker.

Mr Sanif on the set of Sama Sama. The short film tells of a chance meeting between two seemingly dissimilar professions — Commandos and Boyanese chauffeurs.

Best of the best

Telling authentic stories is Mr Sanif's guiding principle to filmmaking. And in Sama Sama (The Same) — a special commissioned film for ciNE65, a biennial short film competition — the ethnic Boyanese chose two subjects he knows best: Commandos and Boyanese chauffeurs. 

"I've always been fascinated by films and narratives that involve elites," said the former Corporal in 1st Commando Battalion (1 Cdo Bn). 

He explained that, like the Commandos, Boyanese chauffeurs were deemed elites in their profession and were trusted for their professionalism and pride in their work during the colonial era.

"Both have traditions that go a long way back… People look at chauffeuring like it is a lower-class profession, but not many know that Boyanese drivers are traditionally the elite drivers," he elaborated, adding that "Ahmad" (local slang for a driver) used to refer specifically to this respected group.

"Boyanese drivers had little education and some couldn't even speak English, yet they made it by being the best drivers they could be."

Ties that bind: Mr Sanif (far right) and his Commando buddies continue to meet up today, almost 30 years after they enlisted.

Brothers from different mothers

A story about beating the odds is perhaps one that mirrors Mr Sanif's own NS experience in 1 Cdo Bn. 

"I always looked up to the ideals of bravery, patriotism, and what it means to be a soldier and serving your country. And then I had the chance to 'join the legends'."

Although his first days were not easy, he soon learnt to be disciplined and take on any challenge. 

"Being a Commando is not just about the physicality, but the mental fitness to push on. 

And also contingencies — whenever we went out for operations, we always had several contingency plans. 

"That mental preparation helped me a lot in my work too, because anything can go wrong on set but you still need to continue shooting because of deadlines. My training helped me to prepare for all these things."

And it may have been more than a decade since he has donned his red beret, but his ties with his buddies remain just as strong. They go on weekly runs together, and are ever ready to lend a hand. 

"For instance, if someone says in our chat group that Brother A is in bad shape, within a few days, everyone will galvanise and help him out. That's still happening now, after almost 30 years."

He added proudly: "I think it's amazing how these guys become your second families."

Telling the Singapore story

Asked about his greatest achievement, Mr Sanif does not mention his brush with the filmmaking industry'’s biggest platform. 

Instead, it is the appreciation he receives from those closest to his heart — the everyday Singaporeans.

"I think the best thing is when someone on the street comes to me and says, 'Hey I've seen your work, I really like it.' I think it's a good validation for why I'm doing what I'm doing — that my work is not just for my peers, but also the wider community," he said thoughtfully.  

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