Timothy Stephen of Sinakagon Does Not Scare Easily

The director gets candid on the risks of crafting something unprecedented.

Foreboding folk horror is back en vogue and coming to scare moviegoers out of their seats this month is the country’s first Dusun language film Sinakagon. Inspired by the legend of Huminodun, the film follows a Dusun shaman who is forced into sacrificing the last descendant of Huminodun under his own protection to stop a severe drought from plaguing the village.

Sinakagon, which was shot exclusively in Sabah, brings cultural elements unique to the ethnic Kadazandusun to the forefront, notably Unduk Ngadau, a traditional beauty pageant held during the annual Harvest Festival. It is powered by revelatory performances from a cast that comprises mainly first-time actors including Fiona Josepher, Ejin Dinting, and Lisa Christy.

The film is a promising debut by Timothy Stephen whose singular sensibilities allow the film to effortlessly traverse between drama, mystery, and thriller. Assuming the responsibility as the screenwriter, cinematographer, and producer on top of the directing duty, all in the name of creative freedom, Stephen eschews all genre clichés and delivers a deeply personal story.

How did you get the inspiration to tell this story?

I was inspired by Yee I Lann’s artwork called Huminodun, which depicts the character as a pregnant woman. That’s how I got the idea to bring the offspring of Huminodun onto the silver screen. There are many hidden meanings that I try to show in this film, especially about racial division.

How much of the story is based on your own experience?

I wanted to highlight the socio-cultural elements that concern the community. Although I was born and raised in the city, I have been a permanent resident in a peaceful village in the Tambunan district. That is how I applied my personal experience to this movie.

Why did you choose film as a medium for your directorial debut?

I am a person who likes watching movies on the big screen compared to other platforms such as television and streaming services. Maybe that’s what influenced me to choose film over the other formats.

What was the first film that left a huge impact on you?

I would say Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It’s a great depiction of a mother’s undying love as she witnesses her child being tortured by the non-believers, bearing the sins of mankind. I can imagine how a mother would feel seeing her child in that position but unable to do anything to help.

Who are the filmmakers that have helped shape your narrative and visual language?

I love movies by Quentin Tarantino, Yasmin Ahmad, and Dain Said. But from the filmmaking aspect, I’m more focused on cinematography and I really admire Roger Deakins. These people are my sources of inspiration—there may be some of their influences in my work as well.

Were there any unique challenges you faced while filming Sinakagon?

I’d say the weather. We had to stop filming several times during a scene where the actors had to recite Rinait (mantra) because it started raining heavily. In the end, I asked the actors to just mime the words.

With a film that can be considered as “niche”, do you worry about it not breaking even at the box office or not connecting with the general moviegoers?

The box office collection is not a benchmark for me, personally, to continue working in the future. This is my struggle in dignifying and celebrating Borneo Native films.

You have received international recognition for Sinakagon. Is that something important to you?

It’s just a motivation for me to improve my work in the future. The recognition is also necessary for me to see that there is someone out there who appreciates this effort.

Do you already have an idea for a follow-up film?

There are some ideas that I have already written and I am currently waiting for the funding to come in. We had a small budget of RM200,000 to make Sinakagon and we worked around that limitation. If anything, it made me more creative in making decisions. Story-wise, I will still honour the films of the original people.

Who would you say are your dream collaborators?

If I am given the opportunity, I would like to work with actors Amerul Affendi, Namron, and Bront Palarae. I’d also love to collaborate with Amir Muhammad who is the producer of Kuman Picture. Hopefully, this dream will come true.