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Arts

Borneo's Dayak culture rebounds through film and pop

Hit zombie movie and singer bring the island's indigenous people to the world

Kuala Lumpur-based singer Alena Murang's new album "Sky Songs," released on April 1, is a musical and linguistic tribute to the people of the Kelabit Highlands of northeast Sarawak. (Courtesy of Alena Murang)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Dayaks -- an umbrella term for the many indigenous groups in the Malaysian state of Sarawak and the neighboring Indonesian province of Kalimantan -- have been largely excluded from mainstream representations of their nations. Thanks to a recent wave of popular music and film, though, the former headhunters from the island of Borneo are bringing their waning culture and languages to the outside world.

A low-budget independent horror film, "Belaban Hidup: Infeksi Zombi" ("Fight for Your Life: Zombie Infection," 2021) by director Ray Lee, has bagged multiple awards at international film festivals with its unusual plot featuring Iban warriors -- also known as Sea Dayaks -- fighting flesh-eating zombies.

Mostly shot in the Borneo jungle using traditional Iban costumes, and with an international cast featuring Slovakian actress Katrina Grey and Indonesian singer Tegar Septian, "Belaban Hidup" is the world's first zombie-invasion film with a Dayak setting. It is also the first feature film produced by a Dayak: Lee's wife, Misha Minut, who comes from the Sarawak town of Limbang.

Originally produced in 2016 as a short film, "Belaban Hidup" was released as a full-length feature film earlier this year after a long battle to secure funding. Lee says that shooting the film was also a challenge. "We had to travel 20 km deep into the jungle, transferring all the equipment into a four-wheel drive, and driving into the forest at the mercy of unpredictable weather and wild animals."

But the hard-earned authenticity of its indigenous setting is also what helped this racy B-movie stand out in the crowded zombie-invasion genre. Action scenes in an empty mall, paired with the use of a police task force and gritty, old-school photography, make "Belaban Hidup" look like a Southeast Asian version of the American zombie cult film "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) by George A. Romero.

Top: A poster for Malaysian independent horror film "Belaban Hidup: Infeksi Zombi" ("Fight for Your Life: Zombie Infection," 2021). Bottom: Director Ray Lee shows fresh footage to the Iban zombie crew on the set. (Courtesy of Hornbill Films) 

In "Belaban Hidup," a mysterious organization moves from Madagascar to Borneo to set up a bogus clinic and offer free medical treatment to the natives in order to continue experimenting on humans. But when a group of young captives manages to escape, so do the zombies, unleashing the infection upon the nearby rainforest. Taken by surprise, the resident Iban fight back, complete with ethnic garb, feathered warrior headdresses and indigenous swords and blowpipes -- a striking visual tribute to the producer's Iban ancestry.   

Paired with the film's well-choreographed jungle photography, its unusual tribal characters and setting make "Belaban Hidup" unforgettable. After winning the Horror and Science Fiction category at the 2021 Singapore World Film Carnival on March 18, and Best Film and Best Horror at the St. Petersburg's International Symbolic Art Film Festival on March 27, Lee's debut film went viral on Malaysian social media, receiving praise from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin even before screening at local cinemas.

"Belaban Hidup" went on to win Best Horror Film at the Sweden Film Awards, and Best Feature Film at the Canadian Diversity Film Festival in April, and will premiere in Los Angeles in May at the next edition of the Asian World Film Festival.

Top: A still from "Belaban Hidup." Bottom: Lee instructs the Iban warrior crew on the set. (Courtesy of Hornbill Films)

Only two other Malaysian films have used Iban settings since Malaysian independence from the U.K. in 1957 and the subsequent absorption of the former British colony of Sarawak in 1963. "Chinta Gadis Rimba" ("Love of a Forest Maiden," 1958) produced in Singapore by L. Krishnan, told a story of forbidden love between an Iban girl and her Malay lover, while "Bejalai" ("To go on a journey," 1989) by Stephen Teo, described the ritual journey that Iban boys take to transition into adulthood and was the first Malaysian movie in the Iban language.

The best-known international film with an Iban setting is the British-American historical drama "The Sleeping Dictionary" (2003) set in the 1930s and starring Jessica Alba as the Anglo-Iban girl Selima and Hugh Dancy as her English lover. However, none of these films were produced or directed by Dayaks. "We deserve our own film industry," says Minut, who hopes that her debut will inspire other Dayak filmmakers.

However, film is not the only medium in which Dayak culture is breaking out. Kuala Lumpur-based singer Alena Murang's new album "Sky Songs," released on April 1, is a musical and linguistic tribute to the people of the Kelabit Highlands of northeast Sarawak. This 1,200-meter-high borderland is wedged between Brunei and Kalimantan, and hosts about 6,600 native people living in rural villages.

Murang's "Sky Songs" is a concept album inspired by the cosmology of her Kelabit and Kenyah ancestors. (Courtesy of Alena Murang)

"In the midst of Sarawak's development, we see that the contemporary Dayak identity is very much alive through projects such as this music album by Alena Murang," says Amar Leonard Linggi Tun Jugah, a trustee of the Dayak Cultural Foundation, based in Sarawak's capital, Kuching. "Through her album, indigenous music will gain fresh recognition both locally and internationally, and we believe this is a goal she will continue to strive [toward], and help put Sarawak and Malaysia on the world's cultural map."

The album, which was supported by the Dayak Cultural Foundation and the Malaysian Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, contains eight tracks of ethnic pop, some adapted from ancestral songs passed down to Murang by her longhouse-dwelling great-aunts, and others composed by her in the disappearing Kelabit and Kenyah languages. One track, "Sunhat Song," is in English.

"In many cultures it's women, as mothers and nurturers, who play a vital role in passing on heritage," says Murang, who is among the first females to take up the sape', a lutelike instrument played by the Dayaks of Sarawak and which is traditionally reserved for men.

Murang is among the first females to take up the sape', a lutelike instrument played by the Dayaks of Sarawak and which is traditionally reserved for men. (Courtesy of Alena Murang)

The sape' featured prominently in Murang's debut album "Flight" (2016). "I specifically wanted that album to be as close to the roots as possible," says Murang, who now plays with a backup band that adds modern influences to her sound, with which she has toured Europe and Central America. Her music video "Midang Midang" won the Best Styling Award at the Buenos Aires 2020 Music Video Festival, where it was also nominated in the Best International Video category, alongside a video clip by American pop star Madonna.

"Sky Songs" is permeated by ancestral native beliefs about the sky. To the local Kelabit, the sky acts as a "big sun hat dome" over earthly creation, says Murang. "When I started laying out the new tracks last year, I realized [that] they all reflected elements of the sky," she adds. "[It came] naturally so because in the last years I've been researching (reading) and learning (asking the elders) about the stories and legends of our great ancestors that were said to live in the sky."

Her pioneering "music of conservation" also extends to Project Ranih, a digital archive of the folk songs (including chants, lullabies and action songs) of the Kelabit children of the Ulu Baram River of Sarawak.

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