The 'great Muslim debate' with a different lens- Q&A with filmmaker/producer Jin Theng Craven

It's always exciting when you meet an artist with an urgent need to share a story.  Jin-Theng-Craven is such an artist.

Based in Leeds, Jin is a Creative Producer-Director. Here at Settle Stories we were introduced to Jin following an interest in her independant feature documentary Edge of Obedience. The piece explore artistic expression and religious freedoms in the Muslim World through documenting the life of one of Maysia's most internationally acclaimed artists - Ahmad Zakki Anwar. Jin will be joining us on the evening and the screening will be followed by a Q&A with Jin.

We caught up with Jin ahead of the screening next month to find out more about her and what you the audience can expect. 

Q: How did you get into film?

A: I studied English and American Literature and Film at University of East Anglia. I came to appreciate the political and cultural agency of the visual image and the written word. After that I trained with Singapore’s national radio and television broadcaster, working in the documentaries and current affairs department. I then immersed myself in the world of international finance and arts promotion in the UK before returning to producing and directing, only this time I wanted to work independently, travelling between Asia and the U.K.

Q: What inspires you to keep creating?

A: The desire to constructively channel my unquiet mind. To be transported into spaces within and without the material world. Getting to truths. To learn, and to learn well constantly. With feedback on my output, I will learn something about my craft, and confront my own fears and bugbears. Dreaming, observing, researching, reflecting, writing, producing - taken together it's a path to personal growth. But I also hope that whatever I've learned along the way can be shared with others, and that their hearts and minds can also be remarkably transformed. Where we can start to dialogue. Share viewpoints. Empathise. Heal. Change. Creative enterprise is an essential companion to the human condition.

Q: Why does Edge of Obedience matter to modern audiences?

A: On the one hand, Edge of Obedience is an advocacy project for the creative journey, and I think the billions of creatives amongst us can relate to that. On the other hand, it puts front and centre urgent issues the global community is grappling with today - that is, freedoms and values that are at stake and battled over in society, choice, voice, redemption even. While set in Malaysia, the film’s themes go beyond the local: politics of religion, representation, post-colonial world order, activism… these are evident in contemporary political faultlines. The film taps into the ‘Great Muslim Debate’ today. But I wanted to offer a different lens. From a place unfamiliar to many outside Asia, a little-known concept called Malaysia, where the post-colonial story is in some ways still playing out. Ultimately the conflicts are resonant  of identity struggles elsewhere in the world. The film challenges mainstream Western notions and presumptions. Challenges stereotypes which the dominant global media have presented about being Muslim and of Islam. I didn’t want to make a propaganda piece. I wanted to ask how we can address life’s complex dilemmas through inclusivity. For example, when it comes to having, and making, identity against dominant power structures that leave little room for difference. I was drawn to exploring how an intelligent, searching and compulsively creative individual - the serious artist - can function in an emergent theocracy. In the seeming doom and gloom of modern media reporting, Ahmad Zakii Anwar is a fascinating character whose story can inspire others as much as myself...even provoke, but constructively, of course!

Q: You're putting religious and artistic freedoms under the microscope with Edge of Obedience. Has this presented you with challenges?

A: When I first started the project, I quickly received cautionary words of advice from several quarters. I was warned that I’d be regarded negatively as meddling in Malaysian affairs, when I was not Malaysian myself (I’m Singaporean), and I was warned that the realm of religion, especially the prickly topic of Islam, should be off-limits. I was warned that the artist and myself might become targets of disgruntled fundamentalists. On the industry side, I was told that the art documentary genre was too niche, and that nobody outside of Malaysia had ever heard of Ahmad Zakii Anwar. Nobody would be interested. The only agreement was that Zakii’s works were stunning. And controversial. After considerable hand-wringing, I concluded that this was not strictly an art documentary but a current affairs piece, too. The story had to be told, despite the challenges. Or in fact, it was precisely because of what the challenges represented: that the story was more than just about art; it was about a man who happened to be an artist, grappling with the conflicts between his artistic desires and his inherited religion. The story was also about suppressed voices, marginalisation and individual freedoms. With many other countries having their own version of censorship on both the arts and on beliefs held by the ‘Other’, it actually felt timely and urgent that I should raise the question of how we can make space for the artist and for empathetic diversity.

Q: How have people responded to the piece so far? Has this surprised you?

A: My UK distributor took the film to MIPCOM in Cannes, and that platform - the largest global film & TV market - allowed us to secure broadcast deals in New Zealand, Germany, France and other territories. Since then, people have left lovely feedback on the film’s social media. What was striking was the sense of revelation viewers seemed to have about what was happening in Malaysia, the rich hidden histories of Southeast Asia, and also the sense of discovery regarding this amazing artist. Edge of Obedience is not stylised as a festival film, though...I just want to manage those expectations! But people have liked our work on the film’s soundscape.

Q: What do you hope the impact of the film will be on its audiences?

A: I set out to create a compelling and thought-provoking film. I hope that audiences get to understand the issues that trouble Zakii, who as a character conduit personalises the abstract arguments about freedom of expression versus respect for religious authority. Like Zakii, I very much hope that the film will inspire empathy while offering a chance for peaceful engagement with different viewpoints.

Q: Where do you go from here? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

A: Currently I’m helping an emerging filmmaker with her project, which is shaping up as a ‘family/comedy drama with social impact’ and set in Bradford. I also have folders opened for a couple of other films: one about the personal journey of making memories, and the other about hope and giving voice to children. And there’s a special photography installation I’d like to stage for a friend of mine.