Film producer Haris Sulong only has this to say on why he agreed to help his wife Tunku Mona Riza get started on Redha, a film that focuses on a developmental disorder, autism.
“Because she’s my wife!” he said with a laugh during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Three years ago, Mona was looking for ideas for a new telemovie and decided to focus on the subject of autism. She met with families raising autistic children and was eventually convinced that the subject deserves a feature film treatment.
“When she told me about the idea, I said, ‘OK, let’s do it. Let’s do it right’. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. So, there is an understanding that whenever someone directs, the other would be the executive producer,” Haris explained.
With a background in commercials (Mona directed a video for Bank Simpanan Nasional featuring local band Hujan) and telemovies (including the award-winning Parit Jawa in 2011), Redha is Mona’s debut as a film director.
“I knew from the very beginning that the story I want to tell involves a husband and wife. After trying to conceive for a long time, they finally have a child. Then the child is autistic and the father is in denial about it. What happens in between, I had no idea. I collected stories along the way and incorporated them into the story,” Mona said.
After securing a Creative Industry Loan from BSN, the production of Redha was good to go. But Mona had to do more to convince The National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM) for support and permission to film at their offices.
“When I approached NASOM about the film, they were apprehensive. They were very protective about how autistic children are portrayed in the media,” she said.
Mona explained to NASOM that the film tells the story of a family that changes for the better for an autistic child. She also spent two year researching and preparing her cast for the film. Her dedication for the film won NASOM’s support.
Redha stars Namron and June Lonjong as married couple Razlan and Alina with an autistic son, Danial. The film also features Remy Ishak, Nadiya Nisaa, Ruminah Sidek and Susan Lankester.
Mona went through an extensive audition process to cast the role of Danial. The script required two actors to play the role. Harith Haziq, eight, got the part of six-year-old Danial while Izzy Reef, 16, portrays the teenage version.
Both young actors were introduced to two autistic children and spent three months observing their movements.
Izzy admitted that he had this fear of not being able to nail his part: “I was really scared of misrepresenting the part of an autistic child. I don’t want to look like I was making fun of someone.”
To help Izzy with the role, Mona prepared a DVD featuring footage of the autistic child that he was observing.
“We gave Izzy homework. Watch the video and rehearse for half-an-hour a day. Then 10 minutes before bed, watch it again. He did get a shelling from me because he forgot some of his parts on set. But then he regained his momentum. Izzy carried the role well and I was very happy for him,” Mona said.
Haris explained how much of the film’s RM3.7mil budget went into pre-production. “I guess a lot of people will be wondering where did the money go when they watch the film. A lot of it was spent on building a strong team and also doing our research on autism.
“We had an English teacher come in to train Harith. Harith, Namron and Remy Ishak were also trained to swim.”
The clear waters of Redang Island in Terengganu is a major setting for the film. Water has a calming effect on Daniel, who enjoys being in the ocean. As Namron’s character is a beach resort caretaker, he was required to be in the water most of the time.
Looking back, Haris describes the journey of making Redha as a “beautiful pain”. “Emotionally, we were drained. But what really humbled and strengthened us was that no matter what problems we went through, it could never come close to the ones faced by the real families raising autistic children,” he said.
Mona is not looking to educate the masses about autism through this film. All she hopes for is a little bit of compassion from the audience.
“I just want to trigger a little bit curiosity. I hope parents with autistic children will have a sense of relief that those who watch Redha will understand why autistic children behave the way they do.
“When you have two different parties that understand the same thing, then we can create a better environment for all. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Redha is now showing in cinemas. Golden Screen Cinemas will donate proceeds from Redha ticket sales to the National Autism Society of Malaysia.