For the past two years, Syed Zulkifli Syed Masir and his team at the Film Directors Association of Malaysia (FDAM) have embarked on a series of research to find out why Malaysian films do not meet local box office expectations.

One of the complaints they often hear from local film producers is poor cinema attendance. According to them, if the audiences do make it to the cinemas it’s usually to watch a Hollywood film.

However, what Zulkifli felt local film producers fail to understand is perhaps viewers simply do not want to pay money for movies with poor storytelling.

He believes there are formulas or lessons to be learned from existing box office figures that local producers can adapt into their movies. “We may have figured out what type of movies or plot points that will work for the Malaysian audience. From there, we decide to challenge ourselves and make a movie based on the research we did,” Zulkifli said during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

The result is Hijabsta Ballet, a drama about Adele (played by professional dancer Puteh Maimun Zahrah), a young hijab-wearing ballerina. The movie focuses on the challenges Adele faces in trying to bridge the gap between the artistic demands of a ballerina and the need to cover up her modesty as a Muslim woman.

“It’s a small-scale film funded by outsiders. We filmed it in 25 days in KL and Australia earlier this year,” Zulkifli said.

As part of FDAM’s ongoing research, a private screening was held in KL recently to gauge audience reception towards the film. A rough edit was shown to a focus group which consist of homemakers, students, TV producers and media practitioners.

The one-hour footage depicts how Adele is poised for stardom in ballet. When Adele decides to wear the hijab, she’s shunned by her peers at the ballet school. Her ambitious mother (Betty Banafe) encourages her to consider removing the hijab so she can continue performing as a ballerina.

But Adele is determined to keep going as she prepares to stage her debut performance as a hijab-wearing ballerina.

Unfortunately her actions receive flak and threats from both extreme religious groups and ballet purists.

Director Zulkifli (left) with Hijabsta Ballet actress Puteh Maimun Zahrah, who plays Adele, a ballerina who finds herself shunned by her peers after making the decision to don the hijab.

Director Syed Zulkifli Syed Masir with Hijabsta Ballet actress Puteh Maimun Zahrah, who plays Adele, a ballerina who finds herself shunned by her peers after making the decision to don the hijab.

According to Zulkifli, Malaysians want to invest time and emotion into a film, where its protagonist has “an impossible goal”. He cited Munafik – a recent local film with a RM19mil box office receipts from screenings in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei – as an example.

“The lead character is a religious man who becomes lost after an accident kills his wife. The goal there is to see if he can overcome the tragedy.”

In Hijabsta Ballet, Adele’s passion for ballet and religious beliefs forms the basis of her impossible goal. Zulkifli explained that what works for a hijab-wearing woman may not work for a ballerina as the dancer’s identity is always in her dressing. So how will she combine the two? Or does she have to forsake one for the other?

During the scriptwriting process, Zulkifli consulted an Islamic research institute (Institut Kajian Strategik Islam Malaysia or IKSIM) and a ballet academy for advice. “IKSIM said we can’t put religion below ballet. At the same time, the ballet academy said we shouldn’t let Adele stop dancing.”

Hijabsta Ballet received mixed reviews from this focus group. The movie was praised for its fresh story idea, lovely cinematography and some audience members could relate to Adele’s struggle. However, the film’s box office potential could be bogged down by its relatively inexperienced cast and lack of convincing plot points.

The focus group were also asked to fill in a survey with questions like would they recommend the movie to a friend and if they agree with the action of the antagonist. Zulkifli said they can’t change anything about the movie. Instead the feedback from the focus group will help his team figure out how to market Hijabsta Ballet.

For Zulkifli, his “impossible goals” are box office results and audience acceptance.

“We hope Hijabsta Ballet will have a profound effect on the audience. If we hit RM2mil and above, then it’s an indicator of success (for the research). If we manage to score overseas commercial release for the movie, then it’s also an indicator of success. So far distributors in South Korea and Australia have expressed interest to release the film.”

Hijabsta Ballet is due for release next year.