Director Adriana Tunku’s Lens is a Mirror into Humankind

Adriana Tunku is merely scratching the surface of her skill, which is akin to that of an iceberg, and her potential lay dormant, waiting to erupt at any given moment.
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The world’s occupants often crave escapism and no matter what form it takes, the turn on the knob of the proverbial door in your mind opens to a room that greets you with a rush of relief wherein repose, all is well after retiring the world outside. For Adriana Tunku, an ambitious filmmaker with a few impressive notches on her belt, it is not a room but a cinema and once in and seated, she disappears into movies and its many worlds. By all appearances, her devotion for films settled in naturally; what with an artistically-inclined family – none more exceptional than her grandfather which she regales was a multi-instrumentalist that played the piano, violin, and saxophone proficiently – the flair for the arts was practically ricocheting in her genes and propelling her forward, inexorably it seems, into a career within the artistic field. 

“Growing up on Disney, you know what I mean? Your whole childhood growing up on television, you tend to have a connection to that.” Babysat by bright moving images on a small screen in her juvenescence years and transfixed by its bewitching results, films offered solace, but as a perceptive kid, presented questions, too. To her, a film opens a portal to a world that is unlike reality where for however long the runtime is, she inhabits the lives of its characters on an adventure yet known to her. A familiar rabbit each time, though the adventure on the other side after emerging from the burrow is always unexpected, and through which a new lesson realized once credits roll is never lost on her, in attendance even in waking hours. I ask her to list some of her personal favourites [films], and she lets out a laugh. “I’m not afraid to admit this. Definitely the Disney movies. It really stuck with me.” But curious to know which, I sought for a title and after some consideration, she settled on The Sound of Music. “It’s so grand!” she exclaims. 

Photo Courtesy: Adriana Tunku

Though not a Disney movie, it is not without reason, nor is it a coincidence that this was her pick. “I think growing up with music, then growing up loving films is why musicals are such a big part of my life”. Adriana gathered then at the time, upon reflection albeit implicitly, the residual impact of musicals on her vocation as a filmmaker in the years that gaped ahead.

Movies might have planted the seed of desire to pursue filmmaking but stage plays watered them just as much. “They [her family] used to bring me to a lot of theatre shows,” she recalls. “And so, I grew up watching the stuff on Istana Budaya or sometimes, they’ll even take me to KLPAC.” With movies at home and plays outside, the profusion of artistic exposure casted light on an epiphany, a single answer to her questions from before: despite her longing to be a part of the audience digesting stories, the desire to be in the backdrop orchestrating the entire operation was of a greater pull. She knew she belonged behind the scenes – a puppet-master pulling on strings, making them dance, not hypnotically or without agency, but with such deliberateness and a purpose that stories usually require; the impresario who determines when curtains are raised, displaying its stage, and the commencement of the performance; but above all, a director that breathes life into dreams turning them into films. Naturally, there were stories already brewing in her. 

Photo Courtesy: Adriana Tunku

Adriana is no stranger to the innocent, credulous years of playing make-believe. In fact, it was this pastime designed to exhaust hours of the days fictionalizing reality that fueled her eagerness to create. “My brother and I and a few of my best friends, we used to create mini skits. We made them using a phone, my Nokia phone,” she recollects the earliest memory of her working a camera. “There was this feature on the phone where you were able to pause in the middle of a recording and you can switch scenes then resume recording again. We used to pretend my brother was a genie. We would position him, then we’d take the chair out and it would look like he was floating.” 

From that point, at full throttle, it was a yellow brick road that journeyed to film school wherewith her foot on the gas, Adriana was directing and collaborating on short films in Prague, in addition to working on music videos locally executed on a shoestring budget between semesters. Film school or studying arts as a whole, Adriana says, reflecting on her academic years, typically exercises an inward-looking approach when considering matters of the craft – a belief she formerly shared, though her time at school has since narrowed, identified, and matured her priorities. Rejecting the self-serving philosophy where “me first” is the de facto standard, Adriana is committed to ensuring those in her orbit are seen and heard, and not revolving merely in her belt as accessories. “It’s for everybody. Art is for people to consume. It’s not just for me to execute,” she believes. “I think filmmaking really is a tool to just explore different slices of the world, lives, people. My inspiration is really learning about people, so I think the thirst for knowledge and knowing that for every project, I’m going to be learning something new. That keeps me excited.” 

Upon graduating, she landed an internship with Caviar Content shadowing Sacha Ben Harroche, now an Oscar-nominated producer, on film sets. Her time on set, or sometimes the lack thereof, fell short of preconceived expectations but after shattered illusions settled in dust, Adriana was consumed with wisdom disclosed to her working on a professional set. “I went into the internship thinking I’ll be on set all day doing all these cool stuff, which is true like I did all of those stuff but at the same time, there were days when all I had to do was read through 500 pages of script, or go to the supermarket to buy 50 boxes of Oreo just for the set,” she remembers. “It can get really diluted. There’s a lot of noise and things going on. You can feel dejected and lose motivation when you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m only doing these menial tasks, like, why am I learning how to organize? I want to be on set’. But you’ll realize that these are all necessary steps to get to where you’re going. You have to form some sense of discipline as well. They [film crew] made me realize that every work, be it small or big, is all-important work.”

Photo Courtesy: Adriana Tunku

In 2018, certain that the odds were in her favor to turn years of passion into something tangible and, given the years of experiences dabbling in video making, Adriana alongside her partner, Razlan Shah, serving as a producer, founded a production house – Denhouse Productions. Den, alludes to a safe space likened to creative hubs held up by collaborative efforts and house because before an office was established, the duo temporarily operated in their respective houses. At this production house, prejudices are strictly to be abandoned at the front door, for no ideas are too big or bad that open minds can’t consider and, liberated from restrictive, myopic visions, execute symbiotically. Ideas are everywhere, she says, and can be found in any corner of any space, which is why windows lined in the office walls are perpetually stained with marker inks from sudden and startling concepts springing unannounced on them. The inky windows here almost appear to be an admittance into their thought process put in writing since, according to Adriana, is likewise messy and chaotic. Following its inception, Denhouse has produced and directed music videos for homegrown artists like indie rock band Kyoto Protocol, rappers Airliftz and SonaOne, and even Dato’ Sri Siti Nurhaliza

Photo Courtesy: Adriana Tunku

A closer inspection to her body of work reveals no coherence of a singular technique or parallels and synonymity to any previous project. Truly, it is a kaleidoscopic display achieved through different styles and genres, and no two are alike. Some are intimate and authentic, others bizarre and bold, and a few zany, yet present in her work is a bridge reconciling her wildly diversified patchwork-like portfolio. To label her as experimental would be reductive and not multifaceted, too, because it is an elaborate explanation made simple – a layman where filmmaking is concerned. No, she is a seamstress weaving narratives through the lens of her intricate mind and personality with needle and thread given unreservedly by faithful hands that have come upon her mastery. Adriana is drawn to stories, that much is clear, and where there are stories there are people having lived it to tell. She visually translates these stories hidden in songs, sometimes in plain sight, but still careful enough to mind the gap between her role as a director to never transgress the purpose of her vocation which is to communicate and express, and the artist whose story must take centre stage. Her caliber to perceive humanity bared off the romantic visions positively regard Adriana as an auteur – even with a modest oeuvre – for reasons attributable to the curiosity and appreciation for honoring life in all its glory and gore. What began as a conscious effort to identify her identity in filmmaking soon stuck to being a signature, tailoring the right style and genre to fit a story, even if it meant exploring them at first because storytelling so often can take on many forms. 

Recently, in conjunction with the second phase of Malaysia’s iteration of Levi’s Music Project – a music initiative centered on nurturing locally bred talents with the necessary means to tread the industry well-equipped – Adriana and Razlan were invited to hold a workshop subsequently imparting their expertise, insights and technical know-how to its finalists. “It was really cool to share bits and pieces of what we’ve learned throughout the years to the participants. When we were talking about the basics of video making, we were contemplating, ‘Oh, should we maybe take this part out?’, but we realized that sometimes, the most basic aspects of music videos are one of the most important processes,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s just not being afraid to, like, experiment and go for it. And I think, if you don’t do it you’ll never know.” 

On the subject of the foreseeable future, aside from music videos, the director says the production house is likely venturing into commercials, short films, documentaries, and if it’s in the cards – her words now accompanied by hope – a feature-length film. Never having lost her inquisitive spirit, Adriana further states that she will always be in pursuit of knowledge, observing the world, attempting to grasp the purely visceral wonder of its inner workings, and gathering stories. Out there, as she has come to know, is an anthology of poignant human stories harboring in the least expected souls waiting to be told. She wants to give as many the chance to tell them in their image through her brilliant lens. 

Looking back on her course, she says, “it’s definitely harder to start if you haven’t already but it’s also hard to keep going.” Adriana, on all accounts, has bloomed and ripened prodigiously in her profession, having directed dozens of music videos for local, budding artists and some powerhouses, still, there is no reason to measure her limits. Her world is expanding at a swift pace, and her experiences, ethos, and aspirations are growing, too, to match its largeness. If her career is anything like a movie then we’re only at its opening credits, and with the runtime undecided yet, we can only wait and let it gently unveil itself gloriously. There is no rush.