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The Team Behind '(Plastik)' on Raising Awareness About Southeast Asia’s Plastic Crisis

The producer and director takes Tatler Asia through the inspiration, filming process, and message behind the powerful short film.

Produced by Sean Lin and directed by Philip Rom, (Plastik) is a 2022 short film that depicts the plastic waste problem in Southeast Asia. Shown from the perspective of a young girl who discovers the reality of plastic pollution through a bottle telescope, the film was launched in conjunction with World Environmental Day as a reminder for people to live sustainably in harmony with nature. Inspired and supported by the UN Environment Programme's SEA circular project and MeshMinds, (Plastik) was chosen to address Southeast Asia’s plastic pollution.

With vivid imagery, the film cuts through the noise with clarity: plastic is overwhelming us and it is everywhere. In an era where plastics are being found in the deepest oceans and microplastics in unborn fetuses, the film comes at a crucial time, giving us a glimpse of a future that awaits us. While not shying away from the problem, (Plastik) manages to remain light-hearted at moments, retaining the innocence that 10-year-old actress Aisya Sufiah portrays through the short.

Lin was approached by MeshMinds through his company Studio Birthplace which he co-founded to focus on ecological and humanitarian stories. Its mission is to create awareness on these topics, cultivating connection and empathy. The project was a natural fit with the studio’s mission and Lin immediately got Rom on board. The college buddies worked together to develop the film, aided by a nostalgic soundtrack that elevated the film by Malaysian composer MKNK.

Rom came on board as director to enhance the film narratively. “I like to say that when you sow a seed, everyone waters it. That’s with any idea as it grows—it’s all about trying to prune and see the best version of the idea. Ultimately, the goal was to cut through the indifference felt about climate change, and thus, (Plastik) was born," he says.

In this exclusive interview with the two Malaysian creators, Tatler explores what their film means and what they hope its impact will be.

How would you describe your direction in terms of imagery?

Philip Rom (PR): When people talk about pollution, I’m sure the first thing that we picture is a stock image of plastic landfills. Our challenge was how to make this different by not showing any of those typical elements. We wanted to bring it close to home. There were no films that spoke about plastic pollution in Southeast Asia in this kind of context.

We wanted to ground the story and build the world around that. Everything you see is in a local context and as Asians, we love food, so the first scene starts with it. There are a lot of familiar elements for Southeast Asians.

We were also inspired by the other familiar imagery that comes to people's heads in regard to pollution i.e. turtles choked in plastic. The idea that came to me was, what if it was humans in place of the animals? How would we feel about it? What if that was us? These were the biggest questions.

There was a point in a brainstorming session when MeshMinds mentioned about looking through a bottle and that eventually became the backbone of (Plastik). As I said, sow a seed and everyone waters it.

Why did you choose to depict the film from the viewpoint of a child?

PR: As a child, you’re very innocent. The way you see plastic is still harmless. With this telescope that she built, she gets a glimpse into the reality of single-use plastic. She looks through the telescope and sees a version of the world that we don’t usually see, and she’s left with the question of what she wants to do with it.

We wanted that bouncing board because as we grow into an adult, we become numb, our skin gets thicker, and we ignore things. As a child, you're not privy to any biases. She becomes that voice of reason which is why we wanted her and her innocence.

Sean Lin (SL): One thing to highlight is the theme of indifference—how we are so numb to seeing plastic around us. Plastic is everywhere but everyone is indifferent. Through the eyes of a child, we get to see a younger generation represented as they wake up and observe the indifference through the telescope. That's what the film's title is a play on, the brackets around the work (Plastik). We see her journey from being ignorant to becoming aware of the climate crisis.

What was it like to work with a child actor?

SL: We were surprised!

PR: She's really good. (Plastik) was so dependent on the talent because she has to carry it and I'm glad we went with Aisya. She outperformed what she did in her casting video. When she was on set, she was so professional. She delivered on every scene and it wasn't hard to get her into that mindset of being that girl who's seeing these things and wondering why nobody else is seeing them. She’s amazing. Props to her.

What do you do to help the environment daily?

SL: I cut down on meat consumption and am refusing single-use plastic. But professionally, there are a few things we did to improve our production. Everyone brought their own reusable bottles and we provided meals without single-use plastics. On top of that, we also calculated the carbon emissions caused by transportation and countered them through tree planting.

What do you hope the impact of this film would be?

PR: I'm a father of a two-year-old daughter. Making this film reminded me of the world I’m leaving to my daughter to inherit. It was a meta moment; I was making this film thinking, “Hey! That could also be my daughter.”

Prior to this project, when we were all in MCO and ordering in. My family does recycle but it dawned on me just how much plastic there was. I thought, “Oh my god, this is just one household.” I can't imagine the other few hundred people staying in the same block and just how much plastic we use. I didn't even want to think where it would go because it scared me. When Lin reached out, it was one of the biggest reasons for my decision to say yes.

By raising awareness, we can help people see the impact of the choices that they make. Everyone likes to think it's somebody else's problem. There’s no accountability. In reality, it's all our problem and there's nobody to bail us out. The initial ending message that I wrote for the film is that the problem started with us, so the solution also starts with us. That's the impact of education, what I can leave behind. We cannot ignore plastic pollution, it's part of our life. That's the takeaway I want people to have from the film.

SL: Climate change and environmental collapse is this generation's biggest challenge. It can be overwhelming but there's hope. We all have the responsibility to be part of the solution and the first thing we can do is educate ourselves about our impact. We need to talk about these problems to strike climate consciousness, because change starts with awareness.

Written by: Sofia Irfan

Source: Tatler Asia

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