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Brunei’s first-ever commercial feature film

There is a joke in Brunei that if you're not shopping, driving or eating, then you must be watching a film. In this small, Muslim-majority sultanate where alcohol and live music are banned, the cinema is often the most exciting place to be.

The Southeast Asian country's five cinemas almost always showcase Hollywood blockbusters and Malaysian or Indonesian dramedies. But next year something entirely different will be hitting the screens: Brunei's first-ever commercial feature film.

Yasmine is a coming-of-age tale about a girl who wants to become a champion at silat, Brunei's hypnotic and dance-like answer to kung fu. It represents a number of firsts for this country of 406 000 people: not only is the $2-million project Brunei's first-ever box-office movie, it is also being directed by the country's first female director and stars a number of first-time actors.

"Everyone is going through a learning process," says director Siti Kamaluddin. "Working with inexperienced crew is challenging and it's my first time directing a feature film, so all of us are going through this."

Although Brunei boasts the second-highest standard of living in Southeast Asia (just behind Singapore, according to United Nations data) and its population is among the richest in the world – thanks to vast oil and gas reserves – its culture remains, for the most part, deeply traditional.

The last film made here was a 1960s guide to being a good citizen, produced by the ministry of religious affairs.

Half a century later, not much has changed. The nation's only TV broadcaster, Radio Television Brunei, still airs government campaigns, quiz shows and educational, religious and drama programmes. There is an apparent chasm between those who want to protect Brunei's family-oriented culture from outside influence – some ministers even fear Brunei could be "diluted" through tourism – with others, like Siti and her producer brother Khairuddin, seeking to promote it instead.

"We are creative people," Khairuddin says. "We're full of poets and writers and I want to showcase Brunei in ways that haven't been done before."

The siblings, who together run Brunei's first film company, Origin Films, and its sister company Origin Artistic Management, have spent the past four years working on Yasmine and have drafted in expertise from all over the region. Silat stunts are choreographed and directed by one of Jackie Chan's right-hand men, Hong Kong stunt veteran Chan Man Ching, with other crew and actors hailing from Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.

But the film's protagonist, Liyana Yus, is a 20-year-old Bruneian and novice actor who has spent the past year "getting into character" in a very Hollywood-like way. After dropping out of school, she has gone only by the name Yasmine and spends five hours a day working out and practising silat.

"All of my friends have been asking me, 'How did you get the part?'" she laughs shyly. "Being an actress never crossed my mind, but I thought I would go for the audition and I got the part."

The Kamaluddins hope that Yasmine will help to show the "real" Brunei to outsiders, who largely know this former British protectorate as a tax-free haven that often tops "most boring tourist destination" lists.

Industry experts have pointed to Brunei's nascent film scene as a potentially lucrative source of income, with its jungles providing a unique backdrop for action and wilderness films. The Bruneian government backed Yasmine to the tune of about $120 000, telling the Guardian that it hoped the film would "inspire and encourage" more such projects.

Siti hopes for a wider and more encompassing outcome: a regional understanding of her little-understood and often maligned nation.

"You see a typical Hollywood high school movie – it's all about their lives," she says. She wants Yasmine to represent ordinary Brunei lives. "I make it look really normal." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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Kate Hodal
Kate Hodal
Writing and reporting on the @guardian's Global Development and Modern-Day Slavery desks. Former @guardian Southeast Asia correspondent.

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