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These kampung students won an English competition. Now they’re stars in their own movie

Malaysian filmmakers have proven themselves by making a few cinematic winners! Sepet for example won an award at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2005, and Bunohan was entered for the 85th Academy Awards 2013. We’re no experts at reviewing movies or anything (except for SOSCILI’s editor, MK), but one thing we felt maybe made good movie material are stories that are based on, or about real life.

This gave us something to look forward too when we heard that a new local independent movie, Adiwiraku, is coming to cinemas on 9 March 2017. [P/S: ‘Adiwiraku’ means superhero in English]. It is based on a true story that happened in a rural school in Kedah, and a very inspiring one at that. We first learned about the movie when a teacher Cheryl Ann Fernando, emailed CILISOS. But there’s more:

“This movie is extra special because it was shot in Pinang Tunggal and the actual students play themselves in the movie.” – Cheryl, the teacher who emailed CILISOS

That got our attention! A movie where young school students acted as themselves?? How did they pull it off?

[*P/S: We saved the trailer for later because we don’t want to spoil the story.]


The movie was shot in TWO MONTHS over the school holidays!

smk pinang tunggal kedah adiwiraku

The school where the movie was shot…is the school the movie is based on!

We imagine that shooting a movie isn’t easy – gotta put on make up la, memorize lines, probably do a 1001 takes before the director is satisfied. Not to mention these are actual secondary school students who have ZERO acting experience. So imagine our shock when Cheryl told us they only took two months to shoot, during the school holidays in March.

“We didn’t go through acting training. We went for an audition, and a week after that we started filming. Yes, there was a script written for us, but most of us played our own roles and this is based on a true story, so we just had to re-enact what happened before.” – Irdina Tasnim, student at SMK Pinang Tunggal

The students LOVED every second of it! Sure, there were moments they felt tired, but the excitement of acting in a movie pulled them through. In fact, most of them changed their ambition from doctors and lawyers to actors and actresses. 

irdina and balqis students choral speaking adiwiraku

Irdina (left) and Balqis.

Many were SPM candidates, so they had to learn to juggle their busy schedule as superstars and as students. There was one day when Cheryl visited the set, she was surprised to see how semangat her students were to act. More semangat than they usually were in her class, she joked. 😆

“The best part was when we finished a scene in just one or two takes. The worst part was when we needed to do numerous takes for just one scene. But we take that as experience, so it didn’t feel that bad.” – Irdina

Adiwiraku explores Cheryl’s life as a former teacher in SMK Pinang Tunggal – a national type school located in Sungai Petani, Kedah – as well as a few personal stories of the students there. (FYI, Cheryl herself did not act in the movie. She is played by Sangeetha Krishnasamy). The plot is based on a particular incident in 2015, which was featured in an article on Then it went viral and from there, independent filmmakers Jason Chong and Eric Ong reached out to her on Facebook, asking if they could meet:

“I thought he was joking when he told me the idea of the movie, but clearly, he wasn’t. I was apprehensive at first because some of the experiences were very personal, but I changed my mind when I heard that my students will have a chance to act in the movie and it was going to be shot in Pinang Tunggal. I knew that this would be a great experience for them.” – Cheryl

cheryl ann fernando sangeeta actress adiwiraku school choral speaking

Cheryl (left) and Sangeetha Krishnasamy, who plays her


Cheryl bribed students to join a competition they never thought they’d win

It was an English choral speaking competition that involved 35 students from Form 1 to Form 4. If you don’t know what choral speaking is, watch the trailer below:

Yep, that’s choral speaking. Anyone who’s ever had to give a speech on stage knows it can be pretty scary! Your palms will get clammy, your knees will knock, your voice will crack… More so if you have to deliver the speech in a language that seems alien to you.

Joining the choral speaking competition was scarier (than acting in the movie). Because at the time we we’re hoping to win, and failure scared us. Apart from that, everything else was a new and exciting experience for us.” – Irdina Tasnim, student at SMK Pinang Tunggal

cheryl fernando teach for malaysia SMK pinang tunggal students

Yep, seems like she really an impression on her students, alright 😀 Image from Says

The students thought they couldn’t possibly win because SMK Pinang Tunggal was a rural ‘hotspot’ school. A hotspot school is identified as having low English academic results. To address this problem, the Education Ministry places trained English teachers in hotspot schools (which are mostly rural schools in Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu). That was how Cheryl came into the picture…

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She joined Teach for Malaysia in 2013, an NGO that trains fresh graduates and young professionals to join the teaching force. TFM works closely with the Ministry to place teachers schools for a duration of two years (yes, they’re paid and enjoy all benefits of the civil service). After that, they can choose to stay or move on to different careers. In Cheryl’s case, she stayed on for an extra year till 2015.

“At first when I arrived to teach, the students did not see the importance of learning English. And the challenge was that they thought English is difficult to learn.” – Cheryl in an interview with Astro Primadona

But by ‘bribing’ the students with free food during training, Cheryl and another TFM teacher (who prefers to be anonymous) pushed the students out of their comfort zone. Her fellow TFM teacher is played by Xavier Fong as Cikgu Constant Wong. They co-wrote a text called ‘Superheroes’ from scratch, based on The Script’s ‘Superheroes’ (ya, the song). It talks about how we shouldn’t wait for a hero to save us but to do it ourselves.

Xavier Fong plays Cikgu Constant on Adiwiraku.

They practiced 2 to 3 hours after school for several months right up to the competition. As the school had 99% Malay students, puasa month was the hardest for the hungry and thirsty students.

“The most memorable part was when I used to send the kids home using my tiny Viva. I would stuff 6 to 7 kids in the car and drive them home after practice. They would be screaming and singing in the car and it was always the most fun time of the day.” – Cheryl


In the end, the rural ‘hotspot’ school beat other elite schools to win 5th place!

students nervous choral speaking adiwiraku

The team was ready to break into tears on the day of the competition.

Many times, the students of that school were discouraged from entering competitions because it seemed inane to compete for something where defeat is almost guaranteed. It didn’t help that they pitting against 20 ELITE schools in the choral speaking competition. You know la, that type of schools, very the elite wan. Cemerlang, gemilang and whatever -lang, -lang.

“We knew the odds are never in our favour so we only trained harder. My students went through word by word, memorising everything in the paper. We did our best to polish up our pronunciation and focused on enunciation. We put emotions into our speaking and wanted to do the best.” – Cheryl,

On the day of the competition, the students were a nervous wreck! “Hidayah asked me if she could leave before it started. Zidane was close to tears because he was sure he was going to mess up his text. Alif was walking around nervously, repeating, ‘Teacher… saya takut’.” So…how did they perform? See for yourself 😀

When the results were announced, she admitted that she was skeptical they would win. She even told her team leader to stand in front to collect their certificate of appreciation. But when they announced the schools’ names, theirs never came up.

“I figured it had to be a mistake. Until I realised that we were announced as one of the top five winners. Our tiny kampung school managed to emerge as the 5th place winner!” – Cheryl


Their reactions went from disbelief to screams and hugs and high fives all around

team smk pinang tunggal

Look at those happy faces! Image from Says

Well, there’s a moral to this story, but ugaiz already know that 😀 That day, Cheryl’s students went home with more than just a cert… they went home with a newfound confidence in themselves and belief that winning is possible with hard work!

Apart from the heartwarming victory and the personal struggles of the students, Adiwiraku explores some pressing issues in Malaysia’s education system, like the inability of students to read and write in English in secondary school, discipline problems, and so on. Dunno about you all, but this is definitely a movie not to be missed.

You can catch the movie in 48 cinemas nationwide on 9 March.

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