Along with LAU Kek-huat’s Absent without Leave to witness 2015 Asian Network of Documentary Program
by Allen HONG / 2016-03-16
Linking Local History through Documentary Filmmaking (PartII)
Reviews on 2015 Asian Network of Documentary
Documentary film is a rather marginalized genre in the production and distribution chain of the film industry. It is to our delight to observe that, more than those well-established international film festivals, such as International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Hot Docs, Visions du Réel, Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Asian Side of the Doc and Sheffield Doc/Fest, many cross-regional workshops, meetings, funds, and pitching forums are now developing in Asia. The 2nd edition of Docs Port Incheon and Vietnam’s Autumn Meeting (2015) were some of such examples. In addition to the importance of bringing together filmmakers, funders and distribution channels, some organizations emphasized on the training of story development. Moreover, these platforms gathered outstanding talents from all around the world for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to exchange ideas. They allowed you to see the significant events happening around the globe and the unique viewpoints from the directors. This article addressed specifically on the 2015 Asian Network of Documentary (AND) Program during Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. At the same time of introducing their unique characteristics, we also attempt to reflect on the current development of documentary films in Taiwan, in the view of the counterparts from around the world.
In March 2015, Funscreen interviewed HONG Hyo-sook and Jane H.C. YU, the Korean and Taiwanese committee members of Asian Network of Documentary (AND). The interview set the starting point for our visit to AND. In October 2015, Funscreen attended AND Program with permission from the organizer and eye-witnessed how this program nurtured Asian documentary filmmakers as we followed the nominated director LAU Kek-huat during project discussion.
AND supports filmmakers in a very different way from pitching forums. Committee members from different countries review the written materials and a 20-minute clips of the submitted projects to determine the fund recipients, which are announced before the opening of Busan International Film Festival. In 2015, thirteen documentary films, including nine from Asia and four from Korea, were awarded. Among the nine Asian films, the Taiwan-based Malaysian Chinese director LAU Kek-haut won the first prize in Dongseo Asia Fund and a grant of 10,000 US dollars for his project on his documentary feature, Absent without Leave. LAU began the story with the muted life of his grandfather and introduced the history of Malayan Emergency during the Cold War. However, for more than one year of attending various international pitching forums, the production team hardly received positive feedback and affirmation. The AND Program gave them their first major award and grant.
A Sharp Reduction of Shortlisted Chinese Project
Soaring Attention on Southeast Asian and Indian films
Aside from LAU’s work, Wish Tree by Chinese director SU Qing, which documented the life of blind children at school, was also enlisted as the only Chinese fund winner. Furthermore, an increasing number of the shortlisted projects were from Southeast Asia and India, and a total of eight projects were awarded, including LAU’s Absent without Leave. As the vitality in Southeast Asian documentary filmmaking rises, as well as the case of international co-production in this region increases, these phenomena indicates that the scale of the base of Asian documentary films is expanding.
Among the selected Asian projects, many re-examined, after their countries were gradually reformed and opened today, the shadow and traumas caused by past dictatorships. In addition to Absent without Leave, Myanmar project Greener Pastures – The Story of Three Families by the exile filmmaker Tin Win NAING documented three Myanmar workers who started a displaced life hoping to escape brutality and poverty. The Last Lake by Cambodian rising star CHAN Lida documented the impact of roaring government development plans on the lifestyle and livelihood of traditional fishers. Also coming from Cambodia, the new talent Guillaume SUON documented the second generation of an overseas Cambodian refugee on a journey returning to his root.
In addition to Southeast Asian documentary films, three Indian and one Palestinian documentary films were also selected. The Indian master, Anurag SINGH documented in his work For our Collective Conscience the trial and public opinion about the death penalty of a serial killer, investigating the moral conflict between legal justice and human rights. US-based female Indian director Shashwati TALUKDAR followed Indian police specializing in family disputes in Marriage Cop, to document the difficulties encountered by women in modern Indian family. As a young female Sikh director, Teenaa KAUR visited the women and children in a Sikh widows’ village in When the Sun didn’t Rise, and examined the long-term impact of the massacre in India in 1984. Ghada TERAWI from Palestine documented in The Forgotten about Okamoto Kozo, a member of the Japanese Red Army, who devoted himself to the Palestinian Liberation Movement.
A Dainty, Homely and Well-connected Space for Creative Work
The AND Program is composed of a one-day lecture and a two-day one-on-one training. Every year, the organizer invites an outstanding professional as the guest speaker in the first lecture day, and this year, it was the senior editor Mary STEPHEN. In the one-on-one training that followed, senior filmmakers from different countries mentored each team in one-on-one discussions about their project. The AND Program was held in the space provided by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), located right next to Busan Cinema Center and two other major screening venues, where BIFF was held. It thus allowed the organizer to tailor its activities in conjunction with BIFF programs. In addition to the discussions during the day, AND selected teams were also invited to attend parties at BIFF every night, providing them networking activities.
In contrast to the glamorous grandeur of BIFF, the AND Program itself had a dainty and friendly atmosphere, which was similar to DOC DOC Workshop and Golden Horse Film Academy in Taiwan. The Program kicked off officially after the lecture on editing by Mary STEPHEN, and every committee member and trainers attended the initiation ceremony. In the lounge, the simple layout of couches and chairs were arranged for trainers and trainees to take a casual sit. There was no speeches from government officials, just AND staff standing in line in front of a notice board and welcoming the arrival of everyone. Afterwards, all guests and trainees took turns introducing themselves, and even the author, who was meant to be a mere observer, made no exception.
In-depth One-on-one Discussion on the Project; Diverse Viewpoint to Brainstorm Project Frameworks
On the second and third days of the AND Program was the intensive one-on-one training, where each team should talk with seven trainers, one after another. Trainers this year included Ruby CHEN, the CEO of CNEX, KOTANI Ryota, the Executive Producer of International Business Centre, NHK, French film editor Mary STEPHEN, Singaporean director of To Singapore, with Love, TAN Pin-pin, British producer Irena TASKOVSKI, Korean documentary filmmakers KIM Okyoung, and HONG Hyungsook.
At AND, the discussion focused differently from other training workshops in pitching forums. The later intends to train teams preparing for an impressive pitch, using materials at hand within time limit. The discussion at AND focuses on the narrative structure and views in the work. The roles of the trainers are similar to producers and audience who provide objective suggestions. The diverse backgrounds of trainers also prompted varying opinions. The discussion process was virtually a brainstorm session lasting two days. For example, Irena TASKOVSKI and KOTANI Ryota showed substantially different views on Absent without Leave.
Drastically Different Suggestions for Absent without Leave from the Western and Eastern trainers
European View: Connecting with the Audience Emotionally
LAU provided the trainers the short-version film and some freshly-made footage of Absent without Leave. In the short version were many interviews on the director’s families and local elderlies, who reviewed the history of Malaysian communism. For Irena TASKOVSKI, who was not familiar with this part of history, it was a lot of efforts to digest the amount of characters and historical information. Therefore, during the discussion she first spent a major amount of time to clarity related historical, political, and familial backgrounds. And she observed two storylines in LAU’s film: One is the suppression of Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Communists during Malayan Emergency and the silence of the history today; the other is the family memories and emotions as the family moved along the historical wave with his grandfather’s life remaining a mystery.
Irena TASKOVSKI believed that, based on the original direction of the project, Absent without Leave would do a better job finding an audience in Asia. However, as a cross-cultural viewer, she believed that the family memories and emotions would serve well connecting audiences of different backgrounds. She encouraged LAU to strategize his narration from a more personal and emotional stance to provoke the curiosity of audiences. Nevertheless, from the interview materials, she also believed that the interviews with LAU’s families were yet to reach the core of their emotions. Growing up in wartime Bosnia, Irena TASKOVSKI fully understood the emotional suppression in families going through wars. She encouraged LAU to continue interviewing, allowing his families to open up slowly. In the meantime, she suggested a reduced amount of historical discussion with some timely insertion of the essential images would be sufficient to introduce the audience this part of history.
Japanese View: Focus on Historical Issues and Link the History from Personal Experiences
Sharing a similar line of history, Japanese producer KOTANI Ryota provided substantially different advice from Irena TASKOVSKI. While he also agreed that Absent without Leave would be better suited for Asian audience, he believed that the original narrative structure was already good. There were only a few loose ends in terms of the framework that should be addressed when producing a feature film. Although Irena TASKOVSKI believed that the vast amount of characters in the film might easily confuse the audience, KOTANI Ryota considered such a minor issue and what mattered was their symbolic representation of the history. Regarding its narratives, he advised LAU to take the audience from their common experience to the left-wing/right-wing conflict and the suppression in Malaysia during the Cold War. Therefore, for KOTANI Ryota, the heavy-going historical materials could instead be the fundamental part of this film, despite that it also inferred the primary work in the future as helping the audience understand this part of history through visual narration. During this discussion, LAU also brainstormed with KOTANI Ryota on how to introduce the history of the displaced Chinese Malaysian Communists during Malayan Emergency. Many of the elders who experienced this period were in such an old age, documenting their stories and current situations was deemed a highly urgent mission, in the hope to help more people understand this covered-up history.
Facing Different Opinions
LAU: Stand Firm with My Immutable Core of Creation and Keeping the Complicated Simple
From these two segments of discussion, one may see how the opinions differed from a trainer to another. We talked to LAU about his learning from the workshop and asked whether he felt confused about these different, even conflicting opinions. LAU believed it was a good process. “Different people impacted you differently and helped you to think and brush up your work. However, you have to be clear about what you would never give in even to the last minute. That part needs to be done first”. “What we discussed so far was just abstract analysis in words, but visual elements relate to intuition, which is not analytical.” LAU said.
Speaking of his target audience for Absent without Leave, LAU felt it would suit more than just Asian audience. “It certainly has the universal quality, only that you need to figure out how to extract. Sometimes, a topic lacks international interest, not because of its being incommunicable for international audience, but because the filmmaker needs more time to think and dig deeper for the easiest path to the core of it, thus comprehensible for someone from a different cultural background.” How would this marathon discussion and brainstorming influence his film? LAU thought that he probably would proceed as he originally envisaged on his mind. “First finishing the work as I intend, and then showing people of different opinions to explore wider possibilities. If I start as the trainers proposed, I am more likely to get lost.”
AND As A Stepping stone for Funding Independent Asian Documentary Films
After winning the first prize of Dongseo Asia Fund in the AND Program, LAU also received Taskovski Films Asian Talent Fund. In November 2015, his work also won Doc Spirit Award at Docs Port Incheon Korea. Similar to TAN Pin-pin’s To Singapore with Love, Absent without Leave was stonewalled in funding at the beginning but held on tight. Now, the positive response and support of the AND Fund not only inspired LAU further on his work but also opened a door of opportunities. With the push from AND, our best wishes for Absent without Leave to reach far and high.
For more information about AND, please visit AND website
Linking Local History through Documentary Filmmaking (Part I)
Reviews on 2015 CNEX Chinese Doc Forum
(Translated by TSAI Hsin-hao)