By 1:00pm on Thursday, November 11 the Reel Asian Industry Series was in full swing. Being a big fan of documentaries, my interest was piqued by the session entitled, “Reel Asian Docs: Engage, Collaborate, Create.” The panel included the director of Redress Remix, Lesley Loksi Chan; director of Days of Rain, Andreas Hartmann; and director of The Mountain Thief, Gerry Balasta. This panel, moderated by documentary filmmaker Cheuk Kwan, of different and unique filmmakers discussed their process, their films, and how documentary filmmaking is changing.
Andreas Hartmann’s documentary, Days of Rain, follows a family through the flooding season in Vietnam and captures their chance to change their lives with a lottery win, allowing them to move to a safer part of the country. Hartmann spoke very eloquently about his motivations for making the documentary, noting that since Vietnam and his native Germany have a strong connection through their former political ideologies, his school afforded him the opportunity to visit. Once there, he discovered a family living in an area that is normally quite dangerous (landmines pepper the area), but that once a year they struggle through unimaginable circumstances to endure the flooding. His process was fascinating to hear. He was left with the family for a full four-weeks without a translator. Given that the family didn’t speak German or English, and he didn’t speak Vietnamese, he sort of “felt” his way through the process of filming. He discussed in depth his relationship with the family and how he has helped them in the time since the film finished filming.
Similar to this, Gerry Balasta, director of The Mountain Thief, lived in the Philippines and was haunted by the people who live in Payatas, an area of Manila where people literally live, work and die on a mountain of garbage. After leaving the Philippines to move to New York and study filmmaking, he returned to Manila to make this film. The text narrative of the trailer for the film essentially sums up his feelings on the project, “We live and borrow life from these mountains. We do not choose to be born here. We do not choose how it will all end. But in between these borrowed moments, we choose to live a life of hope.” Balasta discussed the challenges of making this film ““ not strictly a documentary, but rather acted by the graduates of an acting workshop he held, all residents of the garbage mountain ““ as being emotional, logistical and financial. Balasta ran out of money and drive to complete the film about halfway through, but it was through his search for funding that his passion for the project grew. He quickly realized that as he spread the word about the topic of his film, people were horrified by the circumstances these people live in and began to give. The film has sparked a micro-philanthropy work and as he searches for a distributor, he has come to realize the power film has for making change in the world.
Differing from the two topics above, Lesley Loksi Chan was tasked with a large multi-media, multi-disciplinary project discussing the many facets of the head-tax on Chinese immigrants and their impact on those who experienced this discrimination. The project includes music, animation, interviews, and more. Most interesting is that the films are actually part of a website dedicated to looking at this issue in a completely new way. In addition to just watching, the viewer can participate by logging in and adding their own comments and experiences. Loski Chan’s experience with making this project was one that helped her to transform her own definition of what it means to be a Chinese Canadian and she has experienced the “coming out” of a number of audience members as they begin to look at this issue and its lasting damage in a new way, finally admitting what happened to them.
The panel was a lively conversation about the ethics involved in making documentaries, what that work means to the world and how they can create change simply by observing a subject. It was not only engaging and educational, but it made the observers feel like part of the process, since these three young filmmakers were just as fascinated by each other’s processes as we were.
Check out our video with selections from this very worthwhile panel.
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