Alexis Cruz and Elizabeth Soelistio Write – The Asian World Film Festival has ended and is closed until next year. The artistry in the participating movies is astounding and they are true testaments to the cultures and countries that produced them. Even more astounding were some of the personal stories the filmmakers shared about how they made their films and the steps they took to get their works onscreen.
The following is an abridged transcript from a Oct. 28 festival panel that sheds a light on how these directors were able to bring their stories to life. The directors on the panel had films in the festival or were involved in it. They were Sam Kadi of Little Ghandi (Syria), Philippe Aractingi of Listen (Lebanon), Najia Khaan of Finding Soraya (Afghanistan), Xie Xiaodong of Nirvana (China), Sanjeewa Pushpakumara of Burning Birds (Sri Lanka) and jury member Thomas Lim.
On having to handle provocative material in a movie:
Najia: I was filming in Afghanistan for about 3 months and the first challenge was my piece of equipments that need to come through the custom. Seeing the subject matter of the movie based on women, they [the government] actually hold my equipment and not release it for many many days. Therefore, I was stuck with no equipment. So, the only thing I could grab was my phone to start filming. Luckily iPhone 6 does a 4k video recording, so I was very lucky to have that. That’s one of the problem that I face especially of subject matter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the place where women have very little voice.The extraordinary circumstance for making a film.
Sam: Right from the get go, you’re fighting a big wave, a big fight and you’re just starting. You haven’t made the movie yet. The minute they hear that you’re working with that kind film, the resistance from any leadership, regime or people you’re trying to basically expose – it’s become very very challenging. [I knew] people who lose their life just because of that. There’s a reason why stabbings go on in Istanbul. There’s one that was actually killed inside Syria and they ended up declaring a speech at the International Criminal Court back in 2012. So, it becomes very challenging. Maybe we’ll talk down the panel about the executions and what you need to do. It’s definitely gonna be a physically and mentally ready for the challenging.
Xiaodong: I made a movie “Crisis Management” that movie was made 5 years ago … this story is in an psychiatric hospital to cure people like a disease, so they invent a new treatment by singing songs, a community songs for cure …This movie was screened in Berlin; in the first hour, the audience didn’t know what’s going on with this movie. All they know was that there were laughing here, there, and they couldn’t stop. Afterwards, they [asked] me that this movie really passed the government censorship? Because they came from East Germany, so they know it and I told them that “Yes, it passed the censorship”. They said, “Oh okay, so China is better than what we think. They really want to know they let you go.” So that kind of thing, we found a way to get around it. Yes, I do have a choice to make other movie that could pass the censorship and then you have the chance to screen it in China. You could also screen it outside China. For me, the reason I make film is that I want to communicate with my people, the audience. If the movie can’t screen in China, then I lose the reason for making movies. That’s why I always try my best to come close to just pass the censorship and can be seen by the audience.
On the audiences they make films for:
Philippe: If you do a film that’s slightly expensive, but in China, there are a lot of people who go to see the film, so they’re fine with people. In Lebanon, we have a very tiny public. So if you make a film that cost more than $500,000 USD or $800,000 USD, it’s very expensive for a very tiny tiny market. So, you have to sell it outside. If you make a comedy or sensual love story, you think it’s gonna work in Lebanon, but the rest of the world, even if the film is good, you’re not gonna get hard issues done. Like women beaten in Afghanistan, it’ll work outside of Afghanistan but not in Afghanistan. I’ve done the two and I know it is an issue because if you do a film for your own public, it works within your own public but it doesn’t bring you back the money. If you do for the rest of the world, it might not work for your public but it’ll bring you a lot of fame and you don’t know. But again, ideally you want to ask who you’re doing the film for, and start doing it for yourself to see the result
Najia: As soon as I say that I’m from Afghanistan, people would look at me differently, treat me differently. So, it got up to the point where I said “Enough is enough. It’s really not Afghanistan what they see on the news.” So, therefore, I decided to go on a journey of “Finding Soraya” and Soraya that I mentioned earlier was one of the Queen of Afghanistan, Queen Soraya Tarzi, the first Afghan muslim women to unveil herself in public. She created school, hospital, and magazine. Education was on top of the list for her and her husband, King Amanullah Khan, had passed the law that no women should be wearing a scarf on the street of Afghanistan, especially in Kabul. And then, no man should be wearing traditional clothing on the street and if they were caught, they’d be penalized. So, the world don’t know that but when I say that I’m from Afghanistan, they said “There’s women like you in Afghanistan?” I mean, ‘What do you think? We have horn and tail? What is it?”. Yes, there are women like us in Afghanistan, very liberated and educated.
Thomas: Well, for me, Macau is a really small place. So, I really do have to think about audiences beyond Macau for sure, which is the reason why I like to use the casino backdrop for my story. Because, that’s the way the international audience could relate to Macau right away before we go deeper into the story. So, that’s always been my strategy and very few people know what life in Macau is like. Before I really thought about it, I didn’t know there are people living in Vegas and Vegas does casino. So, many people ask me the same question and they had the same curiosity about people living in Macau. So, that’s the first entry point that I’d like to invite my audience into my film, using the casino as the backdrop to talk about the stories that have been there. After living there for a while and making 2 films there, I find that my special position that I’m after all a foreigner, so there are different groups of people like the Mainland Chinese, Macau Chinese, Portuguese people, and the foreigners. They live in a very small and dense place, but they are very cliquey. So, they form their clicks and me as a foreigner, after a while being there, I find myself that I’m able to enter each of the groups quite easily because I don’t really belong to any of the clicks.
Sanjeewa: The thing is that I make film for my sake, so far I have made 2 films. The “Flying Fish” was banned by the Sri Lankan government and when I did stop making film, then make the second film, you’re always risking your life to make something that you want to make. The film that moved me and circumstances that people are experiencing, but it’s our choice and it’s not someone’s story to make it because you want to make it.
On the extraordinary circumstance for making a film:
Sam: In the end we asked ourselves, how are we going to get the footage out of there? … We had to wait six months until one of the activist managed to smuggle himself through the tunnels, but he wanted to be hands-free, he did not want any hard disk so they ended up splitting all the footage on small thumb drives and they taped it under his clothes and he managed to get that footage outside that city, from Damascus, and to Beirut … I found out that all the audio they took was unusable. So we found out actually that the government was broadcasting this static. This is how awake they are, this is how knowledgeable they are about what’s going on. Basically, any audio you record over there, when you get it, you will hear a hum, a constant hum, like very constant in everything we shot in that city. And when I say unusable, I mean it was garbage, like twenty percent was good. So we had to go shop it all over Los Angeles.
Najia: I really wanted to cover drug addicts because one of the biggest issues in Afghanistan is drugs. They were saying, “you cannot go there.” I said, “I am going to go there.” And I did, and the funny thing that happened was that one of my cameramen, the assistant cameraman, we set him with a GoPro and he kept the big camera in the car so he can film. He got attacked. In my head, I’m saying, that’s my crew. All I do, I rip all my microphones, everything, I rip everything off my clothes and I run. And I know that I am a woman and that is a drug addict’s den. And all I think is my crew is in there and I better go in and help. Anyway, when I go there, I, excuse my language, I got shit-scared from what I actually saw. We were going in there to see, you know, to find women and children which were there, and I froze and the next thing I know, I’m being pulled and shoved by these drugs addicts and my clothes are all over the place. And I’m thinking, that’s a man, I’m a woman, I better get myself out of here. Eventually I managed to get myself back out and luckily, my assistant cameraman came back out too.
Philippe : And even when they say no, that means, I’m going to do it. For me, I’ve done four films, every film that I’ve done, I had a producer saying no, and the the fourth film I had no one saying no and I thought, “this is too easy for me, am I even going to do the film?” The third was shot in the middle of the war with only two actors. We were there thirty-two days and you can hear everything, the shooting, with bridges broken, houses, families. Misery everywhere and we were shooting. And when you’re used to that, when you go to a calm situation, you feel awkward.
On looking for crew and starting production on a movie:
Xiaodong: In China, the demand for cameraman and director is like booming right there, but there is naturally not enough people to do it. The money is right there, but the talent is not. So now it is the golden age for the director, the cameraman and DP because there are so many opportunities to be there. And the equipment, we got everything, the best money can buy so it is easy to shoot our films with all this equipment but the talent is not there because the demand is so high … And I had a guy from Syria, working in China, and I asked him, “why did you not go to Europe? Why come to China?” He said, “why not?” I said, “well, we got this government, it’s a shitty government. Why come here?” And he said, “what are you saying? Here it’s shitty? Compared to Syria, it’s a paradise, man.”
Thomas: Well, when I make films in Macau, first of all, the most difficult thing about making films in Macau where few films are made, is that there are very little soft skills. Cast and crew are difficult to find. And being so close to Hong Kong actually does not serve Macau well because Hong Kong is so mature in their film industry and they are just a ferry ride away, one hour away from Macau so when you need to invest in production, you get a Hong Kong crew. They speak good English and work very fast. So when I try to crew up in Macau, the people that don’t come to mind are the cinematographer, the lead actor, and various heads of departments. For these people I get my own collaborators. In second film, I had a lot of people from Japan and I brought them over from Macau, and then we try to crew up the rest of the positions, below heads, locally. And that can sometimes get very difficult too because, again, because of how powerful the casinos are with controlling the economy there. The casinos are able to pay a random eighteen-year old kid or twenty-year old kid a lot of money just for working in the casino with no education, no skills so to speak. So getting these kind of people, you cannot compete with those rates and there are many people interested being in a film production in Macau because making films is very exciting. But when interests meets hard work, after two or three days, the interests disappear.
Sanjeewa: When the government banned my first film, there was a time that I couldn’t go back to Sri Lanka so I went to South Korea. After that, sometime later I was able to come back to Sri Lanka. We also have censorship, before you show a film, you have to send it to the censure board and get approved from the defense ministry and there so many ways to do it. So I am always giving them very nice scripts, actually, and they think that this is going to be a very beautiful love story, it’s about a girl and boy. But once I get the letter delivered, they say, we approve this film, that is very important for me so when people come to the set, I can show them that I have the right documents. And also, I am very careful when I am working with actors because they are coming from different backgrounds. Mainly I don’t give them my script, I give them their part and I talk to them. So I don’t give them anything that they can send to another person. I never give my script to anyone else but I tell them the story very well. I had a bad experience with my first film, I gave my script to one of my crew members and then the government got that script from them and I had a difficult time doing the shooting.
On having to promote the film and compete in award ceremonies:
Sam: It’s a very challenging for an independent filmmaker to be in this situation but it is a very high class problem to have, which is being nominated. But at the same time how can you actually compete with films that have studios behind them, to promote for them, to have three billboards on Sunset Boulevard. How can you find this and it is very difficult, and all of a sudden, you find yourself struggling and wondering, how am I going to promote my film. I am in a great position right now but it is a risk because you have to push your film forward.
Najia: Well, the difficulty I face is that I made a documentary film and it is based on real people and real stories. To be very honest with you there are very few people that will fund it or put any amount of money in it because documentaries do not usually make money. Feature films make a lot more, so it was the most difficult thing, after filming Afghanistan, to raise funds. Nobody came forward so I had to go to keep talking my friends and people I knew who were wealthy. It just wasn’t happening but luckily I managed to get the funds together somehow and here we are
Philippe: It’s a big illusion to think that those who go into the Oscar’s, twice my films were submitted to the Oscars, this time it’s the Golden Globes. I think it’s an illusion, and we’re in it, as filmmakers, but it’s an illusion for those who see the films that are winning, to believe that the best film had won. It’s not just about the talent of the filmmaker or the beauty of the story. Surely the films that win are good stories but I think we all have good stories and we are not in a fair competition. We are in a competition in a system which is very capitalistic, where if you get money, you can be seen rather than in different parts of the world. Less so now, for Cannes and other huge festivals. You also need a lot of power to get into these festivals … It’s not done for you, it’s done for the ones who have money. So this is something to be told for the rest of the world, the rest of the world think that those who are winning are those who have it or yes, surely their movie is good but it’s not always fair.
Photo above: From right to left: Thomas Lim from Singapore (actor and director), Xie Xiao Dong from China (producer and writer of “Nirvana”), Sanjeewa Pushpakumara from Sri Lanka (director of “Burning Bird”). Photo by Elizabeth Soelistio.