Does independent film making still yield independent thought?

In the recent years or so more labs, workshops, seminars and masterclasses are being held especially in Southeast Asia and is that really crucial to the film-making in general? Is it instead reinforce a homogeneous mode of thinking rather than allowing people to discover their personal voice or drawing the parameters of what type of films are being celebrated?

I guess the question stems from a belief is that I am interested in seeing a certain point of view in a film, even when I disagree with it. But much like everyone else, an in depth study into the film festival scene (take your pick: European, American Indie, Asia) it is inevitable that to get an access to funding there is a certain type of film being reinforced as much as it attempts to be diverse annually.

Peter Weir’s advice to filmmakers is that he wishes them a “fantastic failure”. The killer is success for films as a filmmaker must take risks, but just enough success to keep you going.

It’s easy to have silos, separating mainstream thought from woke culture up to fear mongering in personal politics or religious belief. But what I personally believe is the first thing I was thought as a director navigating actors: Listen.

Listen even when you don’t want to.

You look like us, sound like us but are not us.

I decided in this post to really focus on something that is perhaps more specific to the US but will later expand upon why I feel it is also applicable internationally.

Being an Asian, more specifically Chinese person in the US currently, I’ve had comments come up a couple of times during conversations when people mention it’s a great time to create content because Asian voices are on frequent display at the moment. Examples stemming from films like Crazy Rich Asians, Blue Bayou, Shang-Chi, The Farewell and the list goes on

From my observation, I believe that the support and funding here is gearing toward more specifically Asian-American stories rather just than just under an all encompassing Asian blanket. That is where I feel the distinction lies and thus it is challenging as an outsider/ foreigner to come in with stories that do not fit into that particular fold.

It is important to highlight that this exposure on Asian-American stories are long overdue, as being a minority in a country like the US it is crucial for them to finally share an integral part of their culture in this evolving media landscape. However my question is that are all stories coming out of this canon necessary to be told by a particular person of a particular background? Do I need to check of all the required boxes to be qualified to tell stories of a certain nature?

This is where I bring my case globally, where now it would seem that director’s in their statement for grant proposals often time has to reflect how they identify with the story and if key elements align it might aid in the commissioner’s decision whether you get funding or not which in some manner validates the “authenticity” of the story you’re trying to tell. This ranges from racial and sexual identity to socioeconomic backgrounds.

I guess then the question I would put forward is that was Ang Lee any less qualified to do Brokeback Mountain because he was not a white man who reared sheep in rural Wyoming? Was it difficult for Kathryn Bigelow to identify with the inner struggles of the adrenaline junkie Sergeant First Class William James in the making of The Hurt Locker? Is it impossible for Wong Kar Wai to create a degree intimacy and truth in the relationship between two gay lovers while filming Happy Together?

I think these are questions we should be putting forth in evaluating the quality of the storytellers and the potential they have in the depths they are able to reach within themselves in creating this world rather than the checklist they fulfill. Because if we do not do that, we have films that often time work well on paper but no longer challenge the quality of craftsmanship in storytelling that would reach to a wider audience. This is why in my opinion that it is more apparent these days to quantify the types of film we have made and target it specifically at the audience it was meant for. Woke films for woke audiences and genre films targeted at specific fandom. This bleeds down to the desperate need for intellectual property (IP) because it is material that has been already tested and we know the product we are selling and to whom they were meant for (which then comes down to the size of this audience). There is a line I heard with regards to treating on-set extras that I will repurpose to this specific argument: “If you treat your audience like cattle, they will act like cattle.” This means to say that the diet moviegoers depend upon is what is put out into the distribution ecosystem which then informs the content that gets distributed because everyone wants to make a calculated gamble.

I know I say this with a degree of detachment from the real-world but I think is relevant to the times we are in trying to make movies.

To those that hold the powers in deciding if a project gets made or not.

Take a leap of faith, that’s all I ask.

Built on the corpses of a thousand dreams.

It’s been challenging trying to write this post because for some reason my brain shuts down every time I start to type.

And now it’s been almost an hour since I continued to type this next line.

And after going through twelve Youtube videos about dogs that were adopted and finding a new home, I’m barely able to start writing.

I preface what I’m about to write by saying that I recognize film as a product but independent film-making generally has always banked on the the goodwill of tons of people, therefore often times the process cannot be divorced from the final outcome of the film.

Film in itself is a different industry (or a community in a smaller country like Singapore) compared to others because the work itself requires a degree of emotional investment from all departments. It is difficult to say that some departments are purely technical because we all start off reading a script and that already elicts an emotional response out of the crew (even if it’s boredom or confusion).

So when it comes to the production of the film, it often times comes down to managing logistics against human emotions and these two things always comes at odds against one another. A example where budget is low therefore you can only afford to hire so much for grips and attempt to get an untrained intern as another pair of hands and therefore the key grip has to overwork/teach at the same time or there isn’t enough extras for a scene and due to budget limitations a production assistant is tasked to ask friends/relatives to turn up for a couple of hours with food and transportation covered but no pay. Such things are a daily occurrence that soon become normalized and taken as a part of film making in general.

The examples I’ve just mentioned are arguably exploitative to a degree but are mild comparing to experiences I’ve been through or even people whom I know have gone through. Yet at the same time all these would be worth it somehow if the film was released and the team felt included in the successes of that project. I personally have crewed on three low budget feature films; two of which has never seen the light of day and one of them has had a single day release at REX cinemas in Singapore. There are crews that have given literally their health to these projects to come out of it having strong PTSD toward film-making.

This is the part I really wish to focus upon; PTSD in film-making. Often times difficult experiences can be carried as a badge of honour and people will gather once in awhile to share war stories from film sets. However there are people I know that write off film-making as unsustainable or “make all these films liao then?” kind of attitude and gradually change their line of work or choose a more stable part of the film-making chain (if there ever is one). I’ve seen people emotionally broken because of what they’ve given to a project only not to be respected or reciprocated in any manner. What the creators of projects need to be aware of is that often times people don’t bounce back from such experiences. Communication, accountability, respect are key values that are frequently pushed to the side in pursuit of this larger dream and I can assure you that this dream-making machine is always hungry.

As I’m writing this I recall those three projects and the fatigue of those experiences to only remind myself that these “war stories”, as exciting as they are, do not create constructive conversation around our film-making environment. Coming out of film school the attrition rate is often high and people who stay in the narrative film-making realm need begin to ask themselves what ecosystem are they creating? Is the product you’re creating really worth the sacrifices of the hopefulness and naïveté of a new bunch of dreamers or maybe something to be reconsidered and re-evaluated?