Documenting the Undocumented: A Look Behind The Scenes

by Davene Lye and James Tan, Victoria Junior College

In Documenting the Undocumented, Sumithra Prasanna and Mary Chin walked us through the behind-the-scenes works that go into producing a documentary. Both speakers possess rich and diverse experiences in producing documentaries, and they shared candidly about these experiences, and lessons learnt from them.

Sumitha Prasana is a creative professional with years of experience in delivering thought-provoking and heartwarming content to the masses under her belt. Her works include exploring what Kashmiri youths were facing as they fought a hard-fought battle for independence, as well as bringing audiences on a journey to help an adopted Indian woman in her quest to find her birth mother. With the ability to step out of her comfort zone and an undying passion to share riveting stories to the masses, it is no wonder that she has garnered multiple distinguished awards over the years.

Over the course of her more than 10 years of experience in the media industry, Mary Chin has wrote and produced content that have been shown on major broadcasting networks like Discovery Channel. She is currently spreading her passion for documentary and honing the skills of the next generation, by teaching modules in documentary production at Singapore Polytechnic.

With the knowledge that these two speakers are highly-accomplished individuals in the media industry, the many aspiring documentary producers and writers sitting in the room were eager to learn a thing or two from what they have to share.

What makes a good documentary? Our sessioned opened by going right into the core of content creation. “Being able to tell a great story, a drama, with unforgettable characters and great visuals”, was what Sumithra felt was important in documentaries. Starting off with a strong premise, and then answering that pressing question, was the flow which Sumithra felt a good documentary would follow.

Mary Chin expounded on this by propounding that a good documentary would give an insight into the human condition, and would connect with the viewer, bringing him on an emotional journey. Furthermore, “truth” was something that both speakers unanimously agreed to be crucial and necessary when telling a story to the audience, since only by doing so will the audience recognise the sincerity and refreshing candour of the storyteller. This would be essential in ensuring that viewers would be inclined to dive deeper into the documentary and glue their eyes onto the screen until the end.

Speaking to a room filled with aspiring content producers, it was also highly apt that both speakers provided us with tips on how to embark on our journey. Something that Mary Chin frequently encourages her students to do is to start from a topic that they feel strongly about; she prompts them to observe everyday life, to reflect on their personal struggles, to connect with something they read on the news. Technology has further assisted budding producers;  filming a clip on one’s phone is now possible with high-quality video cameras and the abundance of editing software. To further ground this advice, the speakers highlighted to us the importance to research, of having quality interviews and shortlisting experts on the subject, as documentaries are, as they argued, not fiction films, but stories told about real people. “Everyone is a storyteller”, they shared, and the telling of stories is at the heart of documentaries.

Another topic on everyone’s mind was the emotional struggle that documentary producers sometimes go through in filming and creating the content. The speakers prompted us to think deeper as it how objective we actually are when looking at a subject matter, and to a certain extent, human subjectiveness is inevitable. They shared with us, however, that the important thing was for a documentary to be balanced, and to feature different point-of-views on a matter, and leave it open for the audience to decide on their own personal takes.

As with any other projects or tasks that any of us have undertaken, there are vital lessons that can be learnt from documentary-making. The first takeaway for them was to be respectful, whether it be bearing in mind the culture, customs or history of the environment they are working in or asking for permission from interviewees to let themselves and their stories be captured on camera, so as not to elicit any unwanted outcry from the public or affected groups.

Secondly, one needs to be humble and not let the triumphs you may have garnered over the years, or even just from a tiny project, get the better of you. Thirdly and not least of all was the significance of any journalist or the team in charge to be perseverant and to stay determined throughout the process of creating a particular documentary.

Countless declines by members of communities to be interviewed or the eternal number of attempts made to capture a perfect scene that can fit well into the storyline are just some of the inevitable challenges these two speakers have had to encounter. Yet, even when these challenges continue over an extended period of time, they reminded us that with patience and the drive to keep trying, there will finally be a moment where we can get to enjoy the fruits of our labour.