by Journal Watermark

Recall the last time you watched a riveting documentary. What was it that caught your attention? Was it a heartwarming storyline? Stunning visuals? Characters that you really connected with? Often times, it would probably be an intriguing mix of these elements that make a documentary so riveting.

In this session titled ‘Documenting the Undocumented’, we listen to two prominent local filmmakers Sumithra Prasanna and Mary Chin as they candidly share about their filmmaking experiences. Having been producing visual content for quite some time, both of them started by re-affirming the value of documentaries in providing us with insight into the human condition, while crafting a narrative journey that the audience can connect with.

For Sumithra, filming a documentary is much like writing a research paper — to posit a strong premise which will then be answered, keeping in mind the relevance of the subject material to the audience involved. As she patiently details the process of cinematography — from locating dynamic angles to shoot, to recording the right ambience sounds, from asking the right questions to the interview subject to managing the dynamics within a crew, one cannot help but feel immersed in an actual scene itself! It may be a demanding artistic exercise, but as Mary reassured us, it is actually the keen observation of everyday life and choice of a topic close to our hearts (and backed up by research) that help filmmakers like herself convey their message with personal conviction and aesthetic intricacies.

Yet, the process of filmmaking has far more profound impacts than simply capturing a story; as the discussion moved on, the panellists both expressed how it has helped them attain new perspectives on reality and cultivated values such as empathy and self-awareness in the crew, informing the way they live life beyond the screen.

For instance, Sumithra notes how in her favourite documentary Undercover Asia, which reports on the trafficking of underage girls as child labour, the suspense the audience feels as they follow the quest to find a missing girl accentuates the joy when she is finally rescued, eliciting in them a whole palette of emotions to contend with. Indeed, Mary reminds us that while documentaries are factual by nature, it is simultaneously also a conduit for relationship-building, requiring those involved to invest both time and their hearts in the process.

Interestingly, this raises the question of whether the crew needs to detach themselves while shooting to avoid being too emotionally detached to their subjects, to which Sumithra addressed in the Q&A by doubting whether any documentary can be truly objective since filmmakers invariably bring in their own perspectives into the subject matter. What filmmakers seek to do, instead, is to stay balanced, eschew propaganda, and provide the audience with alternative points of view for them to form their own conclusion.

To budding directors, the panellists urge you to tell good (and true) stories, question the status quo and explore depths of subject matter at hand. At the same time, adopt an open-minded, respectful, and responsible attitude as you embark on this exciting journey. Your correspondent couldn’t agree more with the panellist’s quote in closing: if you can’t pay back, at least pay forward.