Paths Untold

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022

 

Nico Meissner: Author, Director
Name of Work: Paths Untold: Sketches of South-East Asian Filmmaking Careers
Year: 2019
Length: 27 micro-documentaries of 74 minutes total run time

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Background

As a film school educator and a keen proponent of cultural enterprise, a question that has always been close to my heart is: How do independent filmmakers build and sustain a career in the global screen industries of the 21st century?

I have worked with students at film schools in Australia, Malaysia, the UK, Portugal, Finland, Myanmar, Ghana and Colombia. What unites all aspiring filmmakers are their exuberant dreams as well as the anxiety of not knowing how exactly to go about them. I sometimes wonder whether the increasing pressure on higher education to provide vocational training is creating that anxiety and, as a consequence, robs students of the beauty of their dreams – the ability to explore, experiment and take risks, the ability to be more excited about the journey than anxious about arriving at the destination. I strongly believe that the main muscles that need to be built at a film school are experimentation, reflection and creative innovation. Without those, without the potential for getting it wrong, there is no creative career and no creative industries.

The opportunity to explore the question of career-building through a quasi-ethnographic approach and long interviews (McCracken 1988) with independent filmmakers in South-East Asia was presented to me when I received a New Research Grant from Griffith University in 2017. The grant allowed me to travel to all ten ASEAN countries and interview 27 South-East Asian independent filmmakers about their career-building journeys.

Why South-East Asia? The simplest answer is because I lived and worked in Malaysia before joining Griffith Film School and I was always fascinated by the excitement and positive ‘can do’ attitudes of creative practitioners in the country. The slightly more academic answer is that screen industry careers outside of the global mainstream are rarely illuminated even though they are the reality for most aspiring filmmakers. They are truly paths untold.

South-East Asian filmmakers, I strongly believe, do not just deserve more attention, they can also teach their global peers a lot about resilience and entrepreneurship in a creative career. Most ASEAN countries do not have screen agencies or public funding for the arts. Local broadcasters are much less likely to train new talent. Film festivals are less visible than their global counterparts. And disposable incomes are generally lower than in most developed countries. Yet, despite all of this, there is eclectic artistic activity, a potpourri of stories, and a creative thirst and burst that is contagious. South-East Asia is an exciting place with thriving independent film scenes of increasing global recognition (see for instance Baumgaertel 2012, Angawanij and McKay 2015, Lim and Yamamoto 2012).

Contribution

The research project has led to two major outputs: a research monograph to be published by Routledge in 2021 as well as a series of micro-documentaries, collectively called Paths Untold.

Nia Dinata – Indonesia 

Paths Untold are sketches of independent filmmaking in South-East Asia that come together in an extensive library of 27 micro-documentaries on South-East Asian filmmakers, their careers and the cities they call home. While the research monograph explores the research question in a more traditional form, the films allowed me to experiment with non-traditional research outputs. The 27 micro-documentaries are creative investigations on each of the interviewed filmmakers. They are designed as companion pieces to the book but also as a more digestible and accessible form of expression, that can be used as teaching materials or exhibition pieces to distribute a different kind of knowledge and access new audiences.

Anthony Chen – Singapore 

Most importantly, however, the micro-documentaries helped me to explore what the written word struggles to express: a feeling for the places the filmmakers I spoke to call home, an idea of an attitude to life, an emotional connection with the interviewees. I hoped to locate the filmmakers’ personal histories into their local surroundings and visually explore South-East Asian capital cities as creative spaces that reflect the modern, urban realities of artists in the region.

Nandita Solomon – Malaysia 

As such, the micro-documentaries almost take an oppositional, though complimentary, approach to the book. The book presents lived histories of an almost factual nature (albeit through my own interpretations as interviewer). Cause and effect as well as narrative structure become defining approaches of my exploration and its subsequent representation. The micro-documentaries give license for a more meditative inquiry, an aesthetic experience that is based on intuition. Knowledge, here, is created through snippets rather than stories, much like poetry does (see also Arnheim, 1986, and Knudsen, 2008, for discussions on intuition in art and transcendental realism in documentary respectively).

Dao Thanh Hung – Vietnam

The undeniable fact that I am an outsider to South-East Asia was reflected in the production method for the micro-documentaries. I attempted to see the places not just through my own eyes but also through local lenses. To do so, I first worked with local contacts that are familiar with the creative industries and able to point to the urban spaces that creatives frequent. Those became the locations we filmed. My key collaborators were young film school graduates from the region – one cinematographer and four editors from Malaysia and one editor from Indonesia. I then worked with a supervising editor and sound designer from Brisbane to ensure a unified aesthetic across the project.

Mattie Do – Laos 

Unlike traditional, written research outputs, Paths Untold allowed me to experience the filmmakers’ homes and aspects of their lives in a less structured, more aesthetic, transcendental and, dare I say, intuitive way, as opposed to the precision of spoken or written words. The work feels more personal and open to interpretation than the monograph it complements.

John Torres – The Philippines 

Significance

Paths Untold celebrates creative careers and lives in South-East Asia. Interviews with filmmakers – from Camera d’Or winners to first-time short film creators – provide a deep insight into the life and work of creative entrepreneurs in the ten South-East Asian capital cities. Paths Untold brings to light creative entrepreneurship and the new urban realities in one of the world’s most vibrant filmmaking regions.

The 27 stories of independent filmmaking careers in South-East Asia reinforce Fernando Solana’s (1970) idea of total filmmaking and call into question film production training that is organised around discipline silos. While film schools around national and international centres of content production have to reflect the industry’s need for specialisation, careers outside of those production hubs look very different – they are multi-skilled and entrepreneurial. I elaborate on this in the forthcoming research monograph Independent Filmmaking in South-East Asia (Routledge, 2021) and discuss it from a pedagogical perspective in the chapter ‘In Defense of the Total Filmmaker in Mourao, Semerdjiev, Mello and Taylor’s The 21st Century Film, TV & Media School'(CILECT 2019).

Paths Untold and its 27 micro-documentaries are exhibited on the project’s website. They were invited as gallery installation to the George Town Festival in Penang, Malaysia, in August 2018. A surprising yet impactful use of the films came in workshops with social entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka – one that had nothing to do with filmmaking or creative careers but dealt with personal storytelling in business.

Production Credits

Paths Untold is a thoughtful brooding and charming conversation about unapologetic can-do attitudes; sprinkled with idealism, a little realism and a good portion of optimism – garnished with pretty pictures and sounds. All the films can be found at: www.southeastasianfilmcareers.com
Producer/Director: Nico Meissner
Cinematography: Emmy Ong
Post-Production Supervisor: Judy Yeh
Editors: Chan Hwee Lan, Reuben Singham, Fara Emiera, Syaira Ahmad, Sabrina Sidharta, Mitchell Shearwin
Sound Editor: Peter Kurucz

Bibliography

Arnheim, Rudolf. 1986. New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Baumgärtel, Tilman, ed. 2012. Southeast Asian Independent Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Ingawanij, Adadol and McKay, Benjamin, editors. 2015. Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Knudsen, Erik, 2008. Transcendental Realism in Documentary. In Rethinking the Documentary: new perspectives, new practices, edited by Wilma De Jong and Thomas Austin, 108-120. Maidenhead: Open University Press, McGraw Hill.

Lim, David CL, & Yamamoto, Hiroyuki, editors. 2012. Film in Contemporary Southeast Asia: Cultural Interpretation and Social Intervention. New York: Routledge.

McCracken, Grant David. 1988. The long interview. London: Sage.

Solanas, Fernando, and MacBean, James Roy. 1970. Fernando Solanas: An Interview. Film Quarterly, 24(1): 37–43.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

Paths Untold investigates the career paths of a variety of South-East Asian Filmmakers, through a series of 27 micro-documentaries. I found Paths Untold exciting as a potential pedagogical tool. Dr Meissner states that it asks the following question; ‘How do independent filmmakers build a career in the global screen industries of the 21st century?’ This seems to be a central question that film school students want to engage with, and want to be answered. It’s one I certainly attempt to address in my teaching. I can easily see how using some of these micro-docs would work very well as discussion starters around this question.

It’s in the nature of the length of these micro-docs (all 2 -3 minutes long) that they’re better at framing this question in various ways than coming up with answers. However, I think that is a valid pedagogical strategy.

There is a spectrum of ways this question is engaged with. The filmmakers involved engage in their practice in different ways and use different perspectives. For instance, Mattie Do insists that she can make a film for $5,000, whereas Anthony Chen only wants to work on fully budgeted films. These two perspectives situate them in different places in the global filmmaking production/distribution ecology. But both perspectives are valuable ways of looking at how a career might be sustained. I can imagine screening these two micro-docs as a way for students to think about how they want to work and be situated in this ecology.

What also comes through in all these micro-docs is the urgency with which these filmmakers approach their practice. This is a common thread that runs through practice, and again is a useful conversation starter with students.

Paths Untold utilises a similar aesthetic all through the 27 micro-docs. Some of its strategies include a fairly fast cutting, a bleached colour palette, and an up-tempo jazzy music score. It makes sense to me that there is an aesthetic unity in all the episodes. Not all these stylistic decisions sat well with me. For instance, I found the colour palette rather unappealing. But, I also accept that these are subjective decisions, and someone else would feel differently about them.

I found the decision not to focus on talking heads, but rather use them sparingly, and sometimes just as vision under overlay, an interesting one, and something that worked for me. Emphasising talking heads would have been the obvious decision to make. Therefore, not going in that direction was pleasurable for me.

In short, I think the project definitely lived up to its potential as an artefact that engaged strongly with the main question, in a bold and interesting way, stylistically.

The question that is explored is the obvious one stated in Dr Meissner’s accompanying paper. The micro-docs also created many other questions for me. Some of these are around issues of class, race, nationality and gender, which the micro-docs often touch on lightly. Some instances of this include Nandita Solomon who speaks about the expectation that as an Indian in Malaysia, she’s expected to make Tamil films, John Torres who questions what a Filipino film might be, and Nia Donata from Indonesia, who talks about the difficulty of making LGBTQI work.

With some filmmakers, it’s obvious that they make a living from their practice. But with others, it seems that they do not. I am always curious to know how filmmakers and artists support themselves financially in this precarious world. This conundrum was summed up in one micro-doc, in which the filmmaker spoke about the Malaysian experience, in which it is stated they do not have an industry, they have a scene. This again, would be an interesting discussion starter for Australian students; which do we have and what does that mean in terms of career and creative practice?

I am not sure that I would describe the work as innovative, as I question what that descriptor means, and what its value is. However, I would describe the work as intriguing, intellectually curious and satisfying, and stylistically pleasurable.

I think that the new knowledge produced centres around hearing the voices of South-East Asian filmmakers, something that feels comparatively rare in Australia, but which should not be the case. I think the series of micro-docs stands as an important contribution to exploring creative practice, and a potentially valuable one for local students to use.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Unlike the cinema of Japan, China, Korea and India, which is much studied and written about, South East Asian cinema remained relatively understudied until recent years.

The 27 profiles showcase a range of filmmakers and approaches to filmmaking from the countries of South-East Asia. They represent the new generation of filmmakers who, while located physically within their own cities and nations, nevertheless connect with the global world of filmmaking either through education in Europe or Northern America, or through participation in festivals, funding projects, online filmmaking communities etc.

A few of them have a practice of over 10 years, but most are young emerging filmmakers, often with one or more successful films to their credit. Nico Meissner has caught them at a very promising point in their filmmaking careers, where they are still in touch with their dreams and idealism, but have also encountered the realities of film practice. Their work in the immediate future would be something to look forward to.

The conversations offer insights into each individual filmmaker’s journey, their attitude to work, the various ways in which they attempt to raise funds and produce work, as also their relationships with the communities to which they belong and about whom they make films. A few have also had to contend with an authoritarian state and its restrictive laws. The profiles will make excellent stories of inspiration for young filmmakers anywhere in the world.

The films ‘take us’ to the filmmakers, so to speak and generate curiosity about their work. Every filmmaker’s trust has been won and they have spoken with great candour about their dreams, aspirations and struggles.

This is the work’s greatest strength, as the voice of the speaker emerges clearly. The conscious use of asynchronous speaking allows for the use of the image as not merely illustrative, but evocative. This makes for engaging viewing, but also raises a few questions about the visual treatment used in these films and its rationale.

The research statement says ‘I hoped to locate the filmmakers’ personal histories into their local surroundings and visually explore South-East Asian capital cities as creative spaces that reflect the modern, urban realities of artists in the region’.

This has been realised through a sequence of images, of either the filmmaker walking through the city, or through a montage of images of the city, sometimes cut quickly to create a sense of energy. It is not clear what this pacing and the music used with it, both of which dominate over the spoken word, is meant to represent.

Each profile has a particularity to some extent, but often, the same images appear in all three profiles from one city, albeit edited differently. The intent of this is not entirely clear, especially since there appears to be a conscious decision not to link the stories of three filmmakers from the same city, in any kind of narrative.

The same question may be posed of the images that run through the 27 films, e.g. the tangle of electric cables hanging in the sky, or young men playing sports on the street, or skating/rollerblading on sidewalks, or low angle shots of people sitting behind the iron grills that enclose their small balconies.

Do these images reflect what perhaps appears to be similar in all these cities to an ‘outsider’ eye? The research statement acknowledges the researcher’s positionality, but nevertheless, the purpose of repeating these images as a motif almost throughout the 27 films is not entirely clear.

The films are meant to be companion pieces to a monograph, but my comments below are based on the films when viewed on their own.

The films position themselves clearly as exploring the question stated in the research statement – How do independent filmmakers build and sustain a career in the global screen industries of the 21st century?

The question is explored through conversations with 27 filmmakers about their own practice. The pace of these conversations is deliberately leisurely and allows the speakers to reflect on their own journey. They are both insightful and illuminating, as they give us a glimpse of not just of how the researcher sees the filmmakers, but how they see themselves, which is a valuable addition to our understanding of the question.

The research statement mentions quasi ethnography as a method of research used for these films. This poses two questions:

  • How representative of South-East Asian film practitioners is this group?
  • Were there others who do not feature here and what were the criteria for choosing these 27?

Each film stands on its own and tells its own individual story. Viewed collectively, the films create an experience of ‘what it is like to be making films in South East Asia’ but leave the viewers to draw their own conclusions. This open-endedness is the strength of the work, and raises some important questions regarding creative practice-based research:

1) Does a film that creates an experience for the viewer contribute to research? Does such a research output need to be accompanied by a textual output that follows the norms of text-based academic research?

2) When evaluated as a research output, does the visual language of film, its sound and production design become methods of inquiry? How do we make these methods apparent? How do we critique them in the context of practice-based research?

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

I want to thank the reviewers for their feedback and favourable comments on my work. Some of them allowed me to see the micro-documentaries from an angle I had not considered before. I am also glad that the reviewers agree that the format of a micro-documentary can be a conversation starter in an educational setting. This was the main ambition of the project.

Two questions were raised in the reviews that are interesting to reflect on:

  • How were the filmmakers chosen?
  • And what was the rationale for the visual treatment of the micro-documentaries?

I will start with the easier question.

I had worked in Malaysia for close to four years before joining Griffith University and have a personal and professional network in some of the countries we visited. I knew who I wanted to interview in Malaysia. One of my old colleagues connected me with a filmmaker in Brunei. I had some connections in Singapore and knew two production designers in Indonesia who had taught with us in Malaysia. But most filmmakers I met through what one might call a snowballing approach. I asked my network whether they would know anyone in a specific country. Those primary contacts usually connected me further. Sometimes, filmmakers suggested other filmmakers to speak to after our interview. It was a bit of a messy but organic process. Of course, this ‘sampling’ is not ‘representative’ of a larger population in the strict scientific sense. It was rather purposeful. I usually asked about emerging filmmakers in each country as a starting point. The final list of 27 filmmakers is really a result of who I asked and who they knew. Overall, I had help from close to fifty people in this process. Every filmmaker I interviewed ended up in the book and in the Paths Untold micro-documentaries.

The second question is much more difficult for me to answer.

Though I lived in Malaysia, I remain an outsider to South-East Asia. This influenced the production approach for the micro-documentaries. I attempted to see the places not just through my own eyes but also through people more familiar with the culture. To do so, I first worked with local contacts that knew their respective creative industries and were able to identify urban spaces creatives frequent. Those became locations we filmed. My key collaborators were young filmmakers from the region – one cinematographer and four editors from Malaysia and one editor from Indonesia. I then worked with a supervising editor and sound designer from Brisbane to ensure a unified aesthetic across the project.

The visual treatment was much more intuitive than it was intentional. A lot of the ideas came from my collaborators. My main role in this project was the sourcing of interviewees, making sure we got to them (which was at times a bit of an adventure), conducting the interviews, and putting together a production team. I, of course, oversaw the edit in the end. But all editors had a lot of freedom – as had my cinematographer. As an interesting side note: I did originally plan 30-minute talking head documentaries for each country that would answer the research question in a more direct way. My cinematographer talked me out of this because she argued that those would not be appealing to film students. I am glad we abandoned that idea relatively quickly.

Our working method means that I can only speculate on the details of the visual treatment. I did specifically ask to be shown cafes and skateparks – mainly because I think they are part of a shared global aesthetic in urban spaces. We were shown different places by local contacts and then tried to stay curious. We often filmed around the places we stayed at or on the way to the interviews. We also wanted to cover day and night, and tried to focus on movement and people. It is interesting that the electric cables deserved specific mention in one of the reviews. They stood out to me as well. My cinematographer and I discussed them regularly. I suspect that she was fascinated with the visual geometry of the images and just kept seeing and filming them. In hindsight, though, I do think that those cables are a metaphor for large, chaotic, modern cities that grew at a very rapid pace.

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