Courtesy of Discovery Networks, we were given the opportunity to interview two prominent figures in the film industry: Lina Teoh, the head of MyDocs and Dato’ Azmir, Deputy Director-General of FINAS to talk more on Malaysian documentaries and its future. Their opinions however, may differ from each other.
- How is the documentary scene now compared to a decade ago? What have been some of the biggest developments?
LINA TEOH: The scene has definitely matured. Back then, most local documentary filmmakers had not really ventured into doing international productions. In fact, 10 years ago was when the first co-productions between FINAS and international broadcasters like the National Geographic Channel and Discovery first began.
It was also the first time anyone ventured into doing full HD productions at an international level and the learning curve for local filmmakers was huge! I can say that, because I was one of the filmmakers that experienced the first wave of collaborations first hand and it was tough! There is a very strict and high standard when it comes to producing documentaries at an international level and back then, this practice was all very new to us.
But now, there are many companies and filmmakers who are much more familiar and experienced with these high quality international standards. Filmmakers who consistently produce at this level all the time.
DATO’ AZMIR: Improving, getting better, and we hope it will continue to be a matured business eco-system for the Malaysian Documentary sector. Before 2008, the industry was mainly focusing on the domestic market, for domestic consumption. From 2009-2012, FINAS has introduced several programs collaborating with multiple regional broadcasters such as NatGeo and Discovery, as a platform to mentor, expose and provide opportunities for Malaysian documentary makers to produce high quality stories that will be received well by the international audience. Programs such as First Time Documentary Makers and Eyes on Malaysia have been proven to be a huge success for Malaysia. More recently, with the introduction of Content Malaysia Pitching Centre with the facilitation of Co-Production Grant, Malaysian documentary makers have moved up another level in seeking co-production partners and business opportunities. One success story is with Kynite TV from Malaysia and Beach House Pictures from Singapore, alongside Discovery Channel Asia, in producing the 10-part natural history series “Frontier Borneo”.
- What do you think contributed to the increase in the number of documentary filmmakers in Malaysia?
LINA TEOH: I hope MyDocs certainly has been a huge contributing factor! We’ve been working very hard in the past 2 years to reach out to different types of filmmakers in Malaysia, to create a stronger and more diverse documentary community. As a result, we have really seen a big increase in numbers attending our training workshops and documentary film screenings, which is wonderful! It shows that the interest for documentary filmmaking in Malaysia is there, we just need to continue to work towards building the industry.
One of the other biggest contributions to the development of the documentary industry in Malaysia over the past 10 years has been FINAS’ support in continuing to commit to co-productions with international partners. This provides local documentary filmmakers the opportunity to learn as well as a platform to share their stories beyond local shores. They have also been very involved in working with us to help develop and facilitate many amazing international standard training programs. So now we are starting to see the positive outcome from all these efforts.
DATO’ AZMIR: I would say there are 2 factors: Malaysia has many stories to be told; and
the proactive support from MyDocs, the body that sparks and facilitates relationships between policy makers such as FINAS with the industry and documentary makers.
Another factor is the relatively easy entry point to start documentary projects in Malaysia, which is much lower and accessible in terms of budget, equipment and skilled workers (crew).
- Ever since the rise of streaming-services, documentaries have become more accessible online. Has this changed the way documentaries are filmed in any way?
LINA TEOH: I don’t think this affects the way documentaries are made… it just changes the way people watch them. And this has changed for all types of content, not just documentaries.
Filmmakers can now produce many different types of stories for many different platforms, which can actually be a good thing, as it opens up the market to a larger variety of storytellers and keeps the industry evolving. It has also given a lot of power back to the filmmakers, as we are no longer so reliant on the traditional platforms to get our stories seen and heard.
However that also means more competition so we need to continue to be creative and constantly keeps ourselves updated on the latest trends, platforms and technologies.
For example, VR is now a big thing and many more filmmakers are creating VR experiences as part of their content. So in addition to producing a film you now need to think about the possibilities of what else you can create as part of that package because viewers expectations have changed. An interactive website? Facebook page, Instagram? A unique VR experience? These are all part of what it takes to produce a film in today’s creative landscape.
But no matter what the platform, at the end of the day, Story is King and that will never change. From a short doc filmed on an iPhone to an extremely high budget glossy blue chip documentary. Both can be just as engaging as the other if their stories are well told. And both can be equally terrible and boring if not!
DATO’ AZMIR: Yes it certainly does, and we can’t avoid the rise of enabling and emerging technologies. Documentary makers have to adapt to new modes of information consumption to make their projects more accessible – such as online accessibility, virtual reality, and 360-degree monetization model. What we are saying here is the “user experience”. For me, user experience is king, documentary makers need to understand user’s behavior, analyse the audience through user segments, and know who the fans are (the target audience).
- In your capacity at MyDocs, has the direction of Malaysian documentaries changed to cater for the online audience / new age internet junkies?
LINA TEOH: MyDocs mission is to help create opportunities for local filmmakers to learn, network and develop their ideas into world-class quality films. To achieve this, we coordinate many different types of training workshops throughout the year and some of those workshops are definitely focused in this direction.
I am just putting together the plans for next year and VR training and how to produce your films for the online platform is definitely on the list.
- Can our current crop of documentaries compete globally?
LINA TEOH: For both documentaries and their respective filmmakers, we already are. We have many locally produced documentaries being shown all over the world through high profile international broadcasters and we have been doing this for 10 years now. However we still have a long way to go. We need more training, more experience and more industry knowledge.
That is why training programs like Crossing Borders are so important. Crossing Borders is a training programme for documentary professionals in Asia and Europe looking to access the international market. This year Crossing Borders collaborated with FINAS and MyDocs as their Asian partners. 15 projects were selected from Asia and Europe (four from Malaysia) and have attended two out of three workshops so far – one in Malaysia this July and one in Leipzig, Germany this October. The workshops cover training in how to develop your story, accessing the international market, pitching your project, editing a polished trailer, distributing your finished film, how to navigate the international co-production process and more. More details can be found at http://www.documentary-campus.com/trainingoffers/crossing-borders/
As part of the program, the participants were also given the opportunity to pitch their stories to an international panel of over 30 Decision Makers and Commissioning Editors in Leipzig and am proud to say that two Malaysian projects were awarded the GZDoc best pitch prize!
This December 9th 2017, we will hold the final workshop and pitch in Kuala Lumpur. All 15 participants will once again get the chance to pitch their story ideas to potential international partners, funders and co-producers. This is an amazing opportunity for all the filmmakers as it gives them a unique platform to network and access both the Asian and European markets. Check out this link of projects for this year’s pitch http://www.documentary-campus.com/projects/crossing-borders/.
This unique pitching forum will also be open to the public to observe. We will share the link to register to attend soon!
We are also accepting 3 additional guest pitches from Malaysia, which will be announced closer to the pitch date.
DATO’ AZMIR: Most definitely! At the moment, our creativity, capability and skills are at par or above global standards, and what we need next is to create opportunities.
- What is MyDocs doing towards growing the documentary filmmaking industry in Malaysia?
LINA TEOH: The Malaysian Documentary Association (MyDocs) has grown a lot over the past few years. Four or five years ago when MyDocs was just starting out, we weren’t very organised or consistent in achieving our goals as we were all active filmmakers busy making our films! But over the past two to three years that has really changed. We have become much more focused and committed and I have seen the impact it is beginning to have.
I see a greater interest in the documentary genre as a whole and definitely a hunger for more skill training and knowledge sharing events and workshops. We are seeing an increase in participation from many different types of storytellers too which is great! From social issue documentaries, to short documentaries to creative documentaries and not just the commercial documentary filmmakers.
We are also partnering with more local documentary festivals and broadcasters to work together towards creating a more professional and thriving local documentary industry.
Malaysia traditionally doesn’t have a strong documentary watching culture like the UK, Europe and the US. So it is more difficult for us to convince local audiences to watch them. Something we are trying to change by having more screenings of documentary films as well as working closely with local broadcasters to support the documentary film industry.
It is our hope that through MyDocs, local filmmakers can use this platform to network, learn and share their experiences and stories, creating a more productive and healthy industry and community. And hopefully get some awesome Malaysian documentary films funded and made in the process!
MyDocs is a non-profit association dedicated in the development of the Malaysian documentary industry both locally and internationally. We organise workshops, film screenings, pitching/ funding opportunities, as well as sponsor small delegations to attend international documentary conferences/ pitching forums when possible.
Our goal is to create opportunities for local documentary filmmakers to learn, network and to be inspired to create world-class documentary films. We also hope to be able to create a bigger documentary film watching community in Malaysia through our screenings of both local and international documentary films. We often have the filmmakers and experts present after the screenings for an open Q&A discussion, to help raise public awareness to many important issues highlighted by the films. We are also active in creating strong partnerships with other industry organisations that have the same missions and goals. We are currently in talks with various local broadcasters, VOD and online platforms to work towards creating a stronger documentary presence. For more information you can also go to www.mydocs.my or our FB page.
- What hopes do you have for the industry a decade from now?
LINA TEOH: I would like to see a thriving and vibrant local documentary filmmaking scene with highly skilled documentary professionals who have their stories shown on multiple platforms all over the world.
Ultimately I would love to see a Malaysian made feature length documentary being shown worldwide at all the big festivals!
DATO’ AZMIR: I hope the documentary industry becomes a business-generating model (monetisation and entrepreneurship). At the moment, it depends on commissioning projects and servicing. IP licensing, brand monetisation should be the way forward.
- In terms of revealing the truth in its most raw form in documentaries, where do we draw the line when it comes to censorship?
DATO’ AZMIR: I would say censorship is still needed. Depend on each country’s policy. Censorship is not just about content sensitivity but about the country security and other sensitive issues, which all depends on how each country sees it. We can’t change other countries policies, but our documentary makers have to know what can be done and what cannot, and there are many creative ways of telling a visual story so that it can travel to various audiences as far as it can.
- What are FINAS’ current/future initiatives to improve the local documentary filmmaking scene?
DATO’ AZMIR: To introduce the end-to-end industry development programs.From idea creation to production assistance, co-production, business networking and something FINAS would like to focus on moving forward is attending festivals/awards submissions – in making sure the Malaysian filmmaking industry becomes more well known to the international audience.