Can Documentaries Breathe New Life into the Creative Industries in Macao?

06 2016 | Issue 15
Text/Jason Leong, Lei Ka Io, Leo Lei

Many leading filmmakers, such as Jia Zhangke and Michael Moore, have made excellent documentaries, or have introduced documentary-style filmmaking seamlessly in their film production. What is the importance of documentary filmmaking in Macao, and what are the opportunities open to the local documentary filmmakers? To find out more about their views and preoccupations, we interviewed documentary filmmakers across different generations in both Macao and Hong Kong.

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Macao International Documentary Film Festival: Revamping the Image of Documentaries


The inaugural Macao International Documentary Film Festival held in late April has, in its own way, introduced the art of documentaries to the community. With “doMEmentary” as the theme, the Festival brought together documentaries based on personal stories from different parts of the world for the Macao community. The opening gala film, The Taste of Youth, is a new film directed by the Golden Horse award-winner Cheung King Wai, while other films screened at the Festival included Wansei Back Home by Huang Ming-Cheng, Taiwan’s leading director; Taxi, which won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlinale; as well as I’m Here directed by the local film director, Choi Ian Sin.


The Festival curator and person-in-charge, Lam Kin Kuan, said that Macao did not have such documentary festivals previously, and so the act of handpicking these award-winning films which feature everyday life is a deliberate choice to engage the audience, and to make them understand that documentaries can also be very appealing and full of personality.


“In English, we call these documentaries, but the term should not be confused with the word ‘document’, hence they have nothing to do with documents or files. After all, documentaries are a way of storytelling, and are all about narratives and characters. However, since documentary production is concerned with the recording of real events, such that the audience enjoys a sense of authenticity, the effects can be different,” said Lam.


Lam Kin Kuan majored in journalism in the University of Macau, and obtained a Master’s degree in Filming (Screen Documentary) at Goldsmiths College, University of London, with the subsidy from the Cultural Affairs Bureau. After his studies, he returned to Macao, working in film production, and has participated in the Local View Power held in Macao Cultural Centre. With funding support of this scheme, Lam succeeded in working full-time in his passionate interest.


“To date, this is the fourth year running in which I take part in this competition. In the past, some of my works have been funded by the scheme. Sadly, there is a lack of diversity in the film audience in Macao, and so entering contests is especially important for documentary filmmakers here.”


Lam also pointed out that, with its rich local history, Macao has a lot of room and materials to offer for documentary filmmakers. “As a place where the Chinese and Portuguese cultures meet, Macao has a unique local enigma. Such cultural background can be very appealing to foreigners. Therefore, we should not feel limited to our own resources. In Hong Kong, Taiwan as well as overseas, there are investment seminars for filmmaking professionals from all over the world who are interested in funding innovative [films]. If they are successful, they can make use of foreign funding to film in Macao. My previous piece, I Repeated, was funded by the overseas TV station, Peninsula Television. There are still a lot of choices for the development of documentary production in Macao. It all depends on how proactive you are in seeking opportunities.” In the future, Lam planned to make more documentaries to do with Macao, including a film based on Macao’s former governor, João Ferreira do Amaral, who lost his arm in the battle of Itaparica.


While documentaries are still being developed in Macao, the same can be said for Hong Kong’s scene, even if the latter enjoys a longer history of documentaries and that more sophisticated works can be found. The opening gala film for the Macao International Documentary Film Festival, The Taste of Youth, is directed by the leading Hong Kong director, Cheung King Wai. In 2009, Cheung’s long documentary, Music and Life, won the Best Documentary in the 46th Golden Horse Awards, the Best Film-Editing and the Best Sound Effect. Subsequently, his works such as the drama Crimson Jade, and Hill of Ilha Verde, which was filmed in Macao, have garnered many international awards.


In face of people’s misunderstandings about the nature of documentaries, particularly the assumption that they must be boring and news-like, Cheung pointed out that creative works all share something in common. Be it a drama film or a documentary, their goal is to explore social issues, and that whether the film is interesting or not simply depends on the chosen approach of production.


He said: “In the past, I used to play the cello. I graduated from the Academy of Performing Arts, and later I also performed in orchestras. Eventually, I became a film director. But I don’t see much difference in what I do, be it cello performance or film directing. It all has to do with exploring and understanding life. As far as filmmaking goes, the plot is not the key. Rather, what is important is the perspective. We have to keep questioning and to address those questions, and to present our own views towards life to the audience. That is the film director’s task.”


Despite the fact that documentaries can be less imaginative as drama films, Cheung said that he often makes new discoveries during the filmmaking process. “What is so special about documentaries is that you cannot stick to a script, nor do you have to come up with any, because what you need to capture are the real incidents as they unfold. All you have to do is to record what happen before your eyes. Your filming target will reveal itself based on the various things that take place. During the post-production, you can compose a story and the plot based on film editing and sequence.”


Cheung added: “During our production, what we have to do is to be in full grasp of filmmaking techniques, the cinematic sound and the visuals. Once everything is set up, we just have to be patient enough to wait for and capture the most touching imagery under the lens.”


While it sounds so simple, Cheung felt that in order to make a good film, the director must be inquisitive about his surroundings. “Filmmaking can be quite tiring. If you do not feel much towards your characters or their environments, you can only produce a standard piece of work, rather than a touching masterpiece. I am deeply interested in people and the society, and have an urge to translate my feelings into the visual form. This is the artistic direction I will follow in the future.” Cheung is now at work on a new documentary film based on a Mainland Chinese girl who dreams of becoming a film star. There is not much agenda for this film, he said. He simply wanted to capture what it is like to live in the contemporary society.