Heroes of Documentaries

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Documentaries in Malaysia hardly ever break into the big time. Image Farm’s efforts in producing world-class documentaries are changing all that.

Recently, Penang Institute hosted a rare cinematic moment – the airing of a locally-produced documentary in a Gurney Plaza cineplex.

Heroes of Chingay was filmed in 2009 and documents the lives and rivalry between two chingay groups in Penang: the Penang Chingay Association, led by Chew Chian Hee (who sadly passed away in 2010), and the Northern Chingay Association, led by Lee Kok Keong.

It was produced by Image Farm, a Penang-based production company that makes documentaries and corporate videos.

“This was the first time we were putting our production on the big screen,” said Tang Siang Ching, Image Farm’s producer and director. “I didn’t know how the audience would take it. I kept on looking around to see what their reactions were! I’m quite glad they seemed to like it.” Siang Ching is part of a trio that forms the core of Image Farm; there’s also Tang Keng Hong, founder and director of photography (and Siang Ching’s brother), and Loo Shun Ming, producer and director of post-production.

“The three of us work very closely together,” said Loo. “In fact, we’re like our own chingay troupe – one kicks the pole, one catches it and the other plays the music!”

Behind the scenes with Image Farm.

Throughout the three-month shoot, the trio were so immersed in observing and filming the two rival chingay groups that they were accepted as a part of them. “It was very difficult to penetrate into the troupes,” Siang Ching recalled. “I don’t speak Hokkien, and at first, they didn’t even want to talk to me!” It took about one or two weeks before the troupes finally warmed up to the documentary crew. “After that, they got so used to me being there that they just ignored my presence.”

Even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Chingay isn’t just about balancing a pole (which can get as tall as four storeys high) on the forehead, mouth, hands and feet – it is also an art form. Creative stunts must be thought up, such as catching the pole while being carried on the shoulders of a fellow troupe member or while balancing on short stilts. Thus, the troupes are naturally very secretive about their preparation and strategies. “At first, they thought we were spying for the other. We had to gain their trust,” Keng Hong revealed about the two chingay groups. “To call them rivals would be an understatement.”

There were several scenes in the documentary that were particularly difficult to shoot. “We were in constant danger of the pole falling on us,” Siang Ching said. “Most of the time, troupe members would shout at us to move away.”

From left to right: Keng Hong, Siang Ching and Loo.

Keng Hong agreed. “As a filmmaker, your focus is through a camera lens and sometimes you don’t see anything else. Falling poles were a real danger. Plus, when we were shooting the bamboo cutting scene,” he said, referring to a portion of the documentary which showed the preparation of the chingay poles, “it was raining and we had to trek through a hilly slope. It was dangerous, but entirely worth it. Without the rain, the scene wouldn’t have been so dramatic.”

Unlike other 30 to 40-minute documentaries, Heroes of Chingay focused not just on one, but on two characters. This was to contrast the different styles of chingay – Chew was easiergoing while Lee was more serious and pushed his team harder. “It was our first time editing a full-length documentary featuring two teams in a ‘reality’ manner,” said Loo. “The style of the story is more character-driven with a proper narrative. It was in a way easy, as the pre-production task was very well planned – we had allocated a set amount of days to shoot Chew and Lee. The challenge was the crafting of the story – I had to decide when to change the scenes and when to bring in the crisis. It was mathematical in a sense, but it also involved a lot of feeling.”

Her music background helped too – Loo majored in ethnomusicology during her undergraduate days at USM. “I have to thank my music education for teaching me how to use music to tell a story,” she said, referring to her task of ensuring that the audio was well received.

Siang Ching and Keng Hong also came from non-media related backgrounds. Siang Ching graduated from UPM with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Child and Adolescent Psychology, albeit with a minor in Mass Communication, while Keng Hong holds a Bachelor of Arts from USM, majoring in Translation and Interpretation.

“USM was where I met Keng Hong,” said Loo. “One day, he asked me if I was interested to be a part of a production house and from then on, I never looked back.”

Image Farm has since gone on to win several awards. In 2011, they won the Finas Jury’s Special Award for Heroes of Chingay and bagged the Finas Best Director, Best History Documentary and Best Overall Documentary (Silver) awards for The Untold Truth about SuperMokh, a one-hour documentary aired on National Geographic Channel about the late Malaysian footballer, Mokhtar Dahari. On top of that, in August 2012, Image Farm was selected by Finas and the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to produce a one-hour documentary on wayang kulit titled The Immortal Shadows. It was aired in Malaysia and Japan in March 2013 and distributed worldwide.

(“That was quite a shoot – we had to film in Kelantan during the monsoon in high 4K,” Siang Ching said, referring to the 4K Ultra HD unit, one of the latest advances in digital filming technology. “But everything turned out quite well.”)

With all these accolades under their belt, what awaits them in the future?

“We really want to produce more stories about Penang,” said Loo, with zeal in her eyes. “And to position Penang internationally, you need good visual quality. Even if the market isn’t here, you need to invest in equipment.” All three of them agree that Penang has a treasure trove of stories to tell.

“Many people consider us crazy for wanting to continue to be based here. We have even turned down opportunities to work in China!” Siang Ching admitted, exuding a strong “Penang pride”.

And their passion for making documentaries continues to burn bright. “People think that documentaries are easy to shoot,” said Loo. “I can tell you that everything is constrained by a budget, and each step requires careful planning.”

“Making a documentary is filmmaking, but on a less glamorous scale – there is no Angelina Jolie, no big budget,” said Siang Ching. “At the same time, it’s about real people and their stories. And that’s the thing that I enjoy most.”

Julia “Bubba” Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She enjoys Graham Greene, Chet Baker and a good Chianti.



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