Filming Documentaries ‘IDE Cambodia’ and ‘Asia’s Monarchies’

Producer/Director Jonathan Elliot shares his documentary filming experiences while in various Asian countries.

Asia’s Monarchies – As Asia continues to be the fastest-growing economic region in the world, will Asia’s monarchies be able to keep the pace?

Introduction to the shoot you were on
For ‘IDE Cambodia’ I was asked to put together a team to make a short awards film. It was about a development charity working with poor farmers on the Cambodia/ Vietnam border. It was a fast turnaround shoot, we were only in the country for four days.

For the film ‘Asia’s Monarchies’, I was producer director and writer for two one hour documentaries about the history of the monarchies of Nepal and Bhutan. We had two weeks each episode for shooting.

What where the surroundings like compared to UK?
Cambodia Nepal and Bhutan are all much closer to the equator and so it was hotter and more tropical. The areas of Cambodia I worked in are on or near sea level and it was April – making it very very hot! Nepal and Bhutan are in the Himalayas so it was much cooler, but we were filming in the rainy season, which brought its own challenges.

The surroundings in Cambodia where we were filming were mostly rural and flat.  Rice paddies and woodland, interspersed with villages and small towns.

In Bhutan it is highly mountainous, bit like Switzerland but with paddy fields. In Nepal we were filming almost entirely inside Kathmandu, which is one of the most unpleasant Asian cities, despite its attraction to tourists on the hippy trail and heading out trekking.

How was the shoot different from the UK?
For both Cambodia and the Himalayas, you need to think about working well with local people. There is a layer between you as a foreign visitor and the individuals you are filming and you can do nothing about it – it is linguistic and cultural. You have to depend on good local fixers, interpreters and crew who are usually under immense pressure and are using their own contacts, charm, and relationships to help you. For this reason you have to be highly sensitive and diplomatic to the sacrifices that people are making and the differences that you are bringing to their lives with all your technology, flash, money and general westerner hoopla.

In practical terms, filming is much slower. Logistics and transport beset by local conditions, bad roads, inability to travel at night and general tediousness makes you learn to be very patient.

Explain the working conditions and were they better than the UK?
Working conditions are brilliant by comparison – you usually stay at decent hotels, are treated like a celebrity, are obliged to go slowly because of the local conditions, don’t have idiot production managers winding you up with stupid pressures about things that they don’t understand and are generally allowed to get on with your job.

What did you learn on being on shoot outside the UK?
I’ve filmed in about 30 countries and each time I learn something new about that particular country but also about filming and the world in general.  The first thing is that outside the UK, people are much less cynical about television than they are in the UK.  When you do encounter people with experience of watching television, they are usually very excited and keen to be involved and generally put themselves out to help. The second is that if you’re working with ordinary people they are really the same everywhere, usually friendly, slightly shy, humorous, and accommodating. Finally, I am reminded again and again on each shoot that patience, humility, and a willingness to listen are your best allies.

The other thing I would emphasise is that contrary to myth, most of the world is safer than London.

What interesting experiences did you have?
The most fun I had recently, like within the last 12 months, was in India, doing a quite unremarkable corporate film for a big company. It involved staging some simple little reconstructions using locally recruited amateur actors. I used a British cameraman at the time who is an experienced director, and we had a great fixer. Each day we created impromptu little dramas, working with actors who could barely speak English.  Directing them involved a complex mixture of body language, gesticulating and hybrid Indian English, and with the help of the fixer and some self appointed assistant directors, we got into a kind of swing where it all became remarkably efficient. We also had some difficult lighting conditions because it was exceptionally bright outside but very dark inside and there was no electricity.  So we had to work with a bizarre mixture of reflectors and borrowed mirrors.  In the end I think we must have had an unpaid production team of about 15 people who are quite happy to stand around all day helping us.

Anything extra you want to add
In practical terms – anybody filming in a tropical country I would recommend some basic tips as follows.

  1. Always get a good fixer – somebody who can speak the local language and has local contacts, insist that your driver stays with the vehicle at all times and doesn’t slope off. Tip everybody who works for you generously.
  2. Everything takes twice as long as you think it will – don’t be over ambitious with the schedule.
  3. Filming in the heat of the middle of the day is horrible – the light is dreadful, if you interview locals in the direct sun they will start to sweat immediately, aim to do the bulk of your filming early or late.
  4. A good hat is more use than sun block/dark glasses; linen is cooler than cotton ; if you wear shorts and T-shirts you will be eaten by mosquitoes by night and fried by day, you may also windup sensitive locals – long sleeves and long trousers are way better; don’t invest in fancy sandals or boots – regular trainers that you wear at home are sufficient for practically every kind of filming in the tropics. The best clothing of all is the kind you can wash in a hand basin and dry overnight, you’ll travel much lighter if you invest in superlight fast drying fabrics from specialist manufacturers like Rohan.
  5. If you’re working in the tropics, don’t depend on thirst as a guide to your hydration, drink water frequently and until your wee is clear.
  6. Never drive at night – I have yet to go to a developing country where it is safe to drive at night, the roads turn into death traps – if you don’t hit or get hit by drunks, cattle, drink drivers, holes in the road, you will be turned over by bandits or corrupt policemen/soldiers.
  7. Take the possibility of malaria seriously even – particularly-  on a short trip.
  8. Don’t get drunk and swim in the sea, especially at night.
  9. Take lots of little things to give the swarms of kids that will surround you that are beneficial and not sweets, like crayons, marbles. Be prepared to act as a decoy and clown /distraction so your cameraman can work without being pestered.
  10. Take lots of small denomination dollar and euro notes.
  11. I have found the following much more useful than I expected – walkie-talkies, a compass, wet ones and antibacterial hand gel, handkerchiefs, iodine drops to disinfect water, dental floss (meat is much more stringy than), duct /gaffer tape (same everywhere).