Documentary Chronicles – The Finale

It’s done! My documentary, “The bakers of Oriental Gardens” is edited and finished with…well, I may need to fix the subtitles a bit, but other than that it’s done.

Screenshot from “The bakers of Oriental Gardens”

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 12.52.25 PM

I’ve learnt so many things along the way, some positive and others not so much, but either way, I can take these lessons with me to my next documentary and maybe you can too, even if you’re not shooting a documentary.

1. I can do it. When I began my Masters programme 2 years ago (in September, 2013), I had no clue about cameras. I felt completely incompetent and self conscious about my lack of knowledge. The first short film I made was so bad in terms of video quality, that most of the other assignments I did afterwards, I would ask someone else to film it for me.

When the time came to make our final films, I had the option to either pay for a cameraman who would stay with me for the 3 months, or film it myself; I didn’t have money just lying around waiting to be used, so I had to film it myself. During production, every time I picked up the videocamera, I would say, “Ok God, we’re in this together”.

It pushed me way out of my comfort zone, but at the end of the day, it got done. I ended up with 22 hours of raw footage which I edited down to 37 minutes. It was a lot of footage to go through, but by doing something I thought I couldn’t, I found out that I could, and I captured some nice shots along the way.

2. Always ask for a release form before you begin filming. My teacher told us this in class before we began filming. At the time it seemed like a no-brainer, until I found myself in the situation where I had started filming without obtaining release forms. Failing to obtain release forms before you begin filming puts you at the mercy of your documentary subjects. This is not a situation that you want to find yourself in, because hours, days, weeks or even months of work could go to waste if they decide that they no longer want to participate, and if they do, there is nothing that you can do about it.

3. Expect to get attached to the documentary subjects. Maybe I did it wrong or maybe I did it right, I have no idea, but I spent so much time before, during and after my shooting period with the subjects of the documentary that I felt that they were family. I lived with them for 3 – 4 months (November 2014 – February 2015). It was extremely lonely at first because I didn’t know them very well, they spoke mostly Chinese and it was freezing (the weather just made me miserable).

I would stay at the bakery and take the bus back to Beijing on the weekends. The first weekend that I went back, I was never happier in my life to see Beijing. After a few weeks, I began missing them whenever I went to Beijing. Of course I was always more comfortable in Beijing because that’s where I was based, but I got to know them and developed relationships with them, and that’s when I decided that I wanted to do a fundraiser to help them.

Flyer for Screening

4.Arts and administration go hand-in-hand. Many persons in the arts tend to just think about the creative processes while forgetting about the paperwork that has to be done. Making a documentary is no different. The major lessons that I learnt, not just while making this final documentary, but also “The Odd Ones Out” were:

– Always bring proof of your identity, written proof stating that you have received permission to film and a contact for someone who can vouch for you if push comes to shove.

– Any agreement or deal that you may make with someone, get it in writing and date it. Keep these with you always, even after the film has been distributed.

Dealing with these administrative issues did cause me to get frustrated at times, but I just had to remember why I was doing it and when I could, I talked it over with someone I trusted.

5. Give yourself time to make mistakes. This one isn’t really about me making mistakes, but rather just giving myself more time than I thought I would actually need. The 2-3 weeks I thought it would take me, turned into 6 weeks of editing day and night….Ok, I was new at editing too and was learning as I went along, but the point is, it took me longer than I thought.

6. Get fresh eyes. Whenever I would finish a rough edit, I asked friends or teachers to watch and critique it. There was no way I could look at the film objectively, so there were times when I knew it had to be fixed but i just didn’t know how. I thank everyone who watched it before it became something, because it must have been really tedious to sit through an hour or more of material that was meant to be half an hour.

After our defence
After our defence

The day of my defence came and went, it was much less nerve wracking than I thought it would have been, but all 5 of us presented and all 5 of us passed. After the defence there was just a load lifted that I didn’t even knew existed. It was the burden of the 4-years being lifted I suppose, a feeling of, “This is what I came to China to do and I did it.”

I wasn’t totally done with the documentary though, I began planning and promoting the charity screenings and crowd funding campaign, but that’s for another story.



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