YIDFF 2023 New Asian Currents

Above and Below the Ground
Emily Hong (Director)

Interviewers: Laur Kiik & Masao Imamura

From activism to filmmaking

—How did this project begin?

The very beginning of making this film started when I moved to the Thai–Burma border in 2008. Back then I never planned to spend so many years of my life there. I was a student activist in New York during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. My Burmese friends in New York asked me to join the local protests. I was already quite active as an organizer; so of course I went, and then I got involved with the exile refugee community in New York. After graduation, I moved to the Thai–Burma border, and that’s where I got to know an activist who was from one of the organizations featured in the film, Kachin Development Networking Group. At that time, I wasn’t a filmmaker. It wasn’t until later that the production for this film started, in 2016, during Burma’s democratic reform period.

—How did the idea of making a film emerge?

When I came back to the border and to Myanmar later on as an anthropology Ph.D. researcher, I knew I wanted to make a film in addition to my research, but I had no idea what exactly. It’s a process of questioning and discovery. The moment came when I was talking with Tsa Ji from the Kachin Development Networking Group, and he showed me the music videos from Blast, this rock band. He told me about how these music videos sparked the local resistance to the Myitsone dam project. I loved the music videos. They had so much fire and energy.

—Do you call yourself activist first or filmmaker first?

For a long time, I thought that I had to choose between art work and political work. My mother is an artist. She’s a painter. So I knew that if I wanted to go into the art world what I was facing. And I knew that it’s not an easy career because I’ve seen my mom’s struggles. I thought I wanted to do political work, and that’s why I moved to the Thai–Burma border. I wanted to get involved with local organizations and see if I could contribute. It wasn’t until later, when I did my training in anthropology, that I realized that there was a way to connect. It seems obvious now—to connect the political world and the art world in film seems like such an obvious answer, right? Not to say that there aren’t any barriers of access. Not everyone can attend the Yamagata Film Festival. But film is at least a chance for you to create a piece of art that has political intentions and also is a way of truth-telling in a longer form.

To me, that’s why I’m interested in verité filmmaking. Some would call it ethnographic filmmaking. But it’s that longer term engagement and deep collaboration with community. I’m not interested in making a film where I just go into a community that I’ve never met before with my camera. No, I have to do that relationship-building for many years before I feel comfortable to do that. That’s why for this film, it was a long process of collaboration, but that’s essential to making a film—especially when it’s not your own community. I’m not from Kachin State, I’m not from Myanmar, it has to take that process.

There’s no reason politics can’t be embedded deeply throughout because that’s a part of daily life. Godard talked about making films politically, right? It’s not necessarily like Politics with a big “P.” I’m not interested in making a propaganda film that only shows one perspective. But it’s that politics with a small “p” where it’s integrated throughout. It’s different from an advocacy film—it’s ultimately a form of art.

—What made you feel that, for you, film was better than writing?

I was thinking about it today during the screening. It still feels unreal that even this many people are sitting watching my film. As an academic who writes articles and books, you hope that people will read your work, but you don’t know who in the world will. But you show your film one time, and you have hundreds of people watching it. That’s incredible. And then you can talk to the people right after.

Also, the relationship-building. With a film, you can expand your list of collaborators and also you can make that collaborative process more transparent and explicit. You can watch the cuts together, get feedback. It’s much harder to ask local activists to read my articles. With writing a book, often the collaborative process of doing the research gets written out. When you write an article, it’s usually a sole authorship, so only one person’s getting the credit.

A collaborative filmmaking process

—How did you put together the filmmaking team?

With a lot of luck. It’s organic. In the beginning, there were not that many people because we didn’t have the funding, and I don’t want to ask people to help me without having that funding. So, in the beginning, it was mostly me. I had my equipment. I was the cinematographer. I did the sound at the same time, which, trust me, was not ideal. I was doing the interviews, right? And then once I started filming for a while, I realized—I can’t do this alone.

That’s when we started building the team of cinematographers. I worked with three different Kachin cinematographers, who had mostly only made music videos. This was their first documentary. But working with them was an incredible experience. And then also I had two producers come on board, Maggie Lemere and Ja Nang Tsen. We had a trusting relationship—we could take up different roles at different moments. And now we have an incredible impact team as well. We have three Kachin women who are our impact producers and strategists. Some of them are more focused on women’s leadership issues. Some of them have a more environmental background. We have tried to have as much Asian women representation as possible in general.

—Tell us how as a filmmaker you dealt with local patriarchy.

I think everywhere that’s an issue. It’s not only in Myanmar, right? But I have made two short films in Myanmar before, and being a woman taking up space, because when you make a film, you take up space, right? You’re behind the camera. You have to move around in different ways—people are not used to that and they’re not comfortable with it. You get questioned right away. I was prepared for that.

The other thing is, I think as an anthropologist I’m differently situated than a Kachin woman. If a Kachin woman was making this project, they would probably face different barriers than I would. As a foreigner, I have a certain privilege and sometimes maybe I can almost be one of the “guys”, right? Especially when I’m with the rock band. I have to almost take up that approach and mentality. There are moments where I have to pick and choose my battles. But when I could support a young woman who’s interested in photography, who’s interested in film, then I tried to help. Because I know for myself, despite all the advances, filmmaking is still a male-dominated industry.

—Your filmmaking process was a remarkably collaborative process. Did you ever feel tensions between your responsibility as the director and the demands of the team members?

There’s one moment that comes to mind. I was asking the Kachin rock band and NGO members to participate in the filmmaking: “Who would like to help with music? Who wants to help with the story?” I was facilitating this discussion, and then somebody asked: “Oh, well, who’s going to be the director?” I had tried so hard to make it so collaborative that they weren’t even sure who was the director anymore! I was like, “Oh, wow, OK, I guess I have to find this balance.” I want to bring people in, but I also have to be not afraid of being the director. Because at the end of the day—and it becomes much clearer in the post-production process—you do have that power that no one else does. Even though you want it to be collaborative, at the end of the day—same as if you’re writing a book or anything like that—you have to recognize that you are in that position of power.

I wrote an article about my first filmmaking experience. It’s called “The Multiply Produced Film” and it was also with activists, but it was with activist workers in New York. And that’s when I learned my lesson about, no matter how collaborative you want to be, at the end of the day, a film becomes a commodity, right? Even if we’re not making money from it, which we’re not, it’s still an object that becomes alienated from the relationships between people. People think that you might be making money. I learned a lot of lessons about trying to have as many conversations as possible and in every stage of the process.

Being present to what is unfolding in front of you

—Your film is about complex, little-known places and people. How did you decide what to explain, what to hint at, and what to leave out?

This is a question that every documentary filmmaker faces in the editing process. What do you explain and what do you not? What’s the context that you provide, or do you not? And how much can you trust the audience? It’s especially difficult when you’re making a film about a place that most people have never heard of. You literally have people walking into the film who, maybe they’ve heard of Myanmar or Burma, maybe they’ve heard about the coup, but maybe not. So, what do you then do with that? And we had a lot of early cuts of the film where we were getting feedback from different people, very well-meaning feedback, but the feedback tended to be, “Oh, well, what about this and what about that? And can you explain this and can you explain that?” People wanted more context, more explanation. What I discovered through that process is: the more you give, actually, the more people want to know.

I actually would like audiences to feel discomfort. It’s important on the way to having a deeper connection with the community and with people whom they’ve never met. So, hopefully, by the end of the film, they do have that deeper connection, and it comes from a place of getting to know individuals as a way to understand a movement and a community.

—How was the story written—after shooting or while shooting? Did you have a pretty good idea of what kind of film you would be putting together? Or did the story change as you screened and received feedback?

Not a linear process at all. When we had to write funding grants and things like that, of course, you have to say, “this is what the story is going to be.” But the reality is you want to be present to what is unfolding in front of you. I learned from working with Sophie Brunet—who’s one of the editors that I worked with—that editing a film is more like making a sculpture than any other art form because you work with what you have. It’s not a blank canvas. You have the footage, so you have to watch the footage and it has to speak to you. And then because it’s a verité film, you want to build the story around those moments. You can’t write a script and then find the footage that matches that. If you think of it as a sculpture, you have to find those main moments. The firelight scene is an example; that’s probably one of my favorite scenes. I knew when I was filming it that it would be in the film.

The more the protagonists know about how the process of filmmaking works, the more powerful a story you can make. We got so many great ideas out of that. Fishing, for example. I wouldn’t have thought about fishing in the beginning, but there’s a couple of moments of fishing in the film because the guys said, oh, we want to show fishing. Of course, the challenge was that sometimes we were filming not in the fishing season, so you don’t see the fish. But they still wanted to show the fishing. And I get that. That’s just one example of the human connection to the natural world that is threatened by the dam. That’s why we need to show that. So, a lot of these things are through conversations, a collective process.

—How did the 2021 military coup in Myanmar influence completing the film?

We stopped shooting, and we were in discussion: do we film after the coup? We had a lot of conversations with Ja Nang Tsen, our producer who’s based in Myanmar still. So, is it safe? I was basically remote directing some of those scenes—like the naming ceremony shown in the beginning of the film, that we filmed after the coup. That’s not a politically sensitive scene, but I couldn’t be there. That was a challenge.

—The animation in the film is very effective. How did you come up with that?

Often the opening of a film is the hardest part for a lot of filmmakers. I was brainstorming with the animator who was initially only making the maps, and we started dreaming big. In the end, we had to make it more realistic because every frame of animation took so many months. We wanted to focus on the story of the two rivers as sisters. Animation is magical. It can create a world that you can only imagine and that you cannot capture through the camera.

—Kachin is a place that has experienced war and lived with war for decades. How was it to tell the story about a community in the middle of a war and yet not make it the centerpiece of the film?

We filmed during a unique five-year period of history in Myanmar, from 2016 to 2021. Looking back, that was a moment where there was a lot of hope for what could be. But in Kachinland, that hope was always tempered by the reality of war. We talk about that in the film, especially through the song about Aung San Suu Kyi. The world at that time was seeing her as somehow the great leader. But already Kachin people knew that her promises to solve the political conflict and the ongoing war were not her priority. That wasn’t her concern. The film is trying to tell a very complex story—but you can’t tell too many stories at once.

Should there be more films about the war in Kachin State? Yes. But we had to choose how much to go into the war or not. In the editing process, the more we went into the war, the more people got confused and wanted to know more about it. At the end of the day, because our number one storyline was about the dam project and about the movement, we did have to make some difficult choices. War is a part of the fabric of reality, of everyday life, of people there. And that’s why the band’s music highlights that. They write a lot about the war and about the displacement, not only about environmental issues. But in a film, in a feature film, we did have to make some difficult choices. We decided that we wanted to show it in these small moments but not as a major part of the story.

It helped that I was—and am—working on a book about this as well. There have been moments where, “OK, I want this to be in the film,” but, again, you have to be minimalist to a certain extent, so, “OK, maybe that will go in the book.” There are certain things you can do in a book that you can’t do in a film and vice versa. The book that I’m working on—about borderland solidarity—will get into more of the long durée, into more history, which you cannot do in a film. How do we decide what fits in the film? For me, the question is: does it fit in a sensory ethnography. I worked with an incredible sound designer, Ernst Karel, and we worked on how to heighten these moments. You can’t do that in a book. That’s what a film can do. How do you make a landscape come alive? The 5.1 surround sound is what we were working with. You can create a sensory landscape that’s only possible in film. Having the feel of the music also helped drive the film.

—You insert news clips to provide the viewer with basic information. How did you decide how much to offer?

At one point, we had a very long archival sequence. With that one sequence, we were trying to tell the whole history. And that did not work. Then, we had such an amazing editing team. None of our editors had been to Burma, Myanmar, they didn’t know anything. That external perspective helps to clarify some of these archival moments. What was the very minimum we could use, but that would still help with the story? So I credit the editors for helping us find the balance. Even though I’m an outsider, when you film for five years, you’re too embedded into the footage and the story. You need actually the editors’ perspective.

—How did you deal with local linguistic diversity?

It’s a challenge because I have spent many years studying Burmese and when I started working on the film it was completely useless! The band, for example, did not want to speak Burmese because they’re very proud of the Kachin language. Even though Burmese was our only way to communicate, they didn’t want that. I relied heavily on other team members for help for interviews. But often it depends on the situation: if it’s not an interview, I just have to be comfortable not knowing. Not knowing exactly.

But again, it’s a verité film; I don’t want to control the conversation either. I might prompt some conversations like, “maybe you guys can cover this topic” or something. So, it wasn’t a huge problem. It was more of a challenge in the editing process. We had five translators who subtitled almost all the raw footage.

—Do you have any new filmmaking projects?

I started the research on the next project already. I thought at first that after this film I wasn’t sure if I had the energy to make another film. I’d been working on this film, it becomes your baby, right? And I had an actual baby while I was making the film. I had always thought that I’d be done with the film first. But my baby came first! Such a long journey. So, I’m not ready to commit to another feature length film. But I actually want to go back to video installation work, because that’s what I did before this film. I had a short film, but it was a two-channel video installation, called “For My Art,” that I co-directed with Miasarah Lai and Mariangela Mihai who are members of the Ethnocine Collective. And that was a cool experience because we worked with women performance artists in Yangon.

The next project that I’m working on is actually in my home country where I was born, Korea. It’s also a video installation. It’s a collaboration with my mom who’s a painter. It’s our chance to go back to my mom’s ancestral village. We went over the summer. But do we know what it will end up as? No, it’s just the beginning.

Compiled by Laur Kiik & Masao Imamura

Photography: Sato Hiroaki / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2023-10-10

Laur Kiik
Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tokyo.   https://www.tc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/members/6466/

Masao Imamura
Professor at Yamagata University.   https://researchmap.jp/imamuramasao?lang=en