Producer and Director Jonathan Elliot discusses the documentary filmmaking adventures he had while travelling across a number of Asian nations.
A brief introduction to the set that you were working on.
I was requested to put up a team in order to make a short awards film for the organisation known as IDE Cambodia. It was about a charity for development that was working with underprivileged farmers near the border of Cambodia and Vietnam. We were only in the nation for a total of four days, so the shoot had to be completed quickly.
I served as the producer, director, and writer for two one-hour documentaries that were a part of the film titled “Asia’s Monarchy.” These films focused on the history of the monarchies of Nepal and Bhutan. Each episode required us to shoot for a total of two weeks.
How would you describe the landscape in comparison to the UK?
Cambodia Because to Nepal and Bhutan’s close proximity to the equator, the climate was hotter and more tropical than usual. Since it was April and the places of Cambodia in which I worked were either on or very close to the sea level, the temperature was extremely high. Since Nepal and Bhutan are located in the Himalayas, the temperature was noticeably lower than normal; yet, we were filming during the monsoon season, which presented its own set of obstacles.
When we were filming in Cambodia, our surroundings consisted primarily of rural areas and were mostly flat. Rice paddies and woods are scattered throughout the area, along with a few cities and villages.
Bhutan is characterised by its high alpine terrain, which is reminiscent of Switzerland but also features paddy fields. We did practically all of our filming in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, which is often considered to be one of the most polluted towns in all of Asia, despite its popularity among travellers on the hippy trail and those on their way to go trekking.
What was unusual about the shoot when compared to the UK?
You should give some thought to how successfully you can collaborate with the local people in both Cambodia and the Himalayas. Because of the linguistic and cultural differences, there is a barrier that exists between you as a foreign visitor and the people you are recording, and there is nothing you can do to overcome it. You are required to rely on reliable local fixers, interpreters, and crew members who are typically operating under a great deal of stress and employing their own contacts, charm, and relationships in order to assist you. Because of this, you need to have a great level of sensitivity and diplomacy while dealing with the sacrifices that people are making and the disparities that you are bringing into their life with all of your advanced technology, flashy displays of wealth, and overall western hoopla.
Filming takes a significantly longer time due to practical considerations. You will need a lot of patience if you are in charge of logistics and transport because local conditions, poor roads, the inability to drive at night, and general monotony will test your endurance.
Describe the working circumstances and tell me whether or not they were an improvement over those in the UK.
In comparison, the working conditions are excellent. You are required to go at a slow pace due to the local conditions, you are required to stay at decent hotels, you are treated like a celebrity, you don’t have idiot production managers winding you up with stupid pressures about things that they don’t understand, and you are generally allowed to get on with your job.
What did you pick up while working on the production in a location other than the UK?
I’ve shot in roughly 30 different nations, and every time I do, I walk away with new insights not only about the country I’m in, but also about the craft of filmmaking and the wider globe. The first thing to note is that individuals in countries other than the United Kingdom have a far more positive attitude toward television compared to people in the United Kingdom. When you do run into folks who have experience watching television, they are typically quite enthusiastic and eager to get engaged. Furthermore, they are typically willing to provide their assistance. The second thing to keep in mind is that if you’re going to be interacting with regular people, you’ll find that they are generally kind, sometimes reserved, amusing, and accommodating no matter where you go. In conclusion, I have learned that the best allies you can have are patience, humility, and a willingness to listen. This is something that I am constantly reminded of during shoots.
A second point that I would like to stress is that, contrary to popular belief, the majority of the world is a safer place than London.
Tell me about some of the intriguing encounters you’ve had.
The most enjoyable experience I’ve had in recent times, say, within the past year, was when I was in India working on an ordinary corporate video for a major corporation. It consisted of putting on some straightforward modest reconstructions with the help of amateur actors recruited from the surrounding area. At the time, I utilised the services of a British cameraman who is also an accomplished director, and we had an excellent fixer. Every day, we came up with impromptu small scenarios and worked with actors who hardly had a command of the English language. The process of directing them required an intricate combination of body language, gesticulating, and a hybrid form of Indian English. However, with the assistance of the fixer and a few self-appointed assistant directors, we were able to get into a kind of swing where everything became remarkably efficient. Because there was no electricity, it was very gloomy inside, despite the fact that it was very bright outside. This presented us with some challenging lighting situations. Because of this, we were forced to make do with an odd assortment of reflectors and borrowed mirrors. In the end, I believe that we must have had a production staff of perhaps 15 individuals who were unpaid but were happy to stand around all day helping us. They were quite content to do so.
Anything else you’d like to add in addition to this
In a more tangible sense, for everyone interested in filming in a tropical area, the following advice and pointers are some fundamental things to keep in mind.
Insist that your driver stays with the vehicle at all times and does not wander off, and always use a reliable fixer who is fluent in the local language and has connections in the area. Be sure to leave a hefty tip for everyone who helps you out.
It always takes twice as long as you anticipate it will, so try not to set your sights too high in terms of the timeline.
It is a bad idea to film during the middle of the day since the light is terrible, and if you interview locals while they are standing in the sun, they will begin to sweat right away. Instead, try to do the most of your filming in the early morning or late evening.
A good hat is more useful than sun block or 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, and you may also wind up sensitive locals – long sleeves and long trousers are much better; don’t invest in fancy sandals or boots; regular trainers that you wear at home are sufficient for practically every type of filming in the tropics. Investing in ultralight, quick-drying textiles from specialised manufacturers like Rohan will allow you to travel with a smaller amount of luggage. These types of materials allow you to wash your clothes in a hand basin and let them dry overnight.
If you are going to be working in the tropics, you should not rely on thirst as a reference to your hydration level; instead, you should drink water often and continue to do so until your urine becomes clear.
Never drive at night; I have yet to visit a developing nation where it is safe to drive at night. The roads turn into death traps at night; if you don’t hit or get hit by drunk drivers, cattle, drink drivers, or holes in the road, you will be turned over by bandits or corrupt policemen or soldiers. Never drive at night.
Even on a short journey, you should take the risk of contracting malaria seriously. In fact, this is especially important.
Drinking alcohol while swimming in the ocean, especially at night, is not a good idea.
Bring a large quantity of useful yet non-food items, such as crayons and marbles, to hand out to the swarms of children that will be around you. These children will be expecting sweets. Be ready to play the role of a distraction and a clown in order to ensure that your cameraman is able to work without being bothered.
Take a large quantity of bills with low denominations in dollars and euros.
The following items have proven to be significantly more helpful to me than I had anticipated: walkie-talkies, a compass, wet ones and antibacterial hand gel, handkerchiefs, iodine drops to disinfect water, dental floss (meat is much more stringy than), and duct tape/gaffer tape (same everywhere).
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