Docs Dose: Mak CK on finding stories through Airbnb and why he broke down on location

With just TEN days left until our awards submission deadline, we speak with Producer-Director Mak CK. The Whicker’s World Foundation is proud of its jet setting and international perspective, and none of our judges exemplify this more that Mak. Mak’s documentary film career began 14 years ago in Singapore but he has since lived and worked in 26 countries across Eastern Asia, China, America, Africa, Canada and Britain. He  is now happily settled in Mexico City… but not forever as we will be hauling him over to Sheffield this Summer to help judge our Funding Award and meet the nominees.

He says that his interest in authored and creative documentary films grew when I became more exposed to them. In 2011, backed by his savings and television experience, Mak decided to make his first documentary feature independently. The Worlds Most Fashionable Prisongained unique access to the Philippineslargest maximum security prison and tells the fascinating story of how flamboyant designer Puey Quiñones used fashion to rehabilitate inmates. By entering this extraordinary world, we start to see how the men arguably have more freedom to be themselves when locked away than on the outside. This highly-acclaimed debut was an official selection at 18 film festivals around the world and caught the attention of the Artistic Director of the Whickers World Foundation.

Mak went on to win further awards with his second documentary feature, Little People Big Dreams, which competed at the 2015 Sheffield Doc/Fest. It tells the story of a Chinese theme park known as Dwarves Empire: a fairytale kingdom along the lines of Disneyland which is populated by people of short stature. Despite initial assumptions that it is an exploitative hellhole, the documentary takes a more nuanced view and sheds light on the stories of little people living in China, one individual in particular who looks like a cute kid but has all the existential angst and raging hormones of any rebellious teenager in love. And yes, its true, Mak really did find his story by typing “weird Asiainto Google.

Maks latest project, provisionally titled Buying Happiness, sees him returning to Tanzania eleven years after volunteering at an orphanage there. It follows his attempts to find out what happened to the children whom Mak says changed his life”, and to crowdfund for those who are in dire situations: it promises to be the most personal documentary yet from one of the rising stars of global documentary filmmaking.

In three words I became a documentary maker because…

I love stories.

What changes have you seen in the last few years?

The last few years seem to promise the beginning of a golden age for documentaries. These are exciting times when conventions are broken in terms of style and content. Audiences are treated to films that are told in diverse, creative and even shocking fashion. This can only encourage greater interest in consuming and making documentaries.

Where would you like to see the documentary genre going… why?

I think that the documentary genre is heading in the right direction. Film festivals are increasingly embracing the evolving form of documentaries. The best works coming out each year are far from homogeneous. They continue to challenge traditional boundaries and provoke discussion about the genre.

What was the last thing you saw on screen or through the lens that made your skin creep or tingle?

I was filming my new documentary, ‘Buying Happiness’, about my attempt to locate and help the orphans whom I met while volunteering at a Tanzanian orphanage in 2004. One afternoon, I was taken to the cemetery of Sophia, one of the orphans who passed away. One would never have known that her remains laid there. The unmarked spot was a mound of rocks, surrounded by litter, and located between foot paths at a small and unkempt piece of land in the village. Memories of Sophia flooded my mind at that instant and the apparent lack of respect for her life got to me. And when I finished filming, I broke down on location for the very first time in my career.

Which moment in the whole documentary process makes you the most happy?

This is one of those questions that I struggle with giving just one specific answer. I get very excited when I find an amazing documentary character and he or she agrees to be filmed. Uncovering powerful story developments or angles during production gives me goose bumps. As an editor myself, putting together sequences and seeing months and years of work take shape is extremely rewarding.

Who in the industry do you think is underrated? Why?

There are established decision makers and filmmakers who go out of their way to be kind and generous. They care enough about the future of the industry to help the new players in the game. Some adopt the role of unofficial mentors while others offer an earnest friendship. These acts and gestures can really help new filmmakers in an industry that isnt necessarily the easiest to survive in. Ive had the honour of meeting these angelsin the industry.

Who in the industry do you think is overrated? Why?

There are successful filmmakers in the industry who have become brands. To the extent that their new projects are always celebrated. While I do not feel that the filmmakers are overrated per se, some of their films are, at times.

What’s the most surprising encounter of location that triggered a story for you?

Im currently shooting a documentary where I met my character through an Airbnb stay during my vacation in Mexico City. The magnitude of the story that I uncovered was one that I did not see coming. Certainly not through an accommodation-renting platform online!

What’s the best tip you have inherited?

Buy a camera and learn to shoot yourself. Waiting for years to raise funds to make a documentary, and hoping that the story or characters are still available, is unbearable. Being able to start filming immediately and not having to rely on others, is priceless.

What’s the best tip you’d like to pass on?

Find a mentor or someone in your life whom you respect and can go to for advice. Documentary filmmaking can be a long and lonely process. And we need all the support we can get.

If you are interested in learning more about Mak’s thoughtful and engrossing work, trailers can be found here:

Next week, in our final Docs Dose, Kim Longinotto will tell us how she discovered the story of Salma who was locked up by her family for 25 years, but became a prominent poet and women’s rights activist. In the meantime, the January 31st deadline is almost upon us, so submit your proposal now for a chance to win £80,000 of funding.

Words by Whicker’s World Foundation’s researcher, Curtis Gallant