Interview with Whicker alumna & ‘Disappearing Village’ director Megumi Inman
“I didn’t realise that [looking for funding] would take up just as much brainpower as filmmaking or storytelling” – Megumi Inman
After making documentaries for the BBC, Sky Arts and Channel 4, Megumi Inman has spent the past 3 years developing her first feature documentary Disappearing Village. The film was awarded the runner-up Film & TV Funding Award following The Whickers Pitch at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2018, and received a £15,000 production grant. Megumi spoke with Danny Tynan, a former student of our BFI/Whicker documentary course, about her journey into the world of documentary film and the challenges involved in making her first feature doc.
Can you tell us about your current film, Disappearing Village?
It’s about a 300-year-old Japanese rice farming village, Uyashinai, that is on the brink of extinction. It has been given the chance to revive itself because Japan’s trendiest sake brewery owner has fallen in love with it and wishes to transform it into his sake utopia. The film follows the relationship between the brewery and the village as they strive to save this village from disappearing.
What attracted you to the characters and the story?
Japan is facing a population crisis. People are just not having children and are living much longer. Japan is a super ageing society. And this is even more so the case in the countryside where young people are fleeing to cities and not returning to their hometowns. The rural landscape is now dotted with ghost towns, and this phenomenon is called ‘disappearing village’. When I came across Uyashinai village I couldn’t believe places like this still existed in Japan. And I felt that by focusing on this one village I could understand the wider social, economic and political issues rural Japan is facing.
How did you first get into documentary filmmaking?
At university I found watching documentaries a lot more engaging and accessible than academic books. I was studying Human Geography which is the kind of subject that takes you into jobs like the UN. So when I saw an advert that the UN were looking for a film crew to document their work it seemed a natural fit. However, I then realised that what I was interested in was the people and their stories, more so than creating its policies.
And you’ve worked in documentary ever since?
My first job in TV was as a runner and a researcher for a company that made educational programmes. I had done other jobs before, but this didn’t feel like work, it felt very natural and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was then a fixer for Japanese TV shows filming in Europe. That included some documentaries and a lot of entertainment shows. The work took me all over Europe; we filmed the Northern Lights in Norway, artists in Germany and Switzerland, and BMX riders in Barcelona.
I enjoyed the work, but I was ready to get involved in more serious content. So, I moved to the Financial Times where I created content for the paper’s events and conferences. But after three years I really missed storytelling. So, I quit my job and went to Japan for 3 months where I followed a story I had been wanting to tell for a while. I also used this time to learn to film and edit. I made a short film which then became my business card back into the TV industry.
The TV industry can seem quite difficult, but once you’re in people want to make sure that you move to the next project. But TV and film people are still insecure about when they’ll get their next job. I’ve worked with really experienced camera operators who have worked in the industry for 30 years and they still feel uncertain about when their next job is going to be. It’s the nature of the industry isn’t it?
What is your experience of public pitching?
My first experience of pitching was at The Whickers Pitch at 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest [where Megumi took home the runner-up Funding Award of £15,000]. It was really unnerving because it was the first time I had ever spoken in public. It was also daunting to be a part of the Sheffield Doc/Fest schedule. On top of that, I was also the first one up to do my pitch.
The Whickers are really there for all of the filmmakers who are pitching. I think most of us were pitching for the very first time. [Former EDN Director & Whickers pitch trainer] Paul Pauwels gave us all a detailed document on how to prepare our pitch which I read over and over again, and we had a practice session which was really useful. I was there not to be judged but encouraged and to show off my film Disappearing Village, which is a brilliant thing to be able to do in such a supportive environment.
Since then I’ve pitched at Tokyo Docs and Hot Docs. These pitches were different to The Whickers in that I was pitching to a room of international broadcasters and commissioners. My latest pitch at the Hot Docs Forum was also intense. It was in this grand hall with a large screen in front of and behind me where they showed your teaser, and an audience of 300 people. I was very lucky that it wasn’t my first pitching experience and that I had been prepared by The Whickers.
Jane Ray [Artistic Director] participated in my Hot Docs pitch on behalf of The Whickers as a ‘trigger financier’. She gave me a really good introduction before my pitch. She bigged me up, which was so lovely, and was also funny at the same time – she drew a lot of attention from the possible funders. Jane gave me the confidence to say to potential funders that “Disappearing Village is a film that everyone needs to get behind.” The Whickers have always been super supportive, and I don’t think that I would have been able to get this far without them. They weren’t only supportive financially but they, and particularly Jane Ray, have also provided a lot of advice and emotional support as well.
What part has humour played in your pitches?
I think that it’s good to have a sense of humour. I am always up for a little laughter in my films and in my pitches.
What similarities and differences did you notice in the questions asked by potential funders at the public pitches?
They all want to know what the ending is going to be. And I can only give them my intelligent guess because it’s documentary after all. I say this because something unpredictable happened in my film. A house which was owned by one of my characters burned down, which of course has had an effect on the story and has meant I have now changed my ending. But that’s something I could not have known.
Funders also want to know who is telling the story as well as the story itself, so I am often asked about my background. My mother is Japanese and my dad is English. So I am often asked how I fit in and understand both cultures and how that will come across in my film.
Where you able to communicate with any of the potential funders before the pitch took place?
Before each of the pitches the funders were given information about my film. I was already in touch with a few of the decision makers around the table so I sent them all an email before my pitch which said that I was looking forward to seeing them.
Have you got the other half of the money that you need?
So what happens next?
I’m going to Sheffield Doc/Fest this weekend to see if I can get more broadcasters to co-produce.
Do you think that the funders will have an impact on the final film?
I wouldn’t think so. No, I hope it wouldn’t. I would make sure that I would be getting money from people who want to support the kind of film that I want to make and have been making for the past 3 years. I wouldn’t want to partner with someone who would want to drastically change my film and I don’t think that they would want to fund my film either.
From what I’ve learnt it is very hard to get a documentary made. Does this sway your choices in the type of films that you choose to make?
This is my first film. Everything I am doing right now I am learning for the first time. I didn’t realise that fundraising would become such a big part of filmmaking. It was very naive of me, but I didn’t realise that it would take up just as much brainpower as filmmaking or storytelling. From what I have learnt so far, a great teaser goes a long way. Documentary people also always say “character, character, character” – and it’s true. So, if you think that you’ve got a good story and an interesting character who can help you tell that story then, hopefully, you’ll be able to make a compelling film.
Would you make another documentary feature film after the challenges you have experienced so far?
I fluctuate between never wanting to do it again and wanting to start making my next film right now! The fundraising side has been really tough. But there are so many wonderful stories that I’m curious about and eager to tell – I could never stop.
– By Danny Tynan. Danny is an aspiring filmmaker who participated in The Whickers/BFI Documentary course in early 2018, where he won an award for his authored short documentary, Phone in Sick.