Lina Teoh: Documentaries are voices for people who have no platform to be heard

Documentaries do more than just give information. They tell stories that instill empathy and understanding upon things we’ve probably never even heard of before. When it comes to Malaysia, we have a myriad of wonderful filmmakers who are able to tell these stories, and one of them is Lina Teoh.

As an executive director of MyDocs (Malaysian Documentary Association), Lina has been at the forefront of these developments seeing as to how she’s one of the founders of the organization which was established in 2015.

Lina Teoh
Lina Teoh

With over 10 years experience in the documentary film-making industry, she has produced, written and directed numerous world-class documentaries for international broadcasters such as the National Geographic Channel, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

Lina Teoh herself ranges from a diverse background in terms of her professional work a former Malaysian actress (for those old folks out there, yes Lina Teoh acted in Kopitiam), model, emcee, Miss World 2nd runner up in 1998, radio presenter and voice over talent – and the list goes on! We had the opportunity to pick her brain and ask her about her perspective in the Malaysian documentary scene.

1. What’s the local documentary film-making scene like these days?

I think the local documentary industry has definitely matured over the past 10 years. There are many more filmmakers with vast experience working with International broadcasters such as the National Geographic Channel, the Discovery Channel, History Channel, Crime and Investigations, Channel News Asia and many more. There is also a strong independent and human rights documentary film-making community that keeps growing and developing.
MyDocs – The Malaysian Documentary Association is proud to have played a significant role in this process through our workshops, film screenings and masterclasses. As well as partnering with other organisations such as Finas, the European Documentary Network, Documentary Campus, the Cooler Lumpur Festival and the Freedom Film Festival who have similar goals to achieve a stronger documentary film-making community and documentary storytelling platform. We are committed and focused on working closely with both local and international industry players to find new ways to continue with this development.

2. In order to present true stories, facts cannot be filtered and sometimes the truth is not favourable or desirable to viewers.

It really depends on the way the filmmaker wants to tell the story. There are always many ways to tell a story and that’s what makes the filmmakers particular version or approach to that story unique. You will never be able to fit in all the facts about a subject in one documentary and even if you could, I don’t think anyone would want to watch it because it would just be an overwhelming amount of information.

Documentaries play a unique and important role in our society. We must continue to be the voices for those who do not have the opportunity or the platform to be heard

So this is where the true skill comes in. What part of the story do you tell? Who’s point of view? Who are your characters? What access do you have to your story? What type of format? What style? Who is your audience? What is the purpose of your film? What resources and funding do you have to achieve this? All of these questions must be answered before you can really even begin to make your film. That is why one of THE most important processes in documentary film-making in the research. The better you know your subject matter the easier it is to know which direction you want to take. I think that is also the best way you can do justice to your subject too. By knowing it inside and out before you decide what direction you want to take.

3. How do you deal with the controversies surrounding documentaries that tell-all?

In terms of local censorship? I think it is important that there is a platform for factual stories to be told without censorship but instead through a rating system. This way the stories can be shown in appropriate venues for appropriate audiences. Sometimes issues can be controversial but that should not mean we shouldn’t be allowed to tell those stories. We must be able to have the choice to choose our own opinions based on fact. If we are given no access to knowledge then we form non fact based opinions, which I think is dangerous.

Documentaries play a unique and important role in our society. We must continue to be the voices for those who do not have the opportunity or the platform to be heard. We must continue to tell stories of bravery, injustice, outstanding achievement, history and human suffering & greatness in every form. As documentary filmmakers we have a responsibility to document the real life stories of our time. Without this we loose our history and heritage.
I believe it is important for us to work together with the local censorship authorities to make sure there is still a place for this in our community.

Lina Teoh at one of the panel sessions during The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2017 2
Lina Teoh at one of the panel sessions during The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2017 2

4. What is your opinion on young filmmakers using iPhones and apps to record and edit their work? Does it make them less of a professional filmmaker?

I think it’s great! Technology has made the world of film-making and story telling available to so many more people! Of course knowing the best way to technically tell that story is important but it really depends on where you want to show your film. If you want to show your community, your friends, put it on YouTube or if you want to get it broadcast on National Geographic or produce a feature length documentary to submit to the Oscars. They all have very different audiences and technical expectations.

5. Having produced, written and directed documentaries for international broadcasters, is it difficult being an Asian in such a revered and complex industry especially when one’s work is being presented globally?

I don’t think being Asian has anything to do with it really. In fact being based in Malaysia has probably worked to our advantage as we have had the opportunity to work directly with the Asian offices of most of the major international broadcasters. If we were based in Europe, the UK or the US I think it would be much more difficult to access that market. And I must credit Finas for their support to the local documentary industry over the last 10 years because they have really given young documentary filmmakers great opportunities to learn and expand their skills.
Asian or not Asian, working for an international broadcaster is not easy! There are many many many challenges to overcome through the process. However from personal experience I truly believe it gives you great professional discipline and teaches you how to produce a film on an International level. And that is something I will always be grateful for.

Another important way to understand the industry is to attend international forums and conferences. This is also a very important networking opportunity if you are wanting to get a film produced.

5. What stories would you like to shed light on that other documentary productions have yet to cover?

There is no way I can answer this.  Life is forever evolving and changing on a daily basis and therefore everyday new stories are out there to be told. As long as life continues so will the stories we tell about it

As I am now more focused on developing the local documentary film industry as a whole, I will leave it to the filmmakers to find the stories that need to be told. I will continue to try to create a better support system for them get their stories heard and seen

6. In all the locations you’ve visited and documented, where would you have liked to go and experience again? Is there any story out there that you’d like to chase?

Well I think the best thing about being a Documentary Filmmaker is that you get to fully immerse yourself in the subject you are working on. So when I am working on a film I tend to be obsessed with that particular topic 🙂 Therefore I have a soft spot for all the films I’ve worked on. From a lion dance Sifu, to storm water road tunnel construction, Tun Razak, to BOMBA and the SEA haze crisis. But I think the one that I would love to experience again is the “Great Apes of Asia with Michelle Yeoh” for the National Geographic channel. Because I just loved being out in the jungles of Sabah witnessing the amazing orangutans and wildlife on such an intimate level and working on such an important conservation story.

7. What does it mean to be a woman in an industry that is dominated by men in Asia and subjugated by Caucasian men in the West?

You know, I get asked this question quite often but I honestly don’t think of it much. I guess because I am so passionate about what I do, I rarely focus on my gender being an issue. For me it’s about knowing yourself, your job and your industry well enough so regardless of your gender people will be able to respect you for the work you do and the positive impact you are creating. I hope that is more important than my gender.

Featured image source is from R.AGE . MyDocs. If you’re a huge fan of documentaries and you want to see great ideas being pitched along with insightful discussions, register your attendance for Crossing Borders International Documentary Pitch Open Day by clicking on this link.

Day/Date: Saturday, 9 December 2017
Time: 9am – 3pm (Registration begins at 8.30am)
Venue: Level 2, QLIQ Hotel (2 Jalan PJU 8/8A, Damansara Perdana, 47820 Petaling Jaya)
Admission: Free (Inclusive of tea break)


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