Lara Ariffin is one of the winners of GZDoc’s Best Pitch Award for her documentary, ‘Wild Wild East’!

As part of our Crossing Border series, where we talk to documentary filmmakers, we got to talk to Lara Ariffin, one of the winners of the GZdoc best pitch award,  GZDoc referring to the  Guangzhou International Documentary Festival at The Leipzig Networking Days. The ceremony was held in Leipzig, Germany in late October. (Our article on the other winner Chew Han Tah and Chew Li Pahn will be released tomorrow!)

Lara Ariffin herself has an amazing and comprehensive filmography producing such iconic documentaries such as Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh, Sumatra’s Last Tigers The Malayan Emergency and the list goes on (some of the documentaries shown on National Geographic Channel such as Megastructures – SMART Tunnel). Harnessing the meticulousness from her architectural background in her filmmaking, she is both a producer and editor with Novista Sdn Bhd a company she owns with her husband, director, Harun Rahman.

We had a chat with her about her relationship with nature, ‘The War to Save Animals’ and more!

Congratulations on winning the GZDoc’s Best Pitch Award! How do you feel about winning?

Lara Ariffin (left) in discussions with another filmmaker (middle) and Lina Teoh (right) of MyDocs
Lara Ariffin (left) in discussions with another filmmaker (middle) and Lina Teoh (right) of MyDocs

I am very grateful for being awarded this as I feel that Wild Wild East is a film that needs to be made – to highlight the hard work that is being carried out to save our endangered animals. We still have work to do to get the series funded and I hope that we get some positive news in the next couple of months.

You have an extensive filmography of documentaries, from the Malayan Emergency to Great Apes. Tell us about the thought process behind your decision to make a documentary about animal conservation in Southeast Asia?

Wildlife and the environment has always been a part of my DNA. My partner and I shared this love right from the start. In the 90’s we were very much involved in marine conservation – we made films on turtles, crowns of thorns and the coral reef. This love evolved and we made a film on Temenggor’s biodiversity in Perak and then a series on various national parks – from Taman Negara in Pahang to Kinabalu Park in Sabah. We were then fortunate to make ‘Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh’ ten years ago and our commitment to conservation has never wavered.

In the last few years, we have been very focused on the conservation of tigers. Malaysia is on the edge of losing its tigers with less than 250 in the wild. We have been making films that target specific audiences in the hope of changing their mindset – changing the way they look at tigers and the environment around them. We made ‘On Borrowed Time’ that looks at poaching at Belum and Temenggor in Perak, ‘Harimau Selamanya’ which promotes Muslims to be good caliphs and now we have just completed a series called ‘Wildlife and the Law’ for those involved in prosecuting wildlife crime.

Wild Wild East is meant for a wider and general audience. We strongly believe that you cannot love something until you know it and Wild Wild East is to make audiences fall in love with these iconic species.

In Malaysia, we are at war against poachers, we need to be tough and stand our ground! As tiger numbers dwindle to a level where we may lose them, we need everyone to be on board.

Are there any particular wildlife stories that you’d like to shed light on that other productions have yet to cover? Or any moment from the documentary that you’d like to share that is very special to you?

Making a film is about developing relationships and the two groups we have been filming with over the last two years are very dear to me. Pak Tomy and his amazing team in Sumatra are truly inspiring – he doesn’t need to spend his money on tiger conservation but yet he spends millions and the results have really paid off. The area he is protecting, Tambling, now has the highest density of tigers in Southeast Asia. In Wild Wild East, we focus on a baby tiger that his team rescues and releases a year later – when I watch the footage of the tiger, Muli, being released, it’s very emotional for me – for one more tiger has been saved and returned to the wild.

I also love the team that are working in Terengganu as they are really working with the grass roots – working with the community, patrolling the jungles of Kenyir and working with the judiciary. Here are two different approaches to conservation – we need both to ensure the survival of the tiger.

What I hope is that people can be inspired by their work and replicate it.
How best would you describe the local documentary filmmaking scene? Has a lot changed over the years e.g. stylistically, etc.?

Everything in life I believe evolves – nothing remains the same – from the way we tell stories to who we make our films for. Once, we only had free to air broadcasters, then we had the satellite channels and now we are making films for online viewers. While older viewers may still watch TV, millennials consume all their content online. While broadcasters still want the normal one-hour slot, online programming is usually much shorter. But I think what remains the same is the story – do you have a compelling story to tell?

In order to present true stories, facts cannot be filtered and sometimes the truth is not favourable or desirable for the viewers. How do you deal with the controversies surrounding documentaries that tell-all?

As documentary filmmakers, you present the facts as they are. Unfortunately in Malaysia, there are restrictions – politically and socially. We deliberate and weigh each project as it comes.

It’s interesting that you frame the idea of animal conservation as a “war to save these animals”, but some would say it’s not as black and white as “us vs. them”. Does Wild Wild East explore the side of the “battlefield” that pushes for deforestation under the pretext of “economic development”? Or do you feel that it’s important to paint all of these people as evil?

There are always two sides to a story and conservation does need to take into account economic development of a country and its people. We look at why poachers become poachers and alternatives must be offered. But protecting our natural heritage is paramount and no concessions can be given. In Malaysia, we are at war against poachers, we need to be tough and stand our ground! As tiger numbers dwindle to a level where we may lose them, we need everyone to be on board.

In all the locations you’ve visited and documented, where would you go and experience again? Is there anywhere you would want to go that you haven’t been?

Tambling in Sumatra is one of my favourite locations and I could go there again and again and again. The number of places I still have on my list is endless – from Danum Valley in Sabah (I am a bit embarrassed to say that I haven’t been) to Sumba and Sumbawa!

Tell us about your journey on Crossing Borders and getting support from an association like MyDocs.

Crossing Borders has three different parts to it – the first section was held in Kuala Lumpur last July, then the second part was in Leipzig, Germany at the beginning of November and the final session will be held at the beginning of December.

For me, the session in Leipzig was the most useful. I think being away from the distractions of the office and home allowed me to give it my all. The trainers have helped me dissect and shape my story.

MyDocs and FINAS have been extremely supportive throughout and I do hope that they will continue to support Malaysian documentary filmmakers.

I believe that we are constantly learning and this experience has been invaluable in my journey to making better documentaries!

Featured image source is from Nuvista documentary ‘Wild Wild East’. 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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