Duncan Jepson (HK): “It is very nice to win awards but it is much more satisfying to get people to support a subject”

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The HK based producer and director Duncan Jepson presents its current documentary film about Youth in Hong Kong and speaks about the doc industry in Asia.

. Can you tell us your personal and professional story ? 

I was born in Sheffield, UK to a Chinese mother and English Father. My mother had moved from Singapore in the 1950s and married my father when they met at medical school in the late 60s. I haven’t studied film formally. I did a degree in Accounting and Financial Management, then an MBA then qualified as a lawyer.

. How many feat. Films have you directed and produced ?

I have directed two documentary features “Follow My Heart: China’s New Youth Movement” (2007) and “Hope without Future?” (2009) and am finishing my third, “A Devil’s Gift”, this summer. The first was produced with Ilyas Khan with whom I founded the Asia Literary Review and the second and third with my wife. I have also produced/Ep’ed three narrative fiction features “Rice Rhapsody” (2004), “Perth” (2003) and “Return to Pontianak” (2000).

. How did you start to work in documentary production ? 

I started working with one of Asia’s more profilic television documentary makers Keiko Bang and with her produced about fifteen documentary programmes for Discovery and Natgeo in Asia. One of which, “Hanging Coffins”, won best Discovery Documentary Programme (2005). Then, I decided to combine my love of film with documentary and move to making documentary features.

. How many docs have you produced ? 

“Follow Your Heart: China’s New Youth Movement” was produced with Ilyas Khan. ”Hope Without Future?” and “A Devil’s Gift” with my wife. “Follow Your Heart” is distributed by Third World News in New York.


. “Hope Without Future?” 2009 (Written and Directed)
Awards: Silver Ace Award, Las Vegas Film Festival, Best Documentary, Reelheart Film Festival, Golden Palm Award, Mexico International Film Festival, Best Biographical Documentary Mountain Film Festival, Runner-up Best Documentary, New Beijing International Movie Festival

. “Follow Your Heart: China’s New Youth Movement” 2007 (Written and Directed)
Awards: Best Documentary, Urban Mediamakers Film Festival, Finalist Award, Las Vegas International Film Festival
Officially Selected – Hawaii International Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Festival, San Diego Asian Film Festival, Hamburg Radar Film Festival.
www.chinesehophipcracy.com  video trailer

. “Rice Rhapsody” 2005 (Executive Producer and Co-producer)
Awards: Best Film, Houston Film Festival, Best New Director, Hong Kong Film Awards, Best Actress, Newport Beach Film Festival

. “Perth” 2004 (Producer)
Best Film, Lyon Asian Film Festival (Public and Jury awards), New Talent Award, Hong Kong Asian Film Festival

. “Return To Pontianak” 2002 (Producer)
Released in US as Voodoo Nightmare

. Its seems to be very difficult to produce and finance doc in Asia. Why are you still investing time and energy in this field ? why are you still interested by doc production ?

I’m still very much interested in documentaries but I am currently investing my own money into the projects rather than seeking partners. I see social and political documentaries as part of activitism.

It is very nice to win awards but in the end it is much more satisfying to get people to support a subject and want to find out more and make some contribution other than the making of the film itself.

I think documentary has become difficult to fund because there are now limited places to show documentaries and earn any income. I am lucky as I worked as a lawyer but it would be difficult to survive as a pure documentary maker. Of course there are the HBO type channels but it is difficult to sell an Asian subject matter and more so on political and social themes.

. You are currently producing a doc film about youth in HK. What is the exact subject ? 

“A Devil’s Gift” is taken from a quote by Noam Chomsky ‘Freedom without opportunity is a devil’s gift’. The film is about failing social mobility in youth today and the large number of kids growing up in circumstances from which there is little chance that they will escape. It is also about the misunderstanding the education provide the opportunity for social mobility when there strong evidence that education was neither intended nor designed to achieve it and that other factors are relevant, such as community and inter-generation and class bridging. Project Share, which is listed below grew out of the film. I really hope it will be finished in the Summer/Autumn. The budget is probably around USD80,000 and there are no partners.

. “Follow Your Heart: China’s New Youth Movement” and your new documentary feature, “A Devil’s Gift” are about Youth issue. Why are you so focused on this topic ?

Actually, “Hope Without Future?” is also focused on youth issues. Yes, this my focus. I believe helping youth develop and growth while educating older generations about the problems world youth are facing is extremely important. The reason I believe in the subject so much is that at this seemingly critical situation of environmental, economic, social and political uncertainty, the world’s youth are both the ones who will have to suffer the conditions and then work to change it. It is unlikely to be a small task to say the least. From the film “A Devil’s Gift” we established project share – www.projectshare.share.org.hk and www.facebook.com/ProjectShare

. What do you think about the development of doc industry in Asia, especially in Chinese area ?

I think there is huge passion of documentary where there is social or political issues and there are lots of those in Asia and China. However the problem is funding documentaries and for the documentary maker ultimately making a living out of film. The first film is generally always the cheapest and can throw filmmaker into all sorts of financial difficulties, to continue that for two, three, four films is very hard. I believe that governments should make available some funding solely for documentary, I think the big NGOs could look more at funding documentaries as well as part of their activism and also perhaps high net worth individuals but it remains a difficult situation.

. How do you see the role of Singapore in this industry ?

Singapore has invested a considerable amount of funds in various elements of the film industry, from supporting independent film via the Singapore Film Commission, to investing in commercial television documentaries programming via a fund, supporting the relocation of international channels and production companies to Singapore with possible tax opportunities and cheap set up costs and supporting a greater range of courses for students. The question often asked though is has it really developed an industry with a deep pool of talent. I think on the technical side, due to the change to digital production, experience and skill level has really developed and I think investments in the industry by government, foundations etc can be made into production and technical skills with quick expected returns. However on the story and writing side, it is difficult to expect storytellers to develop as quickly and there needs to be more patience for storytelling to grow as it’s never going to happen at the same pace as production and technical skills. Singapore has done a lot really and having done so much one hopes it will continue and invest for the longterm.

. What about Hong Kong ?

Over the last fifteen years Hong Kong’s film industry has declined dramatically due to piracy and the movement of productions to China. HK Film Month which includes HK Filmart and Film Festival is indeed increasingly successful in bringing people from around the world together, it is a big industry event hosted by Hong Kong, but I haven’t heard of the direct benefit to the local film industry yet. There is a film fund in Hong Kong but its not used as much as the Singapore version. The fact filmmakers of all genres are moving to China probably best tells the story. Have a look at the book” Once A Hero: The Vanishing Hong Kong Cinema” by Perry Lam.

Then problem is that independent filmmaking in Asia rarely pays the bills to build a career so if it is not for the love of it or for social/political reasons it is hard to sustain a future. Television revenues are also suffering so that is not necessarily the option it used to be ten years ago.

In the end Hong Kong and Singapore are very small markets, for the Asian documentary filmmaker China, Europe and the US are important to develop.

. You have established charity projects in Afghanistan and Nepal. Are you interested to make more doc about these two countries and area ?

I have already filmed in Nepal. The film “Hope Without Future?” was about the elections and poverty there.

I was about to film in Afghanistan and had schedule. However the Taliban attacked the hotel I was intending to stay in the weeks before I was to go and I decided to go to Nepal instead two months later. I still very much want to make a film in Afghanistan.

. Have you recently (during last 12 months) watched a doc from or about Asia you have specially appreciated ?

Petition” (pictured) which won the HK Film award. (review in NY Times)

Interview by mail on 15 May 2012

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