SIFF: Interview with James Leong and Lynn Lee, makers of Homeless FC
This year’s Singapore International Film Festival saw the Singapore premiere of Homeless FC, a documentary by filmmaking team, James Leong and Lynn Lee. Part of the Singapore Panorama Showcase here at Sinema Old School, the film documents the lives of a group of homeless men in Hong Kong who share a passion for football, and eventually went on to compete at the Homeless World Cup in South Africa.
In conjunction with the film’s return to the big screen this coming July here at Sinema Old School, I caught up with the filmmaking duo to chat about Homeless FC and their upcoming project, adding on the brilliant Q&A session which fellow filmmaker Tan Pin Pin chaired during the SIFF.
BT (Benjamin Tan): The hardest thing about making a documentary is finding a story that not only engages the audience, but also takes them on an emotional ride. In my opinion, Homeless FC managed all that â€“ it has an interesting premise and takes the audience through a series of emotional highs and low, plus it has both humour and drama â€“ which was why it was such a favourite during SIFF. How did you arrive at such a rich topic, and how were you introduced to the people featured in your documentary?
Lynn Lee (LL): I met Wai Tung, the social worker who organises the Homeless Team in 2004. A year later, he told us that he was taking a team to the Homeless World Cup in 2006, and James and I thought it would make a great film â€“ people who’ve hit rock bottom looking for redemption through football.
James Leong (JL): The social workers are brilliant, you don’t actually see a lot of it in the film, but they work so hard. On practice days, Wai Tung would have meetings with the captain and the coach after the training ends at 10, and they finish at 11pm or 11:30pm, and after that they’ll try to resolve the problems between the coach and the team and so on. I think, really, the social workers do a great job.
LL: At any one time we’re looking at four, five, six ideas. I like to follow up on a lot of stories, keep in touch with a lot of people, and then we choose a story to follow up.
JL: Lynn has a journalistic background so she is always on the internet and always reading the papers and finding these great ideas and we talk about which ones we’d like to do best. What we end up doing is a combination of what inspires us and what is practical. For me, going back to Hong Kong where I grew up, and finding out about a world which I never really knew existed â€“ specifically in the locality of Shum Shui Po â€“ was also a great attraction. And there was a practicality to it too â€“ we speak Cantonese and could communicate directly with our subjects. For our first two films, Passabe and Aki Ra’s Boys, we had to rely on translators. When you film about a hundred odd hours in a language you don’t understand, it almost does kill you in post-production and this was what we did for our first two films. Homeless FC was tough to edit for a different reason, but at least we could understand the language of the footage!
BT: Was there a preparation period where you got to know and become comfortable with the subjects (and vice versa) before the filming begun?
LL: The first scene that you saw in the film was shot in June 2006. We actually started filming in about January, so the immediacy and intimacy you saw is a result of having spent at least 6 months with the players. Some though, have never really became comfortable with the camera, like Ah Lung, the handsome college drop-out â€“ he found it hard to talk about his feelings on camera, so we recorded much of his story as a voice interview.
JL: For instance he’d tell us things off camera, and we would have to try to represent that in the film. Like in the scene where he was on top of Table Mountain and looking out at the sea, he told me he really liked being there because there was nothing and no one there, and we tried to convey that by framing the shot with the sea and the sun.
Chor Pak was up for it right at the beginning, he really wanted us to film him. But as for the sadder side of his personality and character to come out â€“ that took a bit of time. David really loved it, and he even sang KTVs for us as well, he sang the song Vincent! He was very cooperative.
BT: One thing that made Homeless FC stand out from the other documentaries at this year’s SIFF was that it didn’t really have a narrator, with the exception of Ah Long’s backgrounding. Why did you go with this direction? It is quite unique in that without narration, the story still flowed seamlessly, and the film engaged the audiences in the same way a narrative movie would. Did the story come to you as you filmed?
JL: With all our films, we try to do without a ‘voice of narrator’. It distances us from the people we’re trying to get to know, and why follow someone for so long if you didn’t get to know them?
LL: It’s important to let the people you’re following tell their own stories, and in their own time. There was a lot of gossip and hearsay within the team itself, and sometimes we would find out about what was happening in one of the player’s lives before they were ready to tell us, so we’d have to wait until they were ready. Sometimes it would take weeks, and sometimes they just do not want to tell us and we’ll have to let it drop. You can’t force your subjects to open up.
JL: I think the story did come to us as we went along. We actually followed around 12 players through the course of filming, but ended up telling the story of 4 of them. We shot about 250 hours of footage overall, and could have made hundreds of different films out of the material. Why did we end up with the film we have?
Partly it was a result of who stayed on in the team and who was left out, partly out of respect for the privacy of some of the players, but also because we found that the people who’s stories we ended up telling in the film, individually and as a contrasting mixture, were the most interesting, intimate and inspirational. There’s a line in the film that Wai Tung says to the players: “I hope that you’ll all remember that for a time, we were very close.” Making friends with the players, hanging out with all or some of them together, you start to feel the way they feel. You start rooting for them.
BT: What was the process like in filming and in creating the story flow? Was it a long and arduous process?
JL: I think we’ve aged ten years in three films! Hahaha!
LL: The way we do it is to pack up and leave and go there and do something for quite a long time. We actually moved to Hong Kong lock stock and barrel for like a year, and previously to Timor for like eight months.
BT: So how do you know when to end the film, and what were the aspects of documentary filmmaking that was hardest to nail?
LL: The filming ends when we run out of money! (jokes) Well, sometimes it’s hard to shift from friend to filmmaker. You get close to people, but you also have to maintain a distance. But I think we struck a good balance. Life is rich and multi-layered, and you can feel opposing emotions or thoughts at the same time in response to the same thing. Documentaries should reflect that.
JL: I think the tone is the hardest thing. It’s kind of indefinable, and intuitive. You have to know the story you’re telling in your gut, and in your heart.
BT: Would you say that they’ve become your friends?
LL: We’ll say they’re friends now. We went back in January and met up with them, and they send us text messages once in a while. Chor Pak came to visit us in Singapore and we hosted him for three days and he took lots of pictures with the Merlion, and he went to Newton Hawker and went nuts!
BT: Moving on to the technical side of your film â€“ I’m sure some of our budding documentary filmmakers will be interested in finding out how long the whole production took, and how big a crew you shot with.
JL: We shot over a period of 14 months. Two crew – me and Lynn – with two cameras. We had help now and again from other shooters, including my Dad, who came to South Africa with us. Digitizing took forever, though the edit itself took about 6 weeks.
With our first film, because we didn’t understand the language, the story came together more in post production. With this one we followed the stories of each character and talked to them and other members of the team so we knew how they were doing, and saw how comfortable they are with the camera, and who was likely to go or not likely to go through. A lot of them didn’t match up to the criteria: no smoking, no drinking, no swearing. And if you try to play a game of football without swearing, you’ll know its very difficult! With this we knew as we were going along, who would end up in the film.
BT: What do you think about documentaries on the big screen? Its not very often a documentary is considered a blockbuster, or a hit at the movies â€“ do you think documentaries are now starting to become more popular as a film?
LL: Honestly? I don’t think so. They might be an art house release, they might be a very successful art house release, but I think trying to get people to leave their homes and see a documentary is very hard. They might see it and go “Oh, that was really not so bad. I could sit through it, I could even laugh through that!” But I think getting them to overcome the mindset would take a longer time.
JL: You only really make money doing TV work, and if you’re making a documentary the correct length for TV then yes, there is a chance that you could sell it. We usually take on commission work to keep doing this kind of thing. We had offers to distribute Homeless FC, but they wanted us to cut it down to 54 minutes. In terms of getting people to come watch it in the cinemas, its a little difficult. People tend to think of documentaries as stuff you see on TV, like National Geographic.
BT: And before we wrap this interview, kindly share some information on the project that you’re working on at the moment, and what we can expect from it.
LL: Our next project is about a Kenyan shoe shiner who dreams of being the first black man to cycle in the Tour de France. His name is Zakayo Nderi, which literally means “The shortest man in the village who can soar like an eagle.” A great name for a film!
BT: Any advice for budding documentary filmmakers then?
JL: Documentaries are great cause unlike fiction all you need is some fairly inexpensive equipment to start making one. When you see a story that you like, just get out there and start shooting, and don’t be scared to make mistakes. Lots of them – it’s the only way you’ll get anything done, and the only way you’ll improve.
Homeless FC screens at Sinema Old School this July.