At the end of 2022 I realized that it was time. I’d spent the Covid pandemic and the year or so after that traveling on sporadic quick filming trips for various projects that I was flirting with starting … but nothing that I really sunk into.
It was looking like we were going to do a film on the culture wars, and we dove into that — filmed many protests, J6, hung out with militias and those who hate the militias — but that topic eventually just made me sick to my stomach. It wasn’t much more than one group of idiots fighting another group of idiots. It was a good exploration into tribalism and humanity’s tendency towards violence when divided into groups, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to put years of my life into — and what I had to say on the matter nobody really wanted to hear.
I made a career in China splitting the difference — by neither standing one side of the line or the other — and simply telling stories as I experienced them. There was a market for these kinds of takes, not only did they provide fodder for people to argue with but there was also a genuine desire to know what was really going on. I did not find that same sentiment with the culture wars topic.
So I decided to get back on the road and get some projects that I began years ago finished. There was one film in particular that’s been hanging over me for the past four years; one that’s always remained elusive. I just couldn’t seem to get through it … I just couldn’t get it right in the edit. I knew there were missing pieces. I had originally intended to make multiple trips to the target location but the pandemic blew that plan away. But I didn’t want to bail on it.
It was one of those situations where you know that you don’t have all the right pieces for a feature film but don’t want to give up on what you have.
It began feeling like there was this massive megalith rising in front of me, and the only way to move on would be to tear it down. I.e. publish something.
The film first began when I was traveling around Asia and Europe doing research for my book about the New Silk Road (China’s Belt and Road Initiative). I’d travel to places where massive infrastructure projects or other developments were happening, explore their nuances, and gauge how they were impacting the environment and people who lived near them. I’d meet with government officials, the people behind the projects, the investors, the workers, the man in the streets … take some photos, shoot some video, put my stories together, and publish on sites like Forbes, the Guardian, and CNBC. It was my strategy then to try to be a one man wrecking crew — collecting and publishing content in multiple mediums — and all basically went as planned.
But then I arrived in Melaka to do a story on Melaka Gateway, a floundering Belt and Road project that first began in 2013 on a dubious grounds and amounted to little more than a slab of reclaimed land a decade later. I imagined I’d be in and out in 2-3 days and then travel on to Burma. But then I stumbled into a place called Portuguese Settlement.
I have to admit that I didn’t know that the descendants of the original Portuguese conquistadors were still living in Melaka. So I was surprised when I was talking with a local bar owner and he offhandedly suggested that I should go talk to them because they lived near the Melaka Gateway project.
“What? The Portuguese?
“Yes, the Portuguese. They have many good restaurants there. You should go.”
“What do you mean, the Portuguese? They still live in Malacca?”
“Yes, they’re still here,” he said.
Flashes of a potential documentary suddenly flashed through my head: “Unique world culture pushed to the brink by a failed Chinese development project.” It was too good to pass on.
The next night I went to Portuguese Settlement and walked into De Mello’s bar, introduced myself to the owner, told him that I was making a film, and asked if we could hang out …
And for the next couple of weeks I filmed in the settlement.
I never did make it to Burma.
After shooting on location I returned to the US and began doing interviews with relevant researchers and editing. This lasted longer than I care to admit … but eventually I had a rough cut … which I watched it … and realized it was crap. So I set up some more interviews, packed our gear into the car, and I hit the road with my 13-year-old daughter, Petra. She’s interested in film and she’s a good help.
We were going to Maryland to interview a historian named Martha Chaiklin and then on to Virginia to interview Dr. Ammar Malik, a researcher at William and Mary University.
When Petra was young we lived on the road, going from city to city, country to country, living out of backpacks, and the spirit of that lifestyle is still ingrained in her (she’s going to boarding school on a farm in Ohio next school year).
The trip to Maryland went smoothly. We rolled up to the house on time, lugged in our gear, and began setting up. The only problem was that the space that was available for us to film in was a small office with walls lined with bookshelves and a window in the back. There wasn’t much room to maneuver or set up more than one light or have a third camera on the side. If I’m able to, for interviews I like to have tight and wide shots in front of the subject and another tight shot on the side. However, adapting to circumstances is a core part of the process, and we made the necessary adjustments.
The interview went well and then we were off to Virginia. We got a hotel for the night and then showed up at the filming location at 9am the following morning. William and Mary provided us with an absolutely gorgeous room in the Reves Center. Honestly, it was probably the most beautiful location that I’ve ever filmed an interview before. I always try to do my best to explain to people in detail the kind of locations that I would prefer to film in, but I’ve never had anyone deliver like this before.
The interview also went very well and we were off and heading back to NYC before lunchtime.
On the ride home I began re-imagining the film. Maybe a serialized format would better suit it?