The White Elephant Is Done

It’s finally finished. A project that I first began filming at the tail end of 2018 — nearly five years ago — is done, finished, finito, and for a filmmaker there is no better feeling in the world.

The film is called The White Elephant. It’s the story of what happens when China’s big international mega-projects fail, as told from the perspective of the Kristang Portuguese, who have been living on the coast of Malaysia since the conquistadors arrived over 500 years ago. They’re a unique world culture that not many people know exist. They speak their own language — a creole of Portuguese, practice Catholicism, and have their own music, dances, and traditions. They are now on the verge of being culturally eradicated, which is the main topic of this film.

All films are torture, but this one was especially difficult for me. My aim in the beginning was to do a film about Kristang culture in front of a backdrop of the Melaka Gateway mega-project. I intended to do some initial filming, meet with some people from some bigger media companies that I was partnered with at the time, and then come back with a crew to finish the job. However, I fell in love with the place and the community there and filmed way more than I originally planned (I even canceled a trip to Burma to stay longer). What I ended up with was hard drives more footage than I needed for an initial shoot but not enough to make the film I envisioned. At that point, my plan was to travel around and meet with some scholars and anthropologists who had conducted research in Portuguese Settlement, and then return in a year or so and finish the project.

Then the pandemic hit. And we all know what that meant.

Like everyone else, I found myself stuck with a bunch of half-finished projects looking through them trying to figure out if there was anything I could make something of. The Portuguese Settlement footage caught my attention, and I started reconfiguring it to be something worth shipping. I streamlined it, focused on the core conflict — traditional culture being wiped out by a big swing at progress, and went to work. It wasn’t my first string project, as I had other projects and my ordinary filming work that took precedent, but I kept at it little my little, and two nights ago I did the final render.

And it felt so fucking good.

Watch the White Elephant series


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