Meet M’sian Female Producers Behind Documentary Shortlisted For An Oscar

It’s every filmmaker’s ultimate dream for their film win an Oscar. For Malaysian producers Cheyenne Tan and Poh Si Teng, the ultimate dream may just come true as their documentary has been shortlisted to receive an Oscar.

These women are making waves in the international film circle, even before being qualified for the Oscars. Their film, St. Louis Superman also won Best Short Documentary at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and was premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York City (they were awarded the Special Jury mention here!)

Intrigued? Well, St. Louis Superman tells the story of  Bruce Franks Jr., a seasoned rapper (yes!) and an activist in Ferguson who was elected to the overwhelmingly white and Republican Missouri House of Representatives. He needs to overcome past trauma and political obstacles to pass a critical bill for his community.

Bruce was just six when he witnessed his 9-year-old brother being murdered in front of him. His brother got shot in a crossfire between two men arguing outside his house where Christopher was used as a human shield.

The film is now being considered for an Oscar win next year. The girls from Likely managed to catch up with the award-winning producers. Cheyenne Tan is the co-producer who hails from Kuching. Meanwhile, Poh Si Teng who hails from Penang is the senior commissioning producer looking after the Americas for Witness-Al Jazeera.

1) What inspired you to pursue documentaries in the first place?

 

Cheyenne: Since secondary school, I’ve always been passionate and vocal about social and political injustices but didn’t really know how to do my part until I discovered making documentaries which makes sense since documentary filmmaking is a combination of visual storytelling and addressing injustices. I started doing documentaries in my senior year of film school in Los Angeles when I made two documentaries, both about strong Malaysian women here. That was when I realized that documentary filmmaking is my calling

Poh: At 10 years old, I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune (now the New York Times International Edition) and told myself I’d work for them someday. In my teens, I told my family I’d work for CNN. Yet, becoming a journalist, for a reputable international news organisation, always seemed far away.

At age 19, I had the opportunity to study journalism in the United States. My parents said I could go if I was willing to find ways to fund my own education. I said yes, packed my bags, bought a one-way ticket and have been on that journey ever since.

Over the past 14 years, I have been a staff journalist and documentary producer for the New York Times, a camera person and producer for the Associated Press, and an independent producer and camera person for the Wall Street Journal and Agence France-Presse. I’ve been based in New York, New Delhi, and I’m now in Washington DC for Witness, Al Jazeera English. I look after documentary commissions from the United States, Canada and Latin America for Witness, AJE.

2) How did you feel when you knew that St. Louis Superman qualified for the Oscars?

Cheyenne: It’s still pretty surreal to think about, to be honest. I felt incredibly proud of our team and elated that people are reacting to the story we’re telling.

Poh: Thrilled! It’s been quite a journey from winning Best Short Doc at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (which qualified St. Louis Superman for Oscar consideration), to winning Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival, and now the Audience Award at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Can’t wait to see where else our film will go. I’m so happy for the subject and star of our film, Bruce Franks Jr., and the two amazing directors, Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan. Bruce’s story is inspiring and what we all need right now. Thank you, Bruce, Smriti and Sami!

3) What is your favourite memory during the production of St. Louis Superman?

Cheyenne: My favourite memory while making this film is actually being in the editing room when the story is being put together. It’s incredible being on set and immersing myself in Bruce’s world and getting to know the people around him but it is in the editing room that we truly get to understand him as we figure out how to best tell his story. It’s always fascinating to see how the story come to life and what part of it is suddenly more jarring – almost like the story begin to tell itself. All we had to do was to take the best parts and put them together in a way that delivers the message the strongest. It’s like putting a huge jigsaw puzzle together without knowing what the final image looks like.

4) How do you think the Malaysian audience can relate to the documentary?

Cheyenne: I remember when I was in secondary school, I would go on rants to my friends and anyone who would listen about whatever social issues that might be bothering me at the time. People would ask me to “calm down” and wondered out loud why I would waste my time and energy on something that I, one single person, cannot change. I completely disagreed with that and now, through this film, I hope people could see that one person is all it takes for change to begin. This film is also about how one person can ignite change in their community despite all odds and challenges. I think that’s something that people all over the world, not just in St. Louis or Malaysia can relate to and take inspiration from.

5) How would you describe the documentary film scene in Malaysia?

Poh: There are lots of organisations and filmmakers working very hard to support the documentary film scene. I’m a big fan of KOMAS which runs the annual Freedom Film Fest in Malaysia. Like any industry, a robust film scene needs proper financing. I hope the government and also foundations will invest more money in the film and arts industry so that it can flourish.

Stories, be they fiction or non-fiction, are important because they help us understand our past, assess our present, and potentially figure out where we need to be in the future as a society.

6) Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Cheyenne: Just start doing it and don’t stop. I’m learning new things every day and still feel like I have so much to learn. Also, learn to differentiate constructive criticism versus words of demotivation. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

7) How do you think the film industry can bring this kind of awareness to the Malaysian community?

Cheyenne: I think young Malaysians are highly aware of social justice and injustices inside and outside of Malaysia. More importantly, they are more unafraid to speak out about it. I strongly believe that when people don’t see a problem, then that problem doesn’t exist to them at all. This documentary about a real-life person can truly inspire its audiences to be more aware of their surrounding injustices. People in minority groups in Malaysia have been aware of how unjust the system is against them and the difference now is that we start talking about it more and eventually, that can push for real change.

Poh: Malaysians, especially those whose lives are affected by injustices, are acutely aware of social justice. We just need to open our eyes and pay attention. They are everywhere. And if we can’t see them, then we need to ask ourselves, why not, what can we do, and what stories do we need to amplify.

8) What do you miss most about Malaysia when you’re away from home?

Cheyenne: Other than family and close friends, the food, of course. Kuching food is so underrated even in Malaysia and is so difficult to find abroad. My attempts at Sarawak Laksa would never be as good as I want it to be and Kolo Mee is just impossible to make without a made-from-scratch recipe for the noodles.

Poh: I miss my parents and my extended family in Penang.

9) Lastly, how would you describe working with each other?

Cheyenne: Poh is one of the most inspiring people I know. She’s not only amazing at her job but also does it so gracefully. We share many similar experiences in not coming from rich families, moving to the other side of the world alone and making our own way in an industry where there are so few that look like we do. Heck, we’re both Hokkiens even! I look up to Poh and since knowing her, feel less alone and more assured now that no matter how difficult things can get and how hard I have to work, it will eventually pay off. Truly, I’m blessed to know her this early in my career. Truly excited to keep working together!

Poh: I’ve been in the documentary business for over 12 years and have not had the opportunity to work so closely with another Malaysian, until now. It’s been a real joy. Cheyenne is determined, hardworking and wicked smart! She’s also an incredibly genuine and kind person. Though we’re a decade apart in terms of age, I’m constantly inspired by her. I hope many Malaysians will follow Cheyenne’s lead and join us in making documentaries.

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