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Varsity peeks into the life of homegrown independent director.

Reporter: Nectar Gan

The office is small and cramped. Several tables are stuffed into the space and the shelves overflow with books. Amidst the jumble of paper and books, Tammy Cheung Hung discusses details of an overseas collaboration with her colleagues.

Cheung is one of the leading figures in Hong Kong’s independent documentary circle. She has directed nine documentaries to date and founded Visible Record Limited, which specialises in the distribution and promotion of documentaries.

Cheung’s documentaries touch on various social issues in Hong Kong, such as education and the elderly. Her first documentary, 1999’s Invisible Women follows the lives of three ethnic Indian women in Hong Kong. In the film, Cheung explores gender inequalities and looks at the lives of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.

Invisible Women announced Cheung’s arrival as a local documentary-maker but she only decided to focus on a full-time filmmaking career in 2002, three years after her debut.

Born in Shanghai and brought up in Hong Kong, Cheung had never thought of being a filmmaker. Her childhood aspiration was to be a social worker, but she gave up on the idea because she thought it would be too tough a job to handle.

She has had a varied work life as a prison guard, teacher and a translator for a bank before finally settling down as a full-time documentary filmmaker in Hong Kong. Of her decision to become a filmmaker, she says: “My attitude back then was just to have fun and try it out first.” She was not too worried about failure. “It didn’t matter because I could always go back to my old job [in a bank].”

Cheung’s twin passions are film and social affairs. The latter drove her to study sociology at Hong Kong Shue Yan College (now University), while the former led her to study film in Canada.

The love of film was kindled before Cheung left for Canada. She chanced upon Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence starring David Bowie and was blown away by it. It dawned on her how powerful visual communication was and how underlying problems in society could be highlighted through film. She hoped to one day inspire people, the way the film had inspired her.

Despite this, Cheung says she ended up studying film by accident. She had initially planned to study communications in Central Canada, with the thought of becoming a journalist. But she relocated to Montreal after celebrating Christmas with a friend there. In Montreal, she studied English literature for a semester before switching to film studies at the University of Concordia, because her friends “seemed to be having fun” at Concordia’s film school.

“If not for my 10 years’ stay [in Canada], I wouldn’t be making documentaries now,” Cheung says.

After a year at film school, Cheung dropped out for six years before going back to complete her studies. During this time she was active in the Chinese community and began organising film festivals for Chinese communities in Canada.

“I was thinking, why not play some movies in conjunction with the Lunar New Year?” Her first film festival was so successful it planted the idea that she should produce her own films, in which she could tell her own stories.

Although she has been a filmmaker for more than 10 years and is composed and organised when it comes to producing documentaries, Cheung still gets very nervous when it comes to the moment of screening.

The audience response means a lot to her and she makes it a point to be present for her documentary screenings to observe how they react. “I enjoy seeing the way audiences react to my films, it is very satisfying,” says Cheung. “I feel that I am not making [documentaries] for nothing.”

It is the resonance with the audience that encourages her to persist in her work and overcome obstacles and difficulties, such as tight budgets and the lack of manpower.

Funding is always a problem. The money she makes from screening and distributing her documentaries is insufficient to cover the costs of production. There are limited venues in Hong Kong for public movie screenings, especially ones that can cater to a wide audience.

Cheung says she is heavily in debt and has nearly exhausted her savings. Distribution to educational institutions and companies is one of her company’s main sources of income.

Worse, she says the business environment for documentaries is deteriorating. “Hong Kong puts no emphasis on the arts. Nowadays, it is becoming more evident and serious,” says Cheung. “Society is becoming more and more utilitarian, [and there is] less and less freedom.”

“There is no way out. We were born at the wrong time,” she says helplessly, before bursting into laughter. “Or you can also turn it around and say we are born at the right moment, since there are so many topics to choose from.”

Cheung has her own views about current issues in Hong Kong. Welfare for the elderly, preservation of traditional Chinese culture, and gender equality are themes frequently addressed in her films.

Rice Distribution (2003), a 35-minute documentary about the elderly collecting bags of rice from Taoist charity organisations during the Hungry Ghost Festival, was awarded the Grand Prize in the eighth Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards in 2003.
Video taken from Visible Records

Cheung clearly feels compassion for those at the margins of society and tries her best to highlight social problems. Yet, she understands it is never an easy job to influence the mindsets of others.

“This is not a goal that can simply be achieved by one or two documentaries,” Cheung notes. For example, Moving, one of her personal favourites, which portrays the difficult lives led by the elderly in Hong Kong, received a mixed response.

“I liked Moving a lot, but I know it is hard to find an audience, because it [the film] is about old people. Hong Kong people do not care much about the old,” she explains. “But I like the documentary’s subjects, and I like the bleak atmosphere – that sad and resigned feeling.”

For some critics, however, the problem is not the bleakness of the situations in the film, but what they see as Cheung’s inability to penetrate the surface and provide deeper insight or context.

Cheung’s style is influenced by the 1960s American style of documentary-making known as Direct Cinema. She eschews narratives, background music and interviews, preferring to use only the original footage, directly captured and truthfully presented.

However, Cheung does not believe her documentaries are totally objective. “There are my opinions [in them], because they have gone through my editing process,” she says.

Cheung’s style of fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking requires shooting hours of footage and more hours spent on editing the raw material.

Years of exhaustion and hard work are slowly taking their toll on Cheung. She used to take pride in maintaining a groomed appearance but she no longer bothers with make-up or dressing up.

“We are all turning old. To be honest, I am already 50 years old. I can get the elderly card soon myself,” she says calmly. Aging does not worry her much.

“In Canada, I was known for dressing well,” says Cheung. “I used to love shopping for pretty but cheap clothes, and I was proud of that.” This gradually changed after she started making documentaries.

“We have to look plain during shooting. Because you do not go there to attract attention, in fact you hope you can blend into the crowd,” she explains.

Cheung describes the change as “from being seen by others to seeing others”. No longer worried about how other people see her, she feels a lot more confident and at ease with herself.

“I think [the confidence comes from] becoming a complete person. Because as a complete person, you need not rely on looks,” says Cheung. “I personally think that to be confident is to let people appreciate me not for my appearance, but for the hidden things inside me, like my thoughts. This is concrete. It won’t change with your age, time or fashion.”

Cheung is currently working on a short film that focuses on love and relationships, a topic she has long wanted to get her teeth into. Unlike movies about love that typically revolve around romance, her documentary focuses instead on power relations and problems within relationships and between the genders.

What Cheung enjoys the most about making documentaries is the joy of creation. She compares the process to cooking. “You have a stack of ingredients, and you need to mix them together in a bowl and make them tasty,” she says.

Cheung treats every film she works on as a journey of learning. She says that each time she makes a film, she is able to “better understand an issue deeply. You can learn a lot from it, you will see the things that you never usually pay attention to.”