DOCS BY THE SEA. LAB: JULY 11–21, FORUM: AUGUST 18–26
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Interview with Angeline Teh, Storytelling Lab Participant

Interview with Angeline Teh, Storytelling Lab Participant

August, 04 - 2022

A journalism graduate, Angeline Teh is an aspiring Malaysian creative documentary filmmaker with experience as a former radio producer at BFM89.9 and communication practitioner at the French Embassy. She yearns to tell stories about intergenerational trauma and sexuality; starting from home with her debut feature currently in development How to Stop Firecrackers from Burning. She is presently a scholarship holder at the DocNomads Joint Masters Degree programme in Europe.

Read our conversation about her story on intergenerational trauma, her journey in learning about creative documentary, and being vulnerable with other filmmakers.

How is it going so far, Angeline? Could you tell us about these whole two weeks?

It’s my first lab ever, so it’s been an eye-opening experience. It’s really nice to see other projects in different stages. The mentors have been really helpful as well. We’re all working towards this big thing, which is the pitch in August. I actually felt like my project is still in a very early stage, and I was not sure if I was ready for a pitch. But through the mentoring sessions, they were really helpful in giving me the sense of validation. They think it’s a possible idea that could work out. That creates a little bit of confidence in this project. It’s not just an idea anymore. We’re trying to see this as a material product in the end.

In the pitch sessions, I remember the moment you started the pitch by telling us about having a dream being burnt by firecrackers. It made me shiver. That’s a very strong start.

I actually didn’t know that it would be something impactful. Thanks to Jeremy, my producer, who actually asked me to put it in. That’s how the conversation started with him last year when we met. He’s the one who was trying to push me and said, “There is something to work on”. And this is how the whole idea of firecrackers started. It’s not like that for me. When it’s part of your experience, you don’t see the starkness, you just see one anecdote. The shocking part for me is that it’s been confirmed in my mother’s diary that I was actually burned. You’re just never sure whether what you remember has really happened or not, or it only was just a dream.

It was very brave to share such a personal story. Before sharing it with other filmmakers, I imagine even talking about it in the first place could be difficult. What made you decide to do a documentary? It could be a very personal and private pursuit, to find out about all these things. 

There’s two things. One, obviously it’s a very personal project. I think it was Pin Pin who mentioned that this could be a project that will never end, because it’s so personal. But for me, there is this very strong urge to want to be able to tell my own story, before I’m able to go and tell other people’s stories as well.

In the past year I’ve been in the Masters of Documentary Filmmaking, but it’s my first time making a film ever. I’ve never really done it before. It’s very challenging, because it feels like you’re stealing people’s stories. You’re in there, you’re filming, and you’re not giving anything back. At the same time, I felt like I’m not giving myself enough. They don’t know about me. Especially when we’re in countries where we don’t speak their language, like in Portugal and Hungary. There’s a certain level of communication where it feels very superficial. But they open up their homes, they let me in, they let me feel. It’s great but I feel a lot of guilt. 

So then I was thinking if I really want to do this, I need to first confront my own story and open up myself. Then I’m able to go to other people’s homes and their intimate spaces. I think that’s one of the major drivers. And of course personally, this film is my way to process and let the past go. There’s many layers, it’s quite complex. 

How to Stop Firecrackers from Burning is an intergenerational story, and it’s your way to solve that trauma that lingers within generations. How do you think storytelling could help you in solving that kind of trauma?

The word “telling” or “saying” is actually the keyword for me. Trauma can’t be solved if it’s being pressed down, right? Until you kind of put yourself in that situation again. But instead of the fight-or-flight response, it’s to work through it together.

So this trauma that my family have faced… When the event happened, everyone just kind of moved on with their life. But I felt like time was at a standstill. From this moment onwards, it doesn’t feel as real. By “storytelling”, in the sense of making this film project, is a way to open up conversation. It’s like telling my sisters and my brother, and even my relatives, to remember the past, but remember the good side of it as well. Not just that one event that happened. That’s my hope.

Also I hope my nieces and nephews and new generations can be a part of this and to know about this side of their family. Because right now, nothing. No one talks about it. My nieces and nephews never met my parents, they don’t know stories about them. I’m the daughter of my mother and already I don’t know so much. It’s making me a bit crazy. So at least having this is like a little legacy for the family. 

You took a journalism degree in the past. There’s a bit of an element of telling other people’s stories there as well. What eventually lures you into documentary films?

I was working at a radio station as a radio producer, presenter. It was a talk radio, a very hard news type. We interview people for 20 minutes every day, I do the research, interview, and go. There is no creativity involved. One time we got this special programming for our Independence Day, and I decided to do something crazier for that. I played with the sound and the pace of the story. That’s when I realised I actually enjoyed that.

At that point, documentaries felt very news-y. Journalists would just go and interview and make a 20-minute content. People were suggesting to cover the MH 370, the missing Malaysian plane, but I’m not into that kind of investigative journalism. I was very confused about the form, and how to do it.

Then I joined the French embassy, working in communications. That’s when I started to learn to make short videos, and try to marry what I did in radio production, the creative side—but just learning the technicalities. Then I learned about the word “creative documentary”. Now this sounds right. This is what I want to do. Something that’s not so topical, not news-y, more poetic.

My Masters at DocNomads is helping me to sharpen the skill and making sure that this is something that I want to pursue. I like the whole realness of making documentary. Because real stories are more emotional, I feel. And we know the world is not pretty, but we can find this beauty in the little rough edges of real life.

During these two weeks, what is the biggest challenge in your project? And does this Lab in any way help you to solve it? What was the most eye-opening moment for you?

The biggest challenge is the form of this documentary. How do I see what’s going to happen in the beginning, the middle, and the end. And that’s a big challenge, because I really don’t know what’s going to happen. I haven’t got the diaries translated. I wouldn’t know how my family would react to it. It’s very hard to imagine. But the only thing I have control over is just my intention. And my push that if the reactions are not what I would hope for, it will also be part of it.

What’s been helpful with the mentoring session is that they help me think of practical steps. I wasn’t sure if I should translate everything in my diaries now, with everything off screen? Or do I wait for someone to film every translation, which would mean a lot of footage. As of now, we don’t have a lot of money, but we have time. So let’s just scan everything, and then pick out what I want to focus on and then use those pages and approach my family members. The mentors have been very helpful in clarifying the next steps.

As for the eye-opening moment, for me it’s when the mentors are able to draw a certain kind of pattern, just based on what I’ve shared. And sometimes it’s a pattern that I didn’t see. I think that’s great to have this input from the outside and helping you to form your documentary with different layers of themes.

Is it quite what you expected when you applied to Docs by the Sea before?

To be honest, I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t know what a Lab is, I’ve never been to one. But it turned out to be very helpful. My producer Jeremy has been really positive. At first when we wanted to apply I was like, “Are you sure? I really don’t have much to share”. I just had this idea, some cuts, photos, archives, and one interview with my sister. There’s nothing more. But Jeremy said that that’s the whole point of the lab, to help you develop the project. 

What I didn’t expect was how I’m also able to learn from other films, meeting other filmmakers. That’s a really cool experience.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.