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Interview with Lin Sun Oo, Creative Producing Lab Participant

Interview with Lin Sun Oo, Creative Producing Lab Participant

August, 30 - 2022

Lin Sun Oo is the co-founder & director of Tagu Films. He graduated from McDaniel College in Maryland, USA with a BA in Environmental Conservation. Upon his return to Myanmar he worked as a highschool teacher. Lin has worked on several short films and short documentaries as a producer at Tagu Films. Besides filmmaking, he enjoys long distance running, kickboxing, and bikepacking journeys. Lin has continued his passion for teaching by conducting workshops for first-time filmmakers at Tagu Films.

He is the producer of The Birdwatchers, a story about three people from different ethnic backgrounds documenting rare birds in Myanmar.

In this interview Lin talks about the importance of finding your peers, the challenges of working with a director who is also your longtime friend, and the green flags of a good story.

Tell us a bit about who you are. And why are you here? As a producer for The Birdwatchers, maybe you could tell us a bit about your role? 

I found out about Docs by the Sea from friends of mine, and their experiences in the past. When I googled Docs by the Sea, I realised that it was a good way to move our project forward as well. Some more filmmakers attended this workshop and recommended it to us as well. So we decided to apply. So far it’s been great and really eye-opening.

As filmmakers, sometimes you feel alone or trapped inside your own thoughts. Anytime you have a chance to talk to people and mentors—not just in your own country, but all over Asia and across the sea—it’s nice to know that you’re not alone. Sometimes some of the struggles that you have in filmmaking might seem like the biggest problems. But when you talk to others, you realise that we all go through this problem.

It’s a good journey to be on. Besides the filmmaking, my favourite part from filmmakers coming together from all over the world is to hear all the different stories that they’re pitching. At the end of the day, regardless of whether we are an editor, director, or producer, basically we are storytellers. This is sort of our profession, it’s the thing that we live for. To hear different stories from different countries maybe is a good way to transport your mind to a different location. If you’re physically there, it costs aeroplane tickets, visas, and everything. But through Zoom, you can close your eyes for a moment and imagine, for example, my peers from India, or Indonesia. Some of the stories can be lighthearted, and some very heavy. Regardless, what I take away from these types of sessions is the appreciation for how hard it is to tell a story. And why it’s also worth it.

I imagine it can be a bit daunting to share your project in front of strangers in the group sessions. But that’s not the case with you?

I think it really helps that we all speak the common language of film and documentaries. Even if it was daunting, it’s usually before the session starts. When everybody shares their project, you read it, and you think about the first one like, “Oh, this project is amazing”, it’ll win a lot of awards. And then you read another one, and “Oh this sounds amazing, too”. You keep going and going, and then after that, you realise, we really prepared hard for this. It’s a language that we all speak.

I’ve been to a lot of places where there’s that awkward silence where everybody didn’t know what to say. And you don’t know if it’s correct, or you don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. But here, we’re much more frank. And it didn’t take a lot of time to build up to that.

Throughout the world of independent filmmakers, especially for documentaries, it is a very small community. So you have to be a little bit odd to be a documentary filmmaker. And I think this is a great place for odd people to come together and be normal.

Can you tell us a bit about The Birdwatchers? What is it about, and who do you have in mind for the audience?

The Birdwatchers is a story of three people who are obsessed with finding the rarest bird species and how to preserve the birds before they’re gone because of climate change, and politics, and conflict. Although the story is about birds, it’s actually about why these three people try so hard to watch these birds and to preserve them. And they all come from different places.

For me, this documentary is a very personal narrative of someone’s passion. It’s a documentary where you don’t need to be an environmentalist or a biologist to understand their passion, why they want to do it, what their motivations are. I think at the end of the day everybody wants to preserve a memory or something that they hold precious. I think this is the same for the three birdwatchers in our documentary.

I hope the film is for everybody. Because if they love the story as much as I do, then I think that hopefully anybody can relate to the film.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for you, in maintaining your project as a producer? You have to think about so many things, but what would you say is the biggest hurdle?

I and Sai Kong Kham, the director for this project, we have been friends for over 20 years. So even before we were filmmakers, we were friends. One of the challenges is that I want my friend to succeed, not because I’m a producer, but because I’m a friend. But then you also have to figure out the limits to the friendship, moving forward. You don’t want to tell your friend bad news, or you don’t want to tell your friend that it’s a bad idea. You have to balance that. I think that’s one of my big challenges.

That sounds like a pretty personal and also delicate dynamic? Did you find an answer throughout the Lab? 

Yeah, one of the good suggestions that mentor Mikael suggested was to interview the director without any agenda. This is something I never thought about. Since we’re friends, we talk about different things all the time, but not within the context of the film. I mean, we always talk about the film, but (the interview will be asking) the intentions of why he wants to make the film, and more of his personality as well.

Another challenge is this. Sai Kong and I have worked on several documentary projects together as a director and producer. But most of the stories have been about somebody else. This time around, the director is part of the film. It’s what attracted me to this story. We can help to tell other people’s stories, but now I feel like I’m the one who’s helping to shape, to tell his side of the story. We discussed a lot about this during our one-on-one sessions, about how to separate the directing side of it, the friendship side of it, as well as the practical part of making the film. 

Do you have any breakthrough moments throughout the Lab this week?

It was just some simple words that the mentor said. One that really stuck with me is there’s a difference between documentation and storytelling. You can always turn on the camera and shoot everything. But then that’s not the storytelling aspect of it. The doc—it’s documenting. Shaping the story is sort of the challenge. Those two definitions really helped to “click” my mind about what we need to do.

And a great moment for me was, immediately after one of the sessions, I decided to call my director because he’s in a different town from where I am right now. And then we just discussed about the things that he’s gotten, and what are the things I got. And then, we decided to share our notes.

What was the consideration that made you decide to produce this project? What makes you get hooked on this story?

My grandfather was also a filmmaker, he passed away a long time ago, but one thing he said to me that I still remember to this day is that, “If a person would not shut up about something, then there’s a good story there”. I think that’s really true. I am not a birdwatcher, but I enjoy looking, I enjoy going through nature, I enjoy looking at different animals. What hooked me to this project is these three characters in our film. You can sit with them from six at night to six in the morning, and they will not shut up about birds or their adventures or why they think they should be. And through them, I feel their passion. This is something that I want to portray to the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt bored listening to them in those six hours. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t know anything about birdwatching. I think our job as filmmakers is to highlight and show a piece of that to the rest of the world.

When you applied to Docs by the Sea, did you have certain questions in mind that you would like to find an answer through this forum? What did you expect before applying?

I have a lot of questions. Especially coming from Myanmar where it’s a very small community of filmmakers. I think we’re also a lot further behind in terms of developing international co-productions, working together in financing a feature-length documentary, and all that. So usually after hearing how international co-productions work, what your pitches are, and what forums to go to, after a while it makes your head hurt. You’re feeling like there’s so many steps that you have to do. Those are really good information for us, particularly from experienced mentors.

But I think what I enjoyed even more than that is that everybody gets together to help refine your story. People talk about things that they’re not clear about. Not just us. We get to participate with other people as well. That’s the best value that I got—the ability to bounce your ideas off other people. And in these types of forums, the great thing is there’s no such thing as a ridiculous question. You don’t feel like, “If I asked this question, would I look stupid?”. Usually most people have that hesitation, but here, I think it’s the way it’s created, it feels like a very safe space to ask these questions and not feel like, “Oh, this might feel dumb”, or “This might feel like, far behind”.

And the great thing is, there are some projects that are much further ahead. And there’s some projects such as ours, where we’re just starting. But then there’s a lot of commonalities. It’s great to hear from different peers about what they went through. It’s a good learning process for us as well.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.