A Complete Behind The Scenes Of Kayan: Beyond The Rings
I wrote this to give a little backstory to the film and also help any of you who are interested in making short documentary films and portraits.
I’ve worked in video production in the past and you can read about that here, but now I work for myself I don’t really do things by the book per se. As you will see I’ve tried to split up the stages of the project but just take it all with a pinch of salt.
I’d finally made it back to Thailand after 3 years since my initial visit that made me fall in love with the country as so many young backpackers too.
This time I wasn’t back to eat late night toasties (maybe a few), neck bottles of Chang (one or two couldn’t hurt) or sip on shrooms shakes (would be rude not to open up your mind brother).
I was back in this amazing country with a focus on making documentaries and on the lookout for some great stories or causes to shed light on…and no doubt end up doing all of the above again.
It’s hard not to be aware of the ‘long-neck’ villages when traveling Thailand, you often see them advertised at tourist kiosks and the like.
You’re instantly drawn to the unique aesthetic of the Kayan women printed on the posters and for me I decided I wanted to learn more about who these Kayan people actually were.
But Thailand is awash with gossip and rumours about the Kayans; some of it may be close to the truth but for the most part it is just the regurgitation of mainstream media headlines.
“Ah don’t go visit them, it’s all just for show”
“The Thai government just use them as a tourist attraction and don’t let them leave”
“I don’t think people should go to the long-neck villages, it’s unethical”
These are just a taste of the things I heard from travellers when I moved to a hazy Pai in the midst of burning season late last February. But my curious mind (I’m a nosy bastard) led me to do some of my own investigating.
Who are the Kayan people?
Walking street in Pai.
One of Pai’s many quaint little cafes made the perfect place to setup my laptop and go about doing some of my own research on the Kayan people. Google provided me with a deluge of negative articles using words such as “human zoo” and “prisoners”.
I also found out that the Kayan people were mostly refugees from Myanmar that had settled in Thailand due to civil war.
This all made me feel uneasy and I remember thinking to my myself, “Are these poor people really forced to live in these villages and have their photos taken by tourists against their own will?”
The idea of making a film which showed these people yearning for help already began to interest me.
Perhaps a moving piece which could hopefully raise awareness about these “prisoners” and put pressure on the Thai government to set them free would be a route to take?
I’d let thoughts get away from me, this was incredibly shortsighted as I’d barely even begun to scratch the surface.
Yet the overeager hack in me was already crafting a story.
It was time to dig a little deeper..
A small temple I found while wandering the backstreets of Pai
Thankfully I decided to broaden my “deep research” to the intellectual hub of Facebook.
Here I searched in the local Pai groups for any information about the Kayan people. Nestled in the annals of Facebook knowledge I found a page called the HaaSii Club, headed by serial social entrepreneur: Christian Jordan.
Christina was leading an initiative called the Cross Cultural Co-Creation Club which had been developing a relationship with the Kayan village of Huay Pu Keng.
At the core of the mission was helping the village to understand that they have more to offer than just the neck rings.
They encouraged a more wholesome experience for visitors with activities such as bamboo workshops, making brass jewellery, learning about medicinal herbs and so much more.
An image from HaaSii’s Facebook page
This really intrigued me as it seemed like a much more positive and pragmatic approach compared to the boycott train of thought I’d heard and read about previously.
Surely both the Kayan people and tourists could benefit from a much more meaningful experience where cultural knowledge could be exchanged?
My laptop battery was on its last legs so I quickly headed back to where I was living at the Plernpai apartments on a hill overlooking Pai and reached out to organise a meeting with HaaSii.
While I waited for a reply I bided my time playing with the two amazing beagles who lived on the grounds of my accommodation.
The aptly named “Singha” and “Leo” (brands of Thai beers) definitely helped me stay sane during my 3 month stay in Pai as for the most part I was all by myself *cue volins*, but I could always count on these dogs for some loving.
I even saved one of them form getting mauled by some savage dogs who lived down the road by throwing my flips flops at them and making scary noises.
These weren’t just dogs, they were my best pals!
Thankfully after a few days Christina got back to me and we arranged a meeting. By this time the “burning season” was in full force – the time of year when the fields and forrest of northern Thailand go up in flames, creating a thick blanket of damaging smoke which covered the once blue skies.
Amongst the hazy midday heat I trudged round the hills to the HaaSii clubhouse to meet up with Christina and some of the people working with her such as Kasey, Nutcha and Rimu.
The HaaSii clubhouse
Rimu, a young Kayan woman and the sister of Mu Tae from the film, was working with HaaSii in Pai but she would be soon heading back to her home in the Kayan village of Huay Pu Keng.
We all arranged to meet up in the village and start filming once Rimu headed back as she could provide some much-needed translation for any interviews.
Time to get my gear ready
*Skip this part if you’re not interested in camera equipment or don’t want to hear my minimalist views on filmmaking*
Nutcha and I booked our bus tickets to the town of Mae Hong Son, the nearest town to Huay Pu Keng.
Now all that was left to do was get my gear packed up and as you can see below, it’s a really strenuous task for me to deal with so much stuff.
My Arri Alexa and anamorphic lenses
Seriously though, this is all I used for the film. I know some people would look at this and think it comes down to a lack of experience/funds/creativity but in all honestly, even though I do own more lenses, tripods, and a glidecam; they are jus not necessary for so many projects.
I think some people can unfortunately get bogged down in equipment and don’t realise what you can achieve with just camera and one good all round lens.
Even if your lens is bruised and battered like mine, it will still work perfectly fine. I’ve used lots of different equipment in the past while working in video production but for me now, especially in run and gun situations, you can’t afford to be balancing glidecams and changing lenses all the time. Plus the Sony A7s sensor always attracts debris when changing lenses!
The lens and camera combination I use allow me to enable Sony’s steady shot, so along with some tai chi style hand movements and a little work in post; its pretty easy to mimic gliding/crane/dolly shots.
All gear I used for Kayan is as follows, feel free to buy your own with the affiliate links (gotta keep hustling man):
Sony FE 24-70mm Carl Zeiss f4
Rode Video Mic
Rode Smart Lav+
Hoya ND Filter
This is a drone btw
At the time I didnt actually own a DJI Mavic Pro, but thanks to some kind friends I was able to use their drone shots for the film. I think drones are actually really valuable, you have to be careful to not over use them but they can offer a unique perspective and scope to your film.
Even though I follow a mantra of keeping it simple, I think a drone is a really good asset for anyone wanting to create documentaries. However laws are becoming a lot more strict now on flying them, especially in Thailand, so make sure you read up or are out of sight before you go for a flight.
So with all the gear sorted it was time to plan the questions and what I wanted to shoot.
I had an idea in my head of a potential story arc but wanted to be nimble enough to change if I discovered something I didn’t know already.
I kind of figured that the story would focus on an interesting back story of the Kayan people, the conflicts they have faced and then the good work that HaaSii was doing with the village.
Our trip to Huay Pu Keng
The view of Huay Pu Keng from across the river
The tuktuk from Mae Hong Son bus station dropped us off across the river from Huay Pu Keng, Nutcha and I waited on the banking for one of the long boats to take us across. The village looked really different to anywhere else I’d seen in Thailand and I was keen to get inside and have a look around.
After paying a small fee to enter the village we started walking past small stalls with crafts and fabric for sale, behind each stall was a Kayan women wearing the brass rings.
Rimu welcomed us to sit outside her home which was also a little cafe and homestay.
She introduced us to people and we had a little walk further around the village and it definitely didn’t look like a human zoo to me. Just regular families going about their business, kids playing and going to the school.
But I was still all too aware of the headlines I’d read which led to me to the most challenging aspect of this project – how uncomfortable I felt at times filming people in the village.
Tryng to keep a respectful distance
I tend to be very conscious of making people feel uneasy while filming them and here, in a village where all too often tourist just come to just take lots pictures of the Kayan women, I was super aware that I may be getting on people’s nerves.
I didn’t want them to feel I was just another tourist there for a quick photo opportunity, so sometimes I didn’t feel confident enough to get the camera out at all and consequently missed out on all the shots I wanted to get.
This in-turn made editing the film really difficult, but we will get to that later.
You’ll probably notice that there isn’t a lot of close up personal shots in Kayan apart from one’s of Mu Tae; most are wide shots and if they are close they were thanks to my zoom lens.
So that day I got a few candid b-roll shots of village life on our little wander round but that was it for the day, I didn’t feel like getting my camera out and forcing things.
Me, Rimu, Nutcha and Youma (a young Japanese student who was also staying the night in the village) just hung out, ate food and chatted the night away.
With No phone signal, no wifi, no electricity – just good company and great veggy food until it was time to go to bed. I’d paid Mu Tae to stay the night at their place where a lovely big floor bed was made up for me with a mosquito net.
The sun was beaming in through the windows as I woke up to the sound of “cock a doodle doo” the next morning. I was eager to catch some beautiful shots so headed out at and caught golden hour around the village. As the day went on it became hotter and hotter, we took regular breaks in filming and just relaxed while taking in the village ambience.
A handful of boats arrived with tourists on them in the early afternoon and I was interested to see how they would interact with the villagers.
To be honest It all seemed pretty fun, they were singing and dancing together and checking out all the crafts in the stalls.
Morning in Huay Pu Keng
Nutcha and I would be heading back to Pai that evening so it was time to get an interview done before we left. Rimu had suggested that her sister Mu Tae was willing to be interviewed and filmed so I was more than happy to focus the film around her. I briefed Rimu on the questions I had written up, mic’d up Mu Tae and then gave Rimu the questions to ask her sister.
The Kayan language sounds really beautiful, almost like Portuguese or some exotic European language. I listened intently as Rimu asked Mu Tae my questions and translated the responses.
Fundamentally what I came to understand is how Mu Tae and other people in the village were not bothered by tourists at all.
They were so keen for more tourists to come and wanted to let the world know that Huay Pu Keng was open for business, Mu Tae wanted to show people how she weaved traditional Kayan clothing and suggested ways in which the men could interact with visitors in a meaningful way.
Without any tourists it really effected their financial situations, they were able to make a good living from tourism and wanted to grow this sustainably.
A shot of Mu Tae
It was clear to me that the aims of HaaSii’s Cross Cultural Co-Creation Club were in line with the will of the Kayan people of Huay Pu Keng.
I wanted to help give the Kayan people a stronger voice in the on-going debate and decided right there and then to make a film which aimed to challenge the common media narrative which had negatively impacted these people’s lives.
We left Huay Pu Keng that evening, it had been amazing to discover how welcoming the Kayan people were and to see the other side to the story so many people were talking about.
Farewell Huay Pu Keng
I got back to Pai and went over the footage and realised that due to my timidness to get my camera out, it would be essential to go back to do more filming and also expand on what I had learned about the Kayan people.
A few weeks later Nutcha and I headed back for another great stay in Huay Pu Keng.
The ups and downs of editing
The first thing to do was transcribe the interview, unfortunately Rimu didn’t come back to Pai during the rest of my stay. Instead I asked a young Kayan man called Somchai if he would be willing to work for me transcribing Mu Tae’s interview. It only took around 2 hours to complete and then I closed the project file, not to reopen it again until I arrived back in England via Bali 4 months later.
You’d think it wouldn’t take me long to edit a 5 minute video. Think again…
I wonder what would happen if you put these blocks into ableton?
Although I had a rough idea in my head and on paper of what I wanted to do, making it come to life was incredibly difficult. Each time I create something I want to feel asif I’ve really upped my game on my last project, this means I can be too self-critical in search of inexistent perfection.
I’d spend hours each day creating building up rough cuts after rough cuts. But this led me no where, I made the mistake of editing to a song that I wasn’t going to use and after 2 months I decided to star all over again.
I started putting into motion pieces of the introduction, I then added the hammers and the build up to the title screen. After a week of refining I was done! Oh wait…that’s only 30 seconds of the whole film?
Spurred on by the intro I kept sketching, experimenting and reordering shots into order to best suit the story. I started de-realizing the whole editing process and I felt like a chef who was intent on making the very best dish out of all the random ingredients at their disposal.
It’s tough been so critical of your own work and means that editing can end up being quite a stressful affair, it’s time I invest in a stress ball!
Overall I wasn’t happy with the shots I’d captured because I didn’t film comfortable to film all too much. I began wishing I was back in the village to film more, but I wasn’t and had to make the most out of what I’d got.
I hoped that I’d be able to make something coherent but to me, the chances seemed slim.
Things got worse a few months into editing when my music producer friend Kody decided that it may be best if we didn’t work together on the project anymore. We’d been trying to perfect the score but it was so hard not being able to discuss it in person as Kody lives in Seattle. I felt sorry for him having to deal with all the feedback and direction I would send him over Facebook.
However we really pulled together in the end and decided to give it another go, with a little bit of splicing we made it and I felt like the score was really amazing – thank you Kody!
After 4 months of editing the film was kind of ready (I actually had to then colour grade it about 5 times until I decided it looked okay) The thought of working on something for so long for it to look like shit wasn’t an option.
But at this point my eyes could barely even tell what was good or bad, I didn’t even think people would like the film.
Still, I owed it to the Kayan people for welcoming me to their village and taking the time to sit down and talk to me. If this film could introduce a new perspective to at least one person then I thought it would be worth it!
Getting the message out there
Kayan was first released on the Matador Network as part of their new Matador Originals, a great slate of films released weekly showcasing travel, documentary and adventure. I’m incredibly lucky to be working with them and mega grateful for the support they have given me to continue making films.
However without any comments on their website I was unable to see how it had been received by people. I was eager to get it on Facebook and see if I was able to get this important message across to the key audience.
Thankfully a week later Kayan went live on Facebook and was received really well by the majority of people. I expected more of a backlash but people welcomed Mu Tae’s voice to the debate regarding the ethics of visiting Kayan villages.
I was happy to see that the message was getting out there with lots of shares and views. It seemed that people really appreciated my style of cinematography to tell this story too which was a bonus to me.
Overall this was such an incredible experience and I feel I pushed myself to create the film which is no doubt beneficial to my creative journey.
I’m really happy that Mu Tae’s story has seen the light of day and I hope people will approach the issue with this fresh perspective.
I hope you enjoyed this higgledy piggledy insight into my workflow and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.
Apparently the film will be soon shown in Huay Pu Keng so I really hope they will enjoy it. I look forward to getting back there one day but for now I have another edit to get on with, I think this one might take even longer 😉