Doc filmmaker and Global Short Docs participant, Owen Kean discusses finding a story, pitching with confidence and working with Vice.
By Owen Kean
Pakistan’s Forgotten Dead, has over 300,000 views on YouTube and 2 million views on Facebook. The kind of audience doc filmmaker, Owen Kean, never dreamed of reaching whilst he was filming with the Edhi Foundation in Pakistan.
Owen was selected to participate in our 2019 Global Short Docs Forum; a 4-day residential workshop and pitching forum in Kyiv, Ukraine. In partnership with Docudays UA, the Forum hosted 16 filmmakers selected from a global call, and provided an opportunity to learn from industry experts, connect with a community of like-minded filmmakers, and pitch to digital platforms.
We caught up with Owen to find out more about his process, pitching technique and what it was like to work with Vice.
Q: How did you come across the story for your film?
It was actually the producer, Samira, who came across the process of the Edhi Foundation trying to identify thousands of anonymous bodies in Karachi each year. Whilst writing a long-read for the Guardian, she visited the graveyard which features at the end of the film – it’s such an amazing, visual place; and an incredible humane endeavour.
The idea of working together to create a film was immediate. We then worked together to create a story arc that we felt showed both the work of the organisation whilst remaining focused on human stories – the anonymous people and their families.
Q: What was the most challenging thing about your shoot and edit?
The main logistical challenge on the shoot was waiting around to see what happened. Because we’d decided a structure where we followed the process of a body through the Edhi Foundation’s different stages, we had to be reactive rather than proactive – we were dependent on what was found and the stories that happened to be going on while we were there.
We were also limited in the amount of time we could spend in country and follow up on stories, so we had to plan carefully. We were rooted near the mortuary so we were there when they got a call for a body. All this meant that following multiple stories or leads was difficult.
We had a strong sense of the film we wanted to make from the outset, which made it easier to make choices in the edit. However, having only previously made TV documentaries, getting my head into something which was originally destined for a festival – shorter, different in tone – was a challenge too.
Q: Why did you apply to the Global Short Docs Forum?
First and foremost because I wanted the film to get seen. The one to one meetings with decision makers were hugely appealing – it’s rare to get that kind of opportunity to sit down with people and pitch directly, not only your film but yourself.
We’d been lucky enough to secure grant money from an American funding body to actually go out and shoot the film and get it all going – but when you make something like this which is offbeat, has no clear newsline and so on, it can be hard to take it to the next level and find a home for it.
I was really excited to get the film in front of commissioners from a wide range of platforms – and it worked out really well.
Q: What was the most useful aspect of the Global Short Docs Forum?
There were a lot of incredibly useful practical aspects to the GSDF. The pitching workshops were excellent, reinforcing some things I already knew and teaching me much more that I didn’t, and the one to ones with mentors were immensely helpful.
But I think the most important thing was more abstract – when you work in an atomised way like many filmmakers do, it can be hard to feel part of a community, and meeting other talented filmmakers and hearing about their ideas was affirming and encouraging.
“It’s the kind of audience I never dreamed of when conceiving the project.”
Q: What was it like working with Vice? What was the process for them commissioning your film?
Alex Hoffman, Head of Video at Vice, who was at the GSDF, was great to work with. I only worked with him so I don’t know much about the rest of the process and the people involved internally, but I know the film was shared around the office before they made a final decision.
It’s worth noting that the film was quite advanced – perhaps more so than some of the other films at the forum – because we’d already filmed and edited it. So they were acquiring an almost finished product; they acquired on the basis of what it was rather than what it could be. That meant that the whole process of working with them was very easy.
I worked in the office with them for a week making edits – mostly small tweaks – it was all really pain-free and it felt like they were putting resources into it.
Q: How did Vice influence the final outcome of your film?
There were format changes to the film to bring it in line with the format of their other content. They wanted to flesh out the characters more which meant that the film ended up slightly longer. They also wanted an intro which was more in keeping with their usual style, that set the tone and gave a line on what the film was about.
The primary impact on the outcome, though, was how many people saw it.
If the film hadn’t been picked up by Vice, it might have been seen by a few hundred people at festivals and screenings. Since they put it out, it has been watched more than 300k times on YouTube and more than 2 million on Facebook.
It’s the kind of audience I never dreamed of when conceiving the project.
Q: What was the most important thing you learned from this project?
Firstly, that everyone else is in the same boat, stressing about their own films.
Secondly: apply for things! You never know what will come of it. I almost didn’t apply for the GSDF as I was worried about the deadline – but it would have been a huge missed opportunity if I hadn’t.
It had a transformative impact on this film and I made connections with people that have continued well after I left Kyiv!
Q: And finally, what’s your top tip for pitching a film?
Know what your story is. Until you are confident in what the story actually is, to the point that you can explain it to another person, you will have problems pitching it clearly and effectively.
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