When a personal story is bigger than you

Non-fiction storytellers have long been using the first person narrative to explore matters that are bigger than themselves. Especially in documentary film, personal stories are intimate and help us form a powerful connection with what’s on screen. This is also a good place to start tackling difficult subjects – from national traumas to social taboos.

While most filmmakers aim to document a very personal story for their family and community, well crafted and engaging stories often go beyond this and shine a light on universal topics that resonate widely.

We spoke to some of our alumni who have produced compelling films based on their personal experiences. We wanted to hear about how this style of storytelling helps tell a larger, more universally relatable story, and how the format allows the exploring of complex human experiences.

We talked to Andrea Suwito (GSDF 2021), Kagiso Latane (GSDF 2021) and Mohamed Shalaby (GSDF 2018) who shared their journey making the films, and their impact.

Andrea’s beautiful portrait of her grandmother helped break a silence in her community, starting discussions about the erasure of the Chinese-Indonesian identity more openly. Kagiso’s honest sharing of pregnancy loss has encouraged other people to come forward with their own stories. And Mohamed’s film opened up a space for a range of people to talk about topics like mental health and the politics of the body.

Read highlights of the conversation.

 

Andrea Suwito (GSDF 2021) – My Grandmother is a Bird | Indonesia

Andrea’s story is about her grandmother Indriati, an 88-year-old Chinese-Indonesian woman, who explores the meaning of her past name, which she was forced to change 60 years ago by the Indonesian government. The film is a powerful exploration of identity, memory, and cultural heritage.

Q. Why did you want to tell this story?

I began working on this story during the pandemic when I would often visit my grandmother in the village and listen to her stories. I felt that it was such a shame that she had lived through all these experiences, but her grandchildren or even her kids didn’t really know many of them. I decided to make this film to ensure my grandma’s stories live on for my aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, in a way that people of all ages and backgrounds could understand.

What is the larger message you wanted to get across? Do you feel like you achieved this?

In a way, I did achieve what I had initially wanted to. My family attended the premiere of the film at Jogja-NETPAC (JAFF), an annual film festival held in Indonesia, which was a significant achievement. Seeing them go to the cinema was heartwarming, especially since some of them hadn’t been to one in decades because of the persecutions that are mentioned in the film. Moreover, the film was later watched by a broader international audience, which was an even bigger and unexpected step for me. I never even imagined that could happen.

What were some unexpected challenges while producing this story?

The unexpected challenge came with the VFX, which I had never worked with before. This vision was only made possible with the help of some friends who are architects who knew how to work with 3D designs, which was crucial for pitching the film early on. However, when we reached the post-production stage with an actual VFX team, it became clear the process is very complicated. Because I didn’t understand how to use the technology, I hadn’t prepared the necessary steps during production to fully support the VFX process in post-production. Fortunately, the VFX team led by Cundra Setiabudhi was incredibly supportive and highly professional in helping to bring this vision to life. Their expertise and dedication made a significant difference in overcoming the challenges faced in post-production.

What would you change about how you told this story, if at all? Why?

Ideally, I would’ve wanted to move away from the expositional nature of the film and focus more on exploring the lore of the phoenix creature. I envisioned playing around with the language of the film to create a deeper and more immersive experience. However, I constantly remind myself of the purpose behind making this film – it is for my grandmother and my family, to help us remember our roots, understand what our people have been through and reflect on what we can do to prevent events like this from occurring again. I believe the current style of the film is the most suitable to achieve this.

What has been some of the audience response?

My grandmother told me that she was a superstar in JAFF! She said people gave her a standing ovation and tried to shake her hands, which was very emotional for me because I couldn’t attend the premiere due to another commitment.

As for the film itself, people have started discussing the erasure of the Chinese-Indonesian identity more openly. Even my own generation has begun talking about it, breaking the silence that had kept it buried for so long.


Kagiso Latane (GSDF 2021) – Botshelo: Born in a pandemic | South Africa

Kagiso’ s story is about him and his partner, sharing their journey of parenthood that is met with two traumatic losses of pregnancies in 2017 and 2019. When the world is facing a devastating pandemic, the couple is blessed with a son.

Why did you want to tell this story?

Botshelo Born in a Pandemic was important to me because most people around the world do not talk about angels they have lost before they even had the opportunity to live.

What is the larger message you wanted to get across? Do you feel like you achieved this?

Losing unborn children is painful but I felt the need to speak about it in the hope that others would share their own stories but to also speak to our rainbow baby, Botshelo and introduce him to his brothers whom he’ll never meet. This documentary is beyond a distribution plan or festival run. It will live forever for Botshelo to look back at and see his parents speak to him.

The message is that during the worst time in the world, the pandemic, our tears were finally wiped. That message was achieved.

Why is it important to make this point through telling a personal story? Did you consider other ways of telling it?

We chose a personal story because we are the only people we know who have been through two pregnancy losses. We realised how sensitive people are about sharing these experiences. We felt like we needed to look within to start the conversation. Many people have come forth to share their stories after we shared ours.

What were some unexpected challenges while producing this story?

This story involved filming in a hospital. Access was a challenge. Especially because we were shooting during lockdown.

What surprised you while producing this film?

The post production process surprised us the most. We had to change editors twice because the structure wasn’t coming together the way we wanted it to.

What would you change about how you told this story, if at all? Why?

The co-producers were sometimes overbearing even though they did help bring the story together. I would have preferred to work more independently. We still kept our voice. We would have also included more moments during the first pregnancies but a lack of visuals from that time limited us. And we had to let go of some segments that we felt should be in the cut.

What has been some of the audience response?

The audience has shown real support for the documentary. Some have given a review to say they were emotional throughout the documentary. The audience also appreciated that we had a happy ending by having Botshelo.

Is there another first-person documentary that inspired your work, or what would be another piece of personal storytelling that you’ve enjoyed?

Yes absolutely. A documentary called Searching for my Long Lost Grandmother inspired the style of our documentary.


Mohamed Shalaby (GSDF 2018) – 51 kilos: my struggle with obesity and depression | Egypt

Why did you want to tell this story?

The genesis of this film can be traced back to a homemade video of myself at the age of 12, in which I pointed the camera at myself and said, “This is the true story of the obese boy, Mohamed Shalaby.” When I rediscovered this clip and watched it repeatedly, I felt like reuniting with a long-lost lover. It was almost like stumbling upon a time capsule from my inner child.

At the time I had already started losing some weight and that coincided with me starting to study filmmaking. In the clip, I could see how my mental health was impacted by my big weight and how unhappy I had felt. The decision to make the film was almost  to embrace this 12-year-old child in the video. To make him feel seen and stand up for him.

Then I just wanted to simply share my experience, to let that child and anyone who resonates with him, to know they’re not alone in their struggle. Nothing is permanent. You’re not stuck. You have choices. You can think new thoughts. You can create new habits. You can learn something new.

What is the larger message you wanted to get across? Do you feel like you achieved this?

The larger message was politics of the body, how our physicality dictates our experience in life. It was also about mental health and its relationship with our physical wellbeing. Depression and anxiety are natural responses to the outside world. Unfortunately, so many times we think we should hide them because we don’t want to look weak. We don’t want people to see our scars and imperfections. But the truth is we are common in our weakness. And all of us, no matter how much we try to look like we are holding up, have very similar fears and anxieties. So, maybe for once, let’s try something different. Let’s give these things space, let people around us know that we’re not as strong as we may seem, that we all share weaknesses and flaws. I really hope I achieved this.

Why is it important to make this point through telling a personal story? Did you consider other ways of telling it?

At the time, I only knew one story to tell, which was my story. The most personal is the most universal. There are definitely big challenges in trying to tell a personal story. It’s not easy because you’re encompassed in the experience. But processing a personal experience through filmmaking has also been very rewarding. It’s owning my narrative and gaining agency of my story. I was also very lucky to receive magnificent support from filmmakers and editors like at One World Media and the team at BBC Arabic.

I was trying to make something that explores how I was truly feeling and communicate that in a way that’s both true to myself and that sparks the empathy needed in the person listening to me. It’s not easy to speak about personal experiences. It’s scary and equally exciting but for that reason, no I didn’t consider any other ways of telling it.

What surprised you?

I was surprised by the response to the story. It was my first ever film and I was only 23. I was first surprised when I was accepted to One World Media’s Global Short Docs Forum. I was the youngest filmmaker with so little experience. But I received so much support and had the chance to see the full potential of my story.

I was then surprised to get the story commissioned by Rosie Garthwaite from BBC Arabic. The experience of making the film with the BBC kicked off my career and led to much more that I could have ever expected as a filmmaker.

What would you change about how you told this story, if at all? Why?

The film was the product of its time and context. It was truly authentic to that moment, acknowledging that it is part of me, valuing who I was then and that part of me who was still making his first steps into filmmaking. I will always cherish that. Of course on a technical level, there’s a lot that I would like to change when I watch the film again. Like wondering how the film would’ve been if I included more from a certain storyline that we dropped in the edit, or used a different shot or piece of music somewhere instead of another.

What has been some of the audience response?

At the moment, the film has 1.6 million viewers on YouTube. The story not only resonated with people from Arabic speaking countries but even more widely, and that made me feel the really magical impact of the film.

Almost five years after the release of the film, I still receive some really beautiful messages from people who watch it and mention how it resonates with them. From young kids who are struggling with bullying at school to women who just went through pregnancy and gave birth.

Is there another first-person documentary that inspired your work, or what would be another piece of personal storytelling that you’ve enjoyed?

There are many personal documentaries that inspired me. One recent one that truly had a big impact on me was Beba by Rebeca Huntt. In the film, Rebeca tells a powerful and raw coming of age story. She touches on so many threads and topics I am interested in like identity, family, politics of the body and home.

The film style is so personal and subjective. Watching it felt like experiencing an intimate stream of thought. I highly recommend it.