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South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)

'Thursday Focus' P. 22 - 28 August, 1997

Tearing Down the Walls

A documentary intended to tell the story of the inhabitants of Kowloon Walled City turned into two stories for the price of one.  Wendy Kan explains.

With five days to go before the debut of their first documentary, In Search of the Dragon's Tale, Stuart Rankin and Haymann Lau had yet to add their last 20 seconds of footage.

"We wanted to put footage of the PLA (People's Liberation Army from China) armoured vehicles rolling in (to Hong Kong) but they caught us by surprise and the jeep we were in didn't help."

So saying, Mr Rankin holds up a videotape of CNN foortage, which supplies the last shot in the documentary about Kowloon Walled City.

The product of 17 months' work, the film will make its debut at the Hong Kong Arts Centre this Sunday.

The couple originally wanted to focus on the life of a disabled street musician, Maurice Chan, who is often found in Wan Chai "immigration flyover".

"We found out he's a fascinating person.  He's actually a flautist who chooses to play on the street because he believes in sharing music.  He's also a self-taught guitairst and he's well respected as a tutor too," says Mr Rankin.

Unexpectedly, Chan took the two producers of the film back to the Walled City of Kowloon, where he spent his childhood.  So the film, almost an hour long, links the two subjects.  It explores Chan's life through him, his friends and his family; and delves into issues highlighted by the Walled City, such as the elderly, housing problems and handover concerns.

"I had seen documentaries made of Hong Kong that were patronising," says Mr Rankin. "They were supposedly trying to show what Hong Kong was about, like a guy flirting with girls, trying to get them to explain what a dumpling was.  So I knew what I detested.

"Our shots were intended as though people experience it if they stepped off the plane at Kai Tak Airport.  The only thing they couldn't re-create was the smell."

Haymann Lau relied on oral histories to provide stories of the Walled City, although there are aerial shots and photographs that show dangling electrical cords and dimly lit, narrow corridors.

Former residents or observers, including the local postman for 10 years and a photographer conjure up images of the squalid homes before they were torn down in 1992.

"Since there was no solid foundation, the postman had to leap from one uneven ceiling to another.  That was fascinating.," says Mr Rankin.

The couple paid $200,000 for the film, moeny earned through Mr Rankin's job as supervising videotape editor with TNT Cartoon Network (Asi Pacific) and through Ms Lau, then working as a sales and marketing manager with an Australian telecommunications company.

All the proceeds from ticket sales will be given to the Society of Community Organization, which invited some of the elderly and new immigrants to the screenings.

"The idea is that they might see reflections of themselves.  It's important for them to see there are other people who care," says Ms Lau.

In their research, the couple also found some former Walled City residents who did not co-operate.

"We found doctors, a couple, who had conducted illegal abortions and agreed to talk to us.  But by the time we got back to them it was too late [they declined to be interviewed]," says Mr Rankin.  And he adds the familiar phrase:  "A lot was left on the cutting room floor."

The pair will donate profits from the broadcasting rights to hospital burns units, an act of generosity inspired by the loss of several days' worth of music recordings in the Garley Building fire. (A Taiwan cable operator has already bought the rights.)

Last November's blaze, in which 40 people died, increased the frustration of production.  Ms Lau recalls how she not only had to persuade potential interview subjects to talk but also to explain that independent film-making was legitimate:  "They would not understand the concept of independent documentary if I wasn't TVB or ATV (local television broadcast companies).  But I think independent films are important for freedom of expression, for creativity."

The documentary has been selected by the jury of Japan's Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 1997 to exemplify its New Asian Currents theme this October.

And the pair have set up their own production company, with plans to produce more.

"Overseas broadcasters are interested in alternatives to what other television stations show.  They also have a lot of air time to fill," says Mr Rankin.

"So I think there is space for people like us."

In Search of the Dragon's Tale, Lim Por Yen Film Theatre, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 31 August, 1997, Sunday, 3 pm and 4:30 pm.

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