“I grew up as the youngest of five kids so nobody ever wanted to listen to me. My opinion was not counted in the family decision anywhere, ever. So I do think a little bit of what I do has to do with ‘now you’re gonna sit down and you’re gonna watch and you’re gonna listen to what I have to tell you because what I have to tell you is also important!’”
Seizing an opportunity to go and have a fresh start 15 years ago, documentary filmmaker Tobie Openshaw moved to Taiwan, his distinctive ideas and compelling stories taking him and us on a journey on the island where he found more creative freedom to fully engage in his own projects, and where he continues to tell and share his stories.
With his well-received documentary films spanning topics from the Betel Nut girls and funeral pole dancers of the country, on to more poignant issues such as the lives of photojournalists in Nablus, Palestine, he has managed to establish himself as somewhat of a de facto connector for the marginalised groups of society. His current work with the Taiwanese aboriginals (原住民) runs along the same lines: squashing stereotypes and getting the real bits and bobs of the matter – basically, telling the story the way it really is.
What do you think defines an excellent videographer?
I think it depends on the job at hand. Sometimes the job requires someone who is extremely technical, who can produce sharp, beautifully lit, and exposed footage. But most other times, capturing the moment is more important to me. Being able to communicate and connect with human beings, especially the ones in front of your camera, I feel, is very important. Whether they speak your language or not, whether the person is older or younger than you: a good videographer is someone you can immediately trust because he wants to tell people’s stories honestly and with integrity.
What are the key technical or creative elements that you find essential to documenting and telling a story well?
So the technical things go without saying… I’ve seen really boring documentaries that were beautifully shot with expensive high-end equipment and then I’ve seen really compelling stuff shot with cellphones. So, again, it really just comes down to the story. If you’ve got a good story, it will tell itself. You do not need, and in fact I abhor, camera techniques and gimmicks that draw you away from the fact that the filmmaker actually doesn’t have a coherent story to tell. So, for me, I’m really big on film structure. When I put together a film, it has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end. There are segue ways too. I plot those things out so I know exactly where I’m going with the story; I know exactly what conclusion I want to make. But aside from that the only thing I try is to not have any preconceived idea about the subject at all and just try to tell it how it is. For me the creativity is in the start when you are getting the story out of the people and, the moment someone tries too hard to be creative with style, I find it often detracts from the story.
How do you manage to spot an interesting story to tell that hasn’t been discussed before in an information-overloaded world like we have today?
We think that the world is overloaded with information but, actually, it’s overloaded with Kim Kardashian’s butt. It is very underloaded with the things that are really, really important.
I collaborated on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian issue which followed a group of four Palestinian photojournalists around Nablus. They tell their stories in the most amazingly authentic way, they speak English, they could communicate well, they were articulate, and none of them said “We want to push Israel into the sea.” But what do we see from the Middle East today in the news?
We don’t hear the voices of the moderate Palestinians who just want to get on with their lives and want their peace. So there are plenty of stories that are still untold that need to be told, and that need to be told better.
And then, especially, for instance, in Taiwan: Taiwan as a country, as a whole, is off the radar. When I was covering the ‘Sunflower Movement’ recently, it was one of the most moving, one of the most amazing experiences for me. So there’s still a lot of scope and mostly it’s about addressing prejudices and shifting the focus on to important things.
When you’re getting information from a subject, there’s bound to be situations where someone’s emotions are compromised. How do you work around that and how far do you push?
As a filmmaker I feel that my first priority is to the viewer of my film. To tell – sorry, I don’t like to overuse the word authentic but it is really what it comes down to – to tell an authentic story. If someone is not comfortable with telling their story then I would rather not have them in the film. Generally, I find that people want to tell their stories if you show genuine interest in them; they would want to tell it even though it might be painful for them. So, I’m great at just letting people talk.
Many inexperienced filmmakers want to inject themselves into the conversation, and then you kind of block the person from talking. So I’m a big one for creating uncomfortable silences. Someone will be talking and they finish their sentence and then I go [long pause] and that moment of silence; they try to fill it and then the good stuff comes. I would also sometimes stop the camera, have a bit of conversation, and just surreptitiously roll the camera again and get a more authentic reaction. If somebody gets overly emotional, I turn off the camera and we’d take a moment and we would just talk about it. I don’t like to just abandon a subject and I don’t like to seem like I’m dragging tears for the camera either.
So we can say that you are protective of your subjects then?
Well I believe that it can be cathartic for people to have their crying moments on camera, so in that way sometimes I will say go ahead and cry. But where I’m protective is more along the line of the safety of subjects. So if subjects have any reason to fear for their safety because they appear in my film then I’d really just rather not pursue the story. Or I find another way to do it.
Are there any notable events or situations from your past that make certain stories more exciting for you than others? You’ve mentioned your sympathetic interest in issues regarding marginalised groups of people. Does this tie with your own personal experiences?
Well, there are stories that are just purely exciting because it’s cool, you’re flying around in a helicopter over the desert and you’re shooting the wildlife and things like that and that’s great! But I come from a privileged white South African background and I grew up, certainly not rich or anything like that, but privileged by the fact that I am white in a society where it was pretty much white and black. It took me a while, even through adulthood, to realise, to really come to grips with how bad the Apartheid was and what it did to people. And so I think it is just coming from that background; maybe you can call it white guilt, I don’t know. Anyway, I lived in Namibia before and I was the only white guy around. Now I’m living in Taiwan and I’m the only white guy around and I’ve experienced a little bit of that “Othering” to some extent —the fact that I’m always going to be different, just different, and I can never fully belong to the group. Therefore matters similar to this are things that resonate with me.
With all the issues you’ve tackled throughout your career, what intricate observations have you made about humans as an entirety? Have any compelling truths or patterns been made evident to you about us?
That’s kind of a big question. It’s a little bit mundane but the thing I always return to is that we all have stories; they are all valid and all worth telling. And sometimes, whilst we do see and acknowledge our differences, no matter where we are from, what colour our skin is or what language we speak, our similarities are always ultimately much bigger than we think. We all just want to share and tell our own stories.
Check out Tobie’s work here.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIA KAO