So You Wanna Be A Documentary Filmmaker?




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Five heavily armed and hugely built Lebanese soldiers grabbed me by the arms and dragged me out of the small coffee shop. Shouting in Arabic, they also grabbed my bag and my camera. I was shocked as they shoved me across the road to their military checkpoint.

As we entered the premise, another soldier ransacked my bag. I was then brought into an empty room, where they sat me down and left me alone. I was trembling when their superior came in holding my passport.

Where are you from? Who are you? he barked.

How the hell did I get myself into a situation like this? At that moment, I realised I have come such a long way…

In 2000, I graduated with an Accountancy degree. However, what I really loved doing was writing and telling stories. A newspaper company was willing to give me a chance to do that, and as soon as I graduated, I started working for them and thus began my love affair with journalism.

After a year, I decided to do my Masters in Broadcast Journalism at Staffordshire University. It was there that my interest developed even more, and I found that broadcasting was my calling.

I came back to Malaysia and got a job at the news desk of a local television station. After a while, I decided to quit working at NTV7 and go freelance. It was a bold move since I did not have any regular clients, so I worked hard. I grabbed any project that came my way, from the ones that I really wanted, such as journalism and documentary productions, to those that bored me, such as technical manual copywriting.

During that same period, I started producing my own short documentary films; most were lousy, but several were good enough to be screened publicly. I also began lecturing at a local university to keep in touch with the theoretical side of whatever I was doing.

In 2006, I decided to make my first feature length documentary, The Look-East Project. I went to Terengganu to find out how the women there led their lives. At that time, I was fascinated by something known as solo journalism.

It was a trend in countries like the USA and Britain, whereby broadcast journalists would produce, shoot, write, direct, and narrate their own stories as a one-man-production-team. It took me a few months to finish my project and by early 2007, I had myself a 75-minute feature documentary film that was eventually broadcasted on air. The light at the end of the tunnel was now becoming much more visible.

With the money I made from that sale, I decided to make another feature length documentary. This time, I decided to go a bit further. I titled the film I’m Muslim Too! and went to four countries in the Middle-East (Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) to see how young people lived in their respective countries. The film was also shot solo-journalism style.

I went to Iran and interviewed Arsames, a heavy metal band. Then I headed to Syria to search for the Hezbollah video game Special Force, and to Jordan to visit the annual Jerash Arts Festival. I also went to Beirut in Lebanon to experience war and to see how Palestinian refugee children spend their days.

When I got into Lebanon, there were military checkpoints lining every street. Tanks and soldiers were everywhere. Turn on the television and you would see live coverage of bombings and shootings just 20 kilometres from the city – it was terrible and it scared me.

“Hey! Answer my question! Who are you?” The soldier’s shout jolted me up. I was still trembling and could barely speak. “I am a teacher from Malaysia,” I squeaked, trying to sound as harmless as I could.

You see, we had stopped at a coffee shop just before the Lebanese border. Across the road was a military checkpoint. During times of war, footage of checkpoints and army bases are prohibited for security reasons, but I wanted a picture as a souvenir. I thought I could sneak a snap through the coffee shop curtains. However, soldiers stormed in after a few minutes. In my hastiness, I had forgotten to turn off the flash function on my camera.

“Delete this picture!” he ordered as he threw my digital camera onto my lap. To cut a long story short, I deleted the pictures, crossed the border safely, and took a flight back to Malaysia.

Besides making documentary films, I am also a freelance video journalist for international news channel Al Jazeera and a Dutch TV station called VPRO TV; I also provide consultancy and conduct documentary workshops. I am now getting jobs and projects that I want to do and have the liberty to decline those I do not want to do, and I am definitely happy with my progress.

Zan Azlee is a journalist, documentary filmmaker, writer and academic. He runs Fat Bidin Media ( Currently preparing his PhD proposal, he holds a Bachelor of Accountancy (Hons) from UiTM Shah Alam and a Masters in Broadcast Journalism from Staffordshire University (UK).

Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.

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