Some filmmakers find a formula and stick to it. They settle on a core theme or subject area and explore variations within it. After nearly a decade on the job, it’s safe to say that Yung Chang is not one of those filmmakers. The 39-year-old Canadian director has worked in observational (Up the Yangtze, China Heavyweight) and socio-essayistic (The Fruit Hunters) modes, employed both sweeping cinematography and playful animation, made character profiles and peripatetic ruminations, and traveled from China to the U.S. and beyond. His latest, Gatekeeper, is a predictably unpredicted film set in the seaside town of Tojinbo, Japan, a scenic locale that doubles as one of the county’s most popular suicide destinations. Chang focuses on Yukio Shige, a retired police detective who runs a comfort food restaurant and scans the cliffs for people to talk back from the edge—something at which he’s proven remarkably adept.

In the following far-ranging Field Notes interview, Chang talks about experimenting with a length (39 minutes) and platform (online) that are new to him, the uniquely and necessarily collaborative relationship he had with his primary subject, and the moral and ethical challenges posed by a project that involves watching people at their most vulnerable.

How long had you been working on this project before Field of Vision came onboard?

Yung Chang: I had been researching for a year or so on the subject matter [before Field of Vision became involved]. I came across an article in Time Magazine a few years ago, and the initial research trip was self-funded. I went with my co-producer, Eriko Miyagawa, to see if there was a story there. I met with Shige and was immediately taken into his world via his charisma, his passion. He was driven by what I interpreted as a burden of guilt he was trying to alleviate. There was a research stage that confirmed there could be a film, then there was a dream version of the film that was similar to the final product—twenty-four hours in the day of this character that hopefully included an encounter, a suicide save.

What was it about this place and phenomenon that lured you in?

Chang: There was a personal element that was important, in terms of processing the idea of suicide and suicide prevention. Both Eriko and I have personal experience with family or friends that have committed suicide. So there was a certain yearning to try to unravel the mystery of loss and death. I was trying to find a poetic way to say it. Killing yourself can leave the connected survivors at quite a loss to figure out why [it happened]. And working with Shige-san there was some resolve, though I’m still trying to suss that out. It was a kind of cathartic process for us making the film.

There’s a fascinating dual theatre the film. There’s this nostalgic space Shige’s created, serving comfort food in a beautiful location, yet it adjoins a place of many deaths. I would imagine that was a confusing space to enter when you have these strong emotions yourself.

Chang: It’s one of the epicenters of suicide in the country of Japan, and has become a tourist attraction. People go there to contemplate suicide, though not [necessarily] to commit it. If you go to Tojinbo, you’re not sure if you’re ready yet. For Shige it’s where people sit on the threshold, and that’s where his opportunity as a gatekeeper is—to step in to show the virtues of surviving. There’s a morbid fascination with it, but Shige has the most optimistic reinterpretation of that place. He’s like a shining beacon. He’s the little lighthouse. His nature filters across. And it was soothing for us to be around someone who looks at death in a different way. For someone who deals with depression, whatever it may be, it’s refreshing because he can speak so frankly about it.

You want to think someone like that is out there watching out for the people who don’t feel seen, and then you find out Shige actually exists.

Chang: It’s gotten to the point where he’s so popular that suicidal people will go seek him out. They’re not even necessarily going to the cliffs. He used to have a phone number listed for the cafe, but at some point he got rid of the hotline to be able to focus on people who show up. That was the threshold of what he could handle. It does mean something to go there physically, to contemplate life and watch the sunset on a cliff. It’s a transitional place for people. As Shige says, it’s a place full of life. You look around and trees are growing in the cracks in the stone. It’s the beginning of life, not the end. One question I had, when I was thinking about making the film, was what would drive one person to commit his golden years to pursue a life that was bound to this area? For him it had to be that notion that there was poetry. It’s beautiful there—that’s sustaining for him. Shige does have his demons. He deals with his PTSD [from his previous career as a police detective] through other means. He drinks a lot and he does smoke a lot. I think that kind of work demands it.

In terms of dramatic structure, you pull off something that could only really be done in a documentary. You can start with reflection and conversation, interviews and back-story, and then move into real time, without even calling attention to it. The tense of the film shifts.

Chang: What was driving my thoughts on the narrative was the limitation of the time format. I relished the opportunity to make a film that allowed the climax to hold in a much more compressed format. You have forty minutes to build it. In a way, you increase the tension given the limitation. It’s a beautiful form to work within. I was thinking about short stories, like [those by] Alice Munro. How a story can end ambiguously on an up note, at the climax, which pushes right to the limit of the film. It was exciting to have the potential to do that in a documentary. In a feature, it would be different. My editor wanted to push for the 90-minute version, but I felt that it wouldn’t sustain the emotional depth.

I have great respect for your saying, “no, this is the shape.” It’s easier to release a feature, to go down that well-trod path, but you recognized the ideal form and shape for this subject.

Chang: I think there a lot of films that try to fill out to feature length for practical purposes and it doesn’t always make for a better film. It felt good to know from the beginning what the intentions were. The subject has to fit the film. If the film is 90 minutes, it’s 90 minutes. If it’s five minutes, it’s five minutes. There’s something exciting about the time limitation—the economy, the precision of telling the story.

Yet it’s also quite cinematic. It’s a film premiering online that also works on a bigger screen.

Chang: I felt privileged to have the opportunity to make the film that I wanted to make, to allow the brain to think cinematically and not feel like I had to reduce it to the size of an iPhone screen. With FOV there wasn’t an impetus to deliver something that hits the statistical marks of a short film [destined] for a G-rated website.

I’d like to get back to this dramatic shift into the present that happens in the film. You mentioned that one of your wishes for the piece was for it to function as a day in the life and see someone get saved. When you first take us to the cliffs, you’re introducing a person who lives and performs a remarkable service in this hauntingly beautiful place, giving us a sense of what happens there. You’re surveying things but it’s like a demonstration, not really active—the narrative is what generally happens or has happened. Yet suddenly Shige thinks he spots somebody, and we move into the present moment. We’re no longer thinking about the idea of stopping people from committing suicide, we’re thinking, “Is something about to happen right now?” How do you begin to manage the viewer’s expectations and fears in that moment?

Chang: I wanted to plant the seeds of his world, his motivations. We would be immersed in his point of view, leading the audience to the moment when we fall into real time, which would then involve an attempt to save somebody. It couldn’t be anything but that—a save. I was thinking about the element of suspense and drama, and in a weird way I was thinking a lot about The Conversation, about surveillance. I had a rigorous conversation with my crew about how to film this properly. There was a question of what if Shige doesn’t save someone, and we decided we wouldn’t film that moment. Statistically we were lucky. Shige has a very detailed set of evidence of popular times of the year, and time of day [for when people commit suicide]. They’ve never lost anyone they’ve encountered on the cliffside, which is 500 and counting. Though Shige will check the newspapers, scan the police reports to see if anyone turned up on the shore the next day, and that does happen sometimes. But more often than not it doesn’t. The numbers are going down.

How many “saves” did you witness?

Chang: We filmed five instances in four weeks. We were given permission to include two of those. Ultimately we decided on one, the one that is the climax of the film.

How did you broker that—getting permission, and deciding on the one to use in the film?

Chang: There was no way to film this where Shige was not the leader, in a certain sense. It was an awkward position to be in. We’re shooting behind a wall, trying to be secretive. And he would be the guy who would ask them to sign the release form and give us permission. There was a lot [of talking] over sake and sushi at the end of the day—we were definitely working through the ethical and moral questions, trying to be rigorous in examining our motivations. We had a privileged and rare access into what a suicidal person is thinking at the moment. And Shige was our vessel.

I appreciated the respectful distance the camera takes in those scenes between Shige and the people he’s invited back from the cliff. You’re shooing from what seems like at least one room away. Distant enough to allow the conversation to have its own unencumbered space.

Chang: Respectful was what we wanted to be, and they’re mostly long takes. In the climax, with the boy he brings into the cafe, there’s a very subtle kind of creep-in [by the camera]. Almost imperceptible. Letting the conversation play out was important.

It’s amazing to watch Shige in those encounters. He’s very at ease and casual, and people really open up to him.

Chang: He tries to play it off, the tension. He laughs. He tries to be chummy. And in a Japanese way it works to break that barrier. That’s his method, and he’s so effective. I’m not sure how others would react. I know I wouldn’t handle it well. I would be a mess. I would cause more harm than good.

You’ve now made one of those films that is, in a sense, about watching. A film that links a character’s act of watching with that of the audience watching the movie. That directly causes you reflect on the process of making a movie and its potential effect on the audience. Where does this film lead you from here?

Chang: After I made China Heavyweight, I kind resolved that I would stop making observational films, simply because the process of making a film like that requires a kind of empathy that is painful. You draw a line [past which] you can’t interfere, yet behind the camera there’s an involvement required to build a relationship with the subject. You’re balancing the intensity of the relationship with the subject with the drama of the film. There’s that kind of constant battle. The painful glee that one experiences as a filmmaker at schadenfreude moments. I do think for Gatekeeper, with this idea of surveillance, of observing—you’re making the ultimate film about it in a way. There’s this morbid fascination with observing suicide.

And there’s a layer of asking us to observe too.

Chang: Totally. That’s the kind of one eye open, one eye closed participation that is begged of the viewer. I think there’s that complicity when you’re making a film about surveillance.

Is there something that seems permanent about that? Once you bring it in, it seems like it would be hard to stop thinking about the camera in that way.

Chang: My comfort level with the camera is that it helps distance you emotionally. Because you get to look through a screen or viewfinder as a bridge to reality. It’s always easier when it’s behind something or behind a lens. Shige, for example, is always using binoculars. It was interesting for the crew and me—we were filming with the long lens on the cliff trying to parse out who was suicidal and who wasn’t. And we’d always get it wrong. We hadn’t trained ourselves like Shige had. Everyone looked like a jumper to us.

I felt that as a viewer—what am I actually looking for? You invite the viewer into your very process of being wrong.

Chang: Our point of view was not what Shige was looking for. You’ve triggered some thought for me here—there’s something to this notion of observation and how it carries forward. As a documentary filmmaker, there’s always the complication of what filming reality is like for the filmmaker and the subject. The moral and ethical framework you have to give yourself, if it isn’t hardened or defined, can be very troubling. This is a film that is on the edge of that.

Were you concerned at all by what you might observe?

Chang: I am a sort of optimistic filmmaker. I didn’t let my mind go to the fact that we might film someone dying. I just didn’t believe that it would happen.

I don’t even know that I believe in the notion, but I wonder if the energy of all these people with an eye out, hoping for the opposite, could have made a difference in those moments.

Chang: It’s possible. And maybe Shige knowing he was being filmed translated that energy even mor

IF/Then Shorts, in partnership with Hulu Documentary Films calls short-documentary filmmakers based in North America to take part in the Inaugural IF/Then x Hulu Short Documentary Lab. This lab will channel Hulu and IF/Then’s shared vision of creating a new pipeline of diverse talent and incubating strong voices who will be the next class of non-fiction storytellers.

Program Details:

Four filmmaking teams will be chosen to participate in a one-year lab focused on short-documentary production and career training. For the first six months, filmmakers will be individually mentored through production by IF/Then staff and take part in monthly virtual cohort trainings, consisting of keynotes from industry heavy-hitters and edit consultations. Upon rough cut of their projects, filmmakers will be invited to debut their works-in-progress to an invitation-only audience and receive feedback. For the remainder of the program, filmmakers will finalize their cuts and receive high-level festival and distribution strategy consultations, along with guidance creating their publicity materials, and pro-bono legal support. Hulu will have the right to review the projects for potential acquisition or further development.

Each team will receive a $25,000 grant to use for the production of their film.

This opportunity will be open to individuals living in/from North America, with an emphasis on Black and/or Indigenous filmmakers, people of color, women, LGBTQ+, recent immigrants, and individuals who identify as having a disability. We will welcome any and all stories from underrepresented voices, with a strong preference around subjects related to gender, the LGTBQ community or issues unique to the BIPOC community.

Project Eligibility:

  • In addition to the identity eligibility of the maker and the theme, eligible IF/Then Shorts projects must meet the following criteria:
  • Be an original short documentary with a final duration of 10-20 minutes
  • Be completed within six to nine months of receiving the IF/Then Shorts grant
  • Be factually accurate, follow best practices in documentary ethics, and be designed for a U.S. audience
  • Be driven by (a) compelling character(s), with access to the character(s) secured
  • Be presented in English or subtitled in English
  • Have no prior distribution attached and be able to participate in the IF/Then Shorts distribution initiative
  • All stories and storytellers coming from countries and territories in North America. This includes the United States and its territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa,) Canada, Greenland, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela, and countries in the Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Clipperton Island, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Saba, St. Andres and Providencia, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands.

KEY DATES:

The application portal will open on January 15, 2021 and close at 11:59pm EST on Feb 15th.

  • January 15, 2021: Open call for IF/Then x Hulu Short Documentary Lab
  • March 31, 2021: Finalists announced
  • April 5, 2021: Virtual Program Kickoff

APPLY:

Submissions are now closed.

Please direct any questions regarding this application to ifthenshorts@fieldofvision.org

Starting July 22, IF/Then Shorts has a new home at Field of Vision. Joining Field of Vision will be IF/Then Shorts Program Director Chloe Gbai and Supervising Producer Caitlin Mae Burke. Founded in 2017 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, IF/Then Shorts is a fund and mentorship program that supports storytellers in breaking barriers to access, exposure, and sustainability in the media landscape. IF/Then works with creators who experience inequity based on factors such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, age, citizenship, and/or geography.

IF/Then Shorts taps into the need for broader geographical representation in the stories that get told through its regional pitch events. It holistically supports short documentary storytellers in their creation of compelling, character-led, community-inspired stories that embody the breadth and diversity of the people and places they represent.

The program addresses the imbalance of representation, perspective, power, compensation, and career longevity among independent filmmakers and media artists. IF/Then Shorts leverages access, expertise, network, and brand to address these challenges. Through grants, mentorship, industry connections, and professional development, IF/Then Shorts helps to ensure that storytellers from a multitude of backgrounds have access to the resources and tools they need to tell their stories, connect with audiences, and thrive in their careers. IF/Then Shorts was previously part of the Tribeca Film Institute, which is planning to pause operations indefinitely in September. "IF/Then Shorts is an incredible program, and one that’s vital to the field," said Charlotte Cook, Field of Vision's Co-Founder and Executive Producer. "We’re so glad that they can find their new home with Field of Vision. The program’s values align perfectly with Field of Vision, and further our overall commitment to shorts and advocating for filmmakers. Chloe and Caitlin are phenomenal, and I feel so lucky that they’ll be joining our team."

IF/Then Program Director Chloe Gbai said of the move: "We’re so excited that thanks to the MacArthur Foundation and Field of Vision we can keep this funding and development pipeline open to diverse, creative nonfiction talent past TFI’s pause this September. This program will have a new life and is ready to uplift the voices that we need to champion during these interesting times."

Supervising Producer Caitlin Mae Burke added: "As a former Field of Vision filmmaker myself, I know how beneficial it is to work with these trailblazers in the short documentary space. I'm overjoyed that all of our active projects and future supported filmmakers will benefit so immensely from this move, and we look forward to the tremendous growth potential for IF/Then possible under the Field of Vision umbrella." IF/Then is currently holding an open call for the North Shorts Grant and Fellowship, in partnership with Points North Institute, The Screening Room, Jigsaw Productions, and the LEF Foundation, for regional filmmakers in the American Northeast. About Chloe Gbai Chloe Gbai is the Director of IF/Then Shorts. Previously, as the POV Shorts and Streaming Producer, she launched POV Shorts, which earned POV its third documentary short Oscar® nomination, two News & Doc Emmy nominations and an IDA Awards nomination for Best Short Form Series.  She has previously worked at Teen Vogue and Viacom, as well as served on review panels and juries for the National Endowment for the Arts, Sheffield Doc/Fest, ITVS, IDA Awards, Black Public Media, Creative Capital, and various other film organizations. She is a member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia and a member-in-residence of the Meerkat Media Collective.

About Caitlin Mae Burke Caitlin Mae Burke is an Emmy-winning producer. Her films have screened and won awards at top tier festivals including Sundance, Berlinale, and Tribeca Film Festival and have been broadcast across the US and around the world. Her work has screened at MoMA, The Museum of the Moving Image, and in movie theaters internationally. She is an inaugural inductee to DOC NYC's "40 Under 40" and alumna of Berlinale Talents. IF/Then currently has funding opportunities available for filmmakers. Please find more information here.

Field of Vision has partnered with Doc Society and Sundance Institute to launch Independent Documentary: Filming in the Time of Corona, a new Risk Assessment Guide for independent documentary filmmakers who are considering starting or resuming production during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Many filmmakers are asking themselves — and others in the documentary field — the big question: Should I be filming at all?

As our field discusses and debates this particular question — and its ethical and and public health implications — Field of Vision, Doc Society, Sundance Institute, and our co-signatories are offering a “living document” that provides guidelines, a checklist, and questions for independent documentary film teams to ask themselves, each other and their partners. It is our hope that this guide will help filmmakers make informed decisions and help keep everyone safe.

We’d like to acknowledge our gratitude to all of the the co-signatories of the Risk Assessment Guide, who helped consult on, and improve the guide: Asian American Documentary Network (ADoc), Asociación de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (ADocPR), ACOS (A Culture Of Safety) Alliance, Ambulante, American Documentary/POV, Black Public Media, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Chicken & Egg, DOCUBOX, Impact Partners, Indian Documentary Foundation, Latino Public Broadcasting, National Association of Latino Producers (NALIP), Pacific Islanders in Communications, Perspective Fund, Scottish Documentary Institute, Topic, Vision Maker Media: Native Stories for Public Broadcasting, and others.

This is a rapidly changing situation as well as a long-term reality. Those of us in the documentary field will need to be mindful, flexible, and diligent as our risk assessment continues to evolve in order to keep not only our community safe but also the communities we collaborate with in the stories we tell. This new normal is unprecedented, but our documentary community is nothing if not committed to responding to this profoundly unique situation.

The guide will be updated as the situation develops and as we receive additional feedback from filmmakers and support organizations.

The final round of funding is now closed.

For this final round of funding, we will continue prioritizing providing support to filmmakers of color and filmmakers from other marginalized communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Field of Vision and Topic Studios have created a $250,000 fund to provide grants for freelancers working in the Documentary field. The fund will distribute unrestricted grants of up to $2000 to support personal financial needs during the COVID19 pandemic to freelancers who have experienced hardship from loss of income or opportunity as a result of the pandemic

Dates and Deadlines

April

The fund will be open for applications from Wed April 8th from 9am ET until Friday April 10th at 6pm ET or until we reach 1,000 applications. You can find the link to the application at the bottom of this page.

May

The fund will be open for applications from May 6th from 9am ET until May 8th at 6pm ET or until we reach 750 applications.

Notification of grant approval will be within 20 days of the fund closing, and payments will be processed within 30 days of notification of a grant. June The fund will be open for a final round of applications from June 10th from 9am ET until June 12th at 6pm ET or until we reach 500 applications.


Criteria

Be able to demonstrate work as a freelancer within the documentary field in roles such as:

- Directors - Producers (This includes Associate Producers) - DPs - Editors - Sound Recordists/Designers - Researchers - Assistants - Critics & Writers who have covered documentaries - Publicists

Other freelance roles will be accepted if they meet the rest of the criteria

Provide a link (examples - IMDB page, Film Review, Direct link to project) that shows professional work in the field.

The fund is eligible for artists internationally, however you must be able to receive funding electronically (we are not able to issue checks), and priority will be given to countries and regions of which there isn’t government freelance assistance that you are eligible for. If you have not been eligible for government assistance, please state that in your application.

Students who are currently enrolled are not eligible.

People who are currently in employment are not eligible.

Please note: We have made every effort to reduce the amount of information, paperwork and requirements for funding and have tried to make the fund as open and accessible as possible. We are largely operating on a trust-based system and really urge you to work with us on being able to maintain this. It’s extremely important to us to be able to get funding to the freelancers that need it the most. Please answer all questions thoroughly and accurately so that we can ensure the funds are allocated to help as many people in need as possible.


Information Needed:

- Demonstrated professional work within the field - Usual income source - Description of situation - Maximum amount requested - Minimum amount requested - What the funding would be used for - Location

Please note: It’s important to include a maximum and minimum amount requested. Also, please note that grants may be taxable as income under the law that applies to you. We will issue Form 1099s for grants of more than $600.


The Process

As always, it is important to us that filmmakers lead how we operate and respond, and so the process will begin with a blind review of applications by a panel of filmmakers and producers, with a simultaneous review by the Field of Vision and Topic Studios teams. Those recommendations will then provide the recommended list for funding, which will then be reviewed once more before contacting the fund recipients.

We will only be contacting those who have been allocated funding.

On receipt of the grant acceptance please expect up to 30 days to receive payment. In order to issue the grants we will need a W-9 or W8-BEN tax form and an invoice which includes wire transfer details.

UPDATE: As of March 23rd, our first 200 meeting slots have been booked. However, you can still sign up for the waitlist at the links below as we work to add additional appointment times. From Monday, March 16, the Field of Vision team will offer a virtual "office hours" service for the documentary community. As we’re in a moment of uncertainty, we want to make ourselves available to filmmakers in any way we can. We understand that the industry is experiencing a lot of upheaval, and that this is a particularly difficult time for freelancers and people working independently. 

We have allocated time every weekday until Friday, May 1st (we may extend depending on the situation) to have video meetings and calls. We’ll be prioritising filmmakers who’ve been affected by festival postponements and production changes, but will also be available to offer a range of mentorship and consultation around a variety of areas.

At Field of Vision we like filmmakers to lead and improve how we work. We were inspired by Jeanie Finlay, who has opened her time to mentoring after an upcoming film shoot had to be cancelled. Jeanie is working on a new film that we’re extremely honoured to be supporting. 

We are a small team and will try our best to make ourselves available to as many filmmakers and producers as possible. If any other members of our community would also like to donate their time, we are happy to facilitate this as well, so please feel free to reach out to us.

The areas which we would like to offer consultation on are below: 

  • General mentorship
  • Feedback on proposals and grant applications
  • Project Development
  • Online Distribution
  • Digital Engagement
  • Partnerships
  • Pitch Training
  • Editing
  • Technology & Digital Security
  • Distribution
  • Editorial Feedback
  • Festival Strategy
  • Career Guidance

This is not just open to filmmakers wanting to submit work for us to review, or filmmakers we have worked with before. If you feel you would benefit from time with our team on any project you’re working on please feel free to reach out. There are more details on how to take part below.

HOW TO SIGN UP

Meetings

If you would like to have a virtual meeting about any of the above, please follow this link to book a time: https://bit.ly/waitlist-fov-virtual-consult

(We will also be adapting to demand, and will create a waitlist, and/or increase availability if needed.)

Submissions & Pitches

While we are still managing and prioritizing our regular submissions system, we would also like to make time for project and pitch meetings.

To sign up for a pitch meeting with us, please make sure you have submitted through our system prior to the meeting, using the link below:  fieldofvision.org/submit

Once you have submitted through our submissions form, please sign up for a meeting slot here. NB: We won’t be able to take any meetings around potential projects until you’ve submitted through the system. If you’re not ready to discuss a specific project, or are looking for more general advice, please use the first form.

Please bear with us as we begin rolling out our virtual office hours service. This initiative came together very quickly, so there may be hiccups. We just wanted to offer something to start. 

As we navigate these uncertain times, what is certain is that we are a strong community of creatives and storytellers. We have shown time and again how resourceful we are, how dedicated we are to our craft, art form and field, and how supportive we can be of each other. 

Please stay safe everyone, The Field of Vision Team

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