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The Reel Truth

Making Your First Feature Documentary with Xinyan Yu & Max Duncan

Exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking.

Michael Werner

July 11th, 2023
Making Your First Feature Documentary with Xinyan Yu & Max Duncan

Welcome to the second edition of The Reel Truth, where we explore the fascinating intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking. Today, we're joined by two accomplished journalists-turned-filmmakers (and longtime VC members) Xinyan Yu and Max Duncan. Xinyan is a seasoned multimedia journalist who spent nearly a decade with the BBC covering stories about China's rapid societal shifts. Max began his career as a video journalist with Reuters in China before turning freelance. They both bring a wealth of on-the-ground experience and an intimate understanding of China's landscape to their work.

Together they're co-directing their first feature documentary "Made in Ethiopia," which explores the impact of China's investment in Africa. The film weaves together the narratives of three women standing at the forefront of Ethiopia's industrialization plans, set against the backdrop of the largest Chinese industrial park in the country. We sat down with Xinyan and Max in the midst of editing Made in Ethiopia to talk candidly about the challenges of transitioning from staff to freelance, the usefulness of pitching in international forums, the inspiration for a feature documentary, and much more.

Join us as we explore this captivating debut project and lessons learned in Xinyan and Max’s journey from the world of journalism to feature documentaries. Let's dive in!

Max Duncan in Tiananmen Square.
Xinyan Yu in action.

Michael Werner: You were both staff employees at major journalism organizations, and then you both went independent. What’s the transition been like?

Xinyan Yu: I was on staff with the BBC for eight years, and that's how I started my journalism career. It was really exciting, and I was able to do a lot of the three-minute short stories on interesting people. I was really happy, but the longer I stayed in that career, the more I was left feeling unsatisfied with the kind of time I could give to each story — especially those that are very complex and require more time and nuance .

I think 2019 was when we started our feature documentary project, China had been expanding its influence overseas. And we both felt like not enough was being done to really humanize these stories. So when Max reached out to me about this idea, the first thing I said was, “I don't care about payment or anything, I just want to do this.”

Xinyan working for the BBC.

Max Duncan: Reuters was really my first major job, and I was there from 2008 to 2014 as a video journalist in the Beijing Bureau. And similar to Xinyan’s experience with the BBC, it was just the most amazing place as a first job because I got to travel all over the country. I got to see extraordinary situations, and cover everything from breaking news, to environment, to culture, and some silly stuff as well that was just colorful and fun.

But similar to Xinyan, I found that the format was limiting. I also noticed that I'm not actually that excited by getting a scoop. What I would get excited about are those moments of real human connection, where you give a little window into someone else's world and an audience can really understand where that person is coming from.

I went freelance and stayed for two more years in China. And my work just got progressively longer, first to a half hour. Moving on to a feature doc is the natural progression. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

Max in Tibet, reporting for Reuters.

Michael : Xinyan, it does sound like the Made in Ethiopia project, this feature doc, was the impetus for leaving your job at the BBC. Is that what happened?

Xinyan: Yeah, at the beginning, I just thought this is a side project that I can do out of passion, but there's no way I can survive on it. So I kept my full time job as well as doing this feature doc.

I felt very hesitant to pull the trigger on going freelance, partially because I've never done it before. I was really scared of the prospect of not having a stable income, and not having medical care in the U.S.

But I realized that working two jobs, one being the feature length documentary, was not going to work. So in 2022 I did it. The first three months were really really tough for me, since I didn’t have a pipeline of clients. But slowly, the jobs came.

Many people have asked me, “How do you start freelancing?” It's definitely not easy. I would highly recommend to anybody who starts their first feature to keep at least a part-time job to have a stable income. And once your project is stabilized financially, then you can maybe do something more creative with your time.

Michael: At what point did you two realize this could be a feature? Was it right away, or did it take a little bit before you realized what it actually was?

Max: We were open minded in the beginning, but quite quickly it became a feature. Certainly the characters we met made it clear that it would be a feature.

Xinyan: We were just really mesmerized by the manager of this big industrial zone near Addis Ababa. She's a woman. She's super feisty, and she's very expressive. She's very unconventional, and we were immediately drawn in by her. So that is when we were like, OK, this story has potential to be a long-form documentary, because we were just really curious about how her journey would go.

Xinyan and Max with characters from their current film.

On that first filming trip, there were a few key things that we filmed where even now, when looking back, we're like, “Oh, my God! We were really lucky! How did we even get that?!” And those were the scenes that we knew were going to carry the film.

Max: It also became quite clear that the stakes are very high for everyone concerned, both at the individual level and the national level. Ethiopia is this country that has 100 million people that they have to bring out of poverty, and it's crucial that they do it, and that they get it right. But also at the individual level for the director of the industrial park, her professional success is holding up a family, and therefore the stakes are very high for her as well.

Michael: Filmmakers are always interested in learning about the funding for projects. Was Made in Ethiopia funded right from the start? How did that all come together for you?

Max: Ford Foundation's China Office, in conjunction with Moving Images Strategies, were interested in understanding what impact Chinese investment has on developing countries. So they were obviously excited by the subject of our film. And we got initial development from them. They had really no expectations about what kind of a project it would be, whether it be a feature film, a series of shorts, or something else. It was kind of extraordinarily the level of trust they placed in us.

They gave us some development funding. So the only money that we ever spent out of our own pockets was to take a recce trip at the very beginning, which really didn't cost that much.

We didn’t get any other funding until we were able to show a trailer, and some solid scenes, which obviously has to come further down the line.

If anybody is looking to start their own project, it’s important to have the courage to actually go and collect some material.
—Xinyan Yu

Xinyan: If anybody is looking to start their own project, it’s important to have the courage to actually go and collect some material. That first filming trip that we did was so important. The few golden scenes that we got were basically our ticket to many other funding opportunities, because we cut a very compelling trailer, and we took it around to several high caliber festivals and pitching forums. And we were able to speak to many of the broadcasters and funders and sales agents around the world.

Female workers arriving to start factory jobs.

Michael: Were there other keys to your success?

Xinyan: Yeah, there were. A lot of people ask us, Should we do these forums, because sometimes you have to pay for them? My response is always that it's super, super useful because you have to generate this heat in the market before the film even comes out.

Each forum you have to take 15 to 20 meetings, and you often have to start by telling people what your story is in like 30 seconds. And pairing that elevator pitch with a compelling trailer is a really effective way to get people interested. I think it was at our first ever forum, the Sheffield MeetMarket, that we were able to get a very prestigious sales agent attached to our project at a very early stage, and also get a bit of equity funding in place. I think those two big names on our project really helped pave way for more funding to come.

Max: That first Sheffield forum was an amazing experience for us, and it gave us so much confidence in the project. But I think the key thing was having a two and a half minute trailer. It got people's attention. We had no idea how to cut a trailer before, we just copied the format and tried to slot what we had into it, and it produced something kind of amazing.

I guess you just take the format that works for other people. And maybe it's not really the voice that you want your film to have. But you can work that out later. It might not be perfect, but it's better than doing nothing, you know.

Xinyan and Max with line producers Goush Fissehatsion, Sura Abera, and Million Mulatu.

Michael: You two had worked on some short projects together before this, but you hadn't worked on anything close to the scope of a feature film. How did you figure out roles and how to collaborate?

Max: It's surprising how well it's worked seeing the skills overlap that Xinyan and I have. We're both doing almost everything. We're both working on the proposals together. We're also both doing the editing stuff, but it doesn't seem to be conflicting. I think generally we're on the same page.

That is obviously one of the great things about both of us having a news background, and I guess this may well be true for a lot of VC’s members, because we both know technically how to do everything. We both produce and both shoot. We both take care of sound. We've always had to do that with our jobs.

Xinyan: I think we went into the filming doing exactly what we did for shorter films, because we didn't really know any other way. It was easy at the beginning, because a lot of events just landed on us, and the way we filmed it was very similar to how we would film it in journalism, just documenting and making sure people's perspectives are expressed.

What became challenging was figuring out our style. I remember showing our trailer to a producer who consulted with us early on. One thing she said was, “I don't see your cinematic language yet.” And I remember that hit me really hard, because that was one insecurity I felt coming into this project. I was so afraid of being too journalistic, especially in the visual approach to the story. So when I heard comments like that, I was wondering, Oh, okay, so what can we do to make it more cinematic?

What is the artistic approach other than documenting and making things look beautiful? But now, at this stage, I've realized you could be a lot more intentional with how you approach certain scenes. As a journalist, your goal is to document reality as it unfolds, and not much more than that. But I realized that there's a lot more intentional things you could do. For example, you can intentionally choose not to go in really close and stay wide and just sort of observe from the outside.
—Xinyan Yu

Michael: It sounds like that comment really stuck with you. What did you take away from that and did it change your approach going forward?

Xinyan: I feel like I'm still figuring that out. It's funny, because all of the applications ask this one question, which is, “What is your artistic approach?” I remember we had such a hard time with that question because we're like, What is the artistic approach other than documenting and making things look beautiful?

But now, at this stage, I've realized you could be a lot more intentional with how you approach certain scenes. Originally as a journalist your goal is to document reality as it unfolds, and not much more than that. But I realized that there's a lot more intentional things you could do. For example, you can intentionally choose not to go in really close and stay wide and just sort of observe from the outside.

I learned that sometimes viewers would see closeups filmed with long lenses like the 70 - 200mm, and they can feel distant to this person. That was really interesting, because we learned it from some of the feedback. They're like, Oh, it looks really beautiful. The faces look really beautiful, but somehow it created this distance. We didn't know that before.

Max: Intentionality definitely was something that was lacking from the beginning of the filming. And you know it's actually embarrassing to watch the rushes sometimes, because there will literally be minutes and minutes of just following somebody around from behind. I mean, why would you ever use long passages of following someone around?

Of course, there are times when something happens that you don't expect. And sometimes just shooting and shooting and shooting really pays off. But how do you strike the balance?

Max filming one of the film’s participants making coffee in her farmhouse.

Michael: What stage of the process are you in now with the film?

Xinyan: We're like 70-80 percent complete, but we're having some difficult hurdles. Everybody has been telling us that in the editing process you will almost certainly hit rock bottom before you come back up.

Max: Yeah, we're at that rock bottom right now.

Michael: Why does it feel like rock bottom?

Max: When you come from short form, you think that an hour and a half is an eternity. And how would you ever possibly fill it with interesting enough content. But then you get to this point in the edit, and you realize that actually making a story, which has a complex context that needs explaining, around three different characters, and trying to make each of those characters stand out as fully realized three-dimensional people, it's extremely difficult.

We know that you have to simplify, but as you simplify, you lose the joy. And I think there's certainly been moments when we felt really quite disillusioned with the whole process, because a lot of what we loved is not there anymore.

There are a lot of fantastic, beautiful moments we filmed. But the process of killing your darlings is not a fun process.

A factory worker sews jeans.

Michael: An edit is challenging enough as it is. But when you set out to make something complex and nuanced, I imagine that it's just that much more difficult.

Xinyan: Yeah, it’s a daily conversation we're having with our editors of how much we should explain a scene. Can we show this scene without explanation? Is this too much, or is this too little explanation? How do you make sure that audiences with different levels of understanding of this issue can all understand it? It gives me a headache just to think about it.

Before entering this project I had no idea this would be what we’d be facing. I mean, in the news industry you do a lot of explaining. So I came into this project, hoping that maybe we do a film with zero explanation. But then you realize, maybe that doesn't work. Some people don't have any idea of what's going on.

Max: There's a lot of things in the film which I think two thirds of humanity understand perfectly, because in the developing world people live this stuff every day. But for an audience whose lives are quite far removed from the turmoil of industrialization, they don't necessarily think about or understand it at all.

And so it comes back to, who are you making this for, because for a lot of Asian or African audiences they'll be like, duh. But for a lot of other audiences, they might not get it.

The industry park and the surrounding area.

Michael: Have you found a north star, or some kind of guiding principle for how to handle these questions around how much to explain?

Xinyan: I think we're still figuring it out. It's funny though because I've been told two different things. One is, don't underestimate the intelligence of your audience. And the other one is, don't overestimate the intelligence of your audience. (laughs)

So I'm like, okay, so what should we do?

If we have a north star, I guess it would be to make the film you want to make. It's not possible to make a story that satisfies absolutely everybody's needs. I think we have to accept that.

Max: It's about really thinking about how much an audience needs to know. Yes, some explanation is needed, and maybe certain scenes or topics need to be very clear. But other ones don't need to be very clear at all. And if there's a degree of mystery, actually, maybe that’s something that can keep the audience engaged. Because if everything is given to you on a plate, you don't really invest yourself in the story, right?

For me, at least, I don't think there has to be a conflict between accuracy and creativity. When we're in an edit, so long as we're not misrepresenting anyone in a way that is ethically wrong, and what we’re doing is actually in service of the story, then it's not necessarily a bad thing.”
—Max Duncan

Michael: You two both come from the world of journalism where fairness and accuracy are top priority, and you're moving into this feature documentary space that prizes storytelling and drama and emotion. How challenging has this been for you to navigate?

Xinyan: As a journalist, you're told to keep a distance from the story and the subjects. And as a filmmaker you're told the opposite that if you don't put yourself in the story you never will get anything that feels intimate out of it. It's such a difficult transition for us.

Max: For me, at least, I don't think there has to be a conflict between accuracy and creativity. When we're in an edit, so long as we're not misrepresenting anyone in a way that is ethically wrong, and what we’re doing is actually in service of the story, then it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just creating a story that people will actually understand and want to watch. But the moment that you start to change things which actually creates a misleading understanding for the audience, and of the reality of the situation, that's where you draw the line and say, “I can't do that.”

Mesi, the daughter of one of the film's main characters, after she delivers her son.

Michael: Staying on the topic of journalism versus documentary, are there certain habits that you’d developed while working in journalism that you're now trying to break while working on a feature?

Max: Yes, one thing is the way you compose shots. Especially in an agency like Reuters you learn that wide shot, middle shot, close shot, reverse shot is the way to construct sequences. And you have to get the cutaway because otherwise there'll be a jump cut, and that would be like the worst thing that could possibly happen.

So we’re trying to think more carefully about capturing wider shots that tell a lot more within one frame rather than just doing the typical formula. But I think as soon as there's a moment of stress, I know I fall back into the same old patterns, and I'm like, “OK, got to get the cutaway.”

Xinyan: How do you treat your relationship with your characters is another very big lesson. I think that we went into the film sort of doing what video journalists or broadcast people do, which is having the mindset of, I cannot go into the field and not come away with something. That mindset creates a feeling of stress for the filmmakers and for your characters as well. The characters start thinking, Oh, do I need to do something? Does there need to be some kind of action to make this shoot worthwhile? I think that our characters often felt a certain level of pressure when we showed up.

But by the middle and end of our project, we were much more relaxed. We just wanted to hang out with people. And that's when people open up to you about their family and their relationship. They realize they don't have to say certain things to satisfy the camera.

I think that in the early stages we were so frantic about missing things that we had big-time FOMO. But we realized that you don’t have to shoot a ton as long as you make those few moments you film count.

If we do a second feature we'll approach it much differently than the first one.

Xinyan and Max with their producer Tamara Dawit.

Michael: Last question for you that we ask all our guests: What’s the best piece of advice that you've received in your career?

Max: I've got one that is super obvious: “Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It's a bit of a cliche, and we all know it. But there've been a lot of instances in my professional career, including a half hour film that I did before, where I just couldn't end it. Then one day, after months and months of messing around, I just sat down and edited an ending with what I had. And I was like, “Oh, OK, that's actually pretty good.”

And there's definitely a feeling with this Made in Ethiopia project as well that nothing is ever going to be exactly what you want it to be. But sometimes you just have to put stuff together and realize that it is actually really good.

This is a lesson that I tell myself, but I don't always live by it. But I'm trying.

Xinyan: For me, even in my early producing career, I was told that whenever you're questioning whether a trip is worthwhile, go into the field and you’ll get something good. This project showed me that as soon as you go into the field and take that first step, there's going to be something that sticks. You throw a lot of things at the wall and there's going to be one thing that sticks.

Michael: This has been a fantastic conversation. I really enjoyed this. Thank you both for sharing so freely. This is going to resonate with a lot of people out there.

Max: Absolutely Michael. The pleasure was all ours.

Xinyan: Thank you for having us.

Have an idea for a Reel Truth guest? Send the Michael a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.

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