“I’ve always been a story teller – first thru writing and photography and now also with film. Over the last six years I’ve made some short docos and learnt a hell of a lot. I’ve also had a hell of a time along the way.” – Benj Binks, Director of “Mongolian Bling”
Coming soon to a screen near you, “Mongolian Bling” is a rich tale of the death, and possible salvation, of an ancient culture.
Basing out of Ulaanbaatar, this documentary follows the influence of Western hip-hop on contemporary culture in Mongolia, examines the struggles of life in this small, developing country, and alights upon a music scene where new hip-hop and ancient Mongolian singing have become entwined.
Not only is “Mongolian Bling” a fascinating looking film that we can’t wait to see arrive in our part of the world, but it’s a great example of a documentary made by a traveling filmmaker in a developing country – something we at Actuality Media relish doing.
Recently I had the chance to ask director Benj Binks about his experience with “Mongolian Bling.”
CG: What is your history with filmmaking?
BB: “I got into filmmaking to document an adventure I wanted to do in South East Asia. I wanted to travel down the Mekong River but wanted to share the experience so thought I’d make a doco. However, I had never shot any film before. I did a short course and when I realised how much work was involved in making films I thought I’d better start somewhere smaller. I had been to Mongolia and heard the hip hop and thought it’d be a good spot to start. Six years later, the film’s finally finished!”
CG: Why did you choose documentary?
BB: “I love stories that break stereotypes. And I love travel and adventure. I guess after I’d started making films I fell in love with it and wanted to combine it with my love of travel. I have a few ideas for dramas, but documentary is where my passion is. I want filmmaking to support my lifestyle of travel and exploring.”
CG: How did you end up in Mongolia in the first place?
BB: “I first went to Mongolia whilst working as a tour guide on the Trans-Siberian Train. I arrived in Ulaanbaatar (UB) expecting nomads and herders, but stepped off the train into this modern vibrant city. I’ve been there 10 times with tour leading and shooting the film and I’ve flown in a few times, but there’s something about taking the train; chugging out of the manicness of Beijing and rising up onto the plateau and into Mongolia. It’s an incredible way to be introduced to a country.”
CG: When you arrived in Mongolia for filming, did you already know the story you wanted to tell?
BB: “We started shooting in 2006. I’d only made a 5 minute film at the summer school so I knew hardly anything! I thought I was shooting the film, but we ended up with this two hour cut of talking heads – it’s possibly the most boring two hours that man has created. Interesting info, but just these heads talking. So after a few years of editing and scripting and traveling and being a bit overwhelmed, I realised I needed to go back and get the story. I wrote a script from all the footage we’d shot and went back. Two of the three characters changed, but the story stayed somewhat on track and you know, you adapt to things as the pop up. Then back in Australia in the edit we played with the story a lot till I was happy with it.”
CG: What was your favorite part of making Mongolian Bling?
BB: “All of it! Seriously, I loved being outdoors and on the ground when shooting, working out what the possibly stories were and capturing them. I loved editing when the whole thing was coming together. And now I’m loving sharing the film with people and seeing them react to it. It’s really exciting to see people watch the film and it’s great that it’s been so well received.”
CG: What kind of distribution plans do you have? Is it already in festivals?
BB: Yeah, its been in festivals in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Warsaw, Mexico City and Jakarta and we already know it’ll be screening in Spain, Canada and China next year. The feature length version will also be out on DVD next year.
CG: Has it been broadcast?
BB: We cut a TV Hour version and that’s screened on AlJazeera, ABC, Mongol TV, Australia Network and on Cathay Pacific flights!
CG: Is it available online, or will it be someday?
BB: We have a distributor who is pushing that so hopefully more screenings soon. We’re looking into online options as well.
CG: Do you have a next project you’re working on?
BB: “Well I’m currently doing a fair bit of promotion and travel of the Bling, but I’m working on a film about an orchestra and I’m also writing a children’s book. I’m doing some cool freelance work as well over summer and just enjoying not have to spend every spare minute in the edit!”
It sounds like filming in Mongolia was a rich, fascinating experience for Binks. This didn’t surprise me as every documentary filmmaker I’ve spoken to who travels praises the experience. That isn’t to say that his experience wasn’t exceptional, just that the rewards are there for everyone.
Each developing community around the globe is sure to offer its own unique challenges for traveling filmmakers, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who share a passion for storytelling can’t learn from each other’s experiences. With that in mind, I had a few more questions for Binks:
CG: What kind of gear were you using?
BB: “We started shooting with two Sony PDX-10′s. I could afford two of them or one HDCAM camera so I went for two cameras as I was shooting along with my cinematographer, Nacho. For the main shoot Nacho was on a Sony Z1 and I had the Canon 7D. We also had Steve, the sound guy and he had a Fostex Recorder with Sennheiser mics.”
CG: Was there any of your gear you didn’t end up using, that you wished you hadn’t carried all around?
BB: “Not really. We had it worked out pretty well. I had a point and shoot to take lots of happy snaps with and we often gave it to our translator or others to shoot for us. I had a tripod, but on the final trip I had a monopod which was awesome. There were four shoots in total. The initial research, the main shoot (both winter), me doing pick ups in summer and Nacho filming in France.”
CG: What were three of the biggest challenges you faced for filming abroad?
BB: “Understanding what people are saying! Having to ask a question, get it translated, then get the answer translated back to English makes for a very slow process and when I got the transcriptions back, I’d often realise the person said something cool that I’d missed as I didn’t understand and our interpreters would have to do quick summaries of the answers. I spoke some Mongolian, but not enough to interview in depth.”
Shooting in Mongolia in winter was pretty full on. The days were between -15 and -30˚C (not sure what that is in F, but it’s damn cold!) That was testing at times – the cameras held up incredibly well, we had them wrapped in camel hair shawls to keep them warm. When we were shooting outside for a long time, it got testing and you’d feel your toes and fingers go numb.
And…..having limited time. When you’re shooting away from home, you can’t duck back and get a few extra shots so you really have to try and get it all so you’re thinking all the time about the story and cut aways and other story lines and how they’re all going to fit in and making sure you have enough. Our main shoot was two months which I think was a good amount of time. We only had one day off….we went snowboarding and made a stupid short film of us riding and rapping!”
Man, oh man can I sympathize with Binks on those challenges. Well, alright, I haven’t filmed in -30˚C before (or negative anything, for that matter – that’s not to say I’d turn down the chance) but anyone who has made a film with Actuality Media can tell you the effort that goes in to interviewing via a translator, or how quickly the “did I get enough footage” thoughts rush through your head when you know you can’t fly back for pick-ups.
I’d like to thank Benj Binks once again for taking time from his busy schedule to answer my questions, and wish him good fortune on his next project as well as on taking “Mongolian Bling” around the world.
For all of you out there preparing to go on your own filmmaking journey, let us know how it goes!
by Robin Canfield, Curator of Good