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Featured Filmmaker: Netting Supolrai (Mekong Nomad)

Netting Jaruwan Supolrai, a filmmaker from Northeastern Thailand, set off on a journey to visit friends across the Mekong region and found out that humanity is borderless.
Netting Supolrai

Name: Netting Supolrai (Mekong Nomad)

Location: Thailand

Speaking of the phrase "Mekong Nomad", "Mekong" literally refers to "the Mekong River". The word "Nomad refers to "a group of people who usually keep moving from one country to another". Mekong Nomad Jaruwan Supolrai quit her job and equipped with a big backpack full of camera apparatus visited change-makers across the Mekong region who have become friends during her NGO work.

Netting Jaruwan took the journey covering more than 5,000 kilometres across five Southeast Asian countries in five months. She had one goal – to learn from friends in different countries and document it and share with others.

In an exchange over email with EngageMedia, she tells how she could make her dream come true.

EM: Tell us who you are as a filmmaker and how you began your career as one.

Netting Jaruwan Supolrai [NJS]: I am not a professional filmmaker at all, just an amateur. I come from an NGO background. Throughout my Mekong Nomad film project, I used film or video as one of the tools to document my journey and communicate with my followers. I considered myself as a storyteller as I embarked on a journey across the Mekong countries.

My solo journey was a self-driven initiative I took after six years working for a regional project called the Collaboration for the Young Generation in the Mekong Region under the Thai Volunteer Service Foundation (TVS) based in Bangkok, Thailand. I gathered experience in working with young change-makers in the Mekong region and several years later I felt that I was very much exhausted and burnt out from the work. At the same time, I was inspired by the stories of positive changes of my friends in the Mekong countries whom I met during my work. I realized that I needed to take some months off by travelling to visit them, to unlearn myself from their real lives in their country contexts and also to produce some interesting media stuff to inspire people.

I decided to resign from my full-time work and began my MekongNomad journey in mid-October 2014. It was an ambitious project and luckily I got enough support to get it started.

Mekong Nomad

The journey itself was self-funded (from my savings) and my mother and father gave me some money. My film production is funded by TVS.

EM: Can you tell us about some of your mentionable films?

NJS: I have produced mainly travel documentary films. They are about my travels to visit my friends in the Mekong region who are making positive changes in their communities. I wanted to learn about their real lives and what their dreams are at this young age. So I followed them to their hometowns. They hosted me at their houses and each country I visited, I stayed approximately one-month and produced one episode. My films consist of 5 episodes: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Mekong Nomad

I told the stories in a simple way. Once I arrived in a certain country and visited their workplace or their community, I would start to film their surrounding environment and their way of lives. Then I talked to them about what and why they were doing to pursue their dreams for themselves and their communities as a whole. Each film has been shot pretty much in the same mood and tone but slightly different and diverse in terms of the social issues depending on the socio-political contexts in each country.

I think one of the mentionable films is the Cambodia episode: Memories of War Drive Young Cambodians Forwards. It was so touching and inspiring as it depicted how and why Cambodian young generation got strongly motivated to change their country for the better.

This could be a consequence of the bitter history of Khmer Rouge regime that had resulted in millions of lives lost in Cambodia including many intellectuals who were supposed to help the country progress forward in the past few decades. Three youths in this episode had worked to advocate peacebuilding in their county and across the border and they do believe that young people are full of good energy and potentials to do creative things and change the society.

EM: Which one would you say is your favourite, among the films you have made?

NJS: Honestly, it is never easy to pick one. I love all the episodes, but my favourite one is the Myanmar episode: Peace is Every Breath. The travel to Myanmar itself was the most challenging, adventurous and exciting journey among the other four journeys.

EM: What is the background of the story?

NJS: My five-month-long journey across the Mekong region is only one extended journey. To travel from one country to another country I only crossed land borders. Border crossing alone as a female traveller may sound dangerous for people in this region. It can be uncomfortable when you don’t speak the local language and they can’t communicate to you.

When I was preparing my travel plan to Myanmar, I started consulting several friends in Myanmar asking whether it was safe to cross the border to Myanmar and which border was convenient. During that time there was an active armed conflict between Myanmar soldiers and the different ethnic minority groups in Kayin State. I was told that no border crossings were safe, and the safest way to travel was by aeroplane. The week before the journey started, I rechecked with my friends in Myanmar and Thailand whether there was an on-going conflict at all. The green light was on and eventually, everything went smoothly.

Mekong Nomad in Myanmar

I crossed the border at Mae Sot province/Kayin state. But still, in my head, there were anxieties and worries, thinking about what would happen to me in the journey. Besides, I was the only Thai person in the van with other Myanmar passengers. No one spoke a word with me but only smiled at me during the journey from mountain to mountain and the road was so winding and dusty.

Once I arrived Yangon, I was so relieved. I was warmly welcomed by some local friends. They took me to different parts of Myanmar: from Children’s Home in the suburb of Yangon to Natmak, a town in the middle part of Myanmar. It is the hometown of General Aung San where his 100th anniversary was celebrated. Also, I went to Myaungmya, a town in the Irrawaddy delta area to meet with a group of community youth leaders. Overall, I was touched and spiritually empowered by the people I met and hearing their stories of efforts which contributed to positive changes in various Myanmar societies.

So in this episode, as a human being, I learned to overcome the fears inside my mind and fears in the world outside – it has gone beyond a film production.

EM: What were the opportunities you explored from producing the film?

NJS: My journey was to promote peacebuilding and mutual understanding among people in the Mekong region. Being able to do storytelling and communicating is what I did but it was on a very small scale.  As you know, the social work I did has been in an alternative stream, not a lot of people are interested in them. Also, I try to keep a low-profile and not a lot of people in the mainstream knew about my project until they knew about me and my work.

One of the significant opportunities that I gained from producing the films is that I was very honoured and lucky enough to be selected as one of the speakers at TEDxBangkok 2016. This opportunity had come to me at the right time as I was always looking for a mainstream platform to promote the values of my journey and inspire others to travel and explore the neighbouring countries. Humanity is Borderless is the name of my talk and being a speaker at TEDxBangkok has shifted the way I worked to the next level and reach out to more people in the mainstream.

EM: What first attracted you to work with videos?

Mekong NomadNJS: Filming is not my first passion, but photography. The initial plan for my journey was not to make films at first. I have no experiences in filming before but I loved to watch documentary films quite a lot. During this journey, I first learned how to use the video mode of my DSLR camera. Initially, I was only planning to write a book and do photography about my journey. Then TVS (my former organization)  asked me whether I was interested to make films about my own journey and TVS would fund the film production cost. As the opportunity came, I said ‘yes’. I wanted to give it a try, even though I had no experiences in filming and I felt nervous to be in front of a camera (laugh).

Also, I was lucky to have a couple of friends who have a production house back in my hometown Ubon Ratchathani. They are professional filmmakers who produce documentary TV programs for the Thai PBS channel in Thailand. They were very passionate about my work and decided to join my team as the producer and the editor. This is how I got my production team.

EM: What are the challenges for you working in Thailand, especially in the current Socio-Political situation?

NJS: The focus of the film project is to promote peace and mutual understanding among the people across the Mekong region. It is aimed to advance people-to-people relations among the ASEAN Community, which is the very first foundation to create a livable and sharing community in the region. This is what we always believed among the civil society organizations in Southeast Asia that I worked with. We presented the stories in the video as narratives of the ordinary people who are my friends making positive change within their communities. We are yet to face any challenge related to a current socio-political situation in Thailand.

EM: How can online distribution help your work, and what are your thoughts on online and offline distribution?

NJS: Online distribution helps my work a lot and it is really useful for a small-scale project like mine as we have a limited budget to do offline distribution on a bigger scale as professional filmmakers do. Social media platform provides free access to everyone in the world, who can watch my films.

Mekong Nomad

The videos reach out to different kinds of target audiences. We designed posters to advertise our film before the online launching. We launched the film every Saturday evening for five weeks continuously. The films are archived on two YouTube channels, one is my channel (Mekong Nomad) and the other is the organization that funded my film production (Thai Volunteer Service). Also, we promote our film on different Facebook fan pages. My last episode had been launched in March 2017.

We have also tried offline distributions. In September 2017, I was invited to screen my film as a side event at the Mekong ICT camp in Siem Reap, Cambodia to an audience of more than 50 people. I chose to screen the Cambodia episode as most of the participants were Cambodian media persons and I got the opportunity to know directly how they feel after watching my film.

So, I think that offline and online distribution should go together at the same time to make your film distribution reachable to wider audiences, get the key message from the film out there to inspire the viewers as much as possible.

EM: What are you working on now, and what’s your next project?

NJS: Currently, I am doing organic farming back in my hometown in Ubon Ratchathani, northeast Thailand, neighbouring to Southern Laos.

I work closely with a group of young farmers in my hometown community to develop our farms to be a learning place for everyone to come to visit, stay, play, practice and learn about natural farming and food security. And we also are partnering with regional networks like the Mekong Youth Farm Network to help young farmers across the Mekong countries.

My next project is to promote organic food or safe food to people in my hometown community by growing organic vegetables and fruits and selling to them to boost a local economy.

Mekong Nomad

In the future, when the right time comes, I will make a documentary film about the young people returning to their hometown community to become young creative farmers and analysing how their efforts can contribute to social transformation.

EM: Do you believe that films can change societies?

NJS: As many people know, our [ASEAN] region is full of conflicts, challenges, and social concerns, so promoting peace and mutual understanding amongst the people is very important. In the year 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was officially established, it seems to promote only economic purpose rather than people-to-people relations.

My films are aimed to unlock the truth from what we think we already know from the mainstream media or other media like historical textbooks. For example, in my film on Cambodia, the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia has somehow been considered just a political game. The news about the conflict on media induces the people of the two countries to start to hate each other even without meeting one another. Actually, in nature human beings are born from love, not hate; we were not supposed to create hates at all.

In Thailand, we have many documentary films and TV program highlighting our neighbouring countries but most of them are mainly about tourist attractions, food, and culture. Not many such programs cover or reflect on the people-to-people relationship and social and environmental concerns and other dimensions in our regional societies.

I think that I have filled the gap that the mainstream lacks. I do believe that my film can slowly change our regional societies positively in the long run. I also hope that my film will encourage ordinary people to take backpacking trips around our region, making friends with the locals in each country, learn from them in their real life. I hope from their journeys they will unlearn from what they think they already know via the mainstream media.

EM: What have been the benefits and difficulties of working on a nomadic film project?

NJS: Out of this incredible journey, I personally gained benefits and faced difficulties both during and after the journeys. It helped my self-discovery, I totally learned to embrace the real value of loving and caring, fulfilled on my courage and trusts from humanity from my journey.

I faced difficulties and challenges during the post-production. I did a solo journey, my mission was tough, during the journey everything was done by myself. I was multitasking all the time e.g. planning, coordinating, selecting people for my video, filming, framing questions and interviewing. During the post-production, I realised I could plan and do things better as some of my choices made it difficult for my producer and the editor to edit the film.

Right after the return from my journey, I was totally broke (only about 100 baht left in my pocket!) and I had to do freelance translation work to earn my living. I needed to buy a new desktop computer and I had to borrow money from my mother as we did not have enough money at that time. During the editing process, I wrote the scripts, did graphic work and all English sub-titles and proofreading for sub-titles. At that time, I was also taking care of my dad who was terminally ill as he had liver cancer in the final stage. It was one of the most difficult times of my life that I had to go through it all and he peacefully passed after my second episode was launched.

In total, it took two years to edit all 5 episodes of my films and the first episode was launched in January 2017. It may seem to be a very long time to edit film if you compare, but it was meaningful for me. It was worth waiting to work on this nomadic project: my energy, my struggles, my obstacles, my inspiration, my dreams and my hope, I put them all in my films. I am very very thankful to all of the people who have been a part of my Mekong Nomad journey.