Conversations with Pearl Forss

By Jejhar Singh and Bong Dick

Pearl Forss is a Senior Producer with CNA. She enjoys exploring the globe and speaking to people from all walks of life. In 2015 she produced “The New Silk Road ”  a series about China’s Belt & Road initiative that received a Silver medal for Best Documentary (International Affairs) at the New York Film Festival. In 2021, she produced “When Titans Clash” a series about US-China relations that received the Best Documentary Series Award at the Asian Academy Creative Awards. Pearl has also been on the judging panel of the New York Film & TV Awards for the last 5 years.

A day of work varies depending on the phase of production we are in. A day in January is very different from a day in February. In the case of a documentary, we break it down into three phases. First is the research phase. The second phase is the production phase. The third phase is the editing phase.

During the research phase, I spend a lot of my time reading and writing. For example, if I am making a documentary about US-China relations. I will be reading both right-wing US media and left-wing US media articles; I will also be reading Chinese academic journals, including the Hong Kong perspective and Taiwan perspective. There is a lot of research that I need to go through. I will also be on the phone with several analysts from different parts of the world based on the story we are producing. I will then digest all that information, absorb it to create what I think is the most suitable outline for that documentary.

During the production phase, pre-COVID, I work mainly on overseas documentaries. For example, regional documentaries would involve me flying to a country, for example, Mongolia. Over a day of work, I will be on the ground. Starting with working out the logistics of how to get to places. After we reach our destination, my teammates – the cameraman and the sound man and I think about whether or not we should film certain things for a particular scene, seeing if we should use the drone or not, and how do I film an interviewee. Much of that work is art direction, and thinking about how we want a scene to unfold on screen. The other key aspect would be the actual interviewing. When we meet our interviewees, we will chat with them and do our best to make them feel comfortable in front of the camera. Of course, a lot of research would also have been done beforehand to design the relevant questions for the person that we are putting on screen.

The final phase is the editing phase. After we have done all the research, found the story that we needed and produced it, we will look at all the material collected. This is when I will be writing a lot and putting together all the different interviews that I have done, piecing them together into one cohesive and engaging story. I also have to pay attention to things like music. This is essential in a documentary. I have to go to the music library and select the appropriate music, which aids in creating a certain mood. Overall as a documentary producer, no two days are the same, we are always working on different subject matters. We are always meeting different people.

Pre-covid involved a lot of on-site work, as I mentioned. However, during the pandemic, a production day may be me waking up at 4 am, as I need to produce a segment in the USA on US time.So I will have to direct my crew on the ground in America through FaceTime or Zoom, or conduct interviews online. During the pandemic, a lot of the art directing and face to face interaction with interviewees became impossible for overseas shoots. It has been a major game-changer for documentary producers like me.

I prefer being on-site because when we are on Zoom or FaceTime, our vision is limited to the lens on the phone. I can see so much more on-site and pick up many more details, which helps in my storytelling, and I get to interact with my interviewees a lot more. Even before the cameras are rolling, I have already started talking to that person, and that is really important to help to break the ice to facilitate a smooth conversation. Sometimes our questions change, based on what we learn or see on site. You can imagine that these intricacies of filmmaking gets lost in a world where you are directing a shoot using Zoom.

The Silk Road series looked at China’s Belt and Road initiative and how it changed different parts of the world. Every single year, we had a different season that traced a different economic corridor. These economic corridors are based on China’s masterplan. 

In the first year, we looked at the over land Silk Road in Central Asia. The second year, we covered the Maritime Silk Road, which reported on China’s plans in countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, right up to Greece. The third year, we looked at the Belt and Road initiative in the Middle East. Fourth year in ASEAN. Fifth year in the China-Russia corridor. And this year, we look at the evolution of the Belt and Road initiative during the pandemic. Our focus this time round is on the Digital, Health and Green Silk Roads.

Every single episode examines the pros and cons of the Belt and Road initiative. Not only do we feature major Chinese companies, we also talk to governments, activists who oppose these projects, farmers whose livelihoods are impacted, local companies….I’ve always strived to include the voices of as many segments of society as possible, and to achieve balanced reporting on how the world’s superpower is going about the Belt and Road plan.

Before I answer that, we need to ask what is the meaning of news and documentaries? I believe the function of news and documentary filmmaking is to inform. I think none of us can imagine life without news, especially during a challenging situation such as the pandemic.

So producers must inform and educate. 

The second aspect of it is to build bridges by understanding others. If I am interviewing someone in Myanmar, and when we broadcast that interview, we are helping people, our viewers, from around the world understand the perspectives of those in Myanmar.

Likewise, if we are producing a film on US-China relations, we must present both perspectives. In that sense, we are also helping to hopefully build bridges of understanding between the two peoples. 

The third aspect of what news and documentaries do is that they help to reveal fault lines in societies. How can we do better? What are our problems? Whether it is human trafficking, climate change, domestic abuse, migrant worker issues? There are so many different fault lines out there. I think news and documentaries shine a spotlight on the fault lines so that we can repair it collectively. I am very grateful for the opportunity to play a small role in all these things. It is personally gratifying to work in an industry that I think has profound implications for everyone.

When filming that Silk Road series for the last 6 years, there were so many memorable moments. It is hard to pick one. 

I filmed giant infrastructure projects, such as what was termed the “highway of the century,” the construction of this vast highway linking Xinjiang, China to Kazakhstan, and onwards to Europe. I saw huge coal mines- the world’s largest coal mine in Mongolia, and also I travelled 200 metres into a gold mine in Kyrgyzstan that was underground. We saw upset communities relocated due to dams, but also special economic zones with hopeful and happy populations.

Being able to witness the changes that were happening and talk to some of the people there about their lives was all very memorable for me. 

But I guess there are few things more important than life than carrying a child. And that’s what happened for me in this series. When I had finished my research for the first season of the series, we were just about to start the production when I found out I was pregnant. My baby travelled with me to the deserts of Kazakhstan and the mines of Kyrgyzstan. I later had my second child when I was doing Silk Road ASEAN, where we went to cover projects in Myanmar and shot in the highlands of Yunnan.

Being open-minded is very important – listening to people and their different perspectives. In Singapore, you might not get to communicate or hear the views from Central Asia or people from Iran.

Using Iran as an example, when you do a Google search, you can read about the US war on terror or their nuclear program. These are the sort of things that come up, and there are many travel advisories.

When I visited Iran, these issues were of course important. But I found so much more- a vibrant culture there, warm and friendly people. Most of the women there are in professional roles. There are just so many more facets to a story than what we may get from global mainstream media.

The greatest difficulty would be persuading people to be filmed, as not many people feel comfortable with cameras, and questions asked of them. Oftentimes these are difficult questions about how their company is being managed, their personal hopes and fears, or how their country works on its foreign relations. A lot of preparation work goes into securing every single interview. Months of work goes into letter writing, explaining who you are and what you do, phrasing questions. Having a good track record is very important so that interviewees know we are unbiased and present their perspectives fairly. That helps to persuade people to agree to be interviewed, although we do get some rejections, something every journalist must deal with.

Going to Iran was difficult because Iran is very wary of foreign media. From their point of view, they do not feel like they have been properly represented over the years. Hence, trying to get the necessary press permits from the Iranian government was challenging. It involved many months of negotiation. 

Also, the stories I chose for that episode were quite sensitive. I wanted to look at who they were exporting their oil to, and the role that Huawei had in the telecommunications sector, which are all sensitive topics. In the end, it is about building trust. It is also about your track record as a network and as an individual documentary producer. After months of negotiation, we managed to convince them that we will represent them fairly. You can look up that episode The New Silk Road- The Iran Deal online.

The most important thing is an insatiable curiosity to understand the world. Without that curiosity driving you, there is no way you can succeed in this job. 

If you want to understand a subject matter, it will take many, many hours of reading and research. If you find that you are not the kind of person who likes reading through thick stacks of documents, perhaps this might not be the best fit for you. If you are willing to put in the hard work needed for the deep research required for documentaries. It is tremendously satisfying because after doing all the research, you get to visit the places you studied.

You have to make your interviewees feel comfortable because when you turn up with an HD camera in their homes. It can be a rather daunting affair. Sometimes these people could have just witnessed something traumatic, so when you speak to them you have to do it respectfully. People skills are critical.

Another important trait I think is being open-minded. Imagine if you had to make a film about something you do not know, yet you go in there immediately with a lot of judgment, your interviewees might not be as comfortable talking to you. Whether you believe that a subject or person is right or wrong, you should still be open-minded enough to hear the person out. A good example will be anti-vaxxers. It is an important story to tell because it has public health consequences. But it won’t work well for documentaries if one puts their interviewees on the defensive immediately. Film the story as best as you can, as respectfully as you can. You can make editorial judgements later, based on expert views, scientific opinion and a good sense of morality.

When I first entered the media industry, I was not in documentary production. I was working in the news, with very tight timelines. An event could happen at 6pm. I will be expected to get the story ready and on-air by 9.30pm. During that time, I had to gather the information, fact check and write the lines for the story. I had to shoot the video, including interviewing people, edit the video, and I must get the story out sometimes within two hours. That was the biggest challenge for me, but it also taught me how to work extremely fast. The first few months were extremely stressful.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice that someone ever gave me was that people may not remember your name, may not even remember what you say, but they will always remember how you make them feel. I think that in the workplace when there is a rush to get things done, to sort projects out, people may pressure their teammates, and things might get a little bit stickier than usual. Most of us are measured by KPIs and outcomes of tasks, not how kind we are. But I feel that it is always important to be a good human and a good person in the process of getting work done, and sometimes even prioritize that. It has helped me make better films in the long run, and it has certainly made me a happier person because of the relationships I have built.