Wednesday, 28 October 2009

睜開左眼 Open up your left eye

Did you see the documentary about TV news cameramen on PTS (公視) last night? It’s called 『睜開左眼』"Open up Your Left Eye," and I thought it was a brutally honest film on the reality of TV reporting in Taiwan and the conflicts cameramen have with their reporter partners and with journalism today. A former TV news cameraman, whom I don’t know, made it. Two of his subjects, Well and Bingzhou are my current coworkers.

It told the story of four TV news cameramen. In Taiwan, they’re called 『攝影記者』, basically, cameramen-reporters. They don’t just record footage, they also act as reporters who film, edit and the story as they see it and as they think the audience shout know it. As Well said, “We’re 攝影記者 not 攝影師, we are reporters, not cameramen who just record footage as they are told.” And as Bingzhou put it, “If a news story is a living body, the cameraman’s footage is the meat and bones while the reporter’s script is the soul.”
In the documentary, there are four subjects.
Jiang: senior cameraman with more than 15 years experience on the crime beat.
Well: senior cameraman with more than 15 years experience.
Bingzhou: senior cameraman with more than 15 years experience on the politics beat.
Liqiang: a rookie cameraman on the crime beat.

Jiang, as a cameraman on the crime beat, has been through some really rough reporting, including a plane crash where on day one, he filmed dead bodies torn to pieces everywhere and day two, more dead bodies, but in body bags being placed in order, and day three, broken-hearted family members wailing and calling out to their loved ones who had died so suddenly, tragically and violently. Jiang’s experienced so much sadness, terror and PTSD. Towards the end of his career in Taiwan, he is stuck day in and day out, frustrating filming people involved in former President Chen Shui-bian’s trial arriving and leaving in cars at the Taipei District Prosecutor’s Office. Jiang emigrated to Canada after he was eventually fired for “being continuously late to work w/o reason and engaging in verbal rages with coworkers.”

Well signed up to go into programming, to take part in producing shows in addition to filming them, but ended up without a show and instead was told to make product placements stories for news. As a reporter with a strong journalistic conscience and ideals, I think he’s probably in the worst place in the world (as a cameraman for the sales department), possibly having the worst time of his career.

Bingzhou has been with his reporter partner for more than 10 years. Most partnerships don’t last this long. Him and his reporter are not romantically involved, but simply a good team. He talked about how reporters get more attention from management and cameramen are more or less simply forgotten about and don’t have many chances of advancement. He once thought about becoming a reporter, but decided to stay a cameraman, because, “Fifty years from now, people are going to want your footage, rather than your script.”

Liqiang, a rookie on the crime beat, is already tired of the physically demanding work and realizes that as a fire fighter, he can save more lives and do more good than a cameraman filming the fire. He’s now a firefighter.

Carrying a 10 kg and a tripod almost just as heavy is tiring work. Filming in the middle of all the madness journalists have to jump head first into is hard work. On top of all that, when the ideals and fundamental values you’ve had since the days of journalism school have nearly all been crushed and jettisoned like you do with garbage, is simply depressing work. The traditional belief in TV news is “video first.” When telling the story, the video should lead the script, but in Taiwan, that’s not the case. In almost all the cases, reporters here dictate what video should go where, when. Proponents of video first will argue that it messes up the logic of the video, and what the audience sees is completely wrong and thus confusing. And in the age where news is getting more and more intolerably sensationalistic, it becomes increasingly frustrating for journalists as well. Toss the trend of product placement and a lack of fresh stories in to the mix, it really makes old school journalists want to quit. The senior cameramen in the documentary faced these expectation gaps (more like abyss) and struggled to cope. Two of the four were unsuccessful and left the local reporting scene.

Could we call these expectations for “proper” journalism “baggage?”

Personally, I don’t seem to have as big a problem coping. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in the field long enough (will only be coming up on my 6th year in Jan). Maybe it’s because I’m a reporter and not a cameraman. Maybe it’s because I didn’t study journalism in school. Product placements assignments were often given to me when I first started because they were easy to do and hard to screw up. I thought it was just business as usual. I was taught by my assignment editor to lead the video in my writing, though I later learned from senior cameramen that it ought to be the other way around. Although I agree that video first is better, my cameramen (I’m on my third one now and aiming for a fourth, if this one doesn’t change his attitude) don’t seem to. Most of them have been so used to being told what to film and what to edit by other reporters that they seem to have lost their ability to think for themselves. You ask some of them to find a specific soundbite by themselves, but even after giving them the time code you’d be lucky if they know what you’re talking about. The documentary maker talks about 睜開左眼 opening up your left eye and seeing the rest of the world (you look through the video finder with your right eye, and most people close their left eye when doing it), but I say for the cameramen of this generation, 至少睜開一眼 open up at least one of your eyes. Would that be too much to ask for?

It was a great film and I hope you get a chance to see it. Keep checking on Youtube, it may get uploaded sometime.


Anonymous said...

I was going to recommend it to you, but I guess you saw it. Man, what crazy siznit. That PTS show is the bomb. PTS does a lot of weird shows and you almost see personalities shining through, but the two news magazine shows are by far the best news shows in Taiwan. Their Morakot stuff was amazing too.

You don't have a problem with product placements? But are they ever marked at all? I have an eye for the ones that are really obvious, but I'm sure I miss ones that aren't. Many Taiwanese don't have any sensitivity to it...

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Thanks for the note :)

PTS does some great work. That documentary about TV news cameramen has been the talk among my colleagues the past few days. Good stuff.

As for product placements, I don't like them, especially in news. But compared to old school reporters, I don't hate the placements as much as they do.