Filming poverty to possibility

Paul Gan is a part-time filmmaker and a full time dreamer. The 28 year old from Malacca grew up having little in life but plenty in imagination. When there were no toys, he would spend time watching people play video games at arcades or visualize playtime out of everyday objects. His childhood experiences would later inspire “The Boy Who Rocked the World”, his short film that won main awards at BMW Shorties, Malaysian Digital Film Awards and the Astro Sundance short film competition. Despite the success, the most rewarding part is “the ability to move people without you being physically present”, he said.

Today, Paul is working on an upcoming film and in the midst of busyness, sat down with the team at Passion Portraits to share about dreaming big in a small town, being the voice for the voiceless and seeing the glass half full.

Your award winning film was about a little boy with big dreams in the slums of Kuala Lumpur. What drove you to make the film?

I read a lot of books about filmmaking and the best advice I got from it is to do a story you are passionate about. I am passionate about people who are poor and the voiceless because I grew up without a silver spoon. I did not have an awesome childhood. I was bullied and was constantly misunderstood. Today, I sometimes work with NGO’s and serve the community so I really see that poverty is an issue. It seems like it has become an abnormal topic because we shy away from addressing the problem, but in reality there are still a lot of people who are really poor. That started the creative process where I wanted to talk about a poor boy living in a harsh environment.

Speaking of using films to address issues in society, why do you think it’s important to speak for the voiceless?

An aspect of filmmaking is observation.  I observed that there tend to be a little more selfishness these days and if I’m not careful, I might fall into that trap as well. We are always told to pursue the newest trends, latest gadgets and to seek for a more luxurious life. What film can do is to bring people back and allows them to remember where they came from.  When it comes to the voiceless, we can be messengers to point out that there are still poor people out there that need help. Don’t get too caught up in our own pursuits.

"I did not have an awesome childhood. I was bullied and was constantly misunderstood."

You had an almost similar childhood with the film’s protagonist. How it was like growing up and was creativity a part of it?

Yes and no. There was no encouragement for the arts back then. A lot of people believe it's incomparable to doing something in science because the arts is not "smart" enough. My father was a very staunch believer of the education system so a lot of fear and struggles were from the way he handled us. I grew up with all that and struggled to find my identity. That always led me back to arts. Despite being a science student in form five, I was one of the few rare ones who took visual arts as a subject.

You dreamt big despite your humble beginnings. Were those around you supportive of that? 

While you're on your way to achieving your dreams, there will definitely be people who'll tell you, “you can’t do it”. I have a relative who told me that it’s not a practical dream. Along the way, I heard comments that I was good for nothing. To put it harshly, they were saying that I was dumb. It’s easy to get very angry but I learned that in the end, the journey is about you. There is no point harnessing or keeping all those bitterness. It’s your choice to forgive, pursue your dream and be the person God has meant you to be.

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With that being said, how important is it to continue dreaming?

Dreaming is very crucial; a foreshadowing or a blurred compass of where you want to go. You don’t know how you are going to get there but it gives you a big picture of where you want to go. I’m a big fan of dreaming because of this quote, “what was possible today was once thought impossible”. It’s the tool that helps me. I once dreamt of going to the states and when I won the Astro Sundance competition, it landed me a visit to the Sundance Film Festival. I took photos with one of my favourite music composer Harry Gregson Williams and director Edgar Wrigth. The experience puts into perspective that everything is either one fly away or one film away to make a difference. For that, dreaming is very practical because in other words, it’s what you aspire to be. 

With dreams, come actions. What do you do to achieve your aspirations?

Consistency is key and discipline matters. Days that you don’t feel like doing it, you still have to because it’s a journey and a progress. In terms of filmmaking, it’s consistently reading, exploring creativity, learning, planning ahead, and everything else that keep you going. Even the best writers, they write every day. If you want to be as good as them, you'll have to follow their formula.

"While you're on your way to achieving your dreams, there will definitely be people who'll tell you, “you can’t do it”."

The session with Paul ended with all smiles, having understood his intentions to use the medium of cinema to capture humanity and evoke an emotional response from an audience. Paul is working on funding his upcoming film about a little girl who was mistaken as a mute that also brings into light the empowerment of children and the beauty of their innocence. With that, we look forward to his upcoming socially relevant works: ripples that collectively make waves of greater magnitudes. 

(Photos courtesy of Paul Gan)

"Dreaming is very crucial... You don’t know how you are going to get there but it gives you a big picture of where you want to go."

More on Paul Gan:


Instagram: @paulganfilm

Twitter: @paulganthe1