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Poh Si Teng Reflects on Her Long Road to IDA

By Sandra Ignagni

Poh Si Teng is an Asian woman of Malaysian Chinese origin with shoulder-length black hair. She is wearing a black turtleneck & in front of a brick wall. Photo by Marcus Yam

Newly appointed IDA Funds and Enterprise Program Director Poh Si Teng is no stranger to challenges in nonfiction storytelling. From her childhood as an ethnic and religious minority in Malaysia, where media is heavily regulated by the state, to her experiences working as a journalist in predominantly white newsrooms in the United States, Poh has a deep understanding of the interplay between media, politics and power. She brings an impressive array of global experience to IDA. She worked as independent filmmaker in India for years, and then as an award-winning staff reporter for The New York Times, where she was nominated for an Emmy for Flirting with the Islamic State

Poh most recently served as documentary commissioner and senior producer for Al Jazeera English’s flagship strand Witness. It was there that she commissioned and produced the Academy Award-nominated St. Louis Superman. The film reflects Poh’s deep commitment to using documentary to address systemic inequities—across societies, within institutions and on creative teams. The struggle for equity is a theme running through Poh’s impressive portfolio of films—including the recent Dead Woman’s Pass and Blood on Our Side—and demonstrates her commitment to supporting emerging filmmakers in the United States and the global south.     

Poh spoke to Documentary by phone this month.

DOCUMENTARY: Where and when did you decide to pursue a career in documentary and journalism? Tell me a little bit about how you got started.

POH SI TENG: I was born and raised in Malaysia, an incredibly rich and diverse country with a centuries-long history of colonization. Under British rule, the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians were largely segregated by trade—a clear policy of divide and rule. When the country fought and gained its independence in the ’50s, it emerged as one of the more progressive nations in Southeast Asia, with universal healthcare and education. And yet much of the segregationist policies remained and much of the British laws to quell dissent also remained. And all were grandfathered into the young nation’s constitution and laws.

Ethnic minorities—like myself, I’m Chinese—and Indians and other minority ethnic groups were not entitled to the same rights and privileges. This was true in terms of equal access to education, housing, job opportunities and the government. This laid the foundation for my understanding of power dynamics and racial injustice that pushed me to pursue nonfiction storytelling. I wanted an opportunity to tell the story of my people—ethnic minorities—without fear of censure.

And so I decided to come to the United States to study journalism and with the hope of experiencing life in a meritocratic society. I was so wrong about the latter.    

My early public education in San Francisco and reporting for newspapers across the country further shaped my understanding about race and power dynamics. In those early formative years, it was Black, Latina and Indigenous journalists who really took the time to mentor me—a young immigrant who was finding her feet in a new country and in very white American newsrooms.

I quickly learned that the American dream was a myth for most people. And that the most important stories, be it in print journalism or in documentary, were ultimately about power— those who have it, those who don’t, and the struggle for it.

D: Was there a project that you worked on in those early days that made you think, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I should be doing!’? A project that gave you the confidence to continue, since working in documentary journalism can be very difficult?

PST: By the time I graduated, I had reported for several different newspapers—all very different papers in very different parts of the country, from Vallejo, California, to Columbus, Ohio, to Norfolk, Virginia, and, finally, to Miami [Florida]. My first full-time position was as a cameraperson for the Associated Press in Florida. Covering breaking news, chasing O.J. Simpson and filling footage of DEA drug busts in Miami kept me busy, but I wanted something more.

So I applied for a grant to make my first character-driven documentary and returned to Malaysia. It was my foray into documentary filmmaking. The film, Pecah Lobang (or Busted in English), is about a Muslim transgender woman and her sex-worker community in Kuala Lumpur. I picked the subject in part because I had been away from Malaysia for so long. It was a way for me to learn about the country, about race, about religion again. And to confront my own biases. As an ethnic and religious minority, I resented the fact that government policies were inherently unfair towards my community.

In Pecah Lobang, the main participant is Muslim and Malay, the dominant religious and ethnic group in Malaysia. And yet because of her sexuality, she was persecuted by shariah officials and society. It taught me to look beyond individuals and ethnic and religious groups who were ostensibly benefiting from certain policies, and to look at larger systems that were hurting us all. An inherently unequal system held us all back.

That experience further shaped the stories I pursued, the type of work I wanted to do in documentary, and the life I wanted to live.                

D: What are your goals and vision for the IDA Funds, both in the United States and internationally?

PST: It’s difficult to survive in our industry. Having been an independent filmmaker for many years, I experienced the lack of financial stability and support. When I was young, I was very naive and didn’t know how to ask for more resources to stay safe. I've been sexually assaulted while in the field and have found myself in other countless risky situations. Which is why I feel that it is essential that production companies, news organizations, and institutions working with filmmakers provide resources and guidance on security and support for mental health.          

At IDA, when we look at grant applications, we look at whether filmmakers have thought through how they are going to protect their participants, their teams and themselves. I keep on coming back to power dynamics because it affects who gets protected and who gets left out. And I’m not just talking about legal protection and that kind of due diligence, which is certainly important. But rather, a duty of care that we owe each other.   

In the past year, we have talked a lot about the reckoning in our industry and in institutions across our country that was long overdue—what needs to change and how opportunities and resources need to extend to those who have been historically excluded. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the United States, but I'm also hoping to see that conversation extend beyond.

When it comes to inequities in our field, the disparity is global. When filmmakers from the global south work with key creators in the West, there is the very real risk of being put in dangerous situations. It could potentially mean kidnapping or [being caught in] crossfire or being killed because the key creator or decision-maker is dictating the terms with reckless disregard for filmmakers who come from and live in those environments.         

And then, of course, what undergirds all this are the dangerous perspectives that further fuel discrimination, conflict and war. We have to think very carefully about whether that’s what we want to be part of. And if the answer is no, then one way to steer away from that is to be inclusive—in the stories we choose to tell, how we tell them, and who we tell them with. And that’s what we are looking for, for projects applying for IDA funds.         

D: In addition to financial resources, are there other areas where you think IDA can better support filmmakers taking on high-risk stories?

PST: There are very real consequences of speaking out. There's always a chance of somebody coming after you for sedition or for disrupting the harmony or peace.

A few years ago, a festival programmer screened a documentary about the conflict in Sri Lanka, and she was hauled to court. A friend of mine published a book about Islam. He was Muslim, but the Islamic authorities disagreed with the context of the book and hauled him to court [with] hefty fines. Recently, my colleagues at Al Jazeera covered COVID-19 in Kuala Lumpur, looking at how authorities were picking up migrant workers and putting them in very dense quarters with the virus spreading. It was very inhumane treatment. They were essentially kicked out of the country [for this reporting].

Censorship is real. I remember my parents would speak in hushed tones about political dissidents or journalists getting picked up and incarcerated indefinitely without trial. It's really stayed with me and it's not something that I can just shake off when I hear of filmmakers working in such situations internationally. In the United States, it isn’t censorship [that’s at issue] but rather corporations affecting filmmakers’ ability to tell certain stories.

IDA can be a voice of support, not only by providing grants but also by supporting filmmakers who don’t have the finances or leverage to fight some of these larger challenges. It was an important gesture when IDA wrote a letter of support for Syrian director Feras Fayyad. An organization like IDA can help make things right.

D: What are you most concerned and excited about as we emerge (hopefully) into a post-pandemic world?

PST: The pandemic has been very difficult for filmmakers within and outside the United States. But it has also created new opportunities. In the global context, many key creatives—directors and producers based in Europe and the United States—were unable to travel because of COVID. As a result, some filmmakers from the global south have had the opportunity to take on larger roles. Sometimes lead roles on projects. Some have been able to successfully negotiate better pay, safety protections and proper credit. This has created a model of what is possible and something we must no doubt build upon.         

Here in the United States, the pandemic has exacerbated racial and other structural inequities. In our field, many BIPOC filmmakers and allies are coming together, and there’s a reinvigoration of conversations about authorship and spreading the wealth of resources in documentary filmmaking. I am hoping that the momentum will continue, and that, together, and I mean all of us, we will build a better documentary world.

D: Are there any specific updates to IDA Funds that you would like to share?

PST: We will be launching a new grant that is open to domestic and international filmmakers this year. The announcement will be out very soon. I can’t wait to share more.

D: Are there any final words of wisdom that would you like to impart?

PST: I cannot go so far as to feign wisdom, but I do have a wish: that we will constantly surround ourselves with people who come from different backgrounds and life experiences—races, religions, ethnicities, sexuality, gender, classes, immigration status, disabilities. And that we listen and recognize each other. If we have deep and meaningful relationships with different types of people, they will tell us when we go astray. It makes us better storytellers, better filmmakers, better collaborators, and, hopefully, better people.

Sandra Ignagni is a writer, researcher and nonfiction filmmaker. Her latest film, Highway to Heaven, was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and is available in Canada on CBC.