The film sketches the multifaceted pioneer credited with introducing adventure mountain biking to Yunnan Province and Yunnan-Hemp prêt-a-porter fashion to the United States and Western Europe. Street scenes set to music, archive images, and a cast of Kunming locals and expats help recreate the world of Mike.
The 38-minute documentary has been well received and recently won an Award of Merit in the Indie Fest. It is a collaboration of Mike’s brothers, Benjamin, Paul, Abraham and Samuel. It was made with images shot after Mike's death when all the brothers traveled to Kunming, China, where he was living to settle his affairs and meet his friends, as well as with images shot by Abe when he visited Mike in Kunming in July 2006. The decision to make the film was actually made, with urging from Paul, after they left Kunming.
It is an “after-the-fact” documentary put together with limited video not originally intended to provide enough images to support a film. The cameras used fit into their pockets, and one of Mike's friends, Matti Dubee, lent his tripod. Mike's friends were incredibly supportive, and all, without exception, agreed to be filmed. Not all, unfortunately, are in the final cut, due in many cases to technical issues involving lighting, sound, and editing constraints, Benjamin says.
For the editing, Benjamin traveled to Paris to work with Gonzague Pichelin, a film editor and close friend.
“My hope is that Skylight Kunming does justice to Mike, a true adventurer,” Ben says.
Q: Why did you make this film?
A: (Ben) Honoring my brother was part of the drive, but some of it was also the therapeutic aspects of processing his death, and getting to know his world in China.
A: (Paul) Losing Mike has been difficult, and working on this film has been very good therapy for me.
Q: Did you finance the film yourself?
A: (Ben) Yes, this was entirely made out of my pocket. It was not a last-minute film; it was an after-the-fact film. It was only after returning from China that I decided to edit the material into a film. Originally, it was simply meant to be video from the trip to be shown to our parents, who were unable to come to China following my brother’s untimely death in the white-water-rafting accident in August 2007.
Q: What is the background of your film company?
A: (Ben) I am an independent who works primarily as a freelance reporter for The Economist and Newsweek International. So, I do not have a film company. Zag Zoo Films, the Paris production company, is a very small outfit run by a friend in Paris, Gonzague Pichelin.
Q: Is there a buyer of the film?
A: (Ben) I have not yet worked on this aspect of the project, unfortunately.
Q: Has the film hit theaters?
A: (Ben) No.
Q: Do you have a distributor(s)?
A: (Ben) No.
Q: How can filmmakers can increase the commercial value of their productions?
A: (Ben) In fiction, people are willing to pay for pure entertainment, which can be politically incorrect. With documentaries, people want films that broadly dovetail with their political leanings. This can, of course, include cultural factors, such as love of a certain country filmed in a documentary, or whatever. So, to make money, filmmakers can figure out the political views of a broad demographic and make a film exploring those issues. The most money is made on documentaries that sympathize with disadvantaged people.
Q: How much did it cost to make the film? How long did it take to make?
A: (Ben) Hard to say how much money I spent; not whole lot. I filmed almost randomly, on and off for 16 days in China, and then an afternoon in Paris. The editing, all told, took eight weeks with long days.
Q: What was it like working with people in Kunming? How did you go about contacting them?
A: (Ben) Finding sources was very easy, as we were in touch with Mike’s friends, and many of them saw my camera as an opportunity for therapeutic confessions and storytelling.
Q: What is your personal background? Did you ever want to be a filmmaker? Silver screen star or are you happy doing what you are doing?
A: (Ben) I have no desire to be an actor, that is hard work, having so many people look at me would not be to my taste, and the profession is far too based on luck.
Q: Where do you think the future of independent filmmakers and films is headed?
A: (Ben) The future of independent filmmaking is in documentaries and reportage: we can no longer compete with big-budget fiction projects. Our advantage is in documenting the world, rather than the extremely difficult and unwieldy endeavor of creating a world for a fiction film.
Q: Are you working on a new film?
A: (Ben) Yes, it is about private military companies rushing into the now booming business of maritime-security counter piracy, escorting ships, especially in the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Guinea. More information @ www.sonikchromatik.com.
Q: Was this your first film?
A: (Ben) No. My first film was Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man.
Q: Why weren't there any still photos of your brother Mike in the film?
A: (Ben) I wanted to create a shiver when, toward the end, my brother appears phantasmagorically in the car that is moving through Kunming traffic. We slowed the image down to 40 percent, and, spookily, all the traffic sounds seemed to turn into music, even with a drum roll as the camera pans into the car. The idea was, in part, to build an icon, and, for that, three images of him seemed to work well.
Q: What do you think Mike would say about the film?
A: (Ben) He would say, in his inimitable voice, ‘yeeaaah.’
A: (Paul) Mike would appreciate the 'spirit of Mike' that Ben managed to capture and convey in his 38 minute film. He would laugh with that famous good-natured laugh of his and then say; with a pause for impact, “Ben got it.”
Q: What is the overall message of this film?
A: (Ben) Documentarians have become historians. A written text about my brother’s life in China would be of great value in communicating information to those who knew him well. But, to bring his message about the value of lust for life to a greater audience, film was necessary.
Q: How will winning an Indie Fest award help you and the film?
A: (Ben) This will raise the film’s profile, and provide a recognition that is valuable in a world inundated with YouTube imagery, that, however valuable, does remove value from many individual works because they must compete against so many other films or videos.
A: (Paul) The two awards the film has received have been the best promotion: The Indie Award of Merit and the Best Short Documentary Award the film won at the Washougal International Film Festival. I would like to see Skylight Kunming get a third! I'll be working to see the film gets distribution and a TV audience. Portrai' was well received when it played as a Doc day Original on the Sundance Channel.
Q: How do you think the film turned out overall?
A: (Paul), Excellent. There were scenes that didn't make the cut that I miss, but that is normal. I'm especially impressed with the editing, both visual and audio. Considering the minimal and very low-tech gear we used, the finished product shows how impressive the editing job was, both visual and audio. It was a professional touch, for example, to add sub-titles when it was difficult to understand one of the speakers. For someone who didn't know Mike, I think they will feel that they do now. Ben really managed to capture Mike's soul, and make an entertaining and vibrant film.