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Preservationist Filmmaker Richard Duckett's Passion For Malaysia

Picture of Stephanie Chang
Stephanie Chang
Updated: 8 January 2017
Richard Duckett is a Malaysian documentarist who has a particular interest in nature and the preservation of the indigenous traditions of Malaysia. Here he talks about his life and work. Tell us how you’ve gotten to where you are now, as well as the film work you are currently involved in.

Having been brought up on oil palm plantations as a child, nature and the great outdoors have always been on the agenda. At an early age my mum and dad encouraged a curiosity towards everything out there, and so collecting and documenting things through drawing and paintings became normal.

After studies in Malaysia, I went to college in London and completed a commercial arts degree. From there I worked for a while as a copywriter in Malaysia. Through this experience I became interested in producing and directing. Afterwards I spent five years in Hong Kong freelancing for a news network that gave me an incredible chance to work on many different projects. On returning to Malaysia, I began doing longer format programming, leaning towards documentaries.

My current Barn Owl programme Predator amongst the Palms was something I had wanted to produce for many years, but not being in Malaysia for a while, I was unable to follow it up. It has been an interest since my childhood when I would follow my father around checking owl boxes. He was one of the pioneers of this method of natural pest control on Palm Oil Estates.

My film Grandpa, What’s an Aborigine? was another idea from years back, visiting Malaysia’s national parks and meeting the Orang Asli. They have been around far longer than anyone else in Malaysia and their way of life is inevitably changing. It’s a film paying homage to their art of survival and how they respect a pretty hostile but beautiful environment.

Prior to The Barn Owl and Grandpa, What’s An Aborigine?, you worked primarily on commercial projects. How did you make the transition to documentary filmmaking?

A lot of the commercials I worked on were tourism-based so had a leaning towards being informative and picturesque rather than purely image-driven. Although image-driven commercials are fun to work on with quick turnaround times, I think delving into whatever subject and documenting it is very satisfying. It was a natural transition as sometimes 30 or 60 seconds is not enough time to say what you want.

What’s it like to film in the plantations and jungles of Malaysia?

As you can imagine, it’s always wonderful to be overseas and experiencing different cultures, but really on some jobs you literally see the country or town through a lens, as you have just a few days to capture hours of footage which will be whittled down to a minute or so.

However, doing documentaries takes a bit more time and you normally get to know whoever it is or wherever you are very well. With the kinds of things I’ve worked on, I have nothing to complain about as the places and subjects have all been interesting and enjoyable. I think if you are enthusiastic about what you are doing then filming in cold, wet, or hot conditions is a secondary thought, as it is very satisfying when you manage to get what you wanted.

How do you select your projects, and do the stories end up the way you envisioned at the start?

Having a good client helps, and normally the subjects are defined for you, although it’s possible to suggest topics, too. For documentaries, usually you come up with the idea and write a script. Then it’s just a matter of getting the imagery to represent the script. During shooting a lot of the time the things you shoot can change the story, as sometimes when you are lucky something great happens.

For films you would usually work with a storyboard as a lot of the time you need to capture specific routines or actions. You can choose to wing it if there is so much material available and have neither, but it takes longer to complete your project. I think different people work in different ways and in the end all that matters is if the programme is on budget and conveys what it should as well as looking great.

You won the Best Short Film Award at the 2012 Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival for The Barn Owl. What prompted you to make this film? 

To elaborate on what I said previously, my two brothers, sister, and I were brought up by our mum and dad on oil palm plantations. Dad worked on them from the late 1950s and thought of this idea of using barn owls as a biological control for rats after observing a nesting pair of barn owls in the chimney of his house.

He always kept natural history diaries so this whole idea was already well documented by him. It started as an idea in the late 1960s and was trialed in the ’80s and now many oil palm plantations implement this system to minimize pesticide baiting.

What responses would you like audiences to have to your documentaries?

I think to really enjoy them and marvel at what is out there taking place. Most people are generally pretty well informed, but also lead hectic lifestyles so sometimes reminders are all they need to realize what’s happening, sometimes just beyond the doorstep.

Do you have a favourite film or filmmaker, or have any been a particular influence on you?

I think every film you watch you come away with information useful for yourself, but there’s not really a single director as such. Of course, Sergio Leone, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and the like are all amazing, and will always have some kind of influence when you try and do something, as these guys have really revolutionized filmmaking with their specific techniques of storytelling.

There are so many great movies out there and many talented people who can produce beautiful pieces, and now you can also get good ideas just looking at personal pieces on the web.

What would you recommend to readers who are interested in learning more about natural history, indigenous cultures, or contemporary Malaysian society?

There are so many ways to acquire all sorts of knowledge about things, but there’s nothing like actually going into the forest, stream, jungle, garden, or wherever you happen to be to take a closer look at what it’s like for real. Sketching things, too, is a good way of involving yourself as you tend to go into more detail of what interests you, and at the same time it’s a good way of winding down.

As for contemporary Malaysian society, you’ll just have to visit and experience the people, culture, natural beauty, and food, as it is definitely one of my favourite countries of the few I’ve been to. It’s already achieved so much in such a short space of time and it really is a beautiful place once you get around.