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Filming A Documentary In Songdo

I just did the filming for a couple of short documentaries in Songdo, South Korea.

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I just finished up two weeks of filming a couple of short documentaries in Songdo — a massive new city built on reclaimed land near the Incheon airport in South Korea. While I’ve worked on documentary projects, video news items, and other film related endeavors before, this was the first time that I ever attempted to shoot a film solo.

I quickly discovered that there is a reason why filmmakers tend to work within crews: it’s not an easy thing to do alone. It’s basically three jobs rolled into one: setting up the engagements, doing the interviews and arranging the scenes, and doing the actual filming. Basically, you’re answering the phone and responding to texts, talking with the people in front of you, setting up multiple cameras, asking questions, and plotting out a narrative at the same time. This project made all of my other solo journalistic endeavors seem rather simple, but by extension it was probably one of the more rewarding pursuits I’ve done yet.

I’m trying to develop a faster, cheaper, better model for making films. I’m not attempting anything that hasn’t been done before, but I’m tying to find my own way of doing it. I just spent a year working on a big documentary project that apparently got canned due to a lack of funding. The producers were looking for someone to give them $3 million, and when that didn’t happen the project fizzled out. The film would have been a record of a major global paradigm shift that isn’t being properly documented, and in a way the film had a long-term value far beyond whatever educational or entertainment value it would have provided in the present. It was to be a history in the making.

The fact that it won’t be made due to what seems to me to me an archaic funding model left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. That bad taste isn’t directed towards the people who were working on the film but towards the conventional method that filmmakers have for acquiring funding, which seems to be little more than an ongoing cycle of begging and waiting. We waited, waited, and it never happened.

That said, I tend to have a rather excessive “just go out and fucking do it” type of disposition that occasionally isn’t calibrated to reality.

That said, the sheer ignorance of the thin threshold between possible and impossible is probably among my most valuable assets. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now if I plotted out my steps with any semblance of rationale. The journey here was nothing if not absurd.

However, I know that one thing is for sure: new funding models for journalism are needed. We live in a strange time when quality international coverage is perhaps wanted and needed more than ever but its value is less than ever. When even the largest, most respected publications are struggling financially, those who can come back with the story for less are going to be the ones with the opportunities — or, put another way, are going to be the ones actually out doing the cool shit. Which is, ultimately, what I’m in this for.

So I went out and filmed the Songdo docs alone. I made some mistakes, but most were of the type that you analyze, laugh about, and never make again — i.e. the valuable kind. I’m editing these films now, and should have them finished by the middle of next month.

So what is Songdo?

I’ve been covering new cities for the past five or so years. First in China, which was the topic of my first book, and then along the Silk Road. Songdo is one of the most successful examples of a new city that was rapidly built up from nothing and really exemplifies the process of modern new city building — both the positives and the negatives.

This is important because there are currently dozens of massive new cities being built across Asia and Africa as a way of handling the excessive amount of urbanization that is quickly becoming the hallmark of the 21st century.

New Songdo rising in the distance.

Filed under: New Cities, South Korea, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3599 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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