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The White Elephant Documentary, Part 1

The story of a unique world culture struggling against a failed Chinese development project.

The White Elephant movie poster
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It’s finally ready for web syndication and a permanent home. The White Elephant, the documentary that I shot in 2019 in Melaka is now being serialized on Rumble and YouTube and a longer-form version will soon be available on Amazon.

It’s the story of the Portuguese of Malaysia — a unique world culture — struggling against a failed Chinese development project that destroyed the local ecosystem and is pushing the community to the brink.

This film was a tough one to finish, as I intended to make multiple trips spaced a year or so apart, but the “pandemic” put this plan to rest … as it did with so many others. I was then left with enough good footage to do something with but not enough to make it what I originally envisioned.

This happens often in documentary filmmaking. I’d estimate that 90% of documentaries that are started are never finished and published. Documentaries are about real life and real life, well, it just doesn’t respond well to what we plan. When this happens most filmmakers and companies just leave unfinished projects sitting on hard drives in desk drawers in perpetuity. This isn’t even an issue that’s solely reserved for small, independent filmmakers either, as I’ve worked / partnered with three bigger companies where the same thing has happened multiple times.

This is the worst fate for a project to receive, in my opinion, and I would rather release an incomplete film or a film that doesn’t meet its original idea than no film at all. If I get to the point where I’m going out and filming people for a film, I will publish something from it. It’s just too disrespectful otherwise … disrespectful to the people who took out their time for you to film them, disrespectful to the project, and also disrespectful to yourself.

Many filmmakers bury themself in these deep, dark pits of unfinished projects. They just get stuck and most eventually just start doing other things. Once you work on something for so long and put so much life into something you almost start fearing its release and the critiques that you know will come. It becomes all too comfortable to keep it hidden, to just keep working on it for years and years and years. Unfinished films are safe.

And I believe playing it safe is the reason why most filmmakers fail.

Done is better than better.

The White Elephant, Part 1 on Rumble:

The White Elephant, Part 1 on YouTube:

Go here to read more about this project.

Go here to read about the trip that I took with Petra to do the final interviews for this film.

Filed under: Documentaries, Filmmaking, Malaysia

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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  • Rich Gedney May 27, 2023, 2:35 am

    Looking forward to watching. Interesting topic. And I agree, there are so many projects that just end up on a hard drive, which in the end may end up being corrupted and end up being lost. I have so much footage that I have never used. However it’s better to have more than not enough.

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    • VBJ May 27, 2023, 12:44 pm

      Thanks, man, very much appreciated. I should have part 2 ready in a couple of weeks. In Hawaii right now 🤷‍♂️

      Very right on about it being better to have too much footage than not enough. Not everything is going to end up as a project — sometimes to just shoot until you find something that sticks.

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