The following are thoughts, memories and background information on the shooting period of SQUATTERTOWN. I try to structure them by using each shooting day as one blog entry, but the stories might deviate a little. So when you think the text makes no sense please feel free to comment/contact me. This production log is another piece to our large SQUATTERTOWN universe and I hope you like it. But be aware, the text holds several spoilers!
The sixth day was a tough one and we had quite some trouble during pre-production and even location scouting. Our designated shooting location was an old housing block in Tai Kok Tsui. One of those houses who are about to be removed due to the prestigious and scandal shaken high speed train railway between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
However, the block itself gained quite some popularity as one of the landmark squatter roof villages within Hong Kong. The book Portraits From Above by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham (http://peperoni-books.de/portraits_from_above_en.html) as well as the short documentary Once Upon A Rooftop by Sybil Wendler (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xY7LeNOhCHk) both visited this very location when the residential community still was intact. The time we started our project only about three families were still living in this block. Everyone else had moved out already. We had a hard time actually locating the exact spot and were trying to get photos from a higher angle on top of surrounding buildings. On our first visit it was not possible to get access to the building as all doors were closed, which is very unusual for this kind of building. Usually there were no problems gaining access to other houses next door.
[Tai Kok Tsui roof location]
But we were lucky. Our location assistant Amy went to the location a couple of days later and met one of the remaining residents. He told us that he is not constantly living in this house anymore, it has become too dangerous. We set a meeting date with him so he could give us access to the house. The morning we arrived he was not available however and seemed not to be in the house at all. With slight frustration we walked around the block and tried again every door. By accident one of the doors was unlocked and we stepped inside. On the way up we encountered two floors with completely openly accessible apartments. All apartments were empty and abandoned but most had still furniture, clothes, CDs and loads of other things inside. It looked like residents had to flee their apartments in a rush and left everything behind they couldn’t carry away. The scenery was quite scary, it felt like a war zone.
[inside abandoned apartment]
[a calendar on the wall indicates when apartment was abandoned]
Arrived on the roof we faced the same situation. Everything was abandoned, apartment walls ripped apart, toilets shattered. During my research I saw a number of photos from this squatter roof. It looked like a small village with an intact infrastructure and community. What we saw now was rather the leftover of something that was swept away by a typhoon. To our surprise two families were still living on this very roof. One told us about incidents of accidental fires in staircases and how burglaries have increased in the past months. Of course none of this can be traced back to the property developer who wants the residents to sell their apartments asap. However the huge red propaganda banners outside on the opposite building’s facades indicate their intentions clearly and belong to the company’s public campaign to “drive residents out”. Christopher DeWolf just recently wrote a very good article on this issue: http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2010/10/20/say-goodbye-to-old-hong-kong/
[red banner of property developer across the street]
As depressing and dangerous this location was, it was most perfect for SQUATTERTOWN. It was simply the essence of what I had envisioned and there was no way around, we had to shoot here. But I had to be careful and choose wisely what kind of scene and for how long. After all, at the time, we still had to deal with the patrol guards. Applying the same strategy as in Kwun Tong, a precise timetable was set. Everything went well till the Friday, six days before our scheduled shoot. We got the news that a big fire had stricken the very building. A metal workshop located on the ground floor had caught fire and the blaze was so strong that it jumped up onto the roof. Most shocking aspect, one man who lived inside the workshop died during this incident. (Some links to news articles from the incident can be found at the end of this post)
After long discussions with the team I decided to visit the location again to see what the actual situation was like. So close to the shooting dates there was no way we could find an alternative location. After all I planned three major scenes in and on this building. We might could have managed finding another roof but definitely not another house with abandoned and free accessible apartments. I expected we encounter investigating police and more security guards now. However, as we arrived the building was even more empty than before. The property developer withdrew all patrol guards one day before the fire incident and police already wrapped investigation after 24hrs, labeling it as accident. Half the roof was now tinted black and the rest looked even more devastated than before as the fire men had pulled out every single wall. It was also obvious that the remaining residents still don’t want to leave and adapted to the situation by taking measures into their own hands. All over the roof we could find big buckets filled with water, a simple safety precaution.
The risk was still high, even though we seemed to have no disturbance at all for our shoot. After even more discussions and a bunch of grey hair on my head we settled for giving it a shot, trying to shoot as much as we could with an even more reduced crew. Only remaining issue now was how we can enter the building on shooting day morning. We made a deal with the resident who let us enter before, but since he was not always available and reliable it was still a gamble. Also we were told not to wait with the entire team in from of the house, or even enter in large numbers. Word was, neighbors across the street were watching the house and reporting every suspicious situation to the police.
[team during location scouting]
So I arrived at 6:45am at the location with some of the equipment and two crew members. We waited till 7am when our contact came out of the building, on his way to work. The plan worked perfectly. Once we were in others could follow in single file. First, our cameraman Diogo set up some LED light panels inside the apartments to start shooting with the “ghost” shots that you can see in webisode #2. Our second cameraman that day was Mark, who was straight going up to the roof doing some empty and atmosphere shots. As the actors arrived we could finish all planned scenes smoothly and without problems. As we climbed the fragile, decayed tin roofs, getting the last shots of sunbathing cats, the atmosphere on this roof was extremely peaceful and quiet. I enjoyed being here, but time was running out and we had to wrap, moving equipment and team over to Kwun Tong again.
[shooting in roof courtyard ]
After lunch we set up camp at a new roof location that was located at the far end of the housing block we shot at two days before. It was an idyllic corner residence with four shanty huts, a small garden like area and a courtyard in the middle. The residence belonged to a family who lived here since the 1960s and was into the business of sub-renting apartment space. Christoper DeWolfe also wrote an article about this family here: http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2010/04/23/hong-kong-rooftops-condemned/. This setting was our “Church” scene that occupies most of webisode #3. As we came to this location the first time during our scouting period three members of the family where still living here. The time we came for the shooting three months later only one remained. When we revisited the residence two months after the shoot everything was evicted and cleared out. The family had left entirely.
[before/after images – left: residence in October 2010 / right: residence in March 2011]
In previous posts I was explaining the situation we had to deal with concerning location shooting permits and how we went in circles from gov authority to property developer to residents to gov authority and so on. While we shot on this roof that afternoon, a team from the very authority visited the remaining resident. They were doing their weekly check-in with the remaining occupants, persuading them to leave. The authority team saw us when they arrived, a bit of an awkward situation. Then they moved inside one of the huts with the resident. We could hear from outside how a heated discussion broke loose.
Link collection on Tai Kok Tsui:
1) on the fire incident:
- http://inews.mingpao.com/htm/INews/20110105/gb30719a.htm (Chinese)
2) documentary video from roof: