Production Talk - 'The Shortest Man in the Village who can Soar Like an Eagle' and 'The Great North Korean Picture Show' by James Leong and Lynn Lee

No black person has ever competed in cycling’s most prestigious race, the Tour de France.


Zakayo Nderi – a shoeshine boy from the slums of Kenya – wants to change history.

In August 2008, Zakayo cycled up L’Alpe D’Huez, the Tour de France’s most famous climb, in a time that would have placed him in the top half of Tour riders - this with no coaching or race experience.

We follow Zakayo over one crucial year of his personal quest. A year when Kenya’s first training camp for cyclists is set up, when Zakayo and his team-mates get professional coaching for the first time, and compete in cycling’s biggest race outside Europe, the Tour de Langkawi. Success this year would give Zakayo a shot at his ultimate goal.

Set in the slums of Kenya, and in the stunning mountainous scenery of three different continents, this is a tale of high adventure that poses an age-old question.

Can raw talent overcome poverty, political uncertainty and prejudice?

James: Straight after homeless fc, in 2007, I was introduced to Nicholas Leong, a photographer and cycling fanatic, who was going through a self-professed "search for meaning".
He'd decided that he could turn Kenyans into world-class climbing specialists, as they are such great endurance athletes. When I found out where his riders came from, their socio-economic background, comparing that to what they are aiming for, I realized we had to make the film.
So we've been in production for almost 2 years now. It's a long process, what they're trying to achieve, which is get to the Tour de France. It's an audacious dream.

Jeremy: What's Nicholas' background in cycling? On what grounds was he selling himself to the Kenyans to believe him and learn from him?
James: He's a fanatic, and a man possessed. So while he admits to not know a great deal about the technical aspects, coaching, diet, etc. He has this incredible energy and sincerity that I think won them over
Jeremy: So can I say the documentary is as much about Nicholas as about the Kenyans?
James: I think the emphasis in characters will shift through the production process. Nick was at first the focus of the camera. Then, gradually, with more time spent in Kenya, the cyclists will become more of the focus.
Jeremy: You have not shot this have you?
James: We've filmed about 100 hours already. But the earliest "natural" ending to a film would be in February, when they're planning to cycle in the Tour de langkawi, the biggest race outside Europe. We're also going to the Tour de Rwanda in November. THAT should be interesting. (pause) But, seriously, we've decided to not kill ourselves making our films. We want to have some funding in place before we shoot so we're doing the cycling film also as a TV project
Lynn: Erm... not kill ourselves? We're working on like four projects at the same time.
James: We have a distributor, Smiley Films out of New Zealand, who are raising funding for us.

Jeremy: That's crazy!!! How do you do it?
James: Keep our heads in the sand!
Lynn: With much coffee.
James: I think with any project, there are natural on and off times documentary projects so we're hoping the on times won't come all at once otherwise you may have to publish our obituaries too

Jeremy: Can you share some interesting moments from your shoot?
Lynn: The highlight was definitely when we went to France with the cyclists. They were trying to cycle up Alpe d'Huez in a time that would qualify them as world-class. Two Kenyans - no racing experience, no professional training. Everyone on the mountain just had to stop and gawp, it was incredible. The guys ended up clocking some pretty remarkable times. Everyone was talking about them. The press caught wind of the story and they ended up in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and on various magazines.

Jeremy: Wow... I was going to ask if there was media coverage but I guess as much.
James: It's been an eye-opener, finding out how the world works. How hard it is for some people, born quite by accident in totally different circumstances from ourselves, to get a shot at achieving their dreams. The difficultly Nick had in getting visas to go to Europe for his riders was incredible. And coming into Singapore via Woodlands with two Kenyans, you see in a very immediate way how different people get different treatment, just through an accident of birth really.
Jeremy: How many people were there in your team shooting this? (and travelling around)
Lynn: Just two of us on the team.
Jeremy: So one on sound one on camera?
Lynn: One on first camera, one on second camera.
Jeremy: How about sound?
James: We use wireless mikes on our main subjects, then a boom on the camera for anything else. Sorry, not boom. I mean a directional mike mounted on the camera. We don't boom sound

Jeremy: I see. (pause) You mentioned the Kenyans were in Singapore? What was their experience like?
James: The roads are like carpets, they said and they like chicken rice they were only really here in transit to go to Genting Highlands to train there are no mountains in Singapore
Jeremy: hahaha
James: Not good for training climbers
Lynn Lee: Oh! Zakayo, one of the cyclists signed up for the Swissotel Vertical Marathon and came in first! All the training he had was a couple sprints up some HDB blocks in Ang Mo Kio.
James: He won an osim uSqueeze and a night in the presidential suite at the Swissotel he wasn't sure what to do with either of the prizes
Jeremy: Haha... how did he find the OSIM squeeze?
Lynn Lee: He never took it out of the box. It's still lying in Nick's house somewhere. He thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world.
James: He also won an all-expenses paid trip to compete in the EMpire State Run-Up in New York. He has all the necessary supporting documents, letters of invitation etc but the American embassy in Singapore turned down their application. They said he should apply in Nairobi but the problem was, it was the time of the political violence in Kenya, Jan 08, so there was no was no way he could get a visa from Nairobi

Jeremy: It sounds like it's going to be a hilarious documentary? Can we expect to laugh a lot?
James: Yes, it'll be funny, but every amusing, crazy story has another side to it.

Jeremy: Tell me about your next project. Is it the one on North Korea?
Lynn Lee: I'm halfway through one about kids in prison in Nepal, and we're still planning for North Korea. Right now, we're also finishing up a TV project about migrant workers. It's always a question of access and funding. Seeking either, can be a long, painstaking process.

Jeremy: Tell me about the North Korea one.
Lynn: Sure. It's very early days yet for that project. We still haven't started filming. But basically the working title is "The Great North Korean Picture Show" and it is a film about North Korea's film industry.
Jeremy: That's already sending images through my head! I like the subject matter. Could you elaborate more on this?
Lynn: Yes, it is fascinating. We were in Pyongyang last year for the Pyongyang International Film Festival and during our time there, we basically discovered that North Koreans really love their movies. The film industry there is bigger and more developed than we'd ever imagined.
Jeremy: I heard bits and pieces about this.
James: It's something that really gives you insights into the culture of the country, how North Koreans regard themselves, historically and in relation to the rest of the world.
Lynn: We also got to meet some of their movie stars and directors - they were actually great fun to hang out with. We thought it'll be fascinating to look at North Korea through their eyes.
Jeremy: It sound very accessible, which is contrary to most people's perceptions of North Korea. How easy is it to shoot something there?
Lynn: It's not, really. The people we met were very easy to talk to. But in terms of securing access, it's not easy. Some people negotiate for years before getting a chance to film there. Given the current geopolitical climate, things are still very sensitive.

Jeremy: How are u preparing for the trip?
James: Furiously trying to raise funding. Anyone out there?

Jeremy: Would you care to share a bit about the angle of this documentary? I mean the North Korean Film industry could be a very broad topic.
James: We always like to put the viewer in our character's shoes, as much as possible. So we hope to build the film around personal stories. It's not just about the industry, but about the people. You're right, it's a broad topic, so who we have access to and which part of the industry, we won't know until we get there.
Lynn: I guess as with our other films, we like to keep an open mind. It's important for us to make the film we find, not the film we think we should make.

Jeremy: Just to help you get funding... anything you wish to say about why an investor should put his $$ into your film on North Korea?
James: it's a rare chance to look into a place that is so, so different from anywhere else. We've negotiated quite a lot of access, four trips over the coming year.
Lynn: So little is known about North Korea, or about its people. They've opened up a rare window for us - extremely rare. I don't think we should turn down the opportunity.

click here to learn more about 'The Shortest Man in the Village who can Soar Like an Eagle'

find out what both James and Lynn are busy with @ their blog

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