"The truth is more remarkable than fiction," says iflix originals boss Mark Francis on debut doc special

Southeast Asia streaming platform iflix premieres its first original documentary  on 9 January, expanding an originals strategy that ordinarily prioritises drama and entertainment.

The 51-minute film, Bangkit: 11 Days That Changed a Nation, tracks the 11 days leading up to last year’s momentous general election in Malaysia from the ground up through the eyes of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Malaysians who were there. 

More than 12 million Malaysians voted in the election – the biggest turnout in the nation’s history – that resulted in Malaysia’s first-ever change in government. But the outcome was not by any means a sure thing, with ups, downs, conflicts, delays and tension as the country's two leaders and one-time allies, fought their way to the finish... all of which was captured in the film. 

Among the challenges for iflix was the blanket coverage by news organisations. "Given that the election was so widely covered by both local and international broadcasters, we had to decide what our treatment would be as iflix," iflix’s global director of original programming, Mark Francis, says.

"We made a conscious decision to try to craft a story and present it in a way that felt like viewers were watching a political thriller... we felt we could do that with this story," he says.

"What documentaries can do that news coverage doesn't is switch the point of view... a lot of the news coverage took a bird's eye view. We didn't want to hear from officials. We wanted to relive events from the ground up... we couldn't regurgitate stuff that viewers already know."

About 40% of the film is made up of amateur video that was never seen in mainstream media. "20 minutes of the show came from people's mobile phones... That's what I mean to street-level view," he adds. The video was sourced in a social media outreach. 

The story is told in the present tense with no narrator. “We didn’t want to do a didactic film or to try to deconstruct [events]. For better or worse the results of were the results. What Bangkit is for me is a look at democracy in action told by people who were there without asking “whose side are you on” or “what do you think of their policies”.

How do you decide what would constitute the most interesting story beats, or turning points. Again we took a drama treatment to the film rather than a news one. So if it's news then it's about balance and if you have a spokesman from one side, you need one from the other side.

 Francis loves Netflix's notion of "disturbing reality". "I could not agree more," he says.

Factual/documetary has to benchmark itself and has to exist side by side with premium drama. It has to have the qualities of entertaining drama. Not entertainment in a fun sense necessarily but it's got to have a strong emotional core". 

Although iflix/DosFellas took a drama/dramatic approach to the story, the programme is super-careful to take no political positions or make no political comment. Eyewitnesses were asked what happened, then what happened next, and then what did you do, resulting in blow-by-blow accounts that build suspense.

"Bangkit is not commenting on the validity of the results, of the processes," Francis adds. "It's just telling the story of normal people involved in the election."

Among the issues on his mind in greenlighting the show was abundant political apathy, and not only in Malaysia. 

Most importantly in deciding style and approach, Bangkit “has to stand its own against popular mass entertainment drama,” Francis says.

The special was commissioned from Malaysian production house Dosfellas, with director/co-producer Justin Ong.

The addition of documentary is opportunistic rather than a shift in iflix’s original production strategy, and for now there are no plans for additional factual commissions... unless anoather story like the Malaysia election emerges.  

Francis says that from a commissioning perspective he has always been “acutely aware” of the amount of factual programming already in the market.

The May election, Francis says, “was a rare instance of the truth being more remarkable than fiction”.

“I don’t really want to do anything that doesn’t differentiate in an impactful and meaningful way,” he adds.

Are there other documentaries on the iflix originals planner? 

Nothing fixed, he says. 

"We won't commission documentary for the sake of filling factual schedules." As iflix, he doesn't have to. 


 A shorter version of this article first appeared in ContentAsia's eNewsletter on 8 January 2019