An Interview with Michael H. Lints and Aaron Stewart ("Broken Chains")
Michael H. Lints
Congratulations on a very successful directorial debut! Before we dive into the making of Broken Chains, please tell us a bit about yourselves: what sparked your interest in filmmaking?
The events in 2020 inspired me and Aaron to think of a way to address the racial wealth gap on screen. Although Aaron has experience in making videos, for me it was driven from social impact. Film was the best way for me to express my concerns about the racial wealth gap and allowed us to share our story with a wide audience.
Michael, you went to Harvard Business school, how did you get into filmmaking and storytelling, and how did that lead you to work at Golden Gate Ventures?
My background is technology. I have spent most of my professional career in the tech and finance industry. After graduating from The Hague University I spent the first few years of my career at ING Bank in The Netherlands. I was keen to explore the entrepreneurial path. In 2000 I co-founded a tech startup which was acquired 7 years later. After the acquisition, I was asked to become a vice chairman for the Economic Development Board in Rotterdam (The Netherlands). An amazing experience which also led me back to investing and supporting technology startups. Asia was a growing market for tech startups and I decided to join venture capital firm Golden Gate Ventures based out of Singapore in 2013. Filmmaking is very new to me but I see it as a way to show different view points, encourage discussions and surface topics that might be controversial. I am inspired by a lot of talented, passionate and dedicated film makers and I am glad to have been part of this industry for this documentary.
Aaron, you also come from a business background and work as General Manager at Lennox & Ooi Media Pte Ltd. Is this the first film project you're working on?
Yes, for most of the last 20 years we've been small business owners in the advertising and media space, and for much of that time our focus was on print media, journalism, current affairs, etc. But this wasn't actually the first film project we've done. We started doing what's admittedly boring, commercial video work in the early 2010s which helped pay the bills but wasn't terribly fulfilling. We always had an interest in human interest pieces, and that eventually led to our working with the Rwandan Government to produce a short documentary in 2014 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. While it wasn't a game-changer in any way, it did set us on a path of wanting to do more meaningful film work. From there, I was lucky enough to be able to start stringing together some more meaningful projects (documenting Taiwanese aboriginal tribes, various things around South East Asia, etc.) which gave me the time to start actually learning the craft (since I was never conventionally trained in film). Fast forward to late May 2020, and like everyone, everywhere we watched what happened to George Floyd. At that moment we had no plan, but like many people we realized that sitting comfortably on our hands was an excuse we didn't have the right to make.
How did you meet Michael?
The short answer is that Singapore's a small place, and we met a few years back through a mutual friend - Karim Raffa (who is also a co-collaborator on Broken Chains). That eventually led to us interviewing Michael for an explainer video about how the venture capital industry works. Things clicked, and we kept in touch.
Let's talk about the behind-the-scenes process of Broken Chains. How did you come up with the concept for Broken Chains and why was it important to you to bring this topic to the spotlight?
In the days following George Floyd's murder, Michael and I got to talking. That wasn't unique, people everywhere were talking about what they had just witnessed - a cold blooded murder of a black man by police - over what amounted to a few dollars worth of stuff. With both of us coming from a business/entrepreneurship background, we felt that one area of the debate we could tangibly add value to was the fact that no one was talking about the impact that systemic racism had specifically on people's ability to own and grow their own businesses - and the undeniable impact that has in every other aspect of people's lives. We the people need to turn a spotlight on so many aspects of systemic racism - red lining, criminal justice reform, access to education, acknowledgement of America's thousands of past lynchings, the real and ongoing impact of 245+ years of slavery followed by at least a century (or far more depending where you live today) of legal, institional discrimination - the list is paralyzingly long. And there's so many gifted people, far more talented folks than me, doing that critical work, telling those stories.
I think I can speak for Michael here, the one place we felt we could genuinely add value was in framing the narrative about the unique barriers to entry African Americans face, in specific areas like the tech industry, venture capital, and entrepreneurship. Which on paper seems straight forward, but in reality, to really tell that story, you also have to tell so many other stories: how have the few successful people who've managed to make it in a broken system, done it? What are the unique barriers baked into industries like tech or venture capital that make it (nearly) impossible for founders of color to get a foot in the door, or to then build any momentum once they're there?
You're both based in Singapore, yet you did most of the filming in the US. What was this experience like? Did you work with a local film crew?
Luckily, Michael and Jamaur (another of our co-collaborators) have amazing networks. When we began planning the project, they spread the word through groups like the Kauffman Institute, alumni networks, friends of friends... and within a few weeks, we had an unbelievable range of amazing folks interested in the project - whether it was to advise on data, be an interviewee, or even just become cheerleaders for what we were doing.
In parallel, we gathered huge amounts of data on everything from demographics in the finance industry, to educational funding and its long term relationship to careers in tech, to trends in police violence. For me, there was a huge learning curve, as I'm not native to industries like tech or finance, and trying to mentally connect all those dots took time. I remember countless late nights reading through reports on things like hiring trends in VC, and Michael talking me through the real-world implications that X, Y, or Z data have. Once we connected enough dots and spoke to enough people who had lived those data points in real life, the story started to tell us how it should be framed, if that makes sense?
Every interview except for Michael's was filmed in the US*, which meant a lot of sleepless nights. Through our networks (and especially Autumn's network), we were able to line up some amazing film crews in Atlanta, Chicago, DC, LA, Oakland, Phoenix. We were lucky, moreover because they helped us trouble-shoot in ways you simply couldn't do over Zoom, sitting on the other side of the world.
Filming a documentary on location isn't easy. We had no illusions that doing it remotely would be easy, but we also probably didn't realize just how challenging it would be - especially physically. Between researching, planning and executing shoots, all of which had to be done during US business hours, it wasn't abnormal to have at least a few 24-hour days per week - especially from March-May.
* Ironically, we assumed Singapore would be the easiest, but the morning we filmed Michael's interview, a construction crew decided to absolutely demolish the road in front of our film location - you thankfully can't tell (too much) from the audio but it took hours to film in between jack-hammering gaps. Yet another time documentary film-making reminded us that nothing comes easily.
What was it like to co-direct the film? And in your opinion, what makes a good team of collaborators?
I was just thinking about this. For the last 20 years I've worked in the same office as my amazing wife. On balance, that's taught me that you don't have to always agree with someone on everything in order to have a strong partnership. As I've co-produced a lot of projects in the past, without consciously realizing it, it wasn't hard to transition that same dynamic to working with Michael. That said, I'm sure he's had moments where he wants to strangle me, as I'm more on the production side of things which as we know has its own unique challenges - but we both shared a common vision and so we never once had to encourage each other to keep going or push through. Admittedly, there were some dark days for me when my mother passed away mid-production and the team supported me the best they could, but also then personally finding value in the work was its own salve at that moment - and Michael was always a part of that process day-in, day-out. We both just pushed through side by side. I think that's also because we've been accused (by some) of running this project like a start-up. Which we both take as a compliment. Start-ups can't envision failure (which is often, ironically their downfall), but there's a very particular culture there, and that translates well to a first-time film co-production.
What was the most challenging thing about producing the movie? Did Covid play a part in how you approached this production?
On its surface, Covid was the challenge. Covid and simple bad luck could have instantly shut down any of our shoots, but it didn't. It also complicated every other single thing we did in little ways that we had to deal with day-in, day-out. But ironically if it weren't for Covid, Michael and I wouldn't have both had the bandwidth to do this project at the same time, and all the amazing folks we interviewed wouldn't have been locked-down in one place long enough for us to get them on camera. No one can say, but if it wasn't for Covid, we (probably?) wouldn't have done this documentary, so it really is a product of its time. With all the good and bad things that implies.
As you probably filmed hours of content, I assume a lot of footage was left 'on the cutting room floor'. How was the editorial process, and did you find yourself having to make difficult choices?
The editorial process was long! We shot at least (conservatively), 45 hours of content. Our drill each week from April onward was we would have interviews (if any) usually early in the week, we would get the footage from the US, transcribe it, I would then do the rough cut from that, we would then lightly color-grade/clean the audio and drop it into the main timeline by 5pm Friday. I would then spend Friday night often into Saturday morning waiting for the massive files to export; I can't tell you how many times Michael and I would be messaging back and forth at midnight on a Friday after I would get a "failed to export" message after 7 or 8 hours of waiting. That was usually the moment every Friday that I would switch from beer to whisky... We would then meet every Saturday afternoon for a live viewing which would take about 3 hours including pausing the film dozens of times to discuss everything from a line of dialog, to a camera change. We would then make all of our editing notes, Saturday night into Sunday, and make all the new cuts on Monday morning, before repeating the entire process again, every week. It was a long way to do things, but with 17 interviewees, 45 hours of footage, and the nature of the complex story we were telling, it had to be. That made every editorial choice a difficult one. We could have easily told 3 or 4 completely different stories all from the same 45 hours of footage, but all of our editorial decisions lead us to this story. To quote my dad, "measure twice, cut once." That was our approach, and hopefully it's worked.
How did Jamaur Bronner, Autumn Baily Ford, and Karim Raffa help you lead the project?
Yes, they were all involved in different aspects. Autumn has years of experience in the industry and the insights that come with that. She was able to introduce so many people to us, which meant we didn't need to invent the wheel before we got rolling. Jamaur has an amazing network, and was able to give both high-level strategic advice as well as get really granular on data (which is not my strong suit!), and bonus - he's also got a voice like liquid butter, which made him the natural choice as our narrator. Karim's been a friend for years, and in a sense, often acted as the glue (or lubricant) that helped move things along. He was less involved in the day-to-day, but always had a presence pitching in and filling any gaps we had.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from working on this film?
To get something, you have to give something up. We all gave up a lot in this process. The other thing is that running a co-produced film like a start-up can be done. But probably only if you're an entrepreneur trying to make a film, not a film-maker trying to become an entrepreneur. I'm not any kind of authority on the subject, but that's my read on it after the last 1.5 years of trying to do it that way.
What is next for Broken Chains, and what's next for you? Are you working on anything at the moment, and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I'll probably let Michael tackle this, but I will say - we have a lot of amazing footage, and there's definitely scope to do a sequel, or even Broken Chains - Europe (ie. UK, France, Netherlands, etc.) We've also discussed wanting to expand into other areas, like helping bring the message to a younger audience. As we're entrepreneurs, we are always thinking ahead to the next thing - and unfortunately the issues surrounding systemic racism are so large - that there's a mind-numbing number of next things we could, would, or should do to address the issue, in new ways and for new audiences.
Michael: There is a lot of work ahead of us related to addressing and solving the racial wealth gap. Besides content we'll work with existing organisations to support mentorship for underrepresented communities and help them build a career in the corporate world and venture capital. Through financing, research, coaching and corporate development programs we hope to help close the racial wealth gap.
Is there anything you'd like to add, or someone you wish to thank?
Aaron: I'd like to thank my wife. I'd be nothing without her support in life and in work over the last 21 years. She gave me the room to do this project, by taking up all the excess slack in our lives. She made it possible. Also my parents. My mother passed away in April, and I have many regrets, but my biggest regret (in relation to this project) is that she never got to see the film. She's actually in it, at the very end of the film, but sadly she never got to see her own film debut. That's just how life is, unfortunately. All we can try to do is make it a little better than it was. Hopefully Michael and I have moved the needle somehow in that respect. Please watch the film, but more importantly, please do something meaningful afterwards.
Michael: I'd like to thank my wife, my mother and 2 sisters. They have been an incredible support through all my ventures and kept believing in me when times were difficult. Making this documentary while working at a venture capital firm wasn't easy due to the long days. Without their supporting words and encouragement it would have been hard to keep this up.