Spotlight on our local crews

Journey of Self-Discovery

Nat Ma is one of our impact filmmakers based in Canggu, Bali. Our comms specialist Kelsey Holmes had the unique opportunity to sit down in person and get to know him on a deeper level. Our crews are who enable us to help tell the stories that matter. Hear more from their closely personal conversation here.

“Telling stories and doing that through film to me is like magic”

So Nat, you’ve worked with us on Tropenbos and we’re big fans of your work. How did your journey to filmmaking as a career begin?

Nat: My journey into a creative career began when I first left university. After studying, a turn of events saw me start at National Geographic Channel as their web manager, and from there I decided to open up my own digital creative agency, and eventually took an account director role at TBWA. I did that for three years, and decided that I really wanted to go to New York, so I packed my bags and went. After working with a few different agencies as a strategist, I fell into a role for as head of digital marketing for Burberry.

During this period of my time I realized I was suffering from anxiety. On the outside, everything looked great. I had the job, I had the status, I had this great career path. But something was just not right. I was actually suffering from panic attacks. Every day. And I thought it was normal to kind of move through my life like that.

Then one day I found meditation and that completely changed my life. I realized I had basically burnt out in New York and I decided that it was time to change my life. So I did that. I quit my job, sold everything except for what I could fit into a backpack, and started traveling the world. I took this time to work on myself, not working on others, working for and on myself – a healing process. 

How did that healing bring you to where you’re at today as a filmmaker?

Nat: Storytelling actually from the start was a big part of what I knew I was good at and what I wanted to do. I love creativity and I’d been shooting photography by that time, for probably about ten years. As I was traveling on this journey of self-discovery, I was telling my own story, and by telling my own story, I was healing myself. I saw how much it inspired other people as well who was going through the same stuff. So I thought, that’s it: I want to tell stories. 

I’m a very visual person. So one day I picked up a very cheap camera and I started making these mini-documentaries of people’s transformation journeys. I just knew this is what I was meant to do: to tell stories through film medium. It all came intuitively to me – all the technical aspects of shooting like composition, working with light, conducting the interviews – even post-production. I launched OpenArt, a non-profit project to alleviate poverty through art, storytelling and web3. I saw the impact film could have, so a bit part of this project was to help small to medium sized NGOs share their stories through film to raise awareness and reach new audiences. Telling stories and doing that through film to me is like magic, because you have a story in your head and you pull all these elements together and then like magic, all of a sudden this beautiful thing comes out at the other end. It gives me goosebumps! And then you get to share it with the world, and this can really have an impact – you can change people’s lives. 

“The story itself is that human connection”

What do you think is most essential in your approach to storytelling? 

Nat: First, I would say that film, writing, podcasts, photography, they’re just tools. They’re just ways of expressing empathy that the story actually starts with. The story itself is that human connection. At the end of the day, we all have fears, we all feel joy, we all feel the spectrum of emotions. The thing that we have to start with, is basically connecting with the underlying emotion or story behind why this emotion is being caused. And then when you can do that in a beautiful, cinematic way, using all the different techniques like lighting and composition and different things, you can get people to not only hear it and see it but to get them to feel it through the power of cinema. That’s why cinema is so beautiful, because you have all the different elements to make people feel.

In my approach I’d consider how I can best tell a good story in these environments of adversity, and then take what I’ve seen and understand the themes that come out of it. 

How does listening to stories have the power to change lives? Have you seen transformational change through storytelling take place in your work?

Nat: I’ve listened to and told hundreds of stories, and sharing that impacts people in more ways than one. Some people even start crying because no one’s given them the space to be heard before, and they didn’t even know they wanted to be heard until they started talking. Coming back to my own journey when I started telling my own story and sharing my own vulnerabilities, I was able to heal myself. It’s kind of the same thing when we go out there and share stories of people that not necessarily have ever had the opportunity to do that. So, one, it’s actually healing for them to do that. But two, it also creates awareness of what’s going on with them. And then three, it inspires others to go out there and maybe do some other storytelling in their own communities and use the power of storytelling to make an impact in the world.

Allowing people to tell their own stories means empowering them to use their voice and shape the narratives of their realities. 

Nat Ma
How do you make sure that your story stays authentic?

“The patterns and ways that I work to tell stories center on the hero’s journey – which is a human journey”

Nat: It’s really about listening, being empathetic and showing kindness and compassion. Sometimes just saying, “we’re here to listen to your story,” not for any other purpose. Being able to say “I’m sitting with you where we’re conversing. It’s a conversation. The camera’s not here.” Maybe ask a few questions and just let them talk. It’s not a one-way thing where I’m just trying to get as much information from you as possible. It’s just asking, stimulating something, and then just listening in. Your communication is not just about talking, it’s about listening. People see that you’re listening to them. They will just open up, you know? These little things you learn along the way will then come across as authentic.

Where does your ambition for impact storytelling, as opposed to more commercial work, come from?

Nat: Working with Makmende, I get to do what I do in my way for clients that actually appreciate and value the skills that I have to do it. For instance, if I’m working with a client that is just focused on social media content, but they are also trying to do some impactful things in the world. They value my range of skills – not just in my content creation, but in my strategic and creative vision and how to turn that vision into reality. 

Working with a team of people that also connects on an empathetic level and not working with someone that you completely conflict with is also really important. Aligning toward impact in my work makes me feel lucky, and I’m super grateful to be where I am now. 

Values alignment is a huge driver in working for impact. We know we do our work best when we feel our best, and our crews believe in the mission and vision of our work.

How do you go about turning these moments of human connection into something that we can all “experience” through film? Do you notice patterns developing in the way you understand people’s stories?

Nat: At the end of the day, it first comes down to finding that story. What is the story? What is the emotion behind it, and how do you then translate that emotion into a piece of work through cinema or film to then resonate with people or audience? It’s the idea of hero’s journey. When I was hearing and telling these stories, I was like, “Wow, there’s a pattern in all of this.” 

Once you go through this journey towards discovering your purpose, you come back to either your own community or the real world or another community, and then you give back to people and you give back to the world. I can tell you 100%, not 99.9, not 99%. All the stories of these people that I’ve told have always gone through this pattern. Every single one of them. They will go through this journey and then do something to give back to the world. It’s it’s amazing. I love this so much. 

I started to ask: Where were you before? What were you doing? What woke you up? What was then the journey you went on that you began to get this feeling and insight into yourself? And then what are you doing now? One day I was reading and I discovered Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I’m like, “Wow, this has been around for hundreds of years.” Even before that, Plato or Socrates already had this framework and it was even more exciting and amazing that the thing that I came across in my own experience is already something that is naturally happening in the world. The patterns and ways that I work to tell stories center on the hero’s journey – which is a human journey. 

What do you think makes a good story?

Nat: In order for your story to resonate, at the end of the day, people need structure. You can’t just throw a million different things at them and expect them to understand what your message is. The framework helps because first you determine what the message that you want to portray or get out is and then you find a structure to help people understand that. I like to use the hero’s journey structure because I’m telling human stories, but really it’s like having a beginning, a middle, and an end. And then where is it that you want to lead them to? Once you have that, you use creativity like lighting techniques, all the different cinematic techniques like pacing, sound, visuals, and composition – all the different cinematic techniques to get people engaged. So they’re not like, “Oh, I’m just here reading a story, or I’m watching a boring educational video.” If you can entertain them while educating them, while telling your story, they don’t even know they’re being educated. This area is not just about educating people but using proper storytelling techniques to get people to connect.

Consistency is also super important, if you’re going to roll out a bunch of content. If you have that framework throughout, people will always know, and indirectly they will feel, this consistency of structure that guides you through it and they know what they’re getting into and that’s what they come back for. 

You’ve talked a lot about intuition guiding you in finding and amplifying the right stories. How do you use this heart connection to realize the impact you want to have on the world through your craft?

Nat: I think it comes back down to that individual level. The way that the world is moving now is that people are opening up their hearts more. The thing is, you can’t force people or organizations to lead by the heart. It has to be a natural process, just like you can’t change someone, right? But if we can do those little things, and inspire people, with these videos, with good storytelling, we can get them to do it, feel it for themselves, and naturally make change. 

One of the biggest things is education. In order to make change, we have to educate people and get them to understand why this change is necessary. And I think that that to me is the starting point. It’s setting the stage and showing what’s happening right now and this is why it’s happening and how. 

It’s a longer-term process. Through film, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, keep telling these stories, keep pulling at the heartstrings, keep doing the emotional storytelling that makes an individual impact. And then that will in turn drive the decision-makers.

And that, ultimately, will have an impact.