by Marilyn Peh on

On his travels to far-flung corners of the world, Thomas Morgan has faced threats of being thrown into jail and even narrowly escaped a suicide bombing.

The latter was a suspected ISIS-led blast in Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh district that killed 43 people last November.

Speaking to The Pride, he said: “I was 700 metres away (from the suicide bomber), I could feel the compressions in my chest, so that was pretty scary.”

These experiences make for some unconventional postcards to send back home, but Morgan is far from your average tourist.

The Singapore-based filmmaker produces documentaries to tell the real-life stories of people facing trying social circumstances. Getting to the heart of these stories has at times meant risking life and limb.

“I always feel like some of the best stories are in the places people are most afraid of. If you go to these places and realise the situations these people are in, how they have to figure out a way to survive and the stories they have to tell… it makes the issues we face here insignificant.”

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Filming for Morgan’s upcoming film Soufra took place in a refugee camp in Beirut. Image Source: Thomas Morgan

Bringing stories to life

The 49-year-old American’s faith in the power of storytelling compelled him to co-found Rebelhouse Asia in Singapore, an extension of his film production and distribution agency set up in the US. He believes a good documentary sows the seeds of social change by encouraging empathy.

Referencing the film Life, Animated that Rebelhouse Asia recently screened at The Projector in Singapore, he explained: “You and I could talk about how autistic children are excluded in society but after you see the film, you’ll think of it completely differently. You’ll put a face, an emotion to it. You’ll start seeing it more whereas before, you would have looked away.”

“That’s the great part of film. You can bring it to life. For the first time, they see it differently and they can’t forget it.”

Born and raised in Michigan, Morgan used to be a high-flying finance executive before he was inspired to look at homelessness in America through a different lens. After he suggested that his daughter could visit her friend’s house for a play date, she pulled him aside to say that she couldn’t because her friend’s family lived in a Walmart parking lot.

“I was so taken aback that I called the National Coalition for the Homeless to find out more about it. It just stuck with me, and I kept thinking that somebody’s got to do something about it, somebody’s got to inform more people about it.”

The idea for a documentary had taken nebulous shapes in his head when meeting actress Susan Sarandon and ‘Super Size Me’ director Morgan Spurlock at an event spurred him to action. Both encouraged him and pledged their support to the project.

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Morgan speaking to US Congress with actress Susan Sarandon in 2014. Image Source: Thomas Morgan

Pursuing a passion

So eight years ago, with his family’s blessings, Morgan quit his job to pursue a love for documentary making. Working with Sarandon and her son, Jack Henry Robbins, Morgan released Storied Streets in 2014, to shed light on the plight of America’s homeless while inviting the viewer to rethink their perceptions of homelessness.

The film has since been given to homeless organisations in America to be used as a fundraising tool and even helped to lobby lawmakers to build two homeless shelters located in Michigan and Florida.

Describing his audiences as “lightning rods” for driving action, Morgan always finds a way for his films to inspire outcomes. Viewers are often directed to donate to causes related to the films, or if that’s not possible, to take the films and organise their own screenings.

Related article: Connecting good people to great causes

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Morgan with the children from Waiting for Mamu, a film about children in Nepali prisons. Image Source: Thomas Morgan

And mountains can be moved. When his film, Waiting for Mamu, was released in 2013, it was given away for people to hold fundraisers. Within the first weekend, 32 fundraisers had been held across four continents.

Since then, donations from all over the world have helped the film’s protagonist Pushpa Basnet to build The Butterfly Home in Nepal, a centre that rescues and cares for children born to parents who are incarcerated in Nepal’s prisons.

Coming to Singapore

It was at a screening of Waiting for Mamu in Singapore that Morgan met his Rebelhouse Asia partners Suraj Upadhiah and Tiziana Tan. Upadhiah and Tan are no strangers to social causes, as they also run Air Amber, a social enterprise here that builds viable business models by empowering marginalised communities.

The trio hit it off, and realising that the region’s documentary scene was significantly underdeveloped, launched their enterprise in mid-2016 to distribute such films and support the fledgling community here.

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Morgan and Tan leading a dialogue for the film India’s Daughter, a documentary about the rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in India that sent shockwaves around the world. Image Source: Rebelhouse Asia

While many people eagerly anticipate blockbusters, there is little hype around social impact films here. Rebelhouse Asia wants to fill the void by producing more of such films, distributing the works of budding filmmakers and educating the public on social impact films and causes they back.

The trio is particularly big on education. In bringing Life, Animated to Singapore, they developed an education pack and pitched the film to local schools. The film, directed by US filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, tells the moving story of how an autistic youth learnt to communicate with others using Disney movie language. Teachers are encouraged to use the discussion guides to engage their students.

The film relays an important message of empowerment for persons with special needs, and at least five schools have since expressed interest in screening the movie, with more expected to follow.

“We don’t really see the positive perspective even if research tells us that those with autism actually have very high IQ. There’s no discussion about these positive aspects, whereas the narrative is always about these people being marginalised and needing help. In contrast, the film shows that the kid could learn about the world around him in creative and different ways”, Tan explained.

Related article: 5 things we learned about why people volunteer in Singapore

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Morgan working with aspiring filmmakers at a documentary film master class. Image Source: Rebelhouse Asia

Reaching out, to young and old

Wanting to build interest and expertise from the ground up, Morgan has also just piloted a documentary master class for young filmmakers here. In a similar vein, Rebelhouse Asia has worked with Fairfield Methodist Secondary School to teach its students basic filmmaking, where budding auteurs learn to tell the stories of cleaner aunties and hawker uncles who would have remained strangers to them without film as a conduit.

Although most of them jump in with little to no experience behind the camera, their interest and love for film serves as a start.

Tan is even thinking of reaching out to the elderly: “We want to teach the elderly how to make films. Because their perspectives are so different, even the things they would do with the films will be different.”

“It’s interesting to see that it doesn’t matter what your age or background is. Film and visual media is a universal language.”

For more information on Rebelhouse Asia’s projects, visit their website.