FOR ASPIRING ASIAN documentary filmmakers, it's a dream come true: vast amounts of cash to fund projects they are passionate about for an international TV channel and a worldwide audience. Directors, writers and producers from Hong Kong to Japan to Bhutan are digging out scripts that have been gathering dust since film school after recent news that the United States-based National Geographic Channel (NGC) and Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) will extend their joint film production fund for another four years. The money up for grabs is huge for this niche area of filmmaking. Bryan Smith, NGC's executive vice-president of programming and production, says US$8 million to $10 million will be available, aimed at Asian-based production houses shooting documentaries about Asia from a local perspective. It's a win-win situation. NGC grooms Asian talent to shoot NGC-quality films about the continent. Singapore sets itself up as a regional hub for filmmaking and media technology. And filmmakers get to work. Hong Kong director Janus Lee Chi-ngai, whose film kicks off the season on Sunday, says the fund heralds a change in fortunes for the industry in Asia. 'We just can't make the films we really want to without the support of National Geographic or the EDB,' he says. He was speaking shortly before an NGC gala awards ceremony in Singapore last week, where his film,Hong Kong's Big Bet, was nominated for a best editing award. Cable TV's Discovery Channel has also awarded grants and technical help for Asian producers to make western-style documentaries. Director/producer/writer Michele Guai, from Singapore, agrees that such support is a lifeline for her industry. Her film, Body Snatchers Of Bangkok, which won best film at the NGC awards, would not have proceeded beyond the initial idea stage without this level of help. 'It's a major step forward for us,' she says. 'There's a lot of talent in the region and with more money available we can produce the kind of films that will appeal to a more international audience. There's no question that without this level of support, we'd be really struggling. It's very hard to work in the Asia-Pacific region. The funding just isn't available.' In the past, Asian documentary filmmakers have been left fuming at their lack of opportunities to get films made while western TV channels and production companies more often than not enjoy bigger budgets. Even more irritating, the western view of Asia often lacks context and authenticity, one Hong Kong-based filmmaker says. 'It's very frustrating,' says Tang Yuen-mei, a Hong Kong producer with the production company Join Legend, which was commissioned to make The Kung Fu Dragons Of Wudang, winner of the best cinematography award. 'Western filmmakers often impose their own view of Asia, just focusing on chopsticks, martial arts and cheongsams. They don't have the contacts we have or the understanding,' she says. But, in that case, why did she use her NGC commission to shoot a film about kung fu? 'I know it's a bit of a cliche but we had to choose a topic a global audience can understand. There's no point trying to make a film about Temple Street for the international market. No-one would care about it. But we can make a more authentic film about kung fu because we are Chinese. A Hong Kong production company is like a bridge between the east and west.' The experience has been more than just financially rewarding, Tang adds. Working with an international TV company meant production quality had to be tighter and the filmmaking process - how to tell a story, how to package the content - had to be rethought at every stage. 'In Hong Kong we are used to infotainment, just telling the story, usually with an anonymous voice-over delivering information. But the NGC style is more emotional, more character-driven,' says Tang. During the month-long shoot, Tang says the script was rejigged after the NGC supervising producers suggested using Master Wang, an ageing kung fu master, as the main character might fail to engage audiences. Instead, NGC preferred the story to be told through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl, Jade Dragon, who had been abandoned by her family and had chosen to study kung fu in the remote cliff tops of Mount Wudang in northwest Hubei province. 'We've learnt a great deal about their style of making programmes, how to bring a story to life,' Tang says. This fresh injection of capital continues the current NGC-EDB film fund set up in 2001 with US$1.95 million. Winning proposals from this first round of financing - six from Singapore, three from Hong Kong and one from India - were chosen from 550 proposals from teams in 17 countries across Asia. The projects have been made into two series: Asia To The World, which showcases the talents of Asia's top production houses and premieres on September 7, and Reel Talent, which presents 'radical new approaches to documentary filmmaking with a provocative new Asian perspective' directed by young Asian-based directors. It premieres on October 19. However, interested filmmakers in Asia should note that the US$10 million production fund is heavily slanted towards Singaporean companies. The initial deal stipulated six of the 10 commissioned programmes should be Singaporean. This policy will continue when the new round of commissions are announced later this year, says Smith. This might seem unfair on other countries but the Singaporean government has invested a great deal of money in the project, says one filmmaker. 'This is only a start,' she says. And no government in the world is doing more for the documentary film business than Singapore. Asian filmmakers are grateful any money is available, she adds. One of the Hong Kong filmmakers says the efforts of the Singaporeans put the Hong Kong government to shame. Keiko Bang, who heads Bang Productions, which produced Hong Kong's Big Bet, says it's a 'travesty' that Hong Kong filmmakers are relying on the Singaporean government for funding despite our rich history of film production. 'I've been absolutely disgusted with the Hong Kong government's attitude to content-driven documentary filmmaking,' she says. 'Singapore has put a laser beam on this area of the filmmaking industry because it's big business and has huge potential for growth in the region. Hong Kong is missing out on this opportunity.' Hong Kong does offer limited help to documentary makers through the Arts Development Council and other smaller government initiatives, according to a spokesman from Hong Kong's Commerce, Industry and Technology Bureau, the government office responsible for international business and media. But what's on offer lacks the scale and ambition of the NGC-EDB agreement, filmmakers say. And this is not the first time the Singaporean government has got behind the camera with an international broadcaster. In 2001, Discovery Networks Asia and the EDB set up a US$7.5 million fund that helped Singaporean first-time directors shoot their first films. The money helped produce 50 hours of documentaries over a five-year period. The deadline for submitting proposals for the next round of NGC-EDB financing is October 3. Companies in Asia are eligible. For details, visit www.ngcasia.com/showrealasia/home.shtm .