Filmmaker's Journal: So Much for Taking a Break

In 2007, an article in the New York Times hailed Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, as “the next Prague.” Soon thereafter, every footloose hipster in the West seemed to home in on the place. But the city they found was a far cry from “the next Prague.” It is still too alien to most Western sensibilities, and it is at times dismayingly dark, violent, and desperate. But despite these qualities, or maybe because of them, the country turned out to be the place where the most welcome unknown variables and creative possibilities would emerge for me as a filmmaker.

I didn’t come to Cambodia to make another film. Back in 2003, I left the U.S. and came to Southeast Asia to take a working break from moviemaking. I’d just finished shooting my second no-budget feature, Susan Hero back in my homestate of New Mexico, and I was completely burnt out (and broke) from the whole process.

I was also, like a lot of people, having misgivings about America. The Iraq invasion was gearing up, and I felt incredibly skeptical, even wary, of the American Way at the time. I’d always wanted to live abroad, and this seemed like the right time to follow that impulse.

One thing I wanted to do was to build up an alternate skill set, and I had always want to teach. I figured that, in Asia, the barriers to entry for a novice teacher would be lower. I wouldn’t need a Master’s or a teaching certificate. So I arranged to take a TOEFL teacher training course in Bangkok. Then I went to Vietnam for a visit. On the bus trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, we stopped in Cambodia.

I’d been to the country a few years before to visit Angkor when I was bopping around Southeast Asia as a traveler, but somehow the brief stop in 2003, on the trip from Vietnam to Thailand, was life changing. I was immediately struck on that first day by the energy of the place, and I found myself delaying the rest of the trip. I left for Bangkok on the last possible morning, and the whole time I was in Thailand learning to teach English, my mind kept wandering back to Cambodia.

I realized that Cambodia, not Thailand, felt like the place for me: the place to get my teaching experience, while also having an opportunity to work in media, since the media sector in Thailand was and is very mature, with little need for foreigners. Thailand is extremely well developed, with over 100 film service companies, fully geared up lighting and rental companies, grip trucks, stages, labs, etc.

There’s a world, a universe of difference between the film scene in neighboring Thailand and Cambodia.

Cambodia’s film industry, its entire art culture, was torn up—annihilated—by the Khmer Rouge regime which swept to power in 1975. There are still no rental houses here, only pockets of equipment available to whomever is in the know. There’s no crew base or database: in that regard, especially for Cambodians, things operate like a kind of living MySpace. Almost everything is done through contacts or the grapevine.

Beyond the film industry, the rest of the economy was underdeveloped. When I arrived in January 2005, for example, there were no ATMs. The place has really radically changed since then, which is interesting to witness. New buildings are constantly springing up, and SUVs, which are now unpopular in the U.S., are all the rage here. Cambodia is said by some to have the highest per capita ownership of Humvees, and the streets are certainly filled with them, as well as Lexus Landcruisers.

Vuth Tep was one of the first folks I met here when I arrived. He was working as a motodop—a motorcycle taxi driver—outside my guesthouse when I was running around every day looking for teaching work, so naturally we got to know each other. He knew English well, and my Khmer at the time was lousy, so he was a sort of “automatic fixer” even though he didn’t have any media production experience.

Pretty soon, I came up with the idea for CamboFest, Cambodia’s first and only independent film festival. To get the ball rolling, I first had to explain to most people what a film festival actually was. Once Vuth understood what I was asking him to do, he came on to work for me full time as an associate producer. I basically trained him from scratch in media, although he’s obviously more adept at navigating Khmer society than I am as a Barang, a foreigner. (A foreigner here is always considered an alien, it’s not a melting pot that the U.S. is. This can be disconcerting to some.)

We had to make the screens we used for our first year…not only because we had no budget whatsoever, but because there’s no rental house to go to in the even you need to rent a screen. What exists in the country is floating around and hard to come by.

As I’ve spent more time in Cambodia, I’ve se up my own film company called Camerado, which makes documentaries for NGOs that are active in the region. AS I’ve built up a presence here, I’ve worked with more Khmer colleagues who, in the same way as Vuth, learned the world of media on the fly. Chan Norm, who was brought onto a video I was making for The NGO Forum on Cambodia as a translator later became another associate producer at my little film company. Norm proved to be a very adept narrator, with great delivery, and we went together to the Bangkok Film Market as the first ever company from Cambodia to attend.

There was also Socheata Chea: she was an assistant at a neighboring travel agency from whom I’d been renting space for editing. She eventually left the travel company because she couldn’t travel with clients easily, due to traditional Cambodian women’s roles, which still persist. So I asked her if she wanted to help as an assistant editor with a movie were were doing for WildAid, a biodiversity documentary.

Again, I trained from scratch, and she exceeded all expectations and, to my astonishment, was soon doing incredible rough edits on the Premiere Pro system I had set up. She was super sharp, a very quick learner, very funny, and great to work with.

As far as Barang colleagues: there’s quite a number of expats here now who either have some equipment or access to it. For example, for the commissioned NGO docs I was hired to do here, I enlisted the help of a noted wildlife videographer who’s been based in Cambodia for a while. It was just a matter of specifying what kind of coverage I needed from a human—versus wildlife—subject, and with some adjustments and modifications, we were in business. What I might have found tedious back in the States felt very different in Cambodia. The break I thought I wanted to take turned out to be very short-lived.

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