Hello all from somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Very sorry for the delay in getting this update to you. The fact that I’m writing this entry from the front seat of a Suzuki Vitara (similar to a Geo Tracker) while Jonathan drives dodging cows and dogs to my right is a testament to how busy we have been. I will do my best to fill in the gaps since our last entry.
Jonathan and Jose arrived safely in Siem Reap on the bus with all 14 bags in tact and without any loss on Sunday evening. I met Christoph (2nd unit Camera Operator) Sunday afternoon in Phnom Penh to prepare for filming the following day. We met the following morning and drove the 3 blocks to the Mine Action Group (MAG) headquarters for an interview with a field specialist and the executive director of MAG’s Phnom Penh operations. Although we were definitely undermanned without Jose’s lighting expertise, we made it work and were able to get great content.
That afternoon I did some production shopping for remaining gear and met Tom (Translator and Production Assistant) for dinner with Christoph where we saw a traveling Jazz group from Germany at the popular Meta House. We got an early start the following morning when Tom picked me up in his friend’s car (the Suzuki). Given the multiple locations we had to travel to for net two weeks, renting a 4×4 car for two weeks for $80 seemed like a pretty good deal. Meanwhile, Jose and Jonathan were busy helping the kids at the land mine museum scrub TNT off land mines to prepare for their move to the new museum. Jose and Jonathan were able to capture some great B roll of Aki Ra playing with the kids, Aki Ra’s wife Hourt cooking, Aki Ra playing with a large Python snake, and some new land mine museum construction. Jonathan described that many of the tourists visiting the land mine museum were terrified to find a python about 12′ long at the entrance – he caught some memorable surprises on film.
Wednesday, the day after my return to Siem Reap, was an important co-ordination day for the remaining 12 days of production. While I finalized the script modifications and shot list additions/subtractions, Jonathan pioneered a detailed schedule for the remaining days. We kicked off the twelve nonstop filming days with a 4am wakeup and departure for the Trapang Thmar village near the border of Thailand. After a rough and bumpy three hour drive, we arrived at the site of a former Khmer Rouge labor camp. During Khmer Rouge rule, women and children were forced to build a large dam to block a nearby river and form a reservoir for drinking water and for agriculture. Working 16 hour days with little food and no contact with their families, the area has now blossomed into a very beautiful and serene “stone lake” as it is referred to by locals. Tourists come from all over the country to enjoy the views, go swimming in the lake, and rent boats and canoes. What few of these visitors know, however, is that buried beneath the peaceful stone lake lies over a hundred thousand dead bodies that either died of starvation and malnutrition or were executed for poor work ethic.
We spent the morning interviewing people who lived in the area and survivors of the labor camp. During the afternoon, we interviewed people who knew Im Chen, a former leader of this Khmer Rouge labor camp. During the war, she gained the reputation as having “black magic” and was hated by much of her followers. “Black magic” has many connotations but the most popular is that she was so tough and cruel that bullets could not break her, and she could not be killed with conventional methods. Many of the people living around Trapang Thmar hate Im Chen for her brutal methods and spoke openly about their reactions to her. The following day, we rose again at 4am and traveled to Anlong Veng where Im Chen is now the chief of her commune. She is loved by those around her and has one of the broadest smiles I have ever seen. We spent the entire day with her talking about her past, her acts of redemption since, and her outlook on the coming tribunal. Im Chen, like many Khmer Rouge leaders, lives well protected by the people around her and claims little responsibility for her previous actions. Claiming that she was simply following orders and despite hundreds/thousands killed in her own territory, she feels little guilt or sorrow for direct or indirect deaths she may have caused. Although I expected to find a woman overcome with guilt and filled with redemptive goals for her country, we instead found a woman who spoke about how great of a leader she was, how she saved so many lives and did wonderful things despite her “black magic” reputation. I asked her some tough questions, and we got some great content so we will let the viewer decide who to believe. This was another interview that went smoothly thanks to our production work flow. We often capture straight to the laptop during interviews now. It makes for easier backing up and future editing.
We spent the first night of Khmer New Year’s (3-4 day holiday) looking for Sokah, one of Aki Ra’s favorite classical Khmer singers. We found her singing at a local party in town and arranged to interview her later that evening. She lived way out in the countryside but thanks to Tom’s willingness to ask everyone and anyone for directions, we found her house. Electricity in this area derives only from generators, but thanks to Jose’s brilliant lighting setups, we interviewed her under candle light in a hut in the middle of the jungle. It quickly become apparent why she is Aki Ra’s favorite singer, as she has one of the most beautiful and pure voices I have ever heard. She sang three songs for us – each song made the hair on my neck rise.
Tired after two long days, we slept for almost six hours before tracking down Sarom’s uncle (interpreter/friend), a former Khmer Rouge commander who also lives in Anlong Veng. Similar to Im Chen’s interview, he took little responsibility for his involvement with the Khmer Rouge and spoke eloquently about his experiences as a commander. We filmed some more B-roll with Im Chen, visited Pol Pot’s grave and Ta Mok’s house before heading back to Siem Reap.
Enjoyed a needed night off which happened to coincide with the the biggest Khmer New Year party on saturday night. Awoke recharged and ready for a lengthy interview with Aki Ra on Sunday afternoon. Sitting in a tree outside his land mine museum, Aki Ra spoke with detailed memories about his childhood in an orphanage, the death of his parents, and his life as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. Directly after the interview, Tom and Jonathan went through the interview on the laptop and translated all of the content so we could decide what areas we still needed.
We spent Monday morning interviewing two more kids near the land mine museum (Poy and Sophart) before heading to the new land mine museum for more progress b-roll and a short interview with Aki Ra. We arrived back at the new land mine museum the following morning (Tuesday) for the last of Aki Ra’s interviews before splitting the crew again to increase efficiency. Jonathan, Sarom, and I drove the rented Suzuki to Phnom Penh for three days of interviews and meetings while Jose and Tom continued to shoot Aki Ra footage and interviews with Aki Ra’s wife Hourt, Hourt’s brother Sen-Ho, and other elders at the land mine museum.
We arrived in Phnom Penh late Tuesday evening and checked in to our guest house and picked up production gear from Christoph for the following three days. Wednesday began with an interview with the Canadian Ambassador, Donica Pottie. Pottie has been very important to the success of Aki Ra’s land mine museum and will be attending the opening of the new museum. We also met with a contact of Tom’s who will hopefully put us in touch with the right people to interview Prime Minister Hun Sen or King Sihamoni. We spent the afternoon with Souka Souka and his kids at the orphanage. All of them remembered our faces and seemed thrilled to have us around. We talked to five of them about their previous living conditions in the Stung Meanchay garbage dump and how Souka Souka rescued them. Lea, one of the girls we spoke to, talked not only about her life in the dumps but how she was also sold for sex frequently by her biological father – she is 14 years old now.
We returned to Souka Souka’s Thursday morning to film two more interviews with children as well as b-roll of Souka Souka and the orphanage itself. Thursday afternoon we interviewed Pious Fischer, the German Ambassador to Cambodia and Sok An, the Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia. Interviewing Sok An was quite an experience for all of us given the security present, room full of translators and assistants, and pressure to meet time and subject constraints. As we were slightly undermanned, I sat in Sok An’s armchair during the lighting setups.
We did some more co-ordination on Friday and were able to interview Mong Monicharya, a reserve Cambodian judge for the ECCC before heading back towards Siem Reap.
It has been an incredibly full two weeks and will continue through tomorrow until Jonathan and Jose fly on to Singapore on Sunday morning. Tomorrow is Aki Ra’s land mine museum opening ceremony! It will likely be a very full day of shooting and final Aki Ra footage, but first, two more hours in the car. Cheers!