Friday, July 29, 2011

Filming in Cambodia

This article appeared in the online Screen Hub - New Zealand website this week following the world premiere of the documentary Brother Number One, which I've previously reported on.

Brother Number One : in Cambodia
Hanuman Films' Kulikar Sotho was the line producer for Brother Number One. We caught up with her in London for an interview about the film and, more broadly, about shooting in the Mekong Delta.

Kulikar's connection to the subject-matter of Brother Number One is a very personal one. Her uncle was executed in the same prison as Kerry Hamill, having been called back to Cambodia from what was then Czechoslovakia by Foreign Minister Ieng Sary (one of the surviving Khmer Rouge government currently on trial). Kulikar's father was also executed by the regime, for having an international outlook. He was a civil aviation pilot and well educated – both things considered threatening to the agrarian society the Khmer Rouge was determined to recreate.

Annie Goldson has spoken about wanting to include and acknowledge Cambodians' experiences in Brother Number One so as not to focus entirely on Rob Hamill's experience. As one of those affected, Sotho found it very challenging. “Every time I have worked on Khmer Rouge-related documentaries, it opens a Pandora's Box of emotions, as I have to face my own loss and suffering.” In Brother Number One, she also acted as interpreter for several of the meetings between Hamill and Cambodians, including “senior Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the policies that killed so many of my family … (who) deny everything when the evidence is so overwhelming. Brother Number One was special as it was a shared journey with Rob, someone who had also experienced a huge loss because of the Khmer Rouge regime. We shared our loss and discovered the truth together and that helped to share the pain.”

A young child at the time of the Khmer Rouge coup Sotho has, like generations of Cambodians, lived her life under the shadow of what the regime did to the country and its population. Before becoming involved in film and TV production the company she helped found, Hanuman, had travel as its main focus initially before becoming a destination management company. Its first major contract was ticketing the thousands of UN personnel despatched to Cambodia in the early 1990s. Hanuman Travel is still going strong, handling the visits of thousands of tourists each year to the Mekong region of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Kulikar`s partner in Hanuman (and in life) is Nick Ray, writer for Lonely Planet and author of six guidebooks to Cambodia. The travel and destination management experience provided a solid bedrock on which to build the film servicing business as many of the services visiting crews require are the same as Hanuman provides tourists – hotel bookings, transport, guides and translators. The company also has what Kulikar described as “very knowledgeable fixers” for all the other issues that need dealing with, such as permitting.

Following location work on smaller documentaries and films the big break into film servicing, and with it the creation of Hanuman Films, came in 2000 when Paramount contracted Nick and Kulikar as Location Manager and Line Producer for the first major international production to shoot in Cambodia since the mid-sixties, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Hanuman was instrumental in securing permissions for some of the temple shoots, despite strong opposition within government, as well as the logistics of road-freighting large amounts of equipment into remote parts of country, which involved the army building a couple of new bridges. Since then, Hanuman has become well-established and a regular partner of broadcasters the BBC, Al Jazeera and a raft of documentary production companies and netwroks including Discovery and the History Channel. Perhaps strangely it remains the only such film servicing company in Cambodia.

On Brother Number One Kulikar worked closely with the crew on arranging all filming permissions for the shoot to go ahead. The trial of Comrade Duch, at which Hamill spoke, was the first one heard by the specially-convened court. Sotho explained some of the difficulty of creating the documentary in that environment. “Khmer Rouge-related issues are still very sensitive in Cambodia, particularly when set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. There is a lot of debate about whether cases 3 and 4 can and will move forward and some of the individuals involved in these controversial cases were also key players in the story that Rob and Annie wanted to tell. It was very challenging to try and encourage some of these senior ex-Khmer Rouge figures to talk openly about their roles in the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime, particularly with the ongoing trial. Given the backgrounds of some of these individuals, you need to be careful when to push hard and how far you can realistically push. However, as Rob and I shared a personal stake in this story, I think we went as far as humanly possible to get to the bottom of the story.”

Although most people know little of Cambodia beyond the Khmer Rouge and the Angkor Wat temple, Hanuman gets to work on a wide variety of productions, including ones with down under connections. Kiwi director Martin Campbell shot Beyond Borders there in 2002. Prior to Campbell's involvement, Hanuman did the location scouting when the project was still in the hands of Oliver Stone. Once Stone dropped out as director and Campbell took over, Hanuman worked with the production's art department sourcing local materials and props. Most recently, Hanuman has worked on Aussie feature Wish You Were Here (fka Say Nothing). It was, said Kulikar, “the biggest Southern Hemisphere shoot we have done, a complex 10-day shoot in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville with a somewhat sensitive script. The shoot included several crucial night scenes, but everything went very smoothly. Everyone involved in the production loved Cambodia, especially Director Kieran Darcy-Smith.”

Due for release by Hopscotch later this year (in Australia at least), the film features Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer, Felicity Price and Antony Starr as two couples who go on holiday together but one of them doesn't make it back. Naturally, Kulikar would be happy to see more antipodean productions heading to Cambodia to shoot, and noted some of its unique attractions. “Angkor Wat, the world's largest temple; the Bayon, one of the world's weirdest; and the perfect film set that is Ta Prohm, where nature has reclaimed the stones. “Cambodia is an up and coming location so has not been shot to death as in the case of established Asian locations such as Thailand or the Philippines. It is creating a buzz as a destination for virgin locations with unrivalled temples, pristine period locations and flexible crew.”

For the producer in your life, she also gave an overview of the economics. “It is also very affordable for film makers with one eye on the budget. Crew rates are generally a lot cheaper than in more developed destinations in the region. There aren't really any major incentives in place, but then taxes are already pretty low by western standards and there is no requirement to have official government minders in places on set. That is a relief compared with up and coming countries like Vietnam.”

Inbound productions from the UK, US and Australia/NZ make up the bulk of Hanuman's workload and income. Hanuman Films is a main vendor for the BBC in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. According to Kulikar, “That brings a lot of work ranging from the Top Gear Vietnam special through to an earlier Brother Number One for BBC Timewatch, a popular history programme. Television is probably still the main bread and butter (or rice and noodles), but commercials are a growing area and we have supported some signature shoots for Pepsi, Cisco and TUI through Radical Media of London. Films are small but growing. And each time they come around they are definitely not small, but very big in terms of organisation and focus.”

While inbound production is Hanuman's biggest earner, there is a reasonable amount of local film and TV work of which Hanuman has a small piece. After a few quiet decades, the film industry is recovering. According to Sotho, “new generation of young film-makers is emerging inspired by the success of people like French-Cambodian director Rithy Panh.” Rithy's S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine about the Tuol Sleng prison where Kerry Hamill died, picked up over a dozen awards on the international festival circuit in 2003-4 including the François Chalais Award at Cannes. A decade earlier, he was nominated for the Palme d'Or for drama Neak Sre (Rice People). With bitter irony, it addressed the issue that – barely a decade after the end of the Khmer Rouge's agrarian revolution - the country was incapable of growing enough rice to support its population.

With the obvious exception of the ongoing Khmer Rouge trials, the first of which being the focus of Brother Number One, Cambodia is looking forward and growing its economy. The film and TV industry is a very small part of that growth at present, but – as it hasn't been over-shot and remains cheap by international standards – it is growing. Sotho would naturally be happy for that to continue and for Hanuman to continue to grow with it. “Any Australian or New Zealand productions that are thinking of shooting in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam will be in safe hands.” Which, happily, is a major step forward from the experience of Kerry Hamill back in the 1970s.

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