Interviewer: Stephanie Robinson (RTR)
RTR: Rob, can you give us an update on where you are with the whole process of the tribunals, being a civil party etc – what’s going on right now with that?
Rob: Well, there’s the trial – the second trial’s currently underway – and there’s a third trial mooted for two further people, who have been named through the media but not officially by the court, and one of those individuals is a guy who features in the film, who we interview, a guy called Meas Mut. I’ve applied to be a civil party in that third trial, and in fact it’s just been announced a few weeks ago that I was the first person to be accepted as a civil party for that third trial.
But that trial probably won’t go ahead, because there’s a lot of political resistance in Cambodia to allow that to carry on, so… And that’s just a very small nutshell of an answer; I could talk a lot more about it [smiling].
RTR: I’m interested in your relationship during the film, because you have the director-subject relationship but you’re also both producers and both credited as writers, and I’m wondering how that multi-dimensional relationship worked – how those different roles worked, did you have to lay ground rules, boundaries, that sort of thing?
Annie: Well I think you always do, although they may be more sort of implicit than explicit, in a sense… It’s always a delicate and negotiated relationship; in a way there’s a lot of power exchange. I teach as well, and I say to my students that doing documentary is much harder than drama in a way, because you can always fire an actor, but you have to keep a rapport going [in documentary] and be empathetic – particularly in films like this with what a subject is going through.
Also, in post-production – although, I pretty much banned Rob from the editing room until the film was in reasonable shape, because I think to make it coherent it has to be at a certain stage. But then Rob and I worked closely on post-production; we wrote narrations together and discussed what could stay in, what could go, as we went through the refining process. And then we’ve worked together now again on the release [of the film], haven’t we really?
Rob: Yeah. Annie was very generous with her editorial, um, flexibility [laughs]. I mean, I’d sometimes make ludicrous suggestions… But she was also open to suggestions that ended up making the film, which is quite rewarding actually, the more I reflect on that. But there were some inane things as well that got dropkicked pretty quickly [laughing].
Annie: We shot over 200 hours and had about 40 hours of archive [footage], so there’s so much that’s not going to make it… I suppose every filmmaker has to get rid of a scene, even though you love the scene – it’s just not going to work for one reason or the other. So there was quite a lot of that. But Rob’s the expert also on his own story and I really respected that. If he was uncomfortable with stuff I wouldn’t let him take it out, I would at least talk about it… [smiles]
Rob: [laughing] And we know what we’re talking about [here]…!
RTR: That leads me onto my next question… How did that work, with the more emotional parts of the film – how did you have the discussion about what was appropriate to leave in, what might have been too intrusive? Did you ever have a difference of opinion on that?
Annie: We probably did [have a difference of opinion] a little bit, regarding the landing scene when Rob first arrives in Cambodia, which is an emotional scene. But it’s a powerful scene, and it’s unexpected, and I felt that that really drove home the complexity for Rob of landing in Cambodia for the first time, and the strange coincidence of it being on the anniversary [of Rob’s brother Kerry Hamill arriving in Cambodia]…
Part of what I liked about the subject matter – well, there were lots of things I liked – but the fact that Rob had never been to Cambodia, I think that gives the audience a chance to learn along with him. So I wanted to keep that kind of freshness, of arrival and experience, because that’s where the journey kicks off from there.
RTR: Rob – at what point during this whole experience, during your journey, did the idea of making a film about it occur to you and how did that come about?
Rob: So, to backtrack a few years… To the trial of Duch [one of the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, who we see in the film at the war crimes tribunal], to the announcement that it was going to happen. So when they announced the trial I was interviewed by a journalist, and the story was picked up by James Bellamy [one of the eventual producers of the film] who contacted me with the idea. So the journey began really with the idea of the documentary, in terms of going back to Cambodia.
I was always going to go back to Cambodia actually, having said that… to do something. This was just the more formalised version of it, which was much bigger than I’d ever imagined it would be. Obviously I dwelled on the project, whether I should do it or not, and that took some deliberation. Then Annie came onboard and things really started happening…
RTR: So now that the film is being screened publicly and being seen by a wider audience, being discussed – how does that help you and your family with the healing process? Do you find it helpful that more people are discussing your story and that more people are being drawn into it? Does that help at all?
Rob: I don’t know if people discussing it is going to help me particularly, or our family – I think it does for the Cambodian situation, the general situation [there]. And then [there’s] those lofty goals of trying to somehow inform and educate… so that you stop it happening again. So that discussion and that educational side is great, but from the family side – no, I don’t think it contributes in any way. Well maybe it does, I don’t know. Certainly the feedback – I mean I’m getting emails from strangers that are just incredibly moving, and actually grateful to have had the opportunity to watch the story unfold. That’s lovely, that’s a lovely part of it.
But the process in terms of going to Cambodia, making the film, revisiting all that stuff has been helpful, I think, in furthering the [healing] process. We often talk about one of the scenes, the ceremony scene – I won’t give away too much, but the scene with the pounamu necklace and that symbolism… That’s a ceremony I would never had done ten years ago, I would’ve though it was very cheesy, and yet I understand now the significance of that, and how our [Western] cultures probably don’t do death very well. Maori culture and Polynesian culture do it a lot better. So that for me has been a big benefit of doing [the film].
RTR: How much has the film been seen in Cambodia, by Cambodian communities the world over, and if it has been seen, what’s the general reception been like?
Annie: It hasn’t been seen widely. A local [Cambodian] community came when we released it in New Zealand and it was actually kind of wonderful. We had a series of performances of royal Cambodian ballet dancers beforehand, and that brought the [Cambodian] community along. Generally speaking, Cambodians tend not to go to the movies that much because often it’s too expensive. We’ve just done a Khmer version [the official language of Cambodia] that we will release on DVD, which is the preferred way that most of the [Cambodian] community watch films. We haven’t released it in Cambodia yet. There’s a lot of bootlegging that goes on so as soon as the version’s out in Auckland it’s going to make its way [to Cambodia]. But the idea is probably more to release the film [on DVD].
We’re just not sure about doing it in Cambodia at the moment. Things are reasonably tense regarding the tribunal and sometimes it’s hard to read if [Cambodia] would be the most appropriate place [to release the film], but I imagine it will go out via DVD. But the response has been very strong. We worked closely with a friend, Chakara Lim, who’s an associate producer on the film, and he just did the Khmer version, which looks beautiful with the lovely text in the subtitles. So you know, we hope… The court process has caused seismic shifts, I think, in Cambodia. It’s hard to know what the final outcomes will be, but I think it has had much more of a profound effect than people first predicted. Given that it’s still quite localised – in a lot of the rural communities presumably some people didn’t even know [the tribunal process] was going on.
But there’s been a lot of grassroots [organisations] reaching out and a lot of the communities have come to Phnom Penh [Cambodia’s capital] and been to the court. So I hope that we can accelerate that process. We don’t know in the end what [the tribunal process] will achieve, it’s certainly had its speed bumps and continues to do so, but I think the process of acknowledging the history and at least attempting some sort of justice and accountability is a start towards reconciliation, because that’s going to be a big thing that Cambodia has to come to terms with.
RTR: Is that something that either of you thought about during the making of the film? Did you have hopes that it could maybe be a part of the healing process for the Cambodian people?
Annie: Well I think it’s what Rob and his family went through that becomes something of a metaphor for the almost unimaginable suffering [of the Cambodian people], and so the intention was always not to just use Rob as a vehicle, but it does become in a sense a metaphor that perhaps Westerners can identify with more and it starts them imagining what it must have been like, and maybe by extension what other [similar] situations are like.
RTR: In terms of getting access to the people who you interview inside Cambodia, what kind of obstacles did you face? Because obviously I’m sure some people are not comfortable talking about the past, so how easy or how difficult was it to track down the people you wanted to talk to and actually gain access to them?
Annie: Well we had a really brilliant translator and line producer, Kulikar Sotho, who becomes a character in the film – she could find anyone, she was extraordinary. She was very well connected and very determined; her father died [under the regime] and her uncle ended up in Tuol Sleng too [the prison where Kerry Hamill was held and tortured]. She’s a very successful businesswoman now, but she’s never forgotten. She was determined to help Rob; her journey [was somewhat similar] to his, I think. She was very determined to address the past and find people. She was pretty extraordinary.
Rob: During the scene with the naval commander, Meas Mut [where Sotho confronts him] – he’s the guy who’s been named in this third trial – that’s a very powerful scene, because she’s kind of taking a big risk there, it’s a very dangerous part of the country. We went up into the north-west provinces to track him down, turned up unannounced and he agreed to this interview that no one had done before – and we got followed out of there.
Annie: And for Kulikar to challenge [Meas Mut], as a woman in quite a patriarchal culture – I mean, she was quite stroppy, sort of confronting him, which would not be culturally very common. So sometimes Westerners don’t quite understand that.
RTR: Was it ever frustrating for you, Rob, talking to these people whilst having to deal with the language barrier? Was it frustrating not being able to ask these questions directly to the person?
Rob: Yes. [We were] getting these really high-impact answers that would then have to be relayed back to me, and then [I’d have] to digest and come back with a response, and I think there’s one scene in there where [Meas Mut] is talking about, “Oh, it was less than a million people [who died under the regime]”. So [Sotho] hears this big discussion and then comes back and says [to me], “Oh, it was less than a million people”, and I’m thinking, “I’m not quite sure what the context of that [statement] is there.” [laughs] But yeah, she was a class act, very professional.
Annie: And I found it interesting editing, going through a translator, because of the rhythm – there’s a lot of listening, trying to read body language, there’s the delay in the response. The translator does become quite pivotal in that. And in a situation like Cambodia… You know, translation is never purely neutral word for word, but in a situation where people are bringing their histories and their anger, and their emotion and their sorrow, it was kind of an interesting triangulated relationship… It made it interesting to edit, because Rob would often be listening intently but reading the body language as much as anything.
RTR: Do you know how much the Cambodian government are aware of the film? People you’ve spoken to in the government, the authorities – do you know if they’re aware of the film? Do you know their reaction to it at all?
Annie: We don’t really, actually.
Rob: They’re aware of it. I’m sure they’re aware of it.
Annie: Yeah. It’s not something that explicitly addresses the contemporary political landscape, although of course it is addressing the court [process], and of course Cambodia is trying to open up and become a new Asian miracle economy. So, one way they are opening up actually is to filmmakers, although probably not to films like this. They’re probably more thinking of trying to attract Hollywood, et cetera. We certainly didn’t meet any obstruction, particularly…
Rob: It was surprisingly fine, actually, I have to say. I expected a little bit more, [expected] that some political figure would try to… But no we didn’t have any problems. In part, I think that was likely because of the people we got onboard helping us, like Kulikar.
Annie: Also there was quite a lot of media there, and so you sort of end up being just part of this amorphous mass of people with cameras, so I’m just not sure how much the authorities were alerted to us.
RTR: At the end of the film, we learn that Duch refuses to see you, Rob, refuses to meet with you, even though he’s said he will meet the other civil parties who’re part of the tribunal process. Do you have any idea of why that is, and is that still the same situation at the moment?
Rob: I think it was primarily – I’m speculating here, but I’m pretty sure – it was because he was still going through his appeals processes. As soon as the announcement was made of his 35-year sentence, and he appealed… I assume that even if he had said yes [to meeting me], the court would have said no. But now his appeal’s been heard… I actually think there’s a chance he may be more open to it, assuming he personally is open to it and that the court would not interfere. So I’m still going to try.
RTR: And our last question – could you both tell us what your favourite documentary is and why, and whether it’s been inspirational in this particular filmmaking process?
Annie: Gosh… I have so many because I teach a course on the history of documentary so it’s pretty hard for me to say… One film that may have been influential in how I dealt with translation is Shoah, the 9½ hour long film about the Holocaust by Claude Lanzmann, where the translator was actually a very interesting character in that process. I thought of that as a bit of a model when I was thinking about how we would deal with the language issue.
RTR: And Rob?
Rob: Man On Wire. Man On Wire… I was raving to Annie about it… some of the animations they do, I suggested trying to animate similar things [with Brother Number One] [laughs] But just the inspirational element of it, just the totally impossible… possible.
Another one actually is When We Were Kings – Muhammad Ali and his ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ against George Foreman. That’s an amazing film.