Four days before to receive one of the Peabody Awards in NY (21st May) for his film “who killed Chea Vichea?”, the american director Bradley Cox, speaks about the film and his passion for documentary and Asia.
Could you introduce yourself ?
I used to run restaurants in New York City (where I was born) but realized I didn’t want to be doing that for the rest of my life. So at the age of 30, I started over making movies. I transitioned from fiction to documentaries about a decade ago.
You have been living in Cambodia for almost five years. Why did you chose to live in this country for 5 years ?
Essentially, I ended up in Cambodia by mistake. I went to speak with some people about doing a documentary which turned out to be a lame idea. But while initially researching the idea, I found Cambodia to be an interesting place so I pitched an idea to the US Embassy. Before I knew it, I had a contract to make a documentary for them on the 2003 national election, an interesting event since it was only the third time ever and was still an evolving concept.
You are coming from feature film. How did you get involved and why are you interested in documentary industry?
I was living in Los Angeles and was never very fond of it. With all the fluff made in Hollywood, I became more and more attracted to documentary. I went to teach a film course in Bhutan and expected to be gone about six months. Instead, I started making documentaries and have been living in SE Asia ever since. “Cambodia: Anatomy of an election” was my first doc, in 2004.
Can you speak about your last doc film “Who Killed Chea Vichea?” ?
The movie is about the murder of a Cambodian labor leader and the two innocent men who were sentenced to twenty years in prison for the crime. I did my own investigation and came up with much different conclusions than the police.
On another level, the movie is about the corruption and impunity that is so pervasive in Cambodia. It’s a country where people of wealth and privilege can do anything they like, including robbery and murder, and those who dare to speak up are intimidated or killed. Witness the story of Chut Wutty, an outspoken environmentalist recently murdered in Cambodia.
Your first and previous film “Cambodia: Anatomy of an Election” was already about a “black face of Cambodia”. You must be in the radar of the government. How did you managed to direct the film about Chea Vichea ?
I think the project chose me more than me choosing it. I knew Chea Vichea and had interviewed him about a death threat he had received. I was also on the scene shortly after he was killed and covered all the events that came after. Stories of people being murdered is nothing new about Cambodia, but rarely are they told on film.
I made the movie so that people around the world could better understand the abuse of power by Cambodia’s elite. I also made it because with so many tragic stories, I didn’t want Vichea to ever be forgotten.
During the shooting and production, what was the major problem you faced ?
The hardest part of making the film was to get people to talk to me. Simply put, they are scared. As someone put it “If they can kill a well known and respected person like Chea Vichea, what can they do to you?”
The film took over five years to make because the story was unfolding as we were shooting it. Nobody knew when and where it would end. I originally thought the movie would take six months to make but the story kept evolving and expanding. We just had to ride the wave to the end.
The film recently won one of the Peabody Awards but the spokesman at the Cambodian government Council of Ministers, who saw the documentary last year, said the Peabody Awards were likely a “politically motivated” institution”. Your relation with the Cambodian government is not getting better ?
It’s not surprising the Cambodian government would accuse the Peabody’s of being politically biased. It’s a knee jerk reaction, always to deny. When four men threw grenades into a Sam Rainsy rally in 1997, killing 20 people and injuring over 100, the ruling part accused Sam Rainsy’s party of doing it to themselves, just to get sympathy. No denial is too ridiculous for them.
The film cannot be seen officially in the country. Do you think it will be possible in the future ? Can the Cambodian audience see it on the web or in video ?
I don’t imagine the ban will be lifted on the film anytime soon, but enforcement may become less stringent over time. Private screenings on private property might be one way around the ban. Cambodians can see the movie in their native khmer language on the internet, but Cambodia has very little internet penetration compared to other countries, so this is not as effective as it might be elsewhere.
The Khmer-language-only version is available to watch for free at http://www.vicheamovie.com/ and via YouTube and Vimeo. There’s also a downloadable disk image to make DVDs from. This version has been viewed tens of thousands of times inside Cambodia, and a similar number of times by Khmer-speakers worldwide.
International newspapers recently reported the murder of Chut Wutty. This event is very linked top your own subject. Can you explain why ?
Chut Wutty reminds me a lot of Chea Vichea. He was willing to stand up and be heard despite threats and intimidation. He refused to back down and like Vichea, paid the ultimate price. The bigger message for Cambodians is: keep your head down and your mouth shut. Many Cambodians live their entire lives this way and it’s sad. It takes very special people like Wutty and Vichea to buck the trend.
The garment industry is a hot issue in many Asian countries. Did you managed to show the film in other Asian countries ? Did the Peabody award open some gates for a better distribution in Asia ?
Cambodia is a part of Asean and one of Asean’s main tenets is for member countries not to publicly criticize each other. It has shown at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There have also been some private screenings in Malaysia but no one’s in a rush to irritate Prime Minister Hun Sen and his kleptocratic government. I think the film will be shown at the Luang Prabang Film Festival in Laos later this year.
Outside Asia, in which countries did you already show the film ?
According to my producer, Rich Garella, the movie has already been shown in 13 countries, including Cambodia (semi-public screenings, despite the ban) : Canada, France, Germany, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Qatar, South Korea, Thailand and United States.
The film is only for theater or did you edit a TV version ?
There’s only one version and it’s 55 minutes long. I would’ve liked it to be longer because it’s a big story but that’s what we were contracted to. That was the format request by Independent Television Service (ITVS), which is the co-production part of US public broadcasting. They provided almost all post-production funding and received US broadcast rights.
Do you have some TV broadcasting in the pipe ? if yes, in which countries ?
We had the chance to get hundreds of broadcasts covering most of the US, mostly in May 2011. These broadcasts were made through the National Educational Television Association (working with ITVS). (Other broadcasts are listed on the film website). the tv rights have also been sold in Poland to Cyfra+, Denmark (to DR2) and Portugal (SIC TV) but we don’t know when the broadcasts are or will be. Turkey and UK are in the pipeline and we expect others.
What was the budget of this film ? how did you financed it ?
The movie was done on a shoestring budget. For the majority of shooting, it was just myself and an interpreter. Later on, in postproduction, we received money from ITVS to film some additional scenes and finish the movie edit. So ITVS is the co-producer with Loud Mouth Films of “Who Killed Chea Vichea?”, with extra funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Which company is in charge of the international distribution ?
The distribution company is Mercury Media for worldwide sales (email@example.com). IndiePix Films distributes DVDs, download and streaming for home use. Mostly in the US but they deliver worldwide.
You were a co-founder of Bhutan’s first film school. Did you already direct a doc in or about this country ? Would you like to do it ?
I had a great time in Bhutan and made some great friends there. I’ve always wanted to go back there and shoot something, but so far nothing has materialized.
Do you have new documentary projects about/in Asia?
The thing about documentaries is that it’s almost impossible to make any money at it. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter because you feel so strongly about the material. But we all have to live and eat so now I try to mix my time between freelance work as a shooter, editor and director and the rest of the time on documentaries. There are a couple of projects I’d like to get funding on but cannot talk about them right now.
What do you think about the evolution of the Asian documentary industry? Do you have contact with local emerging independent producers in Asia and South east Asia ?
There are a lot of people like me in this part of the world, one-man-bands or small companies who have a passion to tell a particular story. And as long as you have a camera and a lot of persistence, that’s pretty much all you need. You don’t need a big budget to make a good film. And you might even win a Peabody.
In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries or docs about Asia which impressed you?
I think “Enemies of the People” by Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin is the best movie ever made about Cambodia. “The Most Secret Place on Earth” about CIA involvement in Laos is also very good.
Interview by mail on 16 May 2012.
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