Filming in Cambodia

The following abridged article appeared in the online Screen Hub – New Zealand website last week following the world premiere in New Zealand of the brand new documentary Brother Number One, which follows the efforts of Olympic rower Rob Hamill (above) as he seeks justice for his murdered brother Kerry Hamill, one of the few foreign victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.

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 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.

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.”

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.

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