SCRIPT DEVELOPMENT FOR TV DRAMA & FILM
INDIE TRAINING FUND COURSES, LONDON
One day Story, Ideas & Character Masterclass Nov 24th http://www.indietrainingfund.com/courses/narrative/?event=6159
You may remember a few weeks ago, I wrote about my experiences working for a week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
I’m very grateful to writer / producer IAN MASTERS for his fascinating, thoughtful response, based on extensive personal experience of life and film-making in Cambodia –
‘For anyone who has visited the Kingdom of Cambodia it’s very clear that the Khmer Rouge still casts a shadow over this country. Whether that’s through the presence of the memorials and museums, the long-running Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the Khmer Rouge past of many of the politicians, or more intangibly in the inter-generational transmission of mental health issues, you can’t go a day in Cambodia without some exposure to the devastating period between 1975 and 1979. It is truly overwhelming for any outsider to comprehend. But working in Cambodia with young filmmakers was a fascinating (and often humbling) way for me to see how this traumatic past was creatively inspiring the next generation.
It’s worth remembering that Cambodia had a thriving film industry in the 1960s and early 1970s (which became the subject of my first feature project there, The Last Reel) But filmmakers were singled out for “re-education” by the Khmer Rouge, and of the 300 or so films produced before the regime only around 30 survive. As Cambodia’s fledgling film industry begins to recover, how to (and whether to) tell stories from that period is a constant source of discussion.
There are many who think that Cambodia should be presenting itself to the world as having moved on. Others that the Khmer Rouge obsession prevents stories from being told that reflect or question a contemporary reality. Davy Chou’s Diamond Island revolves around youngsters in the thriving construction sector and screened in Cannes in 2016. Certainly it seems that audiences (mainly young urban middle-class) want films which reflect their contemporary lives and desires not the horrors endured by their parents and grandparents. The mainstay of Khmer filmmaking is horror and ghost comedies like much of South East Asia. Meanwhile others like Rithy Panh go back to the period regularly with The Missing Picture being nominated for the Best Foreign Language film.
In some ways, documentaries have been able to navigate this period better. Camp 32, Enemies of the People, Brother Number One have documented survivors’ relationships to this dark past and how it still impacts their present. But it’s in drama that films about the Khmer Rouge struggle, particularly with new directors, many of whom were born after the Paris Peace Accords. Most are survivor stories – starting from the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge, survival in the labour camps, escape to the camps in Thailand, and some kind of coda – either refugee resettlement to the US, or return to their forever changed homeland.
Angelina Jolie-Pitt has recently directed First They Killed My Father based on a survivor testimony. Chhay Bora’s film, Lost Loves, is the story of the director’s mother-in-law and her survival under the Pol Pot regime. Meticulously researched and presented, historical truth is paramount. Testimonies from his family inform the film. Historical details and incidents are recorded and presented in a chronology. Memorialising, recording, chronicling are all invaluable in their own right. And the therapeutic process of re-visiting and working through trauma has tangible benefits.
But is it enough in a drama to depict a horrific past? Is there a danger that stories become “trauma porn” – a kind of sickening, heart-melting dive into the abyss with graphic details providing the emotional response in the absence of character-based drama? Easy enough to say from the outside, but what makes drama different? Part of the difficulty is that often the stories are personal. Through personal experience or a family connection, a director starts to investigate the monolithic darkness of the era, but then becomes overwhelmed by the scale and horror. Somehow it doesn’t feel enough to find a singular personal interpretation.
For me it’s about point of view – the “why” of the story. All too often the “why” becomes overwhelmed by the “how, when and where.” Handling such a personal, but also collectively experienced subject, in my view, requires the director to try to make sense of it through a character’s journey for the audience. How does the character change? What do they learn? That doesn’t have to be true to everyone (how can it be?). Neither does it have to be deep, metaphysical or controversial. But it has to be there. In that one journey, dramatised through an individual rather than collective truth, directors may begin to interpret events and rise above historical chronicle or bewildered incomprehension. Otherwise the very real worry is that the film contributes to the mythologising of an era, concretising the times into a monolothic truth which is above challenge or interpretation, which is fixed in the past.
There is of course an additional element here. The detail comes from the victim’s story, not the perpetrators. Depicting the perpetrators from the perspective of the victims doesn’t often provide the same degree of characterisation for the Khmer Rouge cadres (with notable exceptions in some of the recent documentaries). They are all part of the killing machine without voice or personality. The story that really attempts to address the question of “why” perhaps needs to find a voice for the perpetrators as well as the victims.
To a certain extent this is still political. Bearing in mind that many in the current administration were early members of the Khmer Rouge, presenting the past as a single hermetic evil plays into the ruling political narrative – whatever the current political failings, it is better than the horrors of before. When you start scratching this surface, some interesting details emerge. Like for example, how the government leased “The Killing Fields” to a Japanese company to manage as a tourist site for profit. Or why there has been so much political interference in the Khmer Rouge tribunals.
But are Cambodians ready to take an alternative view to the survivor narrative? Are they ready to write stories from the side of the Khmer Rouge in drama, in the same way that a few documentarians have tried? I talked to the director of The Last Reel, Kulikar Sotho, herself a child surivor of the Killing Fields, about whether she could imagine a story from the Khmer Rouge point of view or whether there could ever be stories which highlighted isolated acts of goodness from the Khmer Rouge. She said it was too early.
But that is changing with the new generation of writers and directors. Encouraging them to delve into “why” they want to tell their stories has allowed them to explore their relationship to the past and that of their parents. In Down This Road, a BBC Media Action youth focused, mini-series, three young women pay tribute to their beloved grandfather and musical mentor by taking his ashes to the coast. But along the journey discover this kind old man had a secret – he had joined the Khmer Rouge as a young man, out of nationalist duty and a sense of social injustice. In a half finished journal, in which he tries to explain his actions, he reveals that he’d hidden valuable items in a cave. The revelation of his Khmer Rouge past makes them question his character, but it also threatens the friendship as each of them feels they have a greater right to his “treasure” than the other. Finally they discover deep in the caves that the treasure is a cache of vinyl records saved from destruction by the Khmer Rouge, and a friendship – he’d helped a family hiding in the caves at great personal risk. For the young writers of the series, the Khmer Rouge period was an opportunity for story, not purely as a testament or record to the survivors.
When I hear people say, “audiences have had enough of Khmer Rouge stories,” I’m conflicted about it. I think what they mean is that audiences have had enough of reconstructed survivor testimonies. But writers and directors are beginning to mine the period for alternatives to the survivor narrative to find a different kind of emotional or psychological truth. In that you can see a new generation really interrogating their past, asking difficult questions and finding a creative way to make some kind of sense of it for audiences today. In one story, two siblings hide in Phnom Penh when it is evacuated and survive in the ghost town. It’s fiction, inspired by collective testimony of the evacuation, and then drawn out to explore the relationship between the privileged siblings and their mental change from desperate survivalists to bitter fighters. Have they become too similar to their oppressors? There’s a psychological horror in the pipeline which has its origin in the Khmer Rouge Period. A noir thriller set during the last days before Phnom Penh was overrun by the Khmer Rouge.
One thing is for sure; Cambodia is constantly in the process of reinvention and its relationship to its past provides a rich backdrop for characters with secrets, a fertile ground for writers. It’s great to see a new generation find their feet with short films whether they are inflected by the legacy of the Khmer Rouge or not. There’s A Fistful of Pebbles (experimenting with Spaghetti Westerns – re-imagined as noodle easterns), Rice (a story told from the perspective of children in a Khmer Rouge labour camp), The Scavenger (a social realist story set on the vast dump site) and Three Wheels (about the break-up of a forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge some thirty years earlier). And many many more.
The renaissance of Cambodian visual storytelling is gathering momentum and it was a great privilege for me to have played a small part in it.’
Ian completed his Masters degree from Bournemouth University in Screenwriting in 2009 after which he continued to develop his own feature projects as well as working as lead writer for BBC Media Action in Cambodia, Bangladesh and South Sudan on TV and radio dramas. In 2014 he wrote and produced The Last Reel with Kulikar Sotho, and ran a scriptlab through Rithy Panh’s Bophana Centre. After a stint in Uganda where he taught at the fledgling Kampala Film School, he now lives and works in Nairobi.
The Last Reel (2014) Dir. Kulikar Sotho
The Missing Picture (2013) Dir. Rithy Panh
Diamond Island (2016) Dir. Davy Chou
Lost Loves (2010) Dir. Chhay Bora
Enemies of the People (2009) Dir. Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath
Brother Number One (2011) Dir. Annie Goldson
First They Killed My Father (2017?) Dir. Angelina Jolie-Pitt
Thank you very much, Ian.
Until next week
All the best
Oct 14th 2016