Displaced Yankee Productions | 2007 | March
Archive for March 2007

Freedom

Theresa finally gets the call she has been waiting for. Her luggage has finally arrived at Phnom Penh airport and is ready to be picked up. She heads out to the airport for the third time since she has arrived, to claim it. However – she can’t actually get in it! Someone along the way has slapped on a universal TSA lock without the universal key anywhere in sight. So one pair of pliers and two dedicated airline workers later – she’s finally in possession of her tripod and underwear.
Meanwhile, we’re on the prowl for more kids to interview. I ran into another girl I had interviewed last summer who talked of her harsh life on the streets – of dead family and being raped by foreigners. Still looking worn down from life, she agrees to interview again, but when we find her she is in the company of an older, tough looking Cambodian guy in his late twenties. She tells us not only is she now married, but also she is expecting a child. The husband is not pleased she is talking to us and spends a lot of time glaring. We interview a book-selling boy first and plan on interviewing her second. As always, there is a crowd of street kids watching us the whole time. They suddenly scatter in a dozen different directions. A policeman is rapidly approaching us, yelling in Khmer. I quickly whip out my permit ready to defend our turf – but it turns out he is yelling at the kids. Apparently, along the street we are filming, the King of Cambodia is due to drive down in a few minutes and they don’t want unsightly, dirty, homeless children spoiling the picturesque scene by the national museum. We are told we can have five minutes to finish before we must push off as well. We comply, not in any mood to tick off people preparing for the king.
After a lunch, in which Art sent back every glass they brought us twice because of the presence of previous users on them, and his napkin, which was crusted with food, we break for a short while. I must go to the travel agent for what feels like the twentieth time this week to work on ticket issues. Art heads to the market to buy gifts for our kid’s families at the dump village. Megan has returned from Siem Reap and both she and Theresa are chomping at the bit to do some late evening/early night photography at the village. We arrive at CCF in order to film all the kids getting on Tuk Tuks to head back to see their families. Layseng and Hov Nygan are among them. Art sees that there is room on one of the Tuk Tuk’s to ride and film the children so he makes the decision to hop aboard. It turns out to be a good one when the Tuk Tuk is let through an intersection, but we are stopped and diverted in the other direction due to the royalty and the crowds pouring in for Election Day tomorrow. Because I only vaguely remember the way to the village, I am relieved Art is on board getting footage and not losing time as we wind our long way through the detour to the dump. When we arrive, I attempt to find our way through the dump, but we are hindered by a huge sinkhole. A young girl asks what we are doing and it turns out she knows Layseng and for a few dollars she hops in our van to show us the way. We are duly grateful, but I can’t help but be alarmed at the ease with which we lured this girl into our employ and she simply hopped into a van with five white strangers. It is a reminder it is very easy here for a child to fall victim to exploitation.
When we finally find the village, it is quite a scene. Art has a crowd of about two dozen dirty little children all around him. Apparently, he was giving out candy and the word has spread. They all spot the rest of us and come tearing over. Within minutes, we find ourselves holding hands with the kids as they parade through with us to Layseng’s house. I introduce myself to Layseng’s parents again and present them with 2 cases of noodles. We make plans to visit them tomorrow during the day to interview them and go in search of Hov Nygan’s family. Art is madly slapping flies away from his legs with his camera cap and I suspect he is regretting: 1 – his shorts and 2 – not putting Deet on. Since I’ve been wearing the toxic bug cream for a week, it’s practically leeching permanently through my skin by now and the bugs leave me alone. Perhaps Art simply tastes better. I’m not complaining. J more…

Has it already been a week since we arrived in Phnom Penh? Each time I’ve been here before, time seems to stand still. When you spend each day focusing constantly on the harsher realities of the plight of the street and garbage children, sometimes the days can seem very long and draining. It’s been a fast eight days this time around. Partly because we came here with such a specific agenda – to get certain things I need to finish the project and we’ve been working hard to meet those goals. I believe the other reason is the size of our group this time around. With so many of us here – it’s been an interesting and thought-provoking dynamic and has helped the shoot and time go more smoothly.
Yesterday was our main CCF day. We spent the entire day at CCF talking with staff and filming the kids in their new environment. It’s something else to watch Hov Nygan shouting and dashing around volleyball court with other boys – smiling, handsome, healthy – and picture him as I first saw him. Covered in flies and filthy clothing, digging through trash in Stung Meanchy.
We are present for the weekly kids and staff meeting and it’s amusing to see all 130 kids crammed into the main room downstairs laughing and cheering at the top of their lungs as Scott and the staff hand out awards for school: best student, most improved, most kind, etc. The kids really get into it as third and second place are announced and then shout and clap for the winner who receives a plaque and some spending money as a prize. After the awards, the kids line up and Scott, Fiona and Annabel dish out ice cream. It is everyone’s favorite part of the week.
Speaking of week, it’s almost been a week since Theresa last saw her luggage when she dropped it off in LAX Monday evening. She’s talked to everyone under the sun and they are fabulously helpful at passing the buck. So she treks off in the afternoon – back to the airport to try and solve the issue. After three hours standing at different counters, they tell her they still have no idea where it could be. Which is surprising, in light of the fact that while she was there inquiring, they were calling me on my cell to say they have found the bag in Hong Kong. Not the most organized airport in the world. They assure me it will be on a plane the next day. Hopefully, it will be a plane to Phnom Penh.
I’m also on my third cell phone of the trip. My first is under a ton of garbage in Stung Meanchy. The second was getting a little weird. I kept receiving phone calls for a guy named Wicked. I was told by my Cambodian fixer to simply say – “Call Wicked- I know nothing else about the situation.” Then late at night I got a text messaged saying “Mr. Man dead. Meeting HIV team to burn the body.”
I told my Cambodian fixer it was time for a different phone.
Friday evening we were treated to an amazing performance. The children put on a show on their stage on the rooftop for PEPY, an NGO that sets up bike rides though rural villages delivering school supplies. In full traditional costumes, the children performed Monkey Dance, Coconut Dance and Traditional Movement Dance. It was a proud and strutting Charam, bare-chested with make up, who performed Monkey Dance for the first time. It was beautiful and fascinating. Afterward he came dashing up and jumped up in my arms to give me a hug and make sure I was proud of him. That’s an understatement. more…

Mak Tor

This morning we interview Prey Vannak, director of the children’s rights office for the Cambodian League of Human Rights. He speaks eloquently and passionately about the issues facing the children. Sex trafficking, lack of access to health care, domestic abuse and lack of education are all serious issues that need attention and activism. He is a strong advocate and a great interview. I’m happy to have him on board.
We spend the rest of the day interviewing five street kids. Amazingly enough – things continue to come full circle when two of the girls in the group of street children were two of the kids Theresa and I took to breakfast over a year ago. They are in the photo on the web entitled “Table For Five” We also spot another young woman we interviewed last summer and make plans to talk to her again to see what is happening in her life. She doesn’t have her niece on her hip – whom she was caring for the last time we saw her and I wonder where she is. We stop off to see Yorn and Linna this morning as well, before Yorn heads to her doctor’s appointment. Linna races up to me chanting Mak Tor. Thary, my interpreter, tells me this means “second mother”. She also informs me that Yorn has told her several times she wants me to take the new baby when it is born. I tell my translator to tell her the baby’s place is with her and that she is my Cambodian family. I will make sure she is taken care off. I’m thinking it can’t be much to set her up with a roadside store with goods she can sell, like so many of the vendors I have seen. It may be a way to get her started on the road to self-sufficiency and decide to talk it over with Scott later.
I’m writing this from my favorite coffee shop – alone for the moment – my crew heads off without me to a nearby lake in the city to film a sunset. I have a meeting with Scott Neeson CCF and must miss this little venture and trust my crew to handle it on their own. My motto guy, Ian, is hanging out waiting to take me to CCF and I discover his devotion is not amorous. My sound guy informs me that the $2 I have been paying him is 100 times what I should. On one hand – man, I’m overpaying again. On the other – I have been his only customer all day long. If I only paid him .25 cents, it’s hardly enough to get a bite to eat. I can spare the two dollars.

I can tell how Cambodian I’ve become because I now think nothing of jumping on the back of a motto bike, helmet-less, to zip haphazardly through the streets of Phnom Penh to get where I am going. The side effect of riding a lot of mottos where you must cling to your driver is that you get asked out a lot. The writer in me has had a blast devising a wonderful cover story about my long and happy marriage with a large, jealous bodybuilder.
It was a bit hard getting up this morning as Art and I were up late last night meeting old friends for drinks – our soundman from last summer and Ny, our translator met us at a bar. We were all glad to see one another and catch up. Ny is now working at an orphanage and Sophy is working for BBC. Megan had a headache and decided not to join us. Much to Art’s amusement, Sophy’s girlfriend literally squealed at the TOP of her lungs when she heard Megan Follows was our narrator and was with us on the trip. Apparently, she is a huge Anne of Green Gables fan and started spouting lines from the movies.
A little levity is always needed to help clear my mind before I write about Stung Meanchy. We got an early start this morning with a 5:30 am wake up call. We were hoping to get to the dump before the sun rose too high in the sky and the heat and smell became unbearable. The last several times I have been to the dump, I have to confess we have hurried through our shots because the atmosphere was almost too much to bear.
I spent the better part of the ride warning Dennis and Megan how horrible it would be.
Next time I go – I’ll have to try the same method of anticipating the worst and winding up pleasantly surprised. Let me clarify. Certainly pleasant is never a word that goes hand and hand with Stung Meanchy. But a heavy blanket of clouds rolled in and never left. Shielded from the sun and blessed with a slight breeze – it was bearable. Without the scorching sun, the smell wasn’t as bad and the breeze kept the hundreds of flies away. Dennis and Megan totally lucked out. Dennis told me he really didn’t mind not getting the full effect. more…

Every day since we arrived it has rained every afternoon. Not the heavy downpour of monsoon season – but a healthy dose nonetheless. As it is certainly NOT suppose to raining in March here – a fact which is also baffling our Cambodian crew – it makes you wonder. Megan speculated on an early morning walk whether or not the rain would help clear the nastiness of the street. Her thought was then punctuated by a man kicking a large bloody dead mouse in our path. I guess question answered.
Cambodia is holding elections this Thursday and it has become a common site to see large trucks blaring wailing music and decorated with large portraits of candidates rolling slowing through the streets. Art is of the opinion that they rather resemble funeral processions – and having been dragged to a Cambodian funeral at 5 in the morning by Theresa the first time I was here – I kinda agree.
This morning from the window I watched street kids playing a Cambodian form of hacky sack. Yesterday I taught Charam the basics of American football. I had told him about football in an email back at Thanksgiving and sent him a picture of the ball. Of course, he thought an oval shaped ball was just the weirdest thing he’d ever seen, and like every 12 year old who sees a new toy – he immediately wanted one. So one of the most important pieces of my luggage was a youth sized football for him to play with. We have spent a few minutes each day practicing throwing and catching and it’s been an absolute ball. (After I wrote the line I realized it’s a very bad pun but it’s six in the morning and I can’t be clever till after my coffee)
This morning we are heading out to the riverfront to reinterview one of the girls I talked to last summer. I’m hoping we’ll be able to find her again after seeing her on Sunday. I wonder how things have changed for her in the last seven months. I guess it’s time to get going. Time waits for no one. more…

Always Wear Sunscreen

These things I know are true. Shoots never follow a schedule. One should ALWAYS wear sunscreen even if you think you are shooting inside. And there are 525 steps leading up to the ancient temple at Ou Doung Mountain – steep, steep, steps – in the blazing sun. Which, indecently, tends to be bad for white girls from Los Angeles.
Ou Doung Mountain is situated 45 minutes outside Phnom Penh. Originally intended as the site for the country’s capitol – it is now a minor tourist attraction for people, a little off the beaten path. My Cambodian fixer, Borom, has brought us here to scout the location as a possible place to talk to poor and abandoned children. He also entices us by telling us there is a frozen corpse of a murdered monk kept somewhat preserved there. (Though he added the fact that it was getting a little moldy in the face) I’m not sure this is a draw for climbing 525 steps, but Art is duly interested. In fact, I didn’t know we had to climb 525 steep steps in the sun. My foggy, jetlagged brain thought we were doing a quick local scouting trip to a nearby slum area and when we piled into the van and Borom announced exactly how far away we are going – I realized we’ve just committed to shooting instead of scouting.
We arrive at the ancient temple and are immediately crowded by children selling trinkets and offering to shine our shoes. Here, rather than begging, the children offer goods or services as a way of earning money. Our favorites are the children who hike up the steep climb with us fanning us the whole way with bamboo fans. Two in particular glue themselves to our side so I resolve to interview them and find out their stories.
The shy, tall 14-year-old girl is new to Ou Doung. She just started working because her mother died several months before in childbirth and she was now alone. The 12-year-old boy had lived there with his family for several years, but he worked while his parents slept in a hammock in the shade. It is something I have seen and heard over and over during my time in Cambodia. Children working to earn money for parents who refuse to do the work themselves. I know it is because they think the children are more sympathetic to the westerners, but it puts you in a tough position. You don’t want to give money because you are continuing the cycle of the parents exploiting the children. You want to give money to make sure the child has enough to eat and won’t get in trouble for not doing their job. Back and forth. Round and round. Endless cycles with no easy answer.

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Charam

Apparently what I consider early is not early at all (something I’m sure Theresa told me on previous trips when I would refuse to get up at 5am with her.) By six am there’s a large group of people dancing and doing aerobics by the river. Flailing about at the crack of dawn while looking at a polluted river certainly isn’t my idea of a good time, but to each his own.
Megan, Art and I tromp out the door to shoot footage of street kids and spend the next three hours trying to capture close up, intimate moments of their lives. There were certainly some startling ones. At one point a half naked toddler goes tearing by us waving a knife. He proceeds to use the knife to hack leaves off a tree and then stabs with it wildly into the ground. We also run into a young girl with a baby in a sling. She is literally staggering around unable to walk in a straight line. She stumbles past Megan and I and we’re fairly certainly she is high on something. She obviously knows how to work tourists with cameras as she makes her way toward Art and poses for the camera.
As we are getting ready to head back to meet the rest of the crew, we spot a little girl with two older women. The girl is about four and is also suffering from a form of dwarfism. One of the older women comes over to me and pulls out a birth certificate and a photo ID of the child. She presses it into my hands and gestures to the child and then to me. For a moment, I thought she was attempting to give me the child. I had no idea what to do, so I gave her the papers and gave the child a dollar. That was all that was expected and they headed off to find another westerner to give a heart attack to.

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Linna

21 hours after leaving, we stagger off the plane in Phnom Penh. We are immediately welcomed by the humidity and are all feeling a little punchy from lack of sleep. Art manages to get shaken down (again) by an official at customs for a few extra dollars. We load up with our luggage and walk outside to see a familiar face. Borom, my Cambodian fixer from Cadamon films is waiting for us. It’s great to see him – Cambodia has become such a part of my life that there is a sense of coming home each time I arrive.
All of us are happy to get to our hotel. Megan and I wind up with a room facing the river and it’s a great vantage point. With the rainy season over the street kids are wandering the Tonle Sap in droves again and I watch from the window as they surround the hotel guests who pull up to check in. I try to relax for a bit but it isn’t long before I feel the need to walk around and get my bearings. So, Megan straps on her camera and we set off for a short walk before our two o’clock production meeting. Art, no surprise, is getting a snack next door and the three of us set off. I try to act nonchalant, but have a destination in mind. The street corner by the National Museum where Charam, his mother and his sister all lived. The need to make sure they are there is overwhelming and when we get to the street corner and find them all gone I am more than disappointed. I know I will find Charam at the CCF but I wonder what has happened to Linna and his mom. Did they move on to somewhere else? There is no way to answer the question now, so Art and I initiate Megan by walking her through one of the small open markets. There’s nothing like the smell of meat in the sun or the sight of decrypted looking chickens listlessly twitching on the ground to get into the feel of things. At 2 o’clock we meet up with Borom and our two new crewmembers for a meeting. Our new sound man, Thoeun, and our new translator, Thary. Borom tells me that Ny, my translator from the last shoot, has gone to work for an NGO that works with orphans.
Once the meeting is over it’s time to head over to CCF. Dennis is chomping at the bit to meet Bunlong and I’m anxious to see my “kids” as well. The four of us pile in a Tuk Tuk. Sadly, the driver I have used each time I’ve been here before, Vantha, is nowhere to be found. Megan and Dennis are a little wide eyed as we careen down the street with moto bikes and cars zipping and weaving around us with little regard to traffic rules. It is, Megan notes, organized chaos.

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Off to Cambodia

It’s hard to fathom that it has been over two years since Small Voices began as an off the cuff pitch at the premiere of Hotel Rwanda. It has been a challenging, rewarding and humbling journey. On the verge of the final production shoot – I’m a few hours away from leaving for the airport and I’m frantically throwing away food from my refrigerator. Last trip I can home to a REALLY unpleasant welcome and possibility two or three new kinds of penicillin breeding in my leftovers.
I admit some of this is nervous energy. I am anxious to get back to Cambodia and see the children and how they are faring in the seven months since we left them. Is Nygan’s family managing without his income at the dump? Who is caring for Charam’s 4 year old sister now that he off the street and in school? Is he still in school? Are the familiar faces of the street children who “adopted” Theresa and I on the very first trip still haunting their spots on the Tonle Sap riverfront? Is the forlorn young woman caring for her infant niece still surviving day to day or has she disappeared – simply becoming a statistic in the minds of the strangers who pass her by. They are questions I both anticipate and dread.
Later…..

We get to the airport. And in plenty of time. I’ve received a never ending supply of phone calls and emails advising me to make sure I’ve got the flight schedule correct this go around. And to help me make sure I know where the hell I am going – I’ve got a regular entourage with me this go round. Art, my cameraman, is of course present and accounted for. (And currently fast asleep in the tiny seats the website for China Air colorfully termed ‘cozy’) But we are also joined by my friend and Small Voices narrator, Canadian actress Megan Follows. Megan is no stranger to humanitarian based projects. She has traveled to Rwanda and Tanzania as spokeswoman and photographer for World Vision. My dear friend Dennis is also along for the ride – literally and figuratively. Dennis avidly followed the blogs on previous trips and decided he wanted to become a sponsor to one of the kids at CCF. He is traveling to Cambodia to meet his adopted “son”, Bunlong, in person.

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