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For the 3rd time in less than a year, I am off to Europe to continue filming “Forget Us Not” a documentary about the lesser known groups targeted by the Nazis during WWII. In addition to hauling an entire suitcase full of Victoria Secret and Ugg boots for my sister in law Anna in Munich, I’m also hauling my cameraman Art and my still photographer Theresa. The check in dude is looking dubiously at the amount of bags we have to check. There are a lot of them and they are all heavy. A fact I know well after having them all topple off the luggage cart one minute after I started pushing it towards the terminal. Too bad there isn’t money in my budget for a Sherpa.
In short order, we are all tromping on the 747 Boeing plane. “This is the exact type of plane that plunged into the ocean during the Air France crash” Art helpfully informs me. Theresa is wistfully looking up towards to 2nd story of the plane where we imagine the 1st class has their own bar and a personal butler named Fritz. The plane is huge and has 56 rows in the lower level. Theresa and I are in the last two seats in row 56 right next to the bathroom, which is great for small bladders but sucks for light sleepers. In order to pass the 11 hours in the air, Theresa and I play the world’s longest game of Scrabble on my Ipad. She gleefully holds the letter Q so she can spell Iraq the whole damn game waiting for a chance to double or triple word it and then discovers on her 2nd to last turn there is no using proper names in Scrabble. She’s duly upset but there is no crying in Scrabble either.
We land in Frankfurt with only 40 minutes to get from C terminal to A terminal and spend 39 of it just getting off the plane from row 56. Thankfully the connecting flight is slightly delayed and we all hustle to try and make the flight. While LAX couldn’t be bothered with any in depth security, the Germans screen you to death. We have to go through both customs and another round of x-ray to get to our gate. Art gets flagged at customs and Theresa then gets pulled from the security line. I guess I just look too sweet and non threatening. Theresa is being quizzed by a security guy as I approach and he rummages in her bag and comes up with a flask. When Theresa and I were in Poland, we kept a little flask of vodka handy for a much needed shot after long weeks in 13 concentration camps. The security guy gives Theresa a look that suggests she is trying to sneak through a little liquid contraband and she assures him it is empty. To prove her point, she uncaps it and tips it over forgetting she has some residual water inside. You know what looks just like water? Vodka.
The waitress at the beer garden in Munich where Theresa and I have just had lunch clears her plate with a baffled expression and mutters in German under her breath. Luckily, my brother Ludwig is happy to translate for the etiquette breeching foreigners. Apparently, Theresa has sweet mustard on her plate (which she was dipping her pretzel in) too close to her main course of the salad and goat cheese and the cheese and mustard had mixed together on the plate.
“Mustard and Cheese – THAT’s a first.” The waitress had observed in German before moving away to assist more Bavarian oriented customers.
Theresa and I had been enjoying a few days off from the steady stream of concentration camps and meetings. As of yesterday, we had driven over 2000 kilometers through Poland, Germany a
nd Austria aided by a temperamental GPS who seems incapable of guiding us to any hotel that does not involve obscure one way side streets and construction obstacles. In Dresden, Munich and Vienna, we had taken to simply parking the car and taking a taxi to avoid both the “Recalculating” and the swearing.
Our days as a tourist in Dresden and Munich come to an end with our arrival at Dachau and it is back to business as usual, if one can call spending time immersed in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust business as usual. More than one friend has sent me an email saying “Have a good day at Auschwitz!” and then immediately realized the contradiction this work brings. We have a good day at Dachau though there are less historical sites intact than I originally thought, so our photography is limited to a few key areas. Since I spent a week here researching just two months ago, we focus entirely on the outdoor barracks and prison areas. At Dachau, the SS manage to combine cruelty and efficiency as evidenced by a sign in the crematorium, which hosts four large brick ovens.
“In .7 kilometers, enter round about and take 2nd exit to Ulica Stanislawy Lesczynskieji”
It takes 2 GPS units, one Iphone and a lot of swearing, but Theresa and I finally make it out of the hotel parking lot in Krakow on our way to Auschwitz, the 1st concentration camp on our production trip. One GPS informs us we’ve “Left The Path”; the other keeps losing the Satellite reception. My Iphone is pleased to show me the route for $50 a minute and it promptly turns us down a one-way street with 10 other cars, where we come to a dead halt and must all back out into incoming traffic. Good times.
We’re loaded down with camera gear and high expectations. One of the purposes of visiting concentration camps in Poland, Germany and Austria is to not only retrace the footsteps of the survivors whom I am interviewing in my new documentary, but photograph each camp for the film. I also need to decide whether or not the visuals we encounter at the camp warrant bringing my entire film crew here for live footage.
Though I have been to Dachau concentration camp several times, I have never been in Auschwitz. Neither has Theresa and we both have images in our head about what we expect to see and experience. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system is arguably the most well known and although none of the survivors in my documentary were processed through this camp, it is still a vital part of this trip. The Birkenau side of the camp housed a large population of Roma/Sinti’s (popularly known as the gypsies). This group, like the Jewish people, was targeted for complete annihilation. I recently discovered in the Dachau archives during my research this summer, Nazi historical documents the spoke of a “Final Solution to the Gypsy problem.”
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.
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.
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.
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.