So Brother Number One is finally completed and launched which has involved moments of apprehension, relief and excitement.
I often think of documentary filmmaking as sculpture. After months of chipping away at hard rock (230 +hours of footage) an amorphous lumpy shape emerges. This is then honed and polished and honed again and begins to look like a film. The process, though it has its pleasures, is simultaneously nerve-wracking and tedious; you don’t know if you even have a film until the shape emerges and it just takes such a long time, endless hours, to discover it. Then everything accelerates all of a sudden, small changes make heaps of difference, and you, or you and your editor, having worked in relatively solitary fashion, are now joined, budget permitting, by a wave of fresh creativity - musicians, composers, graphic designers, colour graders, sound designers and mixers, online editors and so on.
Towards the end of the film, the relationship of filmmaker to subject also shifts and becomes central to the process again, as it had been in production. I usually keep subjects away from the editing room until the assemble edit is semi-coherent, as it takes considerable experience and effort to sit through 4+ hours of rough sequences. But once it is at about say two and a half, I bring the subject in and discussions begin. I am always clear that editorial responsibility has to lie with the director as there needs to be a single shaping vision. But then I welcome comment and critique and am always prepared to discuss any issues and problems. Rob has been fantastic, making thoughtful and useful suggestions that we incorporate while at the same time, after some fairly vigorous debates, accepting scenes that James Brown, the editor and I, were reluctant to change.
For once, I finished the film well in time, two weeks before its premiere screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland. We had gotten very strong reviews so ticket sales were great, in fact, our premiere was sold out – 800 seats filled and the follow up screening on the less premium time of 3.30 on a weekday afternoon also sold well. The film has an interesting composite of niche audiences: there is a general audience of course, but there are also those from the rowing community, the Cambodian community which is Auckland is sizable, people interested in human rights issues, those from the anti-Vietnam activist days, backpackers and Kiwi travellers who have visited Cambodia, Buddhists, and a range of students interested in Asia studies, history, and so on.
We decided to introduce the film with some performances, so Chakara Lim got busy corralling dancers. They were brilliant and for them, it was a great opportunity too, as performing at Sky City which has a good stage in front of a full house extended their reach beyond the community venues they are more used to performing. We surprised everyone by starting with hip-hop crew Infamous Noodles, five lovely boys who donned the “universal” garb of the dance, managed the athletic moves and finished with that lovely Cambodian gesture of hands in prayer. Then five women, performing a local variant of the Cambodian classical ballet, a Wishing Dance – poignant given that this dance, so loved and admired by the French colonials, was stamped out by the Khmer Rouge for its “decadence”. Then a Peacock Dance, a highly costumed “mating ritual” type of performance with a single pair of dancers circled each other balancing their shimmering green tails.
So a great launch and a warm response.
Then was off to Melbourne, which was also a wonderful screening, our “international premiere”. It is such a great and bustling city: whereas Auckland is really a series of villages and the “action” in often in the suburbs, Melbourne is hugely lively with fabulous restaurants reflecting its cultural mix.
Rob, and Rachel his wife and I arrived together and met Gail Colley, who had been Kerry’s girlfriend at the time of his capture. She is an important presence in the film, but had yet to see it, so I was apprehensive about how she may be affected. We were whisked off to a festival dinner which are always fun. Lots of international filmmakers always – an English funder, a Korean short filmmaker and a relatively “big-name” indie American director sitting with me. The meals are always something of a relay race, as filmmakers and their handlers are taken off for introductions, raced back for a meal, then off again for a Q and A. The restaurants learn what to do, ie constant stream of small tapas type platters as no one ever has time to eat a proper meal.
Rob and I spent the whole of Friday doing interviews – the media again were very responsive and I was impressed with the degree of homework they had done. Live radio on the ABC’s flagship show first, which is always slightly nerve-wracking, then a series of smaller stations, magazines and the Melbourne Age. Rob has found he has had several “breakthroughs” this trip, for example, being able to express aspects of his story without being overcome emotionally. He is not sure what this means, but thinks it represents some progress in the grieving process not towards “closure”, that word that doesn’t make much sense to me, but perhaps in the direction of making memory and the past more bearable to contemplate.
Again, there was pretty much a sold-out audience at the Greater Union 6, a bustling multiplex and again, a very warm and responsive audience. We had pondered whether Australians would understand some of the New Zealand references for example in Kerry’s “confession” – everyone laughed, painfully, at his suggestion that Colonel Sanders had been his CIA instructor, but the suggestion that the CIA had offices in Whangarei, Auckland, Wellington, Blenheim, Wanganui, Whakatane, Gisbourne, Taupo and Westport (which is so tiny) also caused some amusement. The sense of his courage and desire to communicate beyond that dark hole seemed to make sense still. Remarkable document.
We travel to Wellington next for another leg of the New Zealand Film Festival, so will report on that trip soon. Meanwhile submissions to the international festivals continue with some positive signs emerging here and there.