Am packed and ready to attend Hotdocs to pitch Brother Number One before a powerful and discerning group of funders. It all takes place in a kind of cloister at the University of Toronto – thousands of other documentary producers attend, either sitting in the bleachers or hanging from rafters it seems.
Hotdocs for me is one of the finest documentary events in the world and this is a great, albeit a bit scary opportunity. We have gotten generous support from TV3 and New Zealand on Air and some fabulous private investors, but the project is ambitious. The reality is that the war crimes tribunal currently underway in Phnom Penh sends prices sky-rocketing so we need to eke out our dollars to make sure they last the distance. James Bellamy and Rob Hamill, the originating producers have been toiling away on research and fundraising tirelessly for two years now—and thanks to their efforts, it seems now the film is on a roll.
Somehow Hotdocs—as both a festival and a marketplace—manages to be big and professional but still very personal. It was where I premiered Punitive Damage in 2000, which was to be a significant film for me, my first cinema release and a film that received a lot of critical and some commercial success. Punitive Damage followed New Zealander Helen Todd who sued an Indonesian general after her son Kamal was shot and killed in the Dili massacre in 1991.
By chance, the film was released as huge changes unfolded in Asia and East Timor – the run up to the referendum on independence (thousands of Timorese were intimidated and subjected to violence, interrogation and disappeared, the trashing of Timor by departing Indonesian military), and the nation’s final independence. I was back the following year to Hotdocs to pitch Georgie Girl, my next film, which showed in the festival two years later – then last year, An Island Calling screened and this year, I will be back again with Brother Number One. So Hotdocs and I, I have to say, have a history - and it will be great to catch up with a documentary community whose spirit and determination I treasure.
In many ways, this new film replicates some of the horrendous background elements of Punitive Damage – Cambodia, like Timor, was caught in the crossfire of Cold War politics, with Kissinger playing a bit part behind the scenes. Cambodia and Timor lost almost a third of their population through execution and starvation, Timor to the Indonesian occupiers, who were funded by the US and Britain, Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, funded by China but some would argue, given impetus after the US bombed Cambodia and sent thousands of angry peasants into the arms of the ideologues.
Both films too deal with attempts at finding justice. New Zealanders who unwittingly found themselves drawn into the tragedies—whose determination speaks of an attempt to ameliorate some of their own grief and pain, but also a willingness to speak for local populations whose suffering was almost unimaginable.
After Hotdocs, I will commence filming – first in the US with three historians, Elizabeth Becker, Ben Kiernan and Peter Maguire, and then in the UK – with friends and family of John Dewhirst, the young Englishman tortured and murdered alongside Kerry Hamill. Rob is coming too, and will meet John’s sister Hilary for the first time. I know it will be very emotional for all of us...