Have had a great time with a handful of Cambodian and Kiwi composers and musicians who we are currently corralling into a sound track for Brother Number One. Initiated by Jack Body and Gillian Whitehead, good on them - one of the only collaborations to address Cambodia's painful past.
Chinary Ung teaches at UCLA while Sophy Him lives and works in Phnom Penh. A 14 year old during the Khmer Rouge years, working the rice fields, he managed in the end to do his PhD in musicology and piano in Russia, so has a pretty stunning blend of styles. We spent a morning at Stebbings getting all kinds of wonderful sounds that now have to be woven together.
The last in a series of blogs from Kevin Biggar, who trained with Rob Hamill for the Transatlantic.
On the boat ramp at Lake Karapiro we undo the straps that hold the boat in place on the trailer. Rob suggests I hop on board while he backs the last few feet into the water. “Hold on!” he shouts.
The car accelerates backwards and as the trailer hits the water he jams on the brakes and skids to a splashy halt. The untethered boat rockets off and hits the water much like the end of an amusement park log flume ride.
Rob gets out of the car and laughs at me as I sit helplessly heading backwards out into the lake. Then he looks concerned, “Hey, did you put the bungs in?” he shouts.
I scamper madly around the boat for a minute until I realise that the bungs are in. Rob is doubled over.
I get the boat back to the ramp and Rob jumps in. I put my head into the cabin to get a seat out and immediately feel a convulsion in my stomach. Could I be sea sick in the first two minutes on a flat calm lake? But back on deck and rowing I soon have other things to worry about.
In the gentle, enigmatic Zen-like manner of the Buddhist masters Rob begins instructing his new grasshopper on the subtle mysteries of the art of rowing.
“Jingos Kev, your technique is crap! You won’t beat an egg doing that. Rowing is like making love, slow it down and lengthen out!”
After some brief pointers Rob sits behind and grades each stroke into pass or fail, “Nup…nup…nup….” Then every hundred strokes or so, “That is a good one”, then “Nup… nup… nup...” until the planets swing into alignment again. I thought that I had been getting pretty competent with my rowing and so this critique is very frustrating. Finally, after visiting every corner of the lake we returned to the boat ramp, chat to the curious onlookers that gather around every time the boat is taken out, and head home.
This became the pattern for many similar trips. Sometimes on sunny days, Rob's wife Rachel would join us with their baby Finn. They would bring lunch and we would putter around the lake as if we were on the Serpentine. Sometimes if we were very unlucky Rob would burst into song. He did a fine version of Pokarekareana that could bring any amorous walrus to the surface.
The third of a series of blogs from Kevin Biggar, who trained with Rob Hamill for the Transatlantic.
Rob pulls into the Marina parking lot with the boat followed behind by another station
wagon, out of which pours a swarm of small blonde children and a bloke who introduces himself
Rob’s plan is to take the boat out into the harbour and down to where the river meets the
sea and perhaps even into the open ocean. Fresh from my Boatmaster’s course, this seems a little
risky. Even if we had checked the weather, knew the tides, had lifejackets, a working VHF, a
liferaft, flares and consulted with the Coast Guard there is still the small matter of warning signs
posted around the marina advising of the dangers of going through the heads in a small boat. I
point this out to Rob.
“Oh yeah, nah, nah she’ll be right. It’ll be great fun.”
Ian, had been with Rob in the Olympic team and is well used to Rob’s gung ho, damn the
torpedoes attitude. He jokes as we get the boat ready.
“Where’s the handle for these oars Rob? Oh f--k it no worries,” he mimicked. “What’s
this bolt doing loose here? Oh no worries come on f--k it let’s go!”
Things start out well enough as we ease out down the river. At first the rowing is very
smooth and Rob stood up Napoleon like in the footwell, issuing instructions. We are making
excellent progress towards the river mouth, in fact suspiciously good progress. The GPS told us
we were doing seven knots hardly touching the oars. There is clearly the mother of all currents
Soon we could make out the rolling, heaving, churn where the river mouth meets the
ocean. Before we arrive we are passed by a motorboat with two guys in it. They disappeared
over the top of one large wave and are lost from view for a few seconds. Suddenly they
reappeared, spat back up into the air like a bad prawn before falling into the waves.
“No worries! We can make it!” shouts Rob.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I yell.
“Biggar you’re a poof!”
“We could go out,” says Ian. “But we’ll never make it back in again,” I’m starting to like
With his crew mutinied Rob turns us around and we have some fun surfing a couple of
rollers that are pushing in up the river. Then we started rowing in earnest against the current. It is
hard, honest work, but I am enjoying putting my back into it. I glance out at the bank, there is a
small boy eating an ice-cream watching curiously as we flail away, a minute later I look again,
the boy hasn’t moved and neither have we. It is like walking up a down escalator that is getting
faster and faster. The bank is tantalisingly close but we are rowing at full racing speed just to
stay in the same position. Even to turn slightly towards the side would mean that we would be
sucked out into the huge, thumping waves on the bar.
The beads of sweat on my brow began to join together and run down into my eyes. But I
can’t stop for one stroke in case we lose precious ground, as the current is doing its best to suck
us to Australia.
The little boy’s ice-cream is finished and he is joined by his family. More people are
arriving and staring out curiously. Some are laying out blankets. They are clearly hoping for a
Ian‘s jokes have been getting fewer and he is also starting to struggle with the pace. We
can’t keep it up for much longer, soon our strength will falter and we will be sucked out into the
maelstrom. What we need to do now is close the hatches quickly - try to make the boat
watertight. Then turn the boat around, run at the bar head first, hold our breaths and hope for the
“Hang on - here comes the cavalry!” says Rob.
I look around to see a red IRB skimming down the channel towards us. It is the Raglan
coastguard. They throw us a line and tow us back to the boat ramp. There are goofy smiles all
around. My sense of relief is even large enough to overcome the embarrassment. We donate
The second of a series of blogs from Kevin Biggar, who trained with Rob Hamill for the Transatlantic.
One of the many wonderful things about Rob is that he isn’t daunted by corporate hierarchy or conventions. When trying to raise funds for the 2003 trans-Atlantic rowing race this attitude was invaluable – although it sometimes led to unexpected outcomes. (Excerpt from ‘The Oarsome Adventures of a Fat Boy Rower’)
Rob and I are still spending hours and hours each week knocking on doors and giving presentations, and calling on favours to get intros to companies. Rob is fearless, treating corporate offices as if we are visiting a friend’s bach over the summer. He would pad up to the reception desk in his sandals, ask to see the big guy, only to be informed that he is in a board meeting. “No worries, it won’t take long. Is it this door?” Opens the door to a room full of a dozen stiffly suited, startled middle aged men sitting at a large glossy table. “Gidday mate, how are you? Can we have a chat? Are you busy?”
The phone rings. It’s Rob.
“Gidday. I’ve just spoken to Mt Gay Rum. I’m trying to convince them that we should get the old Atlantic boat painted up in Mt Gay colours and have you rowing out around the harbour giving out rum samples.” “You mean like the Jagermeister Girls?”
“Except we would be the Gay Rum Boys?”
“You got it. What do you reckon?”
We get an appointment with Bell Tea, they sound very positive on the phone. Rob and I are brought into the boardroom. A few minutes later the CEO comes in, and offers us something to drink.
“Coffee thanks,” says Rob.
We have an appointment to speak to a manager at Sanitarium. I am quite excited about it because we are a good fit with the sporting image around their Weetbix brand.
Once again we find ourselves nervously waiting in a large boardroom.
“Rob, you know Sanitarium are owned and operated by the 7th Day Adventists?”
“So we should probably watch our Ps and Qs.”
One of the Sanitarium marketing team arrives. He is young, polite and conservatively dressed, and after a few moments of small talk during which some hot drinks are brought in, the presentation gets underway. I am just explaining the race when suddenly there is a loud exclamation from the other side of the table.
We both look around to see Rob pushing his chair away from the table and flailing at his crotch.
“I just spilled my coffee all over me. Bugger!”
The first of a series of blogs from Kevin Biggar, who trained with Rob Hamill for the Transatlantic.
The problem with ocean rowing with Rob Hamill is that he is absolutely fearless on the water. When preparing for the 2003 trans-Atlantic Race my rowing partner Scott and I went out for a training row with Rob down the river and out around the coast of Whakatane. All went well until we had to come back in with us rowing and Rob doing the steering. This is what happened next (from ‘The Oarsome Adventures of a Fat Boy Rower’).
When we get within sight of the bar we pulled up just short of the breaking waves. Rob came out of the cabin to assess the situation. I don’t have time to do much looking as I am transfixed by the monster swells that are looming up over the cabin. Each passing wave sucks us a few yards closer to the Death Zone and I am busy backing down the boat trying to keep the stern square on. Rob gives his assessment.
“OK we’ve got three options. We can try going through the main channel…”
“How big are the waves?”
“Ahh, looking bloody enormous. Then there’s the beach, where the waves look only slightly less bloody enormous. So it looks like the dinghy channel is our best bet.”
“It’s next to the main channel, have a look.”
I quickly glance over my shoulder as we rose up on a swell I see a narrow route to the side of the main channel flanked by double decker sized rocks which would offer some protection against the swell if we can shoot the gap without being smashed to matchsticks on their barnacle covered flanks.
“You can’t be serious!” The chute that Rob is aiming for is about as wide as the boat is long. But Rob is very confident.
“Biggar you’re a poof! It’s just a matter of timing. OK, here we go. OK row row! NO NO NO WAIT!”
A cliff of water rushes underneath us before slamming into the rocks.
“Hell! That one would have munted us!” says Rob.
The tide is coming in and so there is no staying still, the waves are lurching us one way then the other and mostly towards the rocks so Scott and I have our hands full backing out. Then a series of big swells heave us right into the area where the waves are breaking and there is much cursing and frantic oar clashing as we turn the boat around and row back to a safe point where we could all take stock. Now a big black squall is almost on us, threatening bigger waves and more wind.
As desperate as the dingy channel looks the size of the waves pounding over the bar and driving into the beach means that it is still the best shot. We carefully put the stern into the seas so that we are ready to spring forward as soon as Rob spots a break in the wave traffic. We wait. I feel sick. Scott turns around with a big grin on his face.
“See you on the beach buddy!”
Rob shouts. “ROW! ROW! ROW!” I pull as hard as I can - in the next five seconds we will either be safe or sushi. We surge forward and now have to do a nasty chicane to get through the rocks.
LEFT! LEFT! RIGHT! RIGHT! ROW! ROW! Glistening, jagged rocks slide past on either side scraping our oars. Then we are through in the calm of the channel safe from the waves. When I get my breath back I ask,
“So Rob, is this what the Atlantic was like in ‘97?”
“Nup, the waves were bigger.”
Arrived home in the early hours after an attempt to sail across the Tasman Sea last week from Sydney to Whangarei. Unfortunately, on day two the yacht started taking on water, lots of water, so diverted to Lord Howe Island and we didn't sink which was nice. It was a bit of a shame actually because it had been such a lovely trip to that point with vomit inducing seas hitting us right on the nose.
It reminded me of an interview we did for the film with Englishmen Neil and Bob, who chartered Foxy Lady with Kerry and Gail. They said the time spent with them was the best of their year-long travel adventure. However, they also mentioned that they 'fed the fish' on more than one occasion whilst sailing between ports.
So it was an expensive unplanned flight for me from Lord Howe Island but was happy to arrive home yesterday in one piece. It was lovely to see Rachel and the kids. Hugs all round. - Rob.
Late last year I had the privilege of giving a TED talk in Christchurch. I was invited by Kaila Colbin, whom I had met at a Climate Project seminar in 2009 in Melbourne.
TED (www.ted.com) stands for Technology Education Design and its strap line is ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. Presentations go for 10-20 min, are streamed live on the net and remain available for public viewing online.
Rather than speak on rowing the Atlantic, which is the norm for me, I was asked to talk about my brother's story, Cambodia and the film, Brother Number One.
I knew immediately that I would accept the invitation, but deep down I was anxious. I had given a few talks on Kerry in recent months, but they weren't going out on the web for all to see.
Whatever I delivered would need to be succinct, entertaining and have a strong message. But it would also need to be delivered without faltering. I couldn’t guarantee I would tick any of the boxes but it was the ‘without faltering’ one that I was most concerned about. In previous speeches about Kerry, I had had to take a moment to control my emotions, at some point. In particular in speaking of my parents' pain it sometimes choked me up completely, and I'd be unable to continue for a few breaths. This has proven to be a sticking point many a time in the film, as well. Whenever I found myself discussing my parents, following Annie’s questioning, it would deeply affect me.
TEDxCHCH had a line up of extraordinary people, telling unique and fascinating stories. The day was nothing short of inspiring. I was second to last and hearing the enlightened, and often hilarious speakers did nothing for my nerves.
I wanted the speech to make people consider what they would do in a similar situation to me.
When you are confronted with 200 hours of footage that need to be whittled to 90 minutes, you have to learn to “let go”...here is one such scene. We were travelling in “Khmer Rouge” territory, areas in the north east of Cambodia still sympathetic to the Pol Pot time. Former cadre now local leaders - all that kind of thing. Beautiful country, terrible past.
I wondered about this piper, how he knew Auld Lang Syne and that our mention of New Zealand triggered his knowledge of Maori...maybe from peacekeeping days? Who knows.
As a documentary maker, how do you choose your interview subjects? For a film like Brother Number One, which has to make sense of a tangled, painful and complex history, I look for a mix of subjects who have experienced this history, and those who can comment on it. Elizabeth Becker, a Washington-based journalist and historian, is both. I found her comprehensive and accessible book, When The War was Over, while researching and liked it a lot.
Reporting in Cambodia in the early 70s as a twenty-something for the Washington Post, Elizabeth was the first to name Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot) in the Western press. Then he was a shadowy figure, hiding out in the forests and gathering strength to challenge the US-backed Lon Nol, who had ousted Prince Sihanouk in a coup. Watching a beautiful land unravel and believing mass-slaughter was imminent, Elizabeth left Cambodia shortly before the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975. The country was then closed. After leaving, Elizabeth found that all she wanted to do was go back.
Eventually she did return, one of three Western journalists invited personally by Pol Pot shortly before he was toppled by the Vietnamese in 1979. Subject to a propaganda tour, Elizabeth said it was like witnessing a negative imprint; she had to report on what was no longer there. The cities, the monks, the markets, the schools, the families, all were gone. But she did get to see Pol Pot. He summoned her to his long hall, curtains billowing around him, a handsome madman who spun her his theories.
That night, her colleague Malcolm Caldwell was murdered in his bed, and the night after Vietnam invaded. Democratic Kampuchea, a regime that killed two million in less than four years was now over. “Great place for a journalist”, Elizabeth told me, “terrible place for a human being”.
An important part of Rob’s journey was to give testimony at the current war crimes tribunal. Telling stories, bearing witness, giving testimony is a method of gaining justice, seeking accountability, writing history and gaining some closure.
This is a brief introduction to six Khmer Kiwis who came to New Zealand as refugees. They graciously re-told their stories and experiences so that we could share it with you. We will be adding more in depth interviews shortly.
It is essential that important events in history be studied and any lessons learned, particularly when horrific crimes were committed, so that they are not erased from the collective memory. If such significant events are forgotten, it can appear as if they had never occurred.