A MAN runs down the bridge in central Kampot at sunset as soldiers, clutching AK-47 rifles and dressed in the red and black uniforms of the Khmer Rouge, give chase, threatening to kill him. Stunned tourists and locals watch on as the sequence is repeated over and over again. After several takes, young American film director Brendan Moriarty, who has been directing the scene in fluent Khmer, calls cut. The Khmer Rouge actors, all real soldiers in the Cambodian army, smile proudly and change back into their regular uniforms. It is the end of day eight on the set of Red Khmer, an independent war-thriller conceived by the 24-year-old Los Angeles native, and it is time to hit the bar.
It is the second film that Moriarty has shot in Cambodia and his bounding enthusiasm for the process emanates from behind the camera. At the tender age of 20 he directed the $1 million-budget The Road to Freedom, a fictionalised account of the final days of photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, who went missing in 1971 and were presumably killed by the Khmer Rouge. Moriarty is now back in the country shooting the sequel, which aims to portray Cambodia immediately before and after the 1975 fall of Phnom Penh.
“This is like the acid trip after Sean and Dana die,” Moriarty says as he sips a cocktail on Kampot’s riverside after the shoot.
“People are getting raped, people are getting killed. And no one gives a f--- about life because life has no value anymore.”
The movie centers around Lim Poe, played by local actor Nhem Soukun, who served as a guide for Flynn and Stone in Freedom. Although a minor character in the first film, Moriarty decided afterward that the character was interesting and needed expanding.
“I saw that the character Lim Poe was the character that stood out the most. So this is the plot of Lim Poe. How he survived. What is his journey? What did he go through?”
The project is ambitious, with the crew planning to film napalm explosions and tanks rolling down city streets before production wraps up in mid-April. Moriarty is at pains to capture the remnants of 1970s Cambodia before development sees the authentic features disappear.
“We are capturing every little last piece of that era. You will see nothing but things from that time period. There’s not much left, and infrastructure in the next five years will change a lot.”
Moriarty spent his childhood in Cambodia in the 1990s and 2000s, when his family set up a Christian NGO that provided assistance to homeless Cambodians. In all, he spent a formative 10 years in the Kingdom dividing his time between Phnom Penh and Kampot before returning as an adult.
“My dad saw it as a very great experience for us, and it really was. On weekends or days I didn’t have school, I’d be down (in Kampot) dirt biking. It was nice and raw.”
While growing up in Cambodia, the young movie buff soaked up films, particularly ones shot locally, and captured amateur footage of the countryside. He was also a fan of swashbuckling movie legend Errol Flynn, whose son Sean was the basis for Freedom.
“I always liked [Flynn’s] dad. There was not a movie he was s---ty in.”
With a burning interest in Cambodia and the tragic fate of Flynn, the young film student, who was studying at Collins College in Arizona, decided to take on the weighty story once and for all in his first film.
“It came as an obsession - to the point where I could make a movie. It’s all about putting yourself out there, being legit and not full of s--t, doing what you say you’re going to do. The real question is how to put together a good thing that will get people excited.”
The movie premiered in September 2011 in Los Angeles to lackluster reviews from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but Moriarty says that he is just glad that people were talking about it.
“All the major newspapers had a talk about it. And they can criticise me when I’m 40. I’m only 24 years old, and for me I’m at a good speed and at a big progression.”
Moriarty does not plan to stop filming in Cambodia anytime soon. He has already contracted a writer for a screenplay about the 1975 Mayaguez incident that resulted in 15 US Marines killed as they attempted to rescue American sailors thought to be held hostage off the coast of Sihanoukville. For Moriarty, Cambodia is the place to be for a young filmmaker.
“I want to track people who want to come to Cambodia to make movies. If you do it the right way, you start in the right spot and meet up with the right people and not come across as the Lone Ranger, it’s great.”