It took months of trawling through the rubbish-strewn fringes of Boeung Kak lake, past makeshift squats and rubbish dumps, to find San Pattica’s mother.
Then 17 and living in an orphanage, he had never met and knew little of his father, a former UNTAC soldier from Cameroon, who had left Cambodia not long after the early 90s elections.
After a lifetime of taunts and discrimination based on the colour of his skin, he yearned to meet his father, and for a fuller sense of identity.
It was the intimate discussions Pattica had with young filmmaker Neang Kavich, who he met when both were in a Lakhaon Kaol performance (a traditional masked dance) that prompted him to dig deeper.
The pair went on a search for his mother, who had appeared sporadically throughout his childhood, primarily when looking for money for drugs, in hope of finding some answers about his father.
That search was one of many hardships Kavich captured on film after he began to document Pattica’s story in 2011. He filmed their long walks through Boeung Kak. He shot bus trips with Pattica’s fellow students at the orphanage and captured the jeers and taunts the teenager faced (“you’re black to the bone,” and “you look like a monkey”) as well as conversations with Pattica’s grandmother and his younger sister, Nana.
On Monday, the resulting documentary, <>Where I Go, will screen for the first time in Cambodia, at Phnom Penh’s Legend cinema and on Wednesday at Platinum Cineplex.
Aside from several documentaries screened during the Cambodian International Film Festival in December last year, it will be the first time a Cambodian non-fiction feature will have been screened at a mainstream cinema in the country, and the first time as a stand-alone screening. More than 300 tickets are available for $1 each, with all proceeds going to the Cambodian and International Children Friend Organization – Pattica’s orphanage.
Senior marketing executive at Legend Cinema, Socheat Koy, said it “was a big deal,” and within days of being on sale, over 100 seats had already been sold. “We expect it to sell out.”
“This is something new for us and for audiences and I think it may well open the door for more documentaries, more independent films to be screened,” he said
The long search for Pattica’s mother was packaged into a much more succinct sequence in the film, but Kavich said it was one of the most challenging aspects of the film.
“It was very affecting. We walked and walked and spoke to hundreds of people. When we tried to find her, and when we expected something from her and she did not remember, that was heartbreaking. When the puzzle didn’t fit.”
It’s powerful nonetheless – in the sequence, the filmmaker juxtaposes a whimsical soundtrack (Kak Chanthy and Julien Poulsen, of the Cambodian Space Project, sing lyrics in Khmer and English over jungle sounds) with the stark realities of life for the abjectly poor and displaced in Cambodia.
We finally meet Mao, Pattica’s mother – who, homeless and addicted to methamphetamines, is filmed with a sympathetic eye.
She explains the hardships she faces – eating leftover bowls of soup from street carts, chronic illness, self-medicating with drink and drugs – with disappointment, which the filmmaker teases out with long, drawn out shots. Pattica’s disappointment is also palpable.
“I only know Khmer wine for 10 cents a glass. Even at this price I don’t have money to drink. That’s where I’m at…” she tells her son with a sigh.
This week, surrounded by drooping plum coloured orchids and potted plants at Tonle Bassac’s lively Phsar Kapko restaurant, the polished 25-year-old Kavich said the hardship of Pattica’s life had a profound effect on his outlook.
Speaking with a blend of quiet reflection and, at times, unbridled exuberance, the filmmaker often paused mid-sentence in contemplation, before launching into another animated tale.
He talked of the issues and thematic concerns of the film - namely, the racist undercurrents rippling through Cambodian society – with a sad frustration, but said racism was something he didn’t fully comprehend before observing Pattica’s life.
“I was aware that existed, not just against people with dark skin but the Vietnamese. But I really didn’t realise the film would take on that angle. When I spent time with him I was shocked at what he endured. The taunts every day. Relentless discrimination. Those scenes on the bus really got to me, I filmed him for two weeks [on the orphanage bus trips]… I really learnt a lot [about life].”
Kavich’s mentor, Rithy Panh, said it was the connection formed between creator and subject that was an ingredient to a film’s success. He added Kavich had explored a delicate issue with sensitivity.
“His respect for Pattica is apparent. It is very important for a director to be sincere with his subject and he was, which is why I have a lot of confidence in him…I always say to young directors, ‘don’t make a film about people, make it with them’.”
He added racism was an area that troubled him, particularly in the wake of the election.
“We cannot be xenophobes. You hope that the film will also explain to other youth, older people too that this racism is not good. The colour, we have the same blood colour you know.
“Racism should never be mixed with politics. One cannot solve every problem by shouting ‘Vietnamese’ or ‘this guy is black’ or ‘this guy is big’ or he is white. I feel comforted that younger people like Kavich are conscious of this.”
Panh said the next generation of young Khmer filmmakers, from Kavich, to Davy Chou, the Cambodian-French director of Golden Slumbers, to Lida Chan, whose Red Wedding won international acclaim, excited him immensely.
“Each generation has their own reality to face.
“It is so good that they have strong opinions on their own reality. The most important thing is to listen to the next generations.”
At just 25, Kavich said it was important that he document events experienced by his generation. He remembers being a child, growing up in the White Building, the run-down former social housing project on Sothearos Boulevard.
“I think of foreigners in Cambodia at that time, the UNTAC legacy. It’s quite astounding really – this huge influx of soldiers and then aid workers and then after the election [which was the first, after the brutal Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-79] this big exit.”
“It brought everything to Cambodia – prostitution, drugs, AIDS, then the NGOs”
Pattica’s hurt and resentment of the peacekeeping operation is tangible in Where I Go:
“Since I don’t have a father [people] despise me. Not only you! I’m also angry at the UN,” he says to Mao.
“It created UNTAC but never took our future into account…me, I have black skin and [people] despise me...they insult me: “black guy, buffalo.” They forbid me from touching them. So I hate the UN.”
In October, Kavich will join Panh at the 18th Busan International Film Festival – perhaps the most prestigious film event in Asia. Panh will receive one of the region’s highest cinema honours: he has been crowned as the festival’s Asian Filmmaker of the Year. A selection of the director’s films will also be shown.
Kavich was selected as one of 24 fellows as part of the 9th Asian Film Academy – a series of workshops with the region’s best cinematographers, screenwriters and directors – from 228 applications: he’s the first Cambodian to ever take part.
It will also be Kavich’s first foray into fiction. He said he was inspired by gritty films by directors like Martin Scorsese, that explore class divisions and power struggles. He has begun a script set in the White Building.
“The distance between the middle and higher classes – there’s just no balance.”
Some of the most moving moments in Where I Go are those which turn divisions on their head.
At one point, Pattica and his sister argue and tease each other about their different fathers (Nana had met her father, a tourist from Ghana) – Pattica telling his sister they are “not blood”.
“We need to have the same dad to be brother and sister?” Nana retorts. “No, we come from the same womb.”
Pattica reflects before admitting: “But if we love each other like brother and sister then we are brother and sister.”
“It was really a pure and innocent moment,” Kavich reflected.
“They are very supportive of one another - and maybe that’s stronger than finding a father you have never met.”
Tickets for Where I Go can be reserved for $1 (with all proceeds going to CICFO) at Legend Cinema on 088 954 9857 and at Platinum Cineplex on 086 666 210.