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Director processes ‘burden of history’ via film

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Caylee So in action as director on the set of The Harvest, set for a 2023 release. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Director processes ‘burden of history’ via film

Born to parents who had just fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and destined to see combat in the cities of modern Iraq, it was somehow fitting that Caylee So discovered film as an outlet for processing the experiences of not just herself, but her family.

She began producing short films before moving on to features. Her latest directorial work, The Harvest, will be released next year.

The producers of The Harvest were looking for a director who was Southeast Asian to tell the story of a Hmong American family, according to So.

“It was a drama, and dramas are very much in my wheelhouse. Upon meeting the producers, it was an instant match. I understood the story in a very universal and specific way. So they hired me,” So told The Post.

Although born in a Thai refugee camp – where her parents had fled for their lives – she grew up and was educated in the US, where her family became citizens.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, So registered to join the US military. She was still in high school, and did not tell her parents about her intention.

Lessons from the combat zone

Her parents were shocked when they discovered So had chosen to become a soldier. They had deliberately kept much of their experiences under the Khmer Rouge from her, as the trauma of losing more than 20 family members remained fresh in their minds.

So deployed with the US Army to Iraq on two tours, in 2005 and 2009. The country was riddled with many complexities, but she was able to find some perspective through a lens.

Iraq was a complex experience and a political minefield, said So, adding that as a soldier, what she felt was that they were in a country that saw them more as unwanted occupiers of the crumbling cities.

“We weren’t heroes. But out of my experiences from Iraq, I somehow bought myself a camera and became fascinated with documenting and writing stories. So the seeds of becoming a director began there,” she added.

In the war-zone, aside from being proud of her service for her country, So found something to entertain people and help them forget what they were going through. Sitting in a darkened room for two hours in a room full of soldiers in uniform watching a screen, she realised the power of cinema.

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So enlisted in the US army, deploying to Iraq twice. She was born in a Thai refugee camp. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“That experience sparked my interest in film and the ability to captivate people in a way that could cause them to forget their own circumstances. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew then that film would play a major part in my life,” she said.

In between her two tours, So transferred to George Mason University, trading in her business degree for an English (creative writing) degree.

After completing her second tour, So decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Film Directing at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts in California.

In 2011 she produced a feature-length script, titled The Ashes of Home, as part of her application for the programme. The film told the story of a Cambodian-American daughter who decides to steal the ashes of her deceased mother from her estranged sister, so that she can return the ashes to Cambodia.

Though the story of Hope – the daughter’s name in the film – did not apply to So’s life, there was one aspect that applied all too well. Her beloved mother had always dreamt of returning home to the Kingdom, but like so many members of the Cambodian diaspora, never got the chance.

A grieving daughter

So recounted how in 2002, when she was a 21 year-old part-time soldier pursuing a business degree at Northern Virginia Community College, she received a phone call telling her 50-year-old mother had suffered a brain aneurysm. She died a few days later.

She said her busy life meant she had not taken many photographs with her mother and rarely found the time to talk to her mother about what her life in Cambodia had been like.

“From my perspective, I was an American – my identity had no hyphenation, and I hadn’t given much consideration to my Cambodian heritage,” added So.

After her mother passed away, she began to think about things she had wondered about years ago – her mother’s Khmer name, where she had come from, when most of her relatives had been killed, what the Khmer Rouge genocide was, and why her parents barely spoke about it.

“Now that my mother was gone, I felt the weight of her sacrifices, and felt compelled to piece together her history as a way to somehow keep her alive,” she explained.

To fulfil her dream, So pursued her studies and produced stories as subjective mysteries she wanted to understand, while seeking to write her own stories into existence.

“I loved studying the art of filmmaking, but the real excitement began when I started to work on my own films,” said So.

She told The Post about her directorial debut, Testigo Illegal (2011). The short film recounts the story of an illegal immigrant who witnesses a murderous crime, but because of his illegal status, is too afraid to report what he witnessed to the police. By staying silent, he becomes wracked with guilt, and finds himself torn between serving justice and protecting his family.

That year, So was awarded the Zonta’s Women in Film grant for Most Promising Young Filmmaker, and said she finally began to believe that filmmaking was where she belonged.

So directed another short film in 2012. Rupture follows a pregnant woman in a small village in Burkina Faso. The young woman is in labour and as the film progresses, it becomes clear that this will not be an easy birth.

The idea was to explore how as children people inherit the heavy burdens of those who came before them and live in the shadows of hard losses.

Paulina (2012) was my first foray into Cambodian-American stories. In a way, I was terrified. On one hand, I wanted to give a voice to our community and our stories, most of which have remained hidden for decades,” she said.

“On the other hand, I knew I was taking a risk because Paulina broaches sensitive issues: one: gambling and addiction in the Cambodian American community, and two: the complicated relationship between Cambodian refugee parents and their US-raised Cambodian American children,” she added.

So discovered a film which documented the Cambodian musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. She realised how important had been to her parents and their generation, and how much of their cultural history was lost when the musicians were killed and recordings destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Caylee So (in orange shirt) with the crew of The Harvest. PHOTO SUPPLIED

A return to the Kingdom

“The songs and singers, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ron, and others in the film stayed with me, in my heart, and they followed me when I travelled to Cambodia to make my feature debut,” she said.

Co-directed – with Sok Visal – and co-written by So, In the Life Of Music explores love, war and a family’s relationship over three generations, depicting the lives of people whose world is inevitably transformed by the emergence of the Khmer Rouge regime.

“Of course, our stories should not be limited to the Khmer Rouge killing fields,” said So, the executive director of BeNorth Films.

Though So said that she loved being behind the scenes, she admitted that when she was in grade 7, her theatre teacher cast her as the narrator of a tiny little show about Daedalus and Icarus.

She said she thought at the time she would become an actor, but she never really enjoyed the limelight. It was not until her mid-twenties that she found out she could be something other than an actor.

“In all of my films I think the most important thing is to make the audience feel and connect with the characters experiences, even if it’s not their own. You should be brought into the world of the characters. I think if I did that, than I did my job,” she added.

So would be excited to work with other Cambodian filmmakers again, saying she is waiting to hear from local production companies, like Anti-Archive with Davy Chou, for those answers.

She said those filmmakers are doing some amazing work that is being recognised internationally and they are constantly producing content, whether it’s Cambodian or not.

“I think filmmakers in every country are trying to figure out what the recipe to getting your films produced. There’s no one answer for that. It’s a lot of pushing against barriers,” So told The Post from Long Beach, California.

She said every filmmaker will wrestle with how to get their next project made or if they are ever going to direct again.

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