German documentary maker Marc Eberle followed Cambodian singer Srey Chanthy and Australian musican Julien Poulson around for five years – through ups and downs and all round the world - to make the doco The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock ‘n’ Roll. The result is a brilliant piece of work that’s much more than your usual music documentary, touching on Cambodia’s musical and political history and culture, cross-cultural relationships and much more. Ahead of the doco’s Cambodian premiere tomorrow, Will Jackson shot Eberle a few questions about the project.
What was your approach to making this documentary and how does it differ from normal music docos?
It is not a music documentary, but a documentary about music. Naturally it features a lot of music, but it is much more a film about Cambodia and Srey Thy’s story as well as telling the origin story of the music and the era it comes from. By telling the backstory of what happened to the singers we both understand that you can kill the singer but not the song and that these songs now have become a charged echo of the past and the beautiful voices have earned a haunting quality given the horrible deaths the artists suffered.
Moreover, I use songs not only as music, but also as a device to tell the story. In the manner of a musical, the lyrics advance the story and tell us more about Srey Thy’s inner/emotional state or how the relationship develops. In addition, we learn about her life, background and perspective through her own songs.
You were shooting for five years - interviews, live shows, rehearsals, behind the scenes. How much footage did you end up with and how difficult was that to edit it all down to an hour or so?
The crux that editor Andrea Lang and myself had to solve was, how much story and how much of the characters do we need to develop in the shortest amount of screen time and be able to pay it off at the end. Every moment captured, dissected and put back together on the timeline as a plot point had to correspond with other moments in the story further down the line, thus creating an emotional character-story trajectory over time. Four years of rushes, and roughly sixty years of history of Cambodia is a lot of ground to cover (approximately 500 hours altogether). So clearly this film is a plot driven story that requires many emotionally charged moments of telling and showing of character - all told in the best visual way possible.
It's a very "warts and all" doco. You don't seem to hold back from showing both protagonists at their best and worst. What's your relationship with them both like now?
Very early on in the shoot I talked with Srey Thy about what it meant for her to participate in a film and tell her story to the world. Unlike most women in her position she was neither shy nor scared to talk about her past as sex worker. Quite to the contrary she said that she hoped she could make a difference by telling other girls and young women out there what happened to her so that they would know and hopefully make better-informed choices than her.
Good films show you a trajectory that covers both good and bad moments. If there is no struggle there is no story. If your protagonists are not faced with any obstacles you will bore the audience to death. Anything authentic will neither be black nor white, but something in between and the different shades of grey are what make life interesting. I focused on Srey Thy, it is her story, so we learn more about her than about Julien’s spin on things. Srey Thy really likes the film and is proud about how she managed to deal with all the things she had on her plate. Julien is more reserved about it, but has never told me anything concrete that he doesn’t approve of or the reasons why. I think that both are portrayed in a fair way. Of course it is not always easy or comfortable to see yourself through someone else’s eyes and I have a lot of sympathy for both and are grateful to them that they allowed me to film them.
What projects are you working on next?
A documentary about 7 times world champion Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao and his transition into a life as a politician.