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Returning to Boomtown Babylon with a ‘broken brain’

Lotje Sodderland.
Lotje Sodderland. Photo Supplied

Returning to Boomtown Babylon with a ‘broken brain’

Lotje Sodderland was 34 and at the pinnacle of her career as a documentary filmmaker when she had her stroke. The fault of a rare developmental malfunction of the blood vessels in her brain, it could have happened at any time. 

“At the beginning I thought … how do I survive in this new world?” she said, in a phone interview from her native London. After two days in a coma, she woke unable to see, hear, communicate or think coherently. Hallucinations swam in her peripheral vision.

Less than a year earlier, she had been on the other side of the world, in Cambodia, filming the aftermath of an eviction for a documentary called Boomtown Babylon, which screens this weekend at Meta House.

She and co-director Vincent Moon had secured funding from the National Center of Cinematography and the Moving Image to make a multi-authored, interactive web documentary about 10 rapidly developing cities.  

They chose Phnom Penh for the pilot, and in March 2011 flew out to Cambodia, where they met the former residents of Dey Krahom, who had been violently evicted from Tonle Bassac two years earlier. 

Hundreds of families were now living on the outskirts of the city in a squalid community called Peace City Two. Some had housing, others were squatting in half-finished buildings with no water or electricity.

Srey Neng.
Srey Neng. Photo Supplied

The duo gave Kodak cameras to members of the community to document their daily lives. Among them was Srey Neng, a 12-year-old girl who worked as a garbage picker. At Dey Krahom, she had been going to school – the first in her family to do so.

“To them, it was a catastrophe to be thrown out of the city and taken far from access to work and education,” said Sodderland.

After a month of filming, the directors headed back to the UK to assemble the documentary.

In the early hours of the morning, about six months later, Sodderland woke with a pain in her head, alone and paralysed in her flat.

During the early stages of recovery, she had no contact with Cambodia. “I went offline for quite a long time,” she said. Nearly two years passed before she was ready to return to the material she had shot there.                                

But the stroke had left her mind altered, a concept she explored in another film, My Beautiful Broken Brain, released in November. 

Before, Sodderland had been interested in experimental filmmaking. Now, she couldn’t bear to watch a moving image. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep afterwards because my eyes were over-stimulated,” she said.

She had to re-learn everything. “Your brain has to find new neural pathways to get the information that’s missing,” she said.

But losing her abilities compounded her desire to finish the film. “I knew how it felt to become mute, in a sense, and how important it is to be able to tell the story and express yourself,” she said. 

Both My Beautiful Broken Brain and Boomtown Babylon are stories about people who learn to endure a life that has changed irrevocably. 

“It’s a very different life,” said Sodderland. “You have to start adjusting to a new way of living and operating.”

There are things she still can’t do.

“I can think thoughts and write them down, but when I look back at them, my eyes can’t recognise the words,” she said. “So then I started using Siri [the iPhone digital assistant] to read back what I’m writing.”

She can’t watch films in the cinema. “They’re visually overwhelming – the world looks much more intense than it did before.”

And the multi-authored, interactive documentary is out for now.

“I find it complicated for my brain to do something that’s interactive and multilayered,” she said.

“I like simple stories now. I’m not afraid of saying that.”

Boomtown Babylon will screen at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, tonight (Saturday) at 7pm.


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