September 13th, 2011 11:58 EST
Judyth Piazza interviews Cambodian Filmmaker Daron Ker on The American Perspective
"The only way for me to connect to the world was to become a filmmaker," says Daron Ker. "And the only thing I can do is keep making movies." With his first two films earning praise from audiences, at first blush Ker might resemble any number of promising new filmmakers. He carries a film school degree and a deep respect for the films of Kubrick, Scorsese, and Coppola, and cares more about good storytelling than fame and fortune.
But a closer look reveals that Ker is anything but ordinary. First, there`s the subject matter of his two films, as different on the surface as one might imagine. "Rice Field of Dreams" documents the attempts of a Cambodian refugee with an Alabama accent named Joe Cook who returns to his country to establish a competitive baseball program, while "I Ride" introduces audience to the Fryed Brothers Band, a rock group that plays almost exclusively for motorcycle clubs and rallies, living a nomadic life on the road.
Both films continue to fascinate audiences and critics, and will be released this fall through FilmBuff/Cinetic Media. Then there`s Ker himself, a Cambodian-American who as a child was interned with his family during Pol Pot`s reign of terror in the 1970s (the basis for the Oscar-winning film "The Killing Fields"). It was there that Ker was first exposed to great filmmaking - he remembers Kubrick`s "Spartacus" being projected onto a white sheet to entertain the imprisoned refugees, and although he didn`t speak the language, the film`s powerful visuals made a deep impression on him. His family eventually emigrated to Southern California.
Like many young Cambodians, Ker`s possibilities in America were limited - many young Cambodian men wind up in gangs or behind bars. But the magic of moviemaking and storytelling, combined with his own unique experience, led Ker to find a different path.
After working for a time as a messenger in and around Hollywood, Ker took the plunge and moved to San Francisco to attend film school at the Academy of Art. In a vibrant, multicultural landscape, Ker soaked up his instruction like a sponge. "They taught me to do everything - cinematography, narrative, editing, documentary. I became fully aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and I particularly learned that you get the best results when you work with the best people." Ker chose Joe Cook and the Cambodian baseball team as his first project.
With limited resources, he returned to his homeland for the first time in three decades, resulting in a film that is as much about a shattered land trying to find hope as it is about the Great American Pastime. "When I went back over there, it broke my heart, seeing all those kids," Ker remembers. "I thought, if I don`t step in, I don`t know who is next in line to do it. I wanted to take the audience with me and show Americans what Cambodians are like and what they went through. You`ve got to know what your roots are." "I Ride" came about as the result of a trip to Sturgis, South Dakota, to location scout for a project that never materialized.
Visiting during the annual biker rally, Ker was initially nervous about being in the midst of tens of thousands of bikers, outsiders rough-hewn by their years of living on the road - "They`re like a bunch of Vikings," he observes. It`s not usually easy for non-bikers to be invited into that culture, but the quiet and persistent Ker became a welcome exception. "No one would talk to me for a couple of days but then they started talking to me and saying, `Hey, Cameraman, come over and film this.` Then the Fryed brothers asked me to come to a show, and they told the story about their theme song, `I Ride` - and I realized that this is the story of an original American family."
Nearly five years and thousands of road miles later, Ker fashioned the film into a lively and unpredictable exploration of biker culture. With cameos by Willie Nelson, Oakland Hells Angels founder Sonny Barger, Doobie Brothers vocalist/guitarist Pat Simmons, and hilarious and poignant tales from the Fryed Brothers themselves, "I Ride" offers a rare glimpse into the traditions and strong family bonds that make up this unique slice of Americana. "Once I started showing the films around, I realize that I had a real gift for telling stories," says Ker. "At the same time, I know I still have a lot to learn."
Ker has intensely studied the handful of films made in Cambodia over the past few decades - films that often depict ancient cultural myths, about a child who turns into a crocodile, or a boy with snakes in his hair - and he sees himself as a bridge between those mythological stories and the powerful potential of American-style movies.
"The next generation of filmmakers is coming, not just from Hollywood and New York, but from around the world," says Ker, citing the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" and the stateside success of films and filmmakers from Mexico, Italy, New Zealand, India, China, and Korea. "This is a perfect opportunity for me as a filmmaker. I want to introduce Cambodia to the rest of the world, and give back to my culture by helping establish a modern Cambodian cinema."
"At the same time," Ker concedes. "There are a lot of stories out there - I want my stories to be universal, and not just be known as the Cambodian director. I gravitate towards stories that speak to more than one audience, and I think that`s what makes my films unique and how I see things a little differently." Likewise, though is first two films are non-fiction, Ker bristles at being considered a strict documentarian. "I think to be a good filmmaker, you`ve got to do a couple of documentaries, you`ve got to understand life. But I consider my films more storytelling than documentary - I live in San Francisco, and the filmmakers there tell me my films aren`t `documentary enough!` I know now with those two films under my belt that I`m not afraid to shoot a narrative, not afraid to get really intimate with my characters, in the same way that can happen in a documentary."
Indeed, the most poignant moments in "Rice Field of Dreams" and "I Ride" are the moments where Ker`s subjects open up in seemingly off-hand recollections: Joe Cook`s barely suppressed rage as he recalls his treatment in the internment camp as he tries to motivate his young Cambodian players, or the Fryed brothers` recollection of their late brother who inspired them to become musicians.
While he is busy promoting his two finished projects, Ker is preparing for his first narrative feature, "Holiday in Cambodia," about a Cambodian immigrant who gets deported for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and because he isn`t an American citizen. There, he has the opportunity to make a better life for himself and connect to his roots.
Like his previous films, it will be about a clash of cultures, a delicately nuanced view of a people presented from the unique perspective of an outsider. Although in the early stages of development, Ker has already recruited veteran Emmy-nominated cinematographer Hiro Narita ("The Rocketeer," "Star Trek VI," "Never Cry Wolf") to shoot the film, and hopes that local production will help kickstart the nation`s film industry. Cambodia just opened up the country`s first multiplex cinema, and Ker envisions his films premiering there in the near future.
"It`s almost a non-fiction story about myself," admits Ker. "Here I am, an American Cambodian - my family is multi-cultural. But until I returned to Cambodia, I still felt lost. I realize now that I`m not lost anymore - and that`s why my work is different." Having grown up between two cultures, Ker now uses that space in between to tell powerful stories, a reflection of his own journey and the universal desire to be understood, accepted, and embraced.
Water Buffalo Pictures website is www.waterbuffalopics.com/