This would be a banner year for New Zealand documentary film making if the only film released were Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones’s Operation 8. I did not expect to discover a second documentary just as strong only a few months after that one’s release, but here it is:
I emailed Annie Goldson some questions about Brother Number One, which premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival on July 24.
How did you come to make this film? That’s a very broad question I realise; I’m interested in every single stage of the process. When did you first become aware of the story, when did you first think of it as a potential feature film … an origin story, is what I’m looking for.
I was approached about directing the documentary. Rob had been working with James Bellamy developing the project, but neither of them had had much experience in producing long form documentary or track records with funding agencies, and given I had had more experience raising money and managing film, I ended up becoming one of the producers as well. I had been aware of the Cambodia trials – in part because I remember seeing the Tuol Sleng photos in the early 1980s in New York, which had made a deep and lasting impression – and I was aware too that Silvia Cartwright was one of the international judges on the tribunal. But I didn’t know about the Hamill connection – that was a revelation, and the more I found out about Rob, and got to know him, the more my sense that there was a major film to be made grew. We did receive a commission from TV3, which allowed us to access funding from New Zealand on Air, which was great, and I applied to pitch the project at a documentary marketplace in Toronto called Hotdocs: which seemed to go down well, although it didn’t generate much income for the film.
While I was on that side of the globe, I hooked up with Peter Gilbert, a friend and DOP from Chicago, and filmed interviews with three historians in the US and with Hilary Holland, the sister of John Dewhirst, another of the murdered Westerners, plus a couple of Englishmen who had been charter passengers in the late 1970s shortly before the Foxy Lady was snatched. So we felt well on our way into production: however, I felt that the film would work also on the big screen so I wrote a pretty long script, 65 pages or so, which was really shaped like a drama, and submitted it the New Zealand Film Commission, and received some further funding, which was great. The University of Auckland, where I teach in the department of film, television and media studies, has also been really generous, with various research committees contributing. We travelled to Hamilton and Whakatane, Rob’s home town, and to Australia, shooting in Darwin, where Kerry left for his last Asia sail, and filmed several interviews there too, most significantly with Gail, Kerry’s girlfriend of the time. Then there was Cambodia. We filmed twice, first when Rob gave his Victim’s Statement during the trial process and again, when Comrade Duch was sentenced. During those two trips we managed to pack in many side-trips, interviews, scenes and so on.
I thought that with a documentary you essentially write the script in the editing room. What level of detail can you include in a documentary script – what makes it a script, rather than just a proposed shooting schedule?
Approaches to documentary differ depending on the style one’s using. Traditionally in an observational or cinema verite style one looks like one is “capturing reality as it unfolds”, very “present tense”, often focusing on a process unfolding, or a “day in the life of” and it is difficult to predict what might occur – and therefore they tend to be extensively written in the edit. This is why the classic direct cinema doco makers like the Maysles Brothers credited their editors as directors. Brother Number One was observational in part, particularly in the “journey sections” – we never really knew what would happen when we met certain individuals, or even who we would meet, or how Rob would cope in emotionally difficult scenes, what would happen when he went to the court to speak. He arrived 31 years to the day that his brother had first stepped foot in Cambodia and like many Kiwi families, the Hamills had dealt with the pain of their losses in a relatively repressed fashion. So for Rob to actually go to Cambodia and to appear on the world stage, to confront the pain of his family’s past was a huge thing really. But he was also learning and that was powerful because in a way we, crew and audience, learned with him.
But it was also a retrospective story with strong story beats – for example, the seizing of the boat, Rob’s presentation in the ECCC and the final verdict. Plus, there were certain individuals that I knew we wanted to meet, such as Youk Chhang who runs a vital research centre, and Rob’s lawyers Alain and Karim so we set up a lot of interviews before we went to Cambodia and Australia, the UK and the US for that matter. I was well researched so pretty much knew the territory the interviews would cover, although again in documentary there are always the details and the surprises. And I knew I wanted to work with a Cambodian translator whose personal story would become part of the film, paralleling Rob’s own. I also had to think about how I would represent the events of the past, both Kerry’s capture but also the history of the Khmer Rouge. This required a degree of scripting – not just literally of the reenactments, but also of the overarching narrative. So there was a lot of reading and prepatory work, and I did write something like a 60-page script outlining what I thought was likely to happen – and interestingly, the final film is not that dissimilar. Of course all sorts of things happened that we couldn’t have anticipated so there is also a strong observational thread too. The edit was incredily important – I think the edit in the end was about 24-30 weeks, as the story lines are actually quite complex.
Tell me a little about that editing process. One of the things I find remarkable about the film is the balance you strike between the story of the Foxy Lady and the larger story of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It would have been easy to let the larger story swamp the issue of what happened to Kerry Hamill; on the other hand, the trial scenes and Rob’s whole journey through Cambodia are so powerful they could easily have become the entirety of the film. Walking that line must have been a complex business.
There were two big issues facing me as a film-maker, call them conceptual, ethical or what you will. The first was the balance of the Western story against a backdrop of such tragic and brutal dimensions. There were always going to be allegations of Eurocentrism from some (why explore a “white” story when so many Cambodians died?) – and there were, particularly from certain sectors of the industry, although interestingly there was no breath of this from Cambodia itself. Cambodians embraced Rob as a fellow victim: Youk Chhang, the Director of DC Cam, a genocide research centre, reassured Rob about precisely this issue — as of course he had anxieties about his privilege in being selected to present testimony in court –saying that “when you’ve lost a loved one, you all suffer in the same way”. Youk lost his father, his grandparents, all of his aunts and uncles and most of his brothers and sisters. In fact, they were very appreciative that he had traveled so far and I think felt some cultural guilt that Kerry died in their country the way that he did. Also, even at the scripting stage of the film, I decided to follow the truism that “every Cambodian has a story”. That is, I wanted to explore the stories of Cambodians that were “naturally” part of the film, translators, local line producers, drivers and so on. They all had stories and some of them were extraordinary, and including them as we filmed together seemed the most seamless way of attempting to address the cultural context of the film, as well as Rob’s story. Kulikar Sotho in particular was incredible, not just a great organizer and line producer and multi-lingual, guiding us safely through various sticky situations, but a woman with a real empathy for Rob, a strong screen presence and dramatic personal story.
Another big issue was how to balance the historical context of Cambodia with the current story in the present, which relates to my point above. It seems to me that the world community was culpable in helping create the violence that engulfed Cambodia. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia was sandwiched between Vietnam (which I think did have expansionist desires for a Communist Indochina) and Thailand, which was effectively an American airbase. Vietnam was the centre of the Cold War, and the US, China, Russia all played their significant parts either through their proxies or by directly supporting sides expedient to their own interests. And of course most countries, including New Zealand, trotted after their more powerful allies. The trick in documentary it seems to me is how to provide historical context without an oversimplification of history while sustaining the narrative momentum of the personal story. In Brother Number One, the history is pretty much pared back but still vitally important – three beats really: the lead up to the Khmer Rouge, life under the Khmer Rouge, and finally its ousting by Vietnam. There was so much else I would have love to have included – I love history – but I think we needed to find a balance between the personal story and the historical background.
Rob Hamill let you film some remarkably personal moments. Can you tell me something about getting to know him? Was there much material you left out at his request?
Rob has been great to work with – and although yes, there have been difficult times emotionally it has also been fun being on the road too. We were often responding immediately to circumstances as they arose while filming of course and there were many 13 hour days in the heat. There is a culture that springs up with a documentary crew, which is generally tiny. You end up doing everything together, not just filming but eating, and gossiping and always exploring. I think the interesting thing about Rob is he is a quite a complex character: he is an elite athlete of great strength and determination; in some ways, a regular Kiwi bloke, but very committed to environmental issues, but he also remains the vulnerable adolescent whose family was destroyed when he was 14 years old. I found him very relaxed on camera, very emotionally honest and pretty much in the moment. He did have to hear some terrible things and he put himself in situations, for example at Tuol Sleng which defied imagination in many ways. Rob sought out these situations though, I certainly didn’t force him into painful dilemmas for the sake of the film and if he got too distressed my inclination is to turn the camera off.
I think his motives for going to Cambodia were reasonably mixed too: I think he wanted to find traces of his brother by meeting others – both victims and perpetrators – wanted but didn’t want to know exactly what happened to Kerry, wanted to participate somehow in bringing some kind of justice, wanted to explore the possibility of forgiveness, wanted to act on behalf of his parents – so it was a pretty mixed journey that unfolded in different directions.
When it comes to the edit, there’s always an interesting tension between a subject and a film-maker, as there is a certain haziness about authorship and ownership of the image. My rule of thumb is that I tend to hold off having a subject come into the editing room until the film is at least recognizable as a film – which takes surprisingly long, many hundreds and hundreds of hours to find the central thread. After that I pretty much say, if there are concerns or preferences, let me know and we can talk about it. I never guarantee to do what a subject says as I think editorial controls rests with the maker in the end, but I always listen and often there are good suggestions made, as was the case with Rob.
What were some of his suggestions?
As Rob was to appear on camera often during the filming process, I drafted questions beforehand and we would look at them together, plus he would add anything more that he wanted. Sometimes these were based on specific research, other times it was more uncertain what we would get in an encounter. Rob of course was going through a gamut of emotions, and with the Khmer speakers, everything was triangulated through the translator, mostly Kulikar Sotho but others too. I always keep a translator on screen as I find translation fascinating, always imperfect and never purely a neutral process. Especially somewhere like Cambodia, translator’s emotions or anger would come to the surface. (I wrote quite a long blog about this at www.brothernumberone.co.nz.) So listening and watching, sometimes impatiently, became part of the mise en scene. Peter Gilbert, our DOP, shot heaps and heaps, and is very good at what is called coverage, so the footage was a dream to edit in that way – but we must have had 200 hours in the end that needed to be edited down to 100 minutes. That quantity of material takes two or three weeks just to look at, which means a multitude of ways the edit can formulate. So most of the choices occurred in the edit. A lot of time was spent developing sequences, editing them down into mosaics that then could be moved around according to the film’s narrative shape and structure. Sometimes Rob would remember scenes that I had overlooked – “Could we try this instead of that, because I remember it as a powerful moment for me”. Rob was also quite brave, as he does become emotional in the film, but he has a kind of honesty that is readily accessible to audiences, and rarely suggested material be edited out.
You did the final edit at Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post facility, is that right? I’ve heard it’s pretty palatial. Does it live up to its rep? Can you do better work there, or is it more a case of doing what you’d have done anyway, but in more pleasant surroundings?
PRP is an amazing facilty, like an arts and crafts mansion, so very luxurious. We had done most of our tracklaying with the fabulous Dick Reid in a small garage studio in Te Atatu, so PRP was a change of scene for sure. What it has, that the garage doesn’t, is a huge theatre space, so when you spread your tracks out into a 5.1 surround sound speakers, you really get the sense of what will be like in a cinema. PRP also have great technology so could tweak Dick’s sound design, but I have to say he did a great job creatively that was greatly improved but not substantially altered.
BROTHER NUMBER ONE, NZ International Festival, July 24 and 27, Auckland SkyCity Theatre.