Documentary filmmakers seem to thrive on the element of surprise. Many have chosen a field where the outcome of their projects is largely dependent on variables that are outside their control. Most times, the means doesn’t always guarantee an end, and for that matter, the end is seldom clearly seen. This penchant for “expecting the unexpected” requires that we think fast on our feet and demands that we live in the moment. Nowhere is this truer than in my recent trip to Cambodia – a country I’ve never traveled to, much less filmed in before.
In January 2011, my crew and I traveled to Phnom Penh and Battambang to shoot a documentary on the emergence of contemporary arts in Cambodia. After a total of 25 hours of travel time including flight and layover, my cinematographer, Amanda Clifford, and I finally arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport. After waiting for my sound guy, Mason Thorne, to arrive from a separate flight, we finally passed through Immigration without a hitch thanks to the help of my cousin’s friend, an immigration officer who agreed to accompany us on his day off. Then we gathered our equipment and luggage (sans my cinematographer’s luggage which we found out later was left behind on a tarmac somewhere in Seattle) and headed toward two customs officers.
As we walked toward the last checkpoint in what seemed like a pretty seamless process so far, I crossed my fingers and hoped that they didn’t ask for a carnet. You see, after some research and advice, I took the risk of not taking a carnet with me to Cambodia. You might ask, “What is a carnet” (pronounced car-nay)? Well, a carnet is simply a legal document that lists all your equipment and gear and certifies that you entered the country with your said equipment and gear as temporary imports. Ultimately, it protects you from paying duties.
I was operating on a tight budget, and I didn’t want to pay for duty taxes that could cost me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Worse, I was told that they could take away my equipment if I didn’t have a carnet. There is a list of countries that require carnets, and fortunately, Cambodia is not one of them. However, the amount of equipment and type of project (whether it’s a small independent project vs. a big Hollywood feature) could determine whether or not you should apply for a temporary import license through the film commission or other governing body that issues them and in this case, Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture. Carrying a pelican case holding the HVX 200, tripod hard case, duffel bag full of camera gear, pelican case for sound gear, and boom pole also ensured that we looked innocent enough to be students and not “professionals”.
Keeping my crew small and camera gear light also allowed us to pick up and go as needed. According to my friend Ratha Lim (who was also my “fixer” - something that I’ll go into more detail later), the processing of a temporary import license normally takes three weeks, and the fee for one is more expensive than actually renting equipment in Cambodia. These were reasons enough for me to take my chances and forego the carnet. Luckily, my cousin’s husband knew the two customs officers at the checkpoint, and with a smile and a wink, we passed through Cambodia’s customs without any problem.
I finally relaxed knowing that we could keep our equipment and gear, thus allowing for the production to go on. Although Cambodia doesn’t require a carnet, I will caution that the U.S. does. In coming home and flying into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, we were asked by U.S. customs to provide a carnet. This could’ve been my moment of panic, but we explained that we were film students, and said, “Here, we have the proof to show it – our equipment list from Columbia College!” and after a few questions of interrogation; “Where did the equipment come from? Where did you travel to? Where did you buy the equipment?” the “doc gods” came through and U.S. customs let us pass. I plan on shooting abroad again, and when that time comes, I will definitely have a carnet for the return trip home to the U.S., not just to avoid paying duties, but to also avoid the menacing stares of U.S. customs officers.
The invaluable lessons learned from this doc shoot in Cambodia did not stop with the carnet. Throughout the course of our trip, I also learned the asset of having a reliable fixer, someone who’s your inside person into the community you’re shooting your doc on; someone who can translate/interpret for you; or someone who has connections and can gain you easy access to people and events. I witnessed the advantage of having fixers when we first encountered the Cambodian immigration and customs officers. My relatives were essentially my fixers in that situation because their connections to immigration and customs saved us time and money. From that moment on, I knew they would be our saving grace in times of trouble in a foreign country. In short, rely on your fixers and treat them like gold.
As I mentioned earlier, my fixer and now friend Ratha, was helpful in pre-production (visiting the Cambodian Film Commission office and waiting for several hours to get answers on the import license) as well as during production. I met Ratha through my main subject, Linda Saphan, an artist who helped to cultivate the contemporary arts communities in Cambodia. Linda was in many ways also a fixer in that she referred me to people that would help me once I landed in Cambodia. Ratha has worked as an interpreter and translator for other productions such as Lara Croft: Tombraider. She runs a website called ladypenh.com that lists upcoming social events in the city of Phnom Penh so she’s well aware of whom to talk to and where the art galleries are located. Aside from the aspects of production, we also needed help on where to shop and where to eat. On our days off, we often went to the market to shop for souvenirs. Ratha was able to haggle for us in Khmer (Cambodia’s native language), helping us to avoid overpaying for things that are normally jacked up in price for Westerners. She also knew the best places to eat, in terms of price and quality. And for days that my crew missed eating Western food, she pointed us to places that would satiate their appetites, usually a French restaurant or a pizzeria (YES! There are pizzerias in Cambodia along with Kentucky Fried Chicken).
Unforeseen events will happen and more than likely, it’s your fixer that will know someone or some place that will get you out of a bind. When we needed lights, Ratha came through by making numerous phone calls to find out where we could rent lights. Eventually, we ended up borrowing lights from Ratha’s friend – all for FREE. Aside from lights, we also needed blue gels. After Ratha made several phone calls, and a couple hours of driving around town, she found a local production studio to lend us their gels – again, all for FREE. Unplanned events will also ask for you to be flexible and problem solve in creative ways. There was an incident where on the day of her interview, my subject called to reschedule for another day. Not sure what to do next, I decided to spend the day searching for art galleries to shoot b-roll. Towards the early evening, we stumbled upon one gallery opening at Equinox bar where they were setting up an art exhibition, showcasing the works of students from an art school called Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, located 181 miles outside of Phnom Penh. What were the chances that these students came from the art school that we would be visiting in the days ahead? At Equinox, we were able to shoot scenes and get vox pop from art patrons and the artists themselves – all of which was useful to our doc. Talk about synergy at work!!! We seized the moment and treated the day as an adventure.
Being ever present to the sights and sounds around us, we came upon people who opened their hearts and their worlds to us, and we were the better for them. In the pre-production stage, we do our best to plan for foreseeable problems but we’re usually left, as we go along, collecting what feels like pieces to a puzzle. The prospect of dealing with potential challenges on a shoot can either lead to an anxiety attack, or it can lead to a place of serenity, trusting that you’ve done your prep work, and the rest is left up to the “doc gods”. In learning to let go in the moment, you’re also allowing events to work in your favor. All of this, tempered with the knowledge that lessons learned from one project will help you with the next project – wherever it may be.
For more info on carnets (application, cost, processing time, etc.): http://www.uscib.org/index.asp?documentID=1843
Cambodia Film Commission: http://www.cambodia-cfc.org
Information on local events in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: http://www.ladypenh.com/