I recently visited with Kathryn Lejeune, Director of YEAR 33, who shared some of her experiences during production in Cambodia and revealed some of what’s in store for the future of Sueño and The SELPAK.
Q: What about Cambodia made you drawn to it so powerfully?
KL: While in Thailand a few years ago, I traded travel stories with a few expats and tourists who had just come from Cambodia. As with most travel stories, the wilder the better, and the ones from Cambodia were some of the most fascinating and, to be honest, completely nuts I had ever heard. They depicted the country as a sort of frontierland with few rules, barely explored wonders, tragedy over breakfast, and epiphanies at sunset. However, underlying each tale was a clear refrain of deep respect, frustration, and longing. These themes seemed unusual to me in the typical traveler story and I think that’s why I just couldn’t get Cambodia out of my mind since then.
During our pre-production research for SDF’s first documentary, Cambodia came up again and I felt like it was where we needed to be. After reading in depth Cambodia’s story and in particular the history of their art scene, I knew I had to go no matter what. Exploring the country for myself made it clear that I would always have a part of myself in Cambodia.
Q: If someone were traveling to Cambodia for their first adventure what three things would you tell them to bring or not bring?
KL: Bring: a smile. Smiles go a long way in Cambodia, so make sure you’re always wearing one!
Bring: extra room in your suitcase. You’re going to want to take some of Cambodia home with you. Make sure to get kramas, a painting or two (or three), a “same same but different” shirt just for fun, handmade ikat textiles, Khmer silver… whatever catches your eye. Like many growing third world countries, their economy is largely tourism based, so buy up but buy responsibly!
Don’t Bring: preconceived notions. Cambodia will surprise you and thrill you, but at the same time it is just another place on earth where people live and love. Just let what happens happen, and don’t try to push ideologies from home onto situations where it has no context.
Q: What was the most memorable moment during filming in Cambodia for you?
KL: I have many incredible memories from production of YEAR 33, from watching three generations of Apsara dancers perform in KAE’s beautiful pavillion to walking around the IKTT’s peaceful, yet lively, village. However, one moment that stands out to me occurred during filming at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It was pretty rough: torture beds were still in their dismal rooms and photos of the victims hung on the walls along with splatters of blood. I’d never filmed in such an emotionally and psychologically hostile environment before. The oppressive atmosphere and dwelling on the awfulness humans are capable of was really starting to wear on me as I moved from one stiflingly hot room to the next. Just as I was starting to lose it, though, I moved to a barred window in hopes of catching a faint breeze. I looked out and saw a busy cafe, a nail salon, a Metfone, and plenty of smiling folks going about their day. At first I was outraged and saddened by what I perceived as shallowness or intentional ignorance about their own history. But then, humbly, I realized that before me, in the guise of daily life, was both a form of resilience and a big middle finger to the atrocities of the past. Terrifying tragedies happen, but we are able to move on and live our life. In fact, it is the only thing we CAN do.
Q: Besides the three main characters in YEAR 33, did you meet anyone else during your trip that inspired and touched you the most?
KL: Morimoto Kikuo of IKTT is a rare man and I felt incredibly connected to him on a deep level. Pretty much every word he said felt like it mirrored what was in my own heart, but the reflection was much larger and clearer than I had ever seen before. He spoke about taking risks, pure art, and how life is like a river… it must always change because you cannot go back. Morimoto is a man whose love has made him brave and I will always treasure the time I was able to spend with him.
I was also inspired by Leigh Morlock and Brendan Burke of Basik 855. These east coast cool kids could have gone the usual route and done the NYC fashion thing. Instead, they have made Phnom Penh their home and are doing something both fashion-forward AND meaningful. It takes guts to make a move like that and I give them mad props.
Q: Beyond the film YEAR 33 what are your goals and vision for The SELPAK ?
KL: We created The SELPAK as a way to organize the growing community of people who want to see the arts thrive around the world, and Cambodia especially. The SELPAK is about having fun while making a difference through campaigns that both raise awareness of the importance of art and directly support Khmer artists. We’ll have a mixture of simple campaigns that are as easy as snapping a pic of your favorite piece of art, or more involved challenges that will get creative juices pumping. All of these activities will lead up to our long term goals, which include setting up a dance school in Phnom Penh, an international art competition, and seeing government policy change in Cambodia for better support of the arts. Together we can make this happen.