Cambodia Film Fixer Chronicles: Nightcrawlers of Phnom Penh

Hundreds of production companies have ventured to Cambodia over the past 20 years, filming everything from documentaries to commercials, feature films and music videos. The common thread these film makers all share is that they all had unique experiences whilst filming in the Kingdom of Wonder. Back in 2015 a group of film makers working with Hunger TV decided to film a short documentary in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The documentary was about a group of freelance reporters called “nightcrawlers” who spend their nights pursuing footage of victims of crimes or crash crashes. Below is an interview with directors Max Cutting, James Dougan & Dan Ridgeon, who talked about the experience they had whilst filming their documentary in Cambodia.

When did you first discover this topic and why did you want to shoot a documentary about it?

We first started discussing the idea of making a documentary about nightcrawlers in January of last year. A close friend of ours is a journalist working for a paper in Phnom Penh and he sent us an article that a colleague of his had written on the same subject. We thought that there was potential for an interesting story with strong characters so we started doing more research. In addition to finding out what the job actually entails we wanted to give an insight into why these journalists do what they do and how the work has affected them.

What challenges did you face shooting in a foreign country with a different language?

This was our first foreign language documentary and our first documentary shot abroad so naturally there was a steep learning curve. It was a lengthy process getting all of the correct permits and transporting our camera equipment into the country so pre production took a while. The biggest challenge was interviewing people through a translator. We found it hard at times trying to connect with our contributors on an emotional level with the added barrier of a middleman between the questions and the answers.

What was the biggest obstacle during the shoot and how did you overcome it?

Due to the nature of the work that they do there was a lot to think about in terms of safety. We travelled around in the back of a pick-up truck and we shadowed the journalists wherever they went. We would sit at their waiting posts with them (usually petrol stations) for hours and nothing would happen then all of a sudden there would be a call and they’d rush off with us following close behind. We would have small bits of information but often didn’t have a clear picture of what was going on until we arrived at the scene. They cover breaking news stories about anything from gang shootings to traffic accidents so we had to be alert at all times to make sure we didn’t get into any serious trouble.

How did you initially map out the aesthetic for the film and how did you realize your vision?

We wanted to reflect their work in the way the film looked and felt aesthetically. We mainly shot handheld and almost entirely at night to immerse the viewer into what it’s like to do the job. Often the only light source that we would use other than ambient street light would be the journalists’ own small LED panels that they would attach to their cameras. It was important to keep ourselves as mobile as possible and have small camera rigs because we were always on the move.

Do you have any anecdotes or amusing stories from your time abroad?

We discovered that people in the provinces seem to have taken a likening to heavy techno. On one of our last days shooting we travelled to a floating village deep in the countryside to meet one of our contributor’s families. It was a long journey and as our boat was pulling up to the riverbank we started hearing music blaring from a sound system outside one of the huts. A big group of villagers, the oldest of which was probably 90 years old, were all sat around sorting through the crops harvested that day whilst listening to techno through what looked like a carnival rig at an insane volume. We filmed it but surprisingly couldn’t find a place for it in the edit.

If you could go back and change anything what would it be?

If we could do it all again I think we would plan to spend longer with each journalist. There are 15 guys spread across the city and each night we had to commit to staying with just one. Sometimes we’d sit with them all night and nothing would happen and other times it would get very busy all of a sudden. More time would have meant a wider range of news stories we would see them reporting on.

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