Keeping 'My Khmer Heart' Beating
In many ways, the making of my documentary My Khmer Heart appears to be the classic “success against all odds” story. One can suffer “survivor guilt” after the sale of a self-funded, non-commissioned documentary to HBO. Instead of the “let’s enter you in the Emmys and four-wall you for the Oscars,” we could have been in the “thanks, but no thanks” pile, with only a second window screening in Estonia on the horizon.
So how did an unknown Australian documentary team make it to Cinemax? If your reading this story because you want handy inside tips on how to pitch, get funding or get your documentary commissioned, then stop reading now. Our strategy was simple…we didn't have one.
Back in 1998, I was working as a producer/director for one of Australia's current affairs news programs. A story in Cambodia about an Australian woman who owns an orphanage caught my eye as a wonderful “color piece” for a 12-minute story. My first meeting with orphanage mum Geraldine Cox was a date with destiny that later would lead to the documentary.
Ninty-nine percent of Australia's documentary makers are funded by the government. It’s a great club to be in, and it has produced some wonderful films. American film makers are always envious when they hear about our funding system. But the down side is that Australia has a small population and more films are not made than made. Like everywhere else in the world, funding decisions and the commissioning process can take months to go through the system.
I had convinced my friend Leonie Lowe to co-produce the documentary with me. But just as we began our plans, Geraldine's story took an unexpected and bizarre twist:
She was about to lose her orphanage, and if she lost her battle to stay in Cambodia, her orphanage would be closed and her 60 orphans would be separated. We had to capture Geraldine’s struggle. We didn't have time to wait in line to speak to commissioning editors. We had to film immediately.
Therefore, we took out personal bank loans. Then we asked our camera crew friends to work for deferred payment, which meant that they would not be paid if we didn't sell the documentary. Flights, accommodations, editing, file footage, music rights, etc., were all paid by our bank loans.
I remember sitting on a plane heading from Sydney to Cambodia, with a crew in the seat beside me and thousands of dollars in excess baggage (our camera equipment) in the cargo hold, and feeling monumentally sick. What if the story wasn't good? What if we didn't sell it? What if we went bankrupt? What if the plane crashed? Would our insurance cover the funeral expenses? The “what ifs” were excruciating.
Throughout the making of My Khmer Heart, we juggled freelance TV work in between shooting and editing the documentary. By the end of the project, I had produced and directed a two-hour Olympic preview special, a sports documentary and several commercials. To put this madness into some perspective, I was working so hard I didn't have time to write a detailed script for My Khmer Heart, so the editor and I made it up as we cut!
During the six-week edit session, I gorged on the freedom of independent documentary making. There was no one to tell me to cut it back; no one to tell me that it was too deep, too light, too this, too that. My head was giddy with creativity. By the end of my purge, we had a 97-minute feature-length documentary. I remember the look on Leonie's face when she first saw it: "97 minutes! Who on earth is going to screen it?” Who indeed?
The first knock-back for the finished product came from Australia. The Government Broadcaster found the subject “captivating,” but too long.“Could we cut it back at your expense?” they requested. And the figure the ABC was prepared to pay for the massacre of our baby? $ AUD 10,000 (US$5,000). We said no. We were poor, but we had our dignity (albeit hanging by a thread).
We jumped on to the film festival bandwagon. The Hollywood Film Festival was small enough for us to shine. We shared first place for Best Documentary and received a great review from The Hollywood Reporter. While it would be exaggerating to say the phone rang hot after this review, we received a couple of offers from distributors.
(Distribution is an area I will only touch upon. Beginners should never embark on distribution by themselves. Forget the road less travelled, stick to the path where others have gone before you and survived. Never stop seeking advice about distribution. It’s a world away from sitting in the edit suite and marveling at the shots.)
My Khmer Heart was recently screened at the Australian International Documentary Conference. I was asked to speak on a panel, absurdly called “Self Funding.The Power and the Glory.” Surely, a session with such a grand title was more suited to a commissioning editors’ shmooze-fest than a hapless group of filmmakers with no power, no glory and no money…
At the Documentary Conference, I observed the “Pitching Competition,” now a model for Hot Docs in Canada. In my eyes, worthy documentary producers were transformed into performing pets begging for their supper in front of commissioning editors. Their tricks: plying the human experience for funding. It never fails to amaze me that it has become the role of documentary makers, who ostensibly pride themselves on capturing the moment as it unfolds, to be fortune tellers of sorts—selling what they hope will happen, and what they hope the commissioning editor will hope will happen. Isn't this approach more suited to scripted dramas?
We would never have gotten My Khmer Heart commissioned through this avenue.
Our story began as a portrait about a woman who runs as an orphanage. Hardly a riveting pitch. But as we filmed, it became an epic story of struggle. A woman fights to save her orphanage in the face of betrayal. Her saviour becomes the prime minister of Cambodia—a man she once publicly condemned as a killer. The unpredictable can never be pitched, yet it is the unpredictable that is the difference between the ordinary and extraordinary, and between a pedestrian documentary and a memorable one.
During the making of My Khmer Heart, we balanced on the knife-edge of the unpredictable. We could never have predicted that our project would be taken to HBO by its LA rep and sold within a week of HBO's Julie Anderson and Sheila Nevins viewing the project. We could never have predicted that the feature film rights to Geraldine's story would be sold to Hollywood. And I was absolutely convinced we would sell the documentary in Australia. My prediction was wrong: We still haven't sold it in our home territory.
Everyone always asks, “How much did you spend? How much have you made?” One woman at the Australian documentary conference asked me, “Well, I gather you’ve made some money now, but were you ever really compensated for all the hours you put into the project?” I can honestly say I have been compensated time and time again. I’m not complaining.
However, the rose-tinted glasses are permanently off. I once believed that great stories always find their way to the screen. But now, I sincerely doubt this. Every day, great stories are accepted—and rejected—by commissioning editors. The system is so homogenized now that it’s reckless to make documentaries without the safety net of a commission or co-production.
Generally, screening schedules and documentary department budgets aren’t geared for the one-off wild card that might turn up. Commissioning editors are obviously more interested in putting their stamps on projects they have personally shaped than acquiring expensive buy-ins. Realistically, it takes a lot of sales in a lot of territories to cover your initial outlay.
Today it’s all about branding and stranding and co-production deals. The sophistication of the commissioning process is far removed from the pioneering days of the cinéma vérité legends whose work will always stand the test of time.
With My Khmer Heart, I feel like we conquered a mountain. We're bruised, battered and frost-bitten, but we got to unfurl the independent spirit flag. We found a home for My Khmer Heart with a broadcaster that promotes and nurtures independent projects, and we also found an American distributor who will release the film theatrically, make it available for benefits and get it out to the educational and home video markets. So, knowing what I know now, would I self-fund again? The head says no. The heart says yes.
Janine Hosking is an Australian filmmaker who has worked as a reporter/producer/ director on many well-known Australian television programs. She has also written a nonfiction book and has directed two self-funded documentaries. She won Australia's prestigious Walkley Award for journalism in 1998 for her television documentary about a young burn victim.