Meet the Academy Award® Nominees: Steven Okazaki--'The Conscience of Nhem En'

Over the next ten days, we at IDA will be introducing-and in some cases, re-introducing-our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Steven Okazaki, director /producer of The Conscience of Nhem En, which is nominated in the Documentary Short Subject category.

Synopsis: From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge rounded up men, women and children, and sent them to a school in Phnom Penh, which had been converted into a prison. The prisoners were registered and photographed, and were then tortured or immediately killed. Of the 17,000 who entered the S-21 facility, only eight are known to have survived. In this documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki, three tell their stories, as does Nhem En, a 16-year-old at the time, who photographed thousands of prisoners before they were executed. 



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Steven Okazaki: I had gone through film school, was messing around with music, working on commercials and hating it, when my sister told me she was doing a school project on Hiroshima.
She was struggling in college so I said I'd help. Then she dropped the class, but I was interested in the subject and kept going with it. I wasn't thinking about making a film; I just wanted to know more. I found myself sitting in on a meeting in San Francisco with about 20 Hiroshima and Nagasaki
survivors. They were mostly women in their 60s-teenagers at the time of the bombings. One of them stood up and said, "Okazaki-san should make a film about us. All in favor, raise your hand." Everyone raised their hand. So I became a documentary filmmaker.   

IDA: What inspired you to make The Conscience of Nhem En?

SO: I read a story by Seth Mydans in The New York Times about Nhem En, who was a 16-year-old soldier during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror over Cambodia. His job was to take ID
photos of people before they were killed. He took 6,000 photos-startling images of men, women, children, babies even, moments before their death--and it was just a job to him. I wanted to explore what seemed to me an extraordinary case of complicity-saving your life but losing your humanity.  

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SO: I've taken on tough subjects in my films, but I was unprepared for this. Just about everything was difficult. The Khmer Rouge, who carried out the atrocities, are everywhere and still feared. We were lied to, spied on and sent on wild goose chases. It took awhile to find people we could trust, and they helped and guided us.  
There is so much hurt and pain in Cambodia. I heard stories of violence and cruelty that were beyond my imagination or comprehension. They were so brutal and disturbing, I couldn't-and wouldn't-share them with anyone. I wanted to shoot portraits of people on the street, so we went into some of the poorest parts of Phnom Penh. It was heartbreaking.       

I got back home, and I couldn't get the experience out of my head. My mind would go blank in the middle of a conversation, and at other times I would find myself suddenly weeping. This lasted for seven months until I finished the editing. I don't think I overcame the obstacles; they were a necessary part of the experience of making the film.  

IDAHow did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SO: I try not to bring my prejudices to the film, but of course you do. For me, making the film is the process of shedding those preconceptions and discovering the real story. I hate films where the filmmaker clearly has a message to impart and designs the film to serve that message. Even if it's a message I agree with, I don't want to be preached at. My theory is, If there is no process of discovery for the filmmaker, then there is none for the viewer.

IDA: As you've screened The Conscience of Nhem En--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SO: I don't have a good sense of audience reactions yet. It's really hard to find an audience for short films. That's why the Oscar nomination is such a great thing; suddenly people are curious to see it.  

IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? Although it's only been three weeks since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker?

SO: I was up in Seattle working on a new film. I was in a hotel room and hadn't had much sleep because someone on the other side of the world who spoke a totally unfamiliar sounding
language kept calling the room and waking me up just as I was falling asleep. So I missed the 6:00 a.m. call from Sara Bernstein at HBO.
I don't know what the career impact will be. I got my first nomination in 1985. My girlfriend was working in a refugee camp on the Thai border, so I asked my mother if she wanted to go to the big night. She said, "Of course!" I said, "Well, I'll take you if you promise to stop talking about what I put you through during my troubled teenage years." She said, "It's a deal; clean slate." She kept her promise for about three years.     

It's wonderful, but lots of great documentaries don't get Oscar nominations. In 2006, there was a film called The Devil's Miner, about two boys who work in a silver mine in Bolivia.
A powerful, wonderfully observed documentary-and no nomination. The best documentary I've seen recently is Sex Positive by Daryl Wein-a brilliantly made, shockingly honest film. No

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SO: Before I started, I loved the Leacock-Pennebaker music docs, Les Blank, Michael Rubbo, Ross McElwee and above all, Frederick Wiseman. There are moments in his films that I think about all the time. High School, Hospital, Blind -no one is better at showing the extraordinary moments of everyday life. I think Jon Alpert is an amazing filmmaker. I'm inspired by his integrity and commitment.  

Many years ago, as a favor to my friend Lynn O'Donnell, who produced Crumb, I worked as a camera assistant for Maryse Alberti for one day. I've never seen a documentary filmmaker work as
hard, be so creative with the camera, doing whatever was necessary, crawling on the ground, whatever, to find the shot. That one day, watching her work, changed the rules for me.

The Conscience of Nhem En will be screening Saturday, February 21 at 1:45 at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDay LA, and at 4:45 at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDay LA.

For more information on DocuDay LA, click here.

For more information on DocuDay NY, click here.