Filmmaker's Journal: Crowd Funding in Cambodia

Jason Rosette reveals what it takes to get a historically-based narrative feature off the ground in Cambodia.


Director Jason Rosette conducts a screen test while casting "Freedom Deal" in Cambodia.
Director Jason Rosette conducts a screen test while casting "Freedom Deal" in Cambodia.

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I’ve been working in Southeast Asia since 2005, primarily in Cambodia, but also with time spent in Thailand and Vietnam, as an independent film media maker and practitioner for the past six-plus years.

I’m a freelancer. I don’t work on staff for any NGO or organization, but I’m hired at times to make media projects (advocacy videos and documentaries, mainly) by such groups. I also sometimes make videos for emerging private sector businesses, while moving forward with my own independent projects when I have the time and resources.

Amongst my current independent projects is the most ambitious to date, my third feature, a narrative film called Freedom Deal.

LOGLINE: Spring, 1970. As part of the escalating Vietnam War, a combined US and Army of South Vietnam military operation enters Cambodia to locate and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sanctuaries. A Cambodian youth named Samnang (‘Lucky’) rescues downed US soldiers, while evading horrific Cambodian ghosts and foiling Khmer Rouge guerillas, as he journeys to the safety of the provincial capital.

There was a brief mention of the project in an earlier diary entry in The Independent, when it was in early research stages, but now it has progressed to an advanced (ninth draft) completed script stage, with local casting underway and an active production component commencing in Cambodia shortly.

Freedom Deal is fiction, with some genre (horror) elements, and some significant social issue aspects as well. It’s based on actual historical events, with production envisioned to take place in some of the actual border locations where the US-ARVN incursion took place 42 years ago.

The story is told primarily through the point of view of Samnang, a young Cambodian IDP (internally displaced person, or refugee) who, along with fellow refugees he meets along the way, seeks the safety of the provincial capital with the hopes of finding his only remaining relative, his uncle Ramy.

There are some juicy roles for Western actors, most notably several of the US Army GIs in the incursion, including Redneck Philosopher and Private ‘Shaky’ Griffith. Therefore, while simultaneously fundraising and preparing to shoot local sections of the feature, we’re also seeking to attach name talent for these key GI roles (ages 19-26+), via ongoing contacts in LA and New York.

Westerners, especially Americans, often associate Nixon’s 1970 Cambodian Incursion with the protests and shootings that took place at Kent State University. Though certainly few here in Cambodia realize there’s a direct connection.

We’ve got the full approval of the Cambodian government regarding the script content. The Ministry requires that every screenplay be “observed” for any elements that may be deemed “problematic,” or which may cause instability within the country or problems with neighboring countries.

I was honestly a bit surprised the Cambodian government found no objection at all to Freedom Deal, as there are some supernatural elements (though these are culturally appropriate, traditional Cambodian ghosts known as Arbs) and some honest portrayal of the 1970 conflict which involved their neighbor, Vietnam.

But in fact, the director of the government’s Cinema Department read the script and heartily welcomed it. In fact, he could hardly believe that I, as a foreign Barang, had written it!

Yet, despite the input of my longtime Cambodian colleague, Phun Sokunthearith regarding two story details, I have solely written Freedom Deal--but it’s taken several years, half a decade of real cultural immersion living in Cambodia fulltime, and a lot of research to get it to this point.

We’ve visited former B52 “Menu” strike areas along the Cambodian-Vietnam border, and spoken first hand with communities there regarding their experience of the incursion. (I speak Khmer now rather decently, still not fluently, but well enough to interview participants on my own when my Khmer colleagues are unavailable.)

In 2010, after concluding a mountain of in-person and scholarly/historical research (i.e., reading the classics on Cambodia—including Chandler, Shawcross, and others—along with B52 airmen diaries, military books on the incursion from all sides) and, having just finished a video production gig and with a bit of cash to buffer me, I finally had a window of opportunity to write the script.

I blasted out the first real draft of Freedom Deal in a guesthouse in Kampot, Cambodia in a 12-day flurry of writing and revising. The first key problem with the script soon became apparent, however.

I, as a Western, road movie-loving filmmaker, had envisioned, with some degree of Western road movie chauvinism, that the key characters of Freedom Deal, the refugee protagonists, would travel a lot on the open road, towards their final destination of the provincial capital, almost like a Wizard of Oz type scenario.

I later interviewed a Cambodian IDP in Phnom Penh, who had experienced the civil war firsthand. He had informed me that, during the Cambodian civil war and certainly during the time of the US-ARVN incursion in 1970, the control of the roads were constantly changing hands between the armies of Lon Nol, Khmer Rouge, North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, ARVN, and US.

My interviewee told me that he had therefore, as a kid of only 11 or 12 years old, SPECIFICALLY AVOIDED roads when possible, travelling off road through the forest and paddy fields—and he did so mainly at night, due to any uncertainty about which forces controlled the roads at any given time.

So, I rewrote my first draft of the script from the ground up, keeping my characters off road as much as possible, and travelling at night, or dusk, when they could.

Several other rewrites have occurred since then to make the story more historically and culturally accurate, as well as more appealing in terms of genre (horror/supernatural) aspects—specifically to incorporate into the story the peculiarly Southeast Asian bodiless female apparitions, known as Arbs, in Cambodia.

In Freedom Deal, during Nixon’s Cambodian incursion, these female specters hover over the battlefields and devour the fallen soldiers, regardless of nationality. One of them relentlessly pursues our protagonists as they journey to the safety of the capital.

In terms of our team: we are primarily local, based in Cambodia. Cambodian Princess Soma Norodom is working with us, conducting local public relations and outreach. We’ve also recently met with two distinguished Cambodian actors—Tep Rindaro, and Golden Age 1960s Cambodian actress, the legendary Dy Saveth—and they have both expressed an interest in being involved in the film.

International members our team include Robert ‘Bob’ Lewis, co-founder of legendary alt-rock legendary band DEVO. I’ve been communicating with Bob over the past four years, as he’s provided a lot of useful US-stateside story information from the period; he, and other DEVO members, were Kent State students at the time of the protests and incursion.

Of course, Bob is also providing insights into rock music from the time, filling us in on the great late 60s-1970s tunes which were playing during the incursion... if we get any significant budget for music rights, the soundtrack for Freedom Deal alone will be amazing.

New York City-based video artist, media maker, and Cambodian 1960s psychedelic music scholar, Matthew Caron, has been advising us regarding the very distinct Cambodian rock music from the period as well.

Other international participants include our Chicago-based legal advisor, Arnold Toole, who spent significant time working in Southeast Asia, and retains an interest in the region to this day.

Most recently, UK-based producer and shooter Alec Ceschi has come onboard as a co-producer of our current stage of production, in which we’re preparing to shoot, as a standalone short, a key section from the Freedom Deal screenplay.

This short will then circulate internationally at fests and other platforms to generate further exposure and to leverage additional funding to produce the full-length feature.

We recently conducted an open casting call in Phnom Penh for local talent, and received a fair amount of turnout, thanks in part to pro-bono ads offered by the Khmer version of the Cambodia Daily. We also distributed leaflets at Khmer cafes, coffee houses, and Cambodian newsstands to advertise the open call.

But in terms of the film culture here in Cambodia, unlike say New York, the open call is still an alien concept—most things here happen through word of mouth. Nearby Bangkok has a fairly well developed casting process, with agents and open call announcements and the like, and we will likely source at least some Western talent from Bangkok.

But Cambodian society operates more like a “living Facebook,” with word of mouth always the strongest and most compelling way to communicate these things. Nevertheless, there was a decent turnout. More importantly, through the talent who did attend, we then “grapevined” our way into meeting additional talent—i.e., cousins or nephews or relatives of the folks who did attend—and this non-open call casting initiative is now ongoing and evolving as I write.

In terms of financing, we’ve submitted to international film funds where we are eligible, but this is challenging, as I’m a Yankee and a lot of global film funds are earmarked only for citizen-nationals of developing states.

At times, a long standing patron will swoop in unannounced with a contribution. One such contributor, based in Germany, has contributed to projects since seeing my first feature, BookWars on German TV in 2001, and has also done so for Freedom Deal.

Some development funding is also coming out of my own pocket, as much as I can afford.

But, perhaps most notably, we’ve also recently launched the first-ever crowd funding campaign for a Cambodian feature film. The campaign is being run and updated entirely from within Cambodia: See our site at IndieGogo.

All contributors receive a video postcard from Cambodia, amongst other perks, thanking them for their participation.

There are some interesting challenges to crowd funding from within a developing country, which could probably be described as an article in itself. But these challenges can be identified primarily, in our case at least:

1) Sporadic Internet (broadband here is expensive, and even that can and does crap out frequently). We’re currently relying on a 3G SIM based system, which allows us 12 Gigs of traffic per month for $20.
2) Lack of a trained volunteer team skilled in social media.

Volunteerism is not big at all in Cambodia, mainly because most folks MUST work to make a living, and/or as a corollary, they are working such long hours that they have no time to volunteer.

I also believe, from having worked in neighboring Thailand, that there may be a cultural component to the unpopularity of volunteerism in the region; it was tough to find volunteers in Thailand for the indie film fest we ran there, the Bangkok IndieFest for instance, so everyone had to be hired—though they eagerly came on board when hired.

Now, I hire Cambodian staffers all the time to work on our hired video projects, and I always pay them well above the standard. I also often train then as well for many functions if they are unfamiliar.

But, according to my estimation at least, without a significantly volunteer staff, a roster of paid staffers to run the Freedom Deal crowd funding campaign would detrimentally cannibalize the revenue we are receiving to such a degree, that the effort would not be worthwhile besides its experimental value.

We do also have a US-based fiscal sponsor, the Oakland, CA based Media Alliance, which offers US taxpayers a 100 percent tax-deduction on all contributions.

Even so, aside from all the unique challenges of producing an indie film in the developing world, if all goes well, and fairly as planned (because it never goes exactly as planned, especially in the developing world), Freedom Deal, even in its initial short form version, will be the first ever dramatization about the expansion of the US-Vietnam war into Cambodia, told from a Cambodian point of view, and crowd funded from within Cambodia itself.

One of Rosette's short docs, Crab Ladies, was just accepted into the Chagrin Documentary Film Fest. View the trailer here.