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Documentary filmmaking has brought Daron Ker to tremendous points, from returning to his homeland of Cambodia for the first time since he was a child to the depths of biker culture and the life of the Fryed Brothers. With a rich background and a unique vista that comes through in his filmmaking and sheds light on subjects of varying levels of desolation, Ker is expanding his storytelling into new territory. After working on narrative shorts and two acclaimed documentaries with Rice Field of Dreams and I Ride, Ker is currently working on Holiday in Cambodia, his first full-length narrative feature. Upon planning a trip to Cambodia for location scouting Ker discusses his life, his work and his hopes to help establish a productive film industry in Cambodia.
Daron Ker was born in Cambodia, only two years before Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge came into power. In their short reign between 1974 and 1979 the regime would persecute intellectuals and carry out full-blown genocide, causing destruction that can be seen today. “Its pretty rough, because of where I came from and how I got here,” says Ker. “It was a tragedy where 2 million people were murdered for nothing.”
Ker and his family fled Cambodia and then spent significant time in a refugee camp in Thailand, where Ker first experienced cinematic inspiration while watching Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus.” Ker says he watched the film over and over in the couple of weeks they projected the film, moved by the image of a persecuted protagonist going up against a powerful empire. “I was so inspired by that movie,” says Ker. “Although I didn’t understand a word that was on that screen, I was able to connect the visual of this guy Spartacus— he was a slave and he fought in the army and he was fighting for freedom.”
“That’s how I got inspired,” adds Ker. “I felt like ‘that’s what I really want to do when I get out of camp.’”
Not long after in 1981 Ker and his family were offered sponsorship and moved to Southern California. Growing up he dealt with getting picked on and being torn between two identities and two cultures, but recognizes all those things as part of the common immigration experience. He would go on to film school and work on short films and only revisited Cambodia nearly three decades after he fled the country when the time came to film his first documentary Rice Field of Dreams. The film chronicles the inception of baseball in Cambodia— from recruiting young men from rural areas to teaching them the sport from the most elementary points to creating Cambodia’s first national team and entering them in the 2007 Southeast Asian Games in Thailand.
Ker’s first trip back was eye-opening on several levels. “I didn’t know how devastated Cambodia was until I went back home, because I was young when I came to America,” says Ker. “I didn’t realize that the country was so full of poverty… It was just a sad thing.”
“But, at the same time I felt like ‘Wow, I’m back here in my homeland.’ It was eye-opening for me to see all these kids and see the poverty, but at the same time I was like ‘Wow, look at this place. Its colorful. Its beautiful.’ It was kind of the first time I got to reconnect with my roots.”
The film, captures the numerous hurdles the new team faces under the leadership of another Cambodian-American who escaped the Khmer Rouge, Joeurt “Joe Cook” Puk. It was an experience both disheartening and enlightening. Ker recalls one sunny day, realizing that the boys couldn’t catch the balls because of the sun and asking one of them to try with the producer’s sunglasses and succeeding. “I said ‘Man, they need sunglasses. That’s why they can’t see.”
“So, we went— and this is something very simple— we went through all the province and we bought all the sunglasses that they had… These kids were so happy. Its amazing how something little like that makes an impact on a kid’s life.” Their genuine appreciating and enthusiasm really resonated with Ker: “They love it [baseball] and each and every one of them was proud.”
Ker refers to his second documentary as a “happy accident.” I Ride examines American biker culture through the focal point of the Fryed Brother Band. With footage accumulated over the span of 6 years, Ker followed the legendary biker band, capturing their shows at motorcycle rallies across the country and personal anecdotes, as well as reflections and stories from other members of the biker community. The film boasts a lot of what one would expect— bikes, beards and barenaked ladies, but also explores a misunderstood culture on the fringe, a culture Ker initially knew nothing about.
Ker was invited to shoot for a film on biker culture that never materialized. He went to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota and was blown away. “I was really scared. I thought I entered into a world with Vikings and Nomads. And, I’m this Asian guy you know?”
Ker found the narrative structure he needed for his documentary in the Fryed Brothers, whose music is representative of biker culture. “I was like ‘I think I got a story here,” says Ker, and fortunately they agreed to make the film.
The experience not only led to an appreciation of the culture, but taught him about his own craft too. “Being a filmmaker, its an honor to be able to look back into that world and come out of it with a film that they appreciate… that someone actually made a film that’s positive about their culture.”
For his first full-length narrative Ker will once again be reconnecting with his roots. Holiday in Cambodia, whose script Ker took over ten years to develop, tells the story of a young man who came to America from a refugee camp, but gets into trouble and is deported back to Cambodia, because he is not an American citizen. “With this story, is going back home a second chance in life or is it another tragedy that happens to this kid?”
Ker’s agenda for filmmaking goes beyond personal goals, including hopes of creating a modern Cambodian film industry. “My goal and my hope is to create a film infrastructure in Cambodia, for Cambodians to start making their own movies, instead of watching dubbed movies… We have stories to tell as well.” Ker feels strongly about moving forward and growing as a country, and feels cinema can contribute to that growth. He has already held discussions with deans from AFI and USC, and will be meeting with institutions in Cambodia, but also hopes Holiday in Cambodia will be a juggernaut for the cause. “My approach is to let Holiday in Cambodia show the government and everybody in Cambodia that film does create economic growth and it will put us on the map and people will start coming from Hollywood to film over there.”
In general, Ker feels that his connection with his roots is important. “I feel like I see things differently from other filmmakers,” says Ker.
Ker’s films brings us into unfamiliar territory, but he hopes that his work does more than open minds: “I don’t just want to inspire people with my films. I also want to give them power.”
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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