You compared the streets of Phnom Penh to hell on Earth with danger lurking everywhere. How does a filmmaker digest danger in such a place, while, in fact, filming a story about harmless family with little kids?
I was only comparing the 51st street in 2008, when the film was shot, not the whole of the city. The situation on that street was not predictable for us. I feared everything was possible there that's why we started using hidden cameras. The world that came out of this was hell on Earth. We were afraid to come back with an HD camera. Those guys who were trying to sell us drugs or sex with children were there every night. They could easily recognize us and we could be in trouble. We were there every night as well and this made us recognizable. All the people around Ilan knew us, they were very friendly and it looked like we were friends. I hoped that that would make the dangerous guys less suspicious about us but of course there was a lot of fear anyway. We shot on Sony HDV Z1 which doesn't look like a professional camera. We were like tourists making a holiday film. After a few days we even decided to buy lamps on the market and set up lighting. Apart from the 51st street I felt no danger.
One thinks of the fact that filming such an intimate portrait involves living with the family and sharing the pain and joy with them. Is it even possible to stay detached from a documentary subject? Did Ilan and Saran make you feel responsible for them?
I would prefer not to answer in general terms, but it was impossible to stay detached from my subjects. I wouldn't make this film if I was detached from them. It is a very intimate film and I had this feeling of getting very close to Ilan's life. This is risky cos you can't be sure how it will affect him in the future and you are responsible for your subject. In that case responsibility means limits. You have to know the limits but then, on the other hand, if never cross the limits you won't discover anything. I was not trying to avoid anything in our relationship. I was not pretending I am his friend. I was critical many times.
How deep can a documentarian immerse into the intimacy of a man, a couple and a family? Where is the boundary beyond which you, as a filmmaker, don't want to go? Where is the boundary where the subject, a family in this case, does not want to let you go?
This question would make for a book. I'll give you one example. When I was going to pick up Marie, a 2-year-old girl from the foster family I was told that she is in danger if she stays there, that she could be sold into the sex trade. When I got there, I saw a caring family and a happy child. Was it an illusion? Was Ilan telling me the truth or was it some obsession that makes him see the whole world from the 51st street perspective? I had no chance to answer these questions right. The only thing I knew that in those thirty minutes Marie’s life was changing drastically. She was now staying on the 51st street and that’s a very dangerous place for her, so I felt responsible. She was 2 years old, she couldn't defend herself. I decided to stop shooting until we made everything clear with Ilan and Saran. Finally they decided they would take Marie to the countryside to Saran's family and we followed them. In what circumstances do I have the right to decide about someone's life? I am not any kind of demiurge. One has to be very careful with reality - it is much stronger than us. It is unwise to think you can create it the way you like and I think you should know where you can't go, unlike Icarus.
You basically found Ilan on the street by accident and immediately recognized he is a perfect subject of your feature documentary debut. But what if you are not so lucky next time? How and where are you going to look for another Ilan and Saran?
It wasn't only luck with Ilan. Who's going to be my next subject? Do I know this? I actually have an idea for a film that is based on the process of finding a subject but of course it won't be only about finding someone. Phnom Penh Lullaby was a great experience for me, a big lesson. I can feel this fear about the future film and I am aware that it is going to be very difficult to find another Ilan and Saran, whatever it means. I am looking for my heroes everywhere, because it is not important for me where they live but what their lives are like.
How much can a filmmaker rely on his/her subjects? Did you feel you have Ilan under control?
We've already talked a bit about the control over reality. That's the same thing. I don't believe that directing is doing nothing while relying only on the record button. You have to control what is happening, but one needs to be very careful doing it. It is very intuitive. I talked to Ilan a lot, we had long conversations every day but that doesn't mean I was telling him exactly what to do. That would be a different film. Patience rather than the power of control. Good things come to those who wait.
You said that it took a few days of convincing to make Ilan and Saran ignore the camera. Do you agree that a documentarian is obliged to remain an observer who does not intrude into the lives and actions of documentary subjects?
I don't believe there is any need to feel obligation because you already are an observer with a camera, you are the filmmaker. The presence of the camera means you are recording life to make a film out of it. I wanted the camera to disappear because this was one of the ways to make Ilan's story universal. I wanted the film to be watched like a fiction film, as for me this is the most exciting cinematic area, right on the limits of documentary and fiction.
You once said that you knew what to do since the beginning, and the film really seems to have very solid, dynamic dramaturgy. Is that due to such a course of life in Ilan’s family or is it mainly you editing the material so it has rather traditional fictional dynamics?
We shot 70 hours of footage in less than 3 weeks so the dynamics of Ilan's life is of course different. Editing was for me a fascinating but an extremely long and difficult process. In a nutshell: it was up to me and the editor in the editing room to find the dynamics I wanted since the very beginning. But before the editing, this was, of course, discussed with the director of photography Przemek Nczyporuk who did a wonderful job here.
When you look at recent Polish documentaries, quite a lot of them are based on “exotic” settings such as Siberia, Argentina, now Cambodia. Does it mean there is a lack of themes in Poland? Or does it only signify good health of Polish documentary?
It does not mean there is lack of topics in Poland, since most Polish documentaries are shot in Poland. It's true that there is a lot of Polish films shot in abroad as well but that is, I think, common to many countries nowadays. We see the world as a whole because we are much closer to each other than ever before. Isn't it good to have the opportunity to see our lives with the eyes of a stranger? I don't know if it signifies the good health of Polish documentary. I think we all around the planet can be proud of ourselves, making all these wonderful films with relatively small budgets, or without any budgets at all, which often take years to finish and yet turn into great films people like to watch. In ideal world they could even watch them in cinemas.
Phnom Penh Lullaby has been to Toronto, Nyon, San Francisco, Krakow, Palić, Liepzig, Sheffield, Trieste and now goes to Jihlava for both the festival and East Silver Market. What else are you planning to do with the already successful documentary?
I would love to release the film theatrically. I also hope it will help me to finance my upcoming film projects.
You have already received a lot of feedback by film professionals, journalists, critics and audiences. Is there something you thought would have stronger impact? Is there anything you tried to point out with the film but has never been discussed?
This is unbelievable but every little detail which I put in the film got back to me from the audience. The Q&A's were fantastic. I was lucky to have very intense conversations about this film. People were crying, telling me their personal stories or re-discovering the film for me with the most surprising interpretations. And that makes me very happy.
Kołysanka z Phnom Penh , Poland, 2011, 103 min, HD, Creative, Personal View, Portrait, Social Issues
Everyone holds a secret. The secret of the future. Phnom Penh Lullaby is an intimate story of a man looking for love and acceptance. Ilan Schickman left Israel dreaming of a new life. He now lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with his Khmer girlfriend Saran and daughters Marie, 2 years old, and Jasmine, 6 months, trying to make ends meet as a street fortune teller.