“You know, I don’t believe in [objectivity],” says S. Smith Patrick. “I don’t know how it got attached to documentary filmmaking to begin with.” Provocative words, but Patrick isn’t lofting a manifesto as much as making a street-level observation. Her films and photography often focus on children, and the dissolution of the emotional distance between shooter and subject is central to her process.
“Because we’re working together, because the subjects know what the subject of the film is, there’s trust there,” Patrick explains. “I spend time with them before I start filming. So I hope that between us, even though I’m working with children, we’re sharing a purpose, we’re sharing an end goal.”
The Booksellers of Siem Reap, like her Golden Gate Award-winning short documentary, The Children of Ibdaa: To Create Something Out of Nothing (2003), spotlights kids using art to transcend awful circumstances. Ibdaa focused on a Palestinian dance troupe, while Siem Reap follows destitute Cambodian children brought together for a photography and dance workshop.
Patrick attended the first Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap in 2005, where she was drawn to the Angkor Photography Festival Children's Workshop. The city is the tourist gateway to the temples of Angkor, and Smith was deeply affected by the gulf between affluent Westerners and the poor kids approaching them with books and bootleg DVDs.
“They are hungry now—their need is that immediate—and there are tourists to beg from,” Patrick relates. “I never worked in such an impoverished community. I’ve been in Africa and the Middle East. The situation in Cambodia was just so dire, especially in the context of luxury tourism. I want to bring you, the viewer, into these lives.”
The San Francisco filmmaker began documenting the workshop immediately upon her arrival, but limited herself to a still camera when she first hung out with the children in their daily lives. She took their pictures and gave them the images, quenching their desire to see what they looked like on film. Patrick quickly bonded with them, and that bond was the foundation of The Booksellers of Siem Reap, she notes.
“The kids in this film and the kids in my first film, it’s like we’re allies, and they know that by participating in the film people could receive their message. They know the film can get farther than they can. With both sets of kids it’s also true that they’re not necessarily thinking of themselves but the generation coming up after them—their younger brothers and sisters—that they might be able to have a better shot at life.”
However, there was one key difference between the two groups of children, Patrick reports.
“With the Palestinian refugee kids, they know they’re a big part of media,” she explains. “A Palestinian kid knows how to turn to the camera and tell their story. The Cambodian kids were so undereducated and inarticulate that they barely know how to explain their life situation. They know that education is the key, and they know that they’re poor, but that’s about it. And they also lack the imagination to know what’s possible for their future. Because they’re hungry, they can’t take the time to think about going to school.”
For even the best-intentioned documentary makers, there’s the risk of seeing subjects as objects. Smith says the word that best expresses how she avoids that pitfall is “service.”
“I think it’s only fair to them. I think the kids should be able to use me, my skill set, as a platform. I don’t really have an agenda so much as saying, ‘I’m here, observing you. What do you want to say?’ And they say very clearly that they want to show these pictures because they want tourists to know what their real life is like.”
Patrick returned to Siem Reap the next three years, not to film other iterations of the photo workshop but rather to see how the original group of 16 children was doing. This seems to be her usual practice, for she continues to chronicle the Palestinian refugee kids she met in 1999.
“I still know those [Ibdaa] families,” she says. “Those kids still email me. I feel connected to them. I’m not just going and filming a subject. We’re working together, we’re going to continue working together, but we became friends.”
She expects to maintain the same long-distance ties with the Cambodian children, particularly the ones who—through Anjali House, a foundation for at-risk kids set up by the Angkor Photo Festival—have been provided with a path to a better future.
“The younger kids became a success story,” Patrick reports, “because they’re getting an education. The older kids are still in the cycle of poverty. It was almost too late for the older kids. If you don’t have an education by the time you’re a teenager, you start supporting the family.”
Patrick, who was the cinematographer for Christopher Upham’s upcoming doc, “Return to Dakto,” originally envisioned that The Booksellers of Siem Reap would also be feature length.
“I was trying to make a different film than what I finally realized the film is,” she admits. “I was trying for a feature, and I realized it was much tighter as a shorter piece and more useful as an advocacy piece if it’s under 40 minutes, and possibly if it’s 30. Right now it’s 38 and it’s pretty close to being done. It’s really important to me that any film I make or am involved in is used to advance a social cause.”
For more information about The Booksellers of Siem Reap, check out cinemsmith.net.
Notes from the Underground
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