Vital Voices: Tep Vanny

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Aaron Kisner

Is there a particular video, film, campaign or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Pedro Almodovar and Baz Luhrmann are both important influences for me.


What motivated you to make this film?

Vital Voices learned about Tep Vanny and the struggle of her community to protect their land rights through some of the other Cambodian women leaders who had worked with Vital Voices for many years. Our research revealed a massive David vs. Goliath story, and there was a very real concern that these community women would be silenced by powerful interests in the top tiers of Cambodian society. We hoped that making a film would bring their story into the light and make it harder for violence or intimidation attempts to go unnoticed.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

Canon 5D, reflectors, one LED light for interiors.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.

We felt that this was not an “interview” story. We thought we needed to show how individuals stand up to power.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

Just before we began filming, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had visited Cambodia, and the community members had gathered in sight of the airport runways with huge signs to attempt to be seen. This action energized the community, and they were motivated to march in commemoration of International Human Rights day. This gave us an opportunity to film the women in action.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

International Human Rights day is celebrated all over the world, but for me, it was quite special to recognize it in Cambodia, where what qualifies as a basic human right is still sometimes considered an open question.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

It is very important to be aware of the laws and practices surrounding filming in other countries. Not every government is accommodating to filmmakers, and one can get into trouble by making assumptions.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

I have always loved editing because I think it’s where the story ultimately comes together.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why? 

I always have a pen or pencil to make notes, capture names, and to write lists for myself.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

My luggage was lost for the first three days of filming. That can happen anywhere, but it made for a memorable experience in Cambodia. It took three hours for me to file a report at the airport. When I finally made it outside, the airport was essentially closed for the night, but 12 women from the community had come in tuk tuks to meet my flight. As the airport shut down, they weren’t sure I had made it. Even though I was the last one to leave the airport, they were waiting for me in the dark to welcome me to Cambodia.


Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?

Since so many people in Cambodia do not speak English, we felt it was important to create a version with the voiceover in Khmer. The challenge was we finished the English version first and scored the film. When we began cutting together the Khmer VO, we learned that it takes many more words to express the same ideas in Khmer. Because the music was finished, it made it impossible to stretch the edit to accommodate a longer VO. We had to really get creative with timing to make it all fit and not feel rushed.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

I would like people to recognize that developing democracies are works-in-progress and that citizens often make great sacrifices to improve them.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

Where is the line between crony capitalism and eminent domain? How can a protest effort bring about results in the face of powerful opposition? Is it worth it to go to prison or risk violent suppression in the interest of protecting your rights? How can a democratic system protect against abuse of power?


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

More families in Boeung Kak Lake have received their land titles, though there remain many who are still struggling to be recognized and many who have been forced out. The government has tried to tie the protestors to the opposition political party, thereby politicizing their claims and attempting to shield itself from international condemnation.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

There are many human rights organizations working on the ground in Cambodia. People can also help invest in the development of more women leaders by supporting Vital Voices Global Partnership.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):




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