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Cambodia & Diaspora : Caylee So, first Cambodian director in Hollywood

It is with great pride that I present to you today the portrait of this exceptional Khmerican, a former career soldier who went to fight twice in Iraq and who became the first female Khmer American director in Hollywood: CAYLEE SO.

Caylee during a shooting. Photo The Post
Caylee during a shooting. Photo The Post

A big thank you to CAMERON SAM (Rep Cambodia) and Hmong actor and screenwriter DOUA MOUA for allowing this meeting. Here is in my series of portraits of our diaspora around the world the journey of this atypical Cambodian.

 

Interview

 

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, you arrived in Virginia at a very young age and found yourself living (occasionally with other families) in a 2 bedroom apartment for a few years. Can you give us some highlights of this time that you nevertheless qualify as happy?

This time was a succession of welcoming refugee families from both the USA and elsewhere; a transitional housing arrangement for them and their family. I remember it as a testimony to my parents and their constant devotion to helping the community in whatever way they can.

Born in a refugee camp. Photo supplied
Born in a refugee camp. Photo supplied

At school, you were once placed in English as a second language in middle school by their administration based on your mere appearance. English is your main language. How did you feel?

I felt confused, because I considered English as my first language, and Khmer as my second. I also felt a sense of discomfort, because I knew I didn’t belong in the class. But because I was a shy kid with an inability to say anything, I remained in that ESL class that entire year. This categorisation made me question whether I can ever be fully seen as AMERICAN.

At 18 you suddenly decide to join the army. Your parents, worried, then reveal to you the history of the Khmer Rouge, which had been overlooked until then. YOUR REACTION?

My young age had so far made me interpret this period from another angle. I had not had any really concrete information on the subject. Now I discovered the full extent of the genocide.

Army time for Caylee. Photo supplied
Army time for Caylee. Photo supplied

But following the death of my mother, I dove deep into the subject. This approach became an ode to her life’s journey.

Determined, you go on your registration in the army. The reason for this click?

A great decision, an intrinsic need that I took without consulting any member of my family... it was a great challenge - especially for my mother - in the astonishment that a child of refugees who had fled the war wanted to return voluntarily...

Then you undertake an advanced academic course parallel to your status in the army. Can you tell us about it?

Sent to Iraq for the first time, I watched (in the middle of the conflict) MILLION DOLLAR BABY directed by Clint Eastwood … it was a true revelation. In addition, being from a family of 4 children and a low-income family, getting a university degree became a quest. My adage: ‘I can do it!’ ‘

During your Bachelor’s degree, you apply for an internship at the JIMMY KIMMEL SHOW and you were selected … but you STOPLOSSED and had to return to Iraq. An extraordinary scenic moment is happening there once again in the midst of a conflict. Tell us!

Indeed, I didn’t make it to the internship and was once again deployed to Iraq. During this deployment, I started to write my very first screenplay in between missions. Then, as the universe would have it, I was asked to write and direct something for the Batalion play competition. It was a competition full of skits meant to boost the morale of the troops. It was a rather extravagant ordeal and I remember our production value and the number of actors who volunteered increased every time we did a new play.

On your return you change direction and turn entirely towards the cinema. Why?

No … actually during my first deployment to Iraq (2005), my major was Business and I immediately changed it to English – Creative Writing. After the second deployment, I decided instead of doing any internship, I would go for a MASTER’S degree in filmmaking – Directing. I ended up applying to Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

You then become THE FIRST KHMER WOMAN DIRECTOR in Hollywood. Your feeling?

I honestly don’t know if I was the first, but certainly one of the few. There’s a feeling of responsibility towards us – Khmers in the film industry, this community so underrepresented, was felt!

What was your vision of women in general and of Asian women at the time in this environment?

Quite honestly, having always been in the minority in most of my environments, whether it be school, the army, etc., this is not the first thing that crosses my mind! I’m aware and vigilant about being able to represent, but I also just want to be a good director (no labels).

Filmmaker Caylee So is also one of the founders of the Cambodia Town Film Festival. Photo provided
Filmmaker Caylee So is also one of the founders of the Cambodia Town Film Festival. Photo provided

Tell us about your first film IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC?

This film spans three time periods and the chosen music will become the common thread that runs through these three eras. The song evolves over 30 years of Cambodian lives. The film was co-directed by Sok Visal.

Why this choice?

It was important for us to show the life of a Cambodian family through time, and this song (which ultimately plays a protagonist role) is positioned as a major transmission player in this family. It was notably submitted in competition at the Oscars.

Today you are back on stage again with the film THE HARVEST where you were chosen as director. Can you describe the frame?

THE HARVEST focuses on a Hmong family. Synopsis excerpts written by DOUA MOUA, the screenwriter and actor of the film, says: “After a car accident leaves his family in need of his help, Thai returns home to Southern California, only to find his whole world in disarray. With mounting medical bills and secrets of their own, the family watches as Cher, a tough and stubborn Hmong father, suffers through the devastating effects of kidney failure. Thai struggles to choose between his fractured relationship with his family, or a life free from the burden of traditions“.

Your feeling about this new achievement?

Great pride… The film will premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 12th.

On the set of THE HARVEST. Photo supplied
On the set of THE HARVEST. Photo supplied

Finally, any motto or advice?

'' A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” Orson Welles

Interview by Chantha R.

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