Small Voices: The Story Behind the Film
EDITOR'S NOTE: Small Voices: The Stories of Cambodia's Children is a documentary produced and directed by CCC member and volunteer, Heather Connell. Member-generated material that forwards pro-social action can be spotlighted in (it) magazine -- whether it is a PSA, a full-length documentary, an article or photo essay, we encourage you to submit story ideas that help fuel people's passion to make a difference. Please enjoy this background essay on Heather's own passion project.
It was well over 100 degrees with 100% humidity the morning I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in early March of 2006. Despite the fact my photographer Theresa and I had just spent a VERY long 24 hours of travel time crammed into the most decrepit airplane ever -- I was feeling energized. After a year's worth of pre-production, I was finally ready to begin filming on my documentary Small Voices: The Stories Of Cambodia's Children, an in depth examination of the struggles of the street and garbage dump children who live and work in a society that has largely forgotten them.
I couldn't wait to get started -- as we took a taxi to our hotel on the Tonle Sap River, I begin planning how I would find the street children. Where did they hang out? What part of the city did they live and beg? I decided I would spend that first day speaking to people and finding where these children were so I could begin my work. First, I decided to walk from our hotel to a nearby store to buy some bottled water. In those three dusty, grimy blocks, children and beggars besieged me. A sickly woman with a naked baby held her hand out from where she sat looking up at me from the curb. Poverty was everywhere and I'd only gone three blocks. I realized I didn't have to search for what I was looking for. All I had to do was open my eyes. I have since realized that this is a concept we should all pay more attention too. If we all take the time to just open our eyes to what is going on in the world around us and in our own backyard, what a difference we could make.
Finding My Way To Cambodia
How I found myself in Cambodia to begin with was a journey in itself that was much longer than a year in the making. I had moved to Los Angeles eight years ago with vague ideas of finding fame and fortune as a storyteller. Shortly after I arrived, the writer's guild went on strike and I began looking for other ways to stay creative. Without having the first clue about what I was doing, I decided to make a short film. While the film wasn't exactly a masterpiece, I become hooked on the idea of using visual media to raise awareness. Our collective attention span as a society is fairly short and the idea that film could be used a way to excite people about social issues and social awareness was very compelling. I founded Displaced Yankee Productions with that basic principal as a platform.
Several years later, I had grown quite a bit as a filmmaker and felt I was ready to expand my horizons beyond short film and branch into features. Documentary storytelling -- about real lives and events -- was a natural progression for me. There are literally thousands of stories just waiting to be told. I needed to find a niche that matched my passions. Children's issues have always been something that I have connected with on a personal level. How the crises of poverty, health care, environment and education affect our children globally is of high importance to me. I was also interested in countries that had recently suffered genocides and how that had effected the subsequent generation of children. Cambodia was on a short list, but Darfur was top of my list. Then fate stepped in and planted me firmly on the path toward Cambodia.
I attended the premiere of The Hotel Rwanda and found myself at the typical Hollywood after-party face to face with Angelina Jolie. Anyone in the industry knows, you only get these kinds of opportunities once. I knew she was passionate about the issues in Cambodia, so the writer in me took over and I pitched her out of thin air on the Cambodian documentary I was already working on. The next morning, with her contact information in hand, I was frantically writing a proposal for my "current" project. While she ultimately did not become involved with the film, as soon as I really started to dive into the issues, I found my passion for it. I realized how off the map Cambodia was for most people. I would talk about my project with strangers and friends alike and many of them didn't even know Cambodia has suffered genocide or that is was in Southeast Asia. Often, people would tell me how wonderful it was I was going to Africa. In fact, most of them only knew that Tomb Raider had been filmed there. I realized I had found a story that needed to be told.
What Good Are My Good Intentions?
A year later, I was wondering if I had taken on more than I could handle emotionally. I had been there less then a day and was already overwhelmed by the problems. Worn down and hungry, Theresa and I had collapsed into chairs at an outdoor restaurant to rest and refuel. The food was wonderful, but it was hard keeping our appetites and our composure when confronted by the scores of hungry children trying to catch our eye. What do you do? Guilt, sadness, and anger over the situation...then a boy of about eight appeared next to me. He didn't want to be seen by the police lingering near the entrance, so he squatted down between two large potted plants next to my chair and looked up at us with big sad eyes. He pointed to my plate and then to his mouth, pleading. I didn't know the words, but I understood the language. It was heartbreaking. I palmed some vegetables into his hand and he shoved them into his mouth and scampered off. Theresa and I looked at our plates of food and wanted none of it. We continued to pick away. I was distracted and frustrated. Faced with something like that, how much difference does all my good intentions make? How much change can I really effect and does it really help? Certainly that boy cared nothing for documentaries. All he wanted was a bite to eat. It gave me a lot to think about.
Several days later, I found myself at Stung Meanchy, the city's garbage dump. I thought I was prepared for this. I really did. After all, I have read about it, heard about it, even seen pictures of it. This is why I'm here. But I was utterly unprepared for the reality of the dump.
A heavy haze of smoke hung over acres upon acres of smoldering garbage. The landfill was enormous, stretching as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of people are picking through the refuse. The sting of the smoke in our eyes is nothing compared to the rotting, cloying smell. Standing in the dump are make-shift shelters -- homes -- for these desperately poor people. The conditions are not fit for any human being, let alone for children. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. While some thankfully wore rubber boots, others were barefoot. Massive dump trucks and backhoes moved with surprising speed through the throngs of people, digging and dumping piles of fresh garbage. The children worked diligently and for the most part, silently. A new truck means new opportunity and as soon as one appears, everyone crowds for it -- so close it is easy to see how someone could be run over or buried in the rubble. I didn't know where to focus. The flies swarmed around me and the smoke filled my eyes. I tried not to breathe. There is another child picking through molded and rotten food. There is one wrapping himself in a piece of old carpet he has hooked out of the pile. An intelligent young man who spoke excellent English struck up a conversation with Theresa. He wanted to know if she knows why they are here, why they live and work here and where they come from. He was the picture of lost potential. Given just a fraction of an opportunity, imagine what these kids could accomplish or do.
A Child Does Not Know They Are A Drop In The Bucket
I knew in that moment that I would do whatever it took to see this project through and raise up the voices of children like that young man in the dump. Over the course of three years as I struggled with finding the resources and the emotional toll of making the project -- and the guilt of my own privilege, I would think of the children I had met, their quiet struggle and innate goodness while facing a bleak and uncertain future -- and I would be reinvigorated. The challenges I face would suddenly seem insignificant and trite when compared to the life of a boy in the dump who buries dead babies he finds to pay them respect. It really puts things in perspective.
Cambodia continues to be one of the poorest countries in Asia, with nearly half of the population under the age of 18. Only 1.2% of the population goes on to achieve higher education. There is a growing health crisis, with Hepatitis A & B spreading at an alarming rate. With no access to education, clean water and health care, the situation for the street and garbage children of Cambodia can seem overwhelming and bleak. But in the course of this project, I have come to realize that it is impossible as an individual to change the big picture. However, the changes we can effect on an individual level will be the catalyst that turns the tide.
It is often difficult to watch documentaries like Small Voices and walk away without wanting to do something. But often the problems seem so overpowering; it is an easy excuse for us to do nothing, thinking that it will not actually make a difference. But a child does not know they are a drop in the bucket. Whether that child in need is in Cambodia, Africa, or East Los Angeles - our obligation is the same. All we need to do is open our eyes.