Monday, May 11, 2009

Hotdocs - Annie's thoughts before the trip...

Am packed and ready to attend Hotdocs to pitch Brother Number One before a powerful and discerning group of funders. It all takes place in a kind of cloister at the University of Toronto – thousands of other documentary producers attend, either sitting in the bleachers or hanging from rafters it seems.

Hotdocs for me is one of the finest documentary events in the world and this is a great, albeit a bit scary opportunity. We have gotten generous support from TV3 and New Zealand on Air and some fabulous private investors, but the project is ambitious. The reality is that the war crimes tribunal currently underway in Phnom Penh sends prices sky-rocketing so we need to eke out our dollars to make sure they last the distance. James Bellamy and Rob Hamill, the originating producers have been toiling away on research and fundraising tirelessly for two years now—and thanks to their efforts, it seems now the film is on a roll.

Somehow Hotdocs—as both a festival and a marketplace—manages to be big and professional but still very personal. It was where I premiered Punitive Damage in 2000, which was to be a significant film for me, my first cinema release and a film that received a lot of critical and some commercial success. Punitive Damage followed New Zealander Helen Todd who sued an Indonesian general after her son Kamal was shot and killed in the Dili massacre in 1991. 

By chance, the film was released as huge changes unfolded in Asia and East Timor – the run up to the referendum on independence (thousands of Timorese were intimidated and subjected to violence, interrogation and disappeared, the trashing of Timor by departing Indonesian military), and the nation’s final independence. I was back the following year to Hotdocs to pitch Georgie Girl, my next film, which showed in the festival two years later – then last year, An Island Calling screened and this year, I will be back again with Brother Number One. So Hotdocs and I, I have to say, have a history - and it will be great to catch up with a documentary community whose spirit and determination I treasure.

In many ways, this new film replicates some of the horrendous background elements of Punitive Damage – Cambodia, like Timor, was caught in the crossfire of Cold War politics, with Kissinger playing a bit part behind the scenes.  Cambodia and Timor lost almost a third of their population through execution and starvation, Timor to the Indonesian occupiers, who were funded by the US and Britain, Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, funded by China but s

ome would argue, given impetus after the US bombed Cambodia and sent thousands of angry peasants into the arms of the ideologues.

Both films too deal with attempts at finding justice. New Zealanders who unwittingly found themselves drawn into the tragedies—whose determination speaks of an attempt to ameliorate some of their own grief and pain, but also a willingness to speak for local populations whose suffering was almost unimaginable.

After Hotdocs, I will commence filming – first in the US with three historians, Elizabeth Becker, Ben Kiernan and Peter Maguire, and then in the UK – with friends and family of John Dewhirst, the young Englishman tortured and murdered alongside Kerry Hamill. Rob is coming too, and will meet John’s sister Hilary for the first time. I know it will be very emotional for all of us. . ..


About Brother Number One

“Brother Number One” was the name that Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia, gave himself. Kerry Hamill was also “brother number one” the oldest boy in the large Hamill family of Whakatane, New Zealand. In 1978, the lives of the two “brother number ones” collided.

Kerry Hamill was on board his charter yacht Foxy Lady with two other men when they anchored at Koh Tang Island to shelter from a storm. Unbeknownst to them they had entered Kampuchean waters, neither did they know of the horror story that was unfolding on the mainland. They had sailed from the hippie era of “love and freedom” into Year Zero. Along with Englishman John Dewhirst, Kerry was seized and tortured for two months at the Khmer Rouge slaughter house, Tuol Sleng (S21). After signing confessions that “admitted” CIA affiliations, they were executed on Pol Pot’s orders. A third companion Canadian Stuart Glass was shot and killed when the boat was captured. Some would say he was the lucky one.

Our documentary Brother Number One follows Kerry’s younger brother Rob Hamill, an Olympic and Trans-Atlantic rowing champion, as he travels to Cambodia. Rob will attempt to discover the most probable scenario surrounding the capture, incarceration, and murders of his brother and sailing companions. He will travel with Cambodian translator Chantou, a survivor of the killing fields who will tell her story in parallel with Rob’s. Together they will explore the devastating impact of Pol Pot’s maniacal ideology—which saw 2 million killed through execution, starvation and sheer hard work. The film will interweave the history of Cambodia with their journey. The former French colony was sucked into the Cold War; bombed illegally by Nixon and Kissinger; suffered four years of Khmer Rouge brutality; was invaded by the Vietnamese; then in a twist of realpolitik, saw the greatest war criminals since the Third Reich aided and abetted by China, the US and the Western powers. Many Cambodians today remain ignorant of their history, their lives marked by poverty, HIV, and violence.

Rob’s journey will culminate in a confrontation in court with Kaing Khek Iav, better known as Comrade Duch, former Commander at S-21, who gave the final orders for Kerry and John to be tortured and killed. Up to 14,000 Cambodians met the same end in the notorious prison. After 30 years of impunity, Duch and four former “Brothers” are currently standing trial for Crimes Against Humanity, homicide and torture in the Extraordinary Court of Cambodia, a war crimes tribunal that was finally established this year after a decade of international wrangling.

The film will be directed by award-winning filmmaker Annie Goldson (Punitive Damage, Georgie Girl, An Island Calling) and produced by Pan Pacific Films.

Meet the Makers

Producer/Director: Annie Goldson is a filmmaker, whose award-winning feature documentaries – which include An Island Calling, Punitive Damage, Georgie Girl, Sheilas: 28 Years On, Pacific Solution and Elgar’s Enigma – have received over 30 awards internationally at film festivals. They have also been broadcast on most major channels, including HBO, PBS, ABC, SBS, Channel 4 (UK), ARD and others. An Island Calling (2008), funded by TV3/NZOA with an SBS presale, recently won Best Documentary and Achievement in Camera at the Qantas Film and Television Awards. Annie was also a finalist in the Achievement in Directing category. The documentary subsequently won Best Documentary and Best Director at the Madrid Lesgai International Film Festival, and the Grand Prix at FIFO, the Oceania Festival in Tahiti. The film premiered at Hotdocs in Toronto and screened at a number of international festivals including Sydney, Melbourne, FIPA, Seattle, Frameline and Newfest. She is also a writer and academic and received her PhD from the University of Auckland where she teaches in the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies. Annie received the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 as recognition for services to film. As well as working on Brother Number One, she has a science series Mismatch: Why our world no longer fits our bodies in development for international broadcast.

Originating Producer: James Bellamy has worked in the film industry for over 24 years in a variety of roles, primarily as a documentary producer/director on award-winning documentary, arts and lifestyle series. He has completed three documentary features as an independent producer, which has involved him in extensive international production. He directed and produced Art in the Freezer to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Scott Base in Antarctica. The film was introduced on-air by Sir Edmund Hillary. Given this latter experience and his enthusiasm for longer-form documentary, James is now intending to dedicate himself to projects such as Brother Number One.

Key Documentary Subject/Producer: Rob Hamill rowed for New Zealand for 16 years winning World Championship Silver and Commonwealth Gold. He holds a world record on the indoor rowing machine and competed at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Rob is also a writer, publishing The Naked Rower, an account of how he and Phil Stubbs won the first trans-Atlantic Rowing Race in 41 days. Since his ocean adventure Rob has often considered tracing the wake left by his brother Kerry to discover what really happened in Cambodia. That time has come.