Filming in Cambodia, Part 1: Behind the Scenes with CI’s Video Team

This is the first post in a three-part series documenting CI’s visual storytelling team’s recent trip to Cambodia. Read the next post in the series. 

filming, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

CI’s visual storytelling team films in a floating house on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

As a writer, it’s my job to use words to try to do justice to the visually stunning places where CI works, along with the remarkable stories of the people living there. So it’s tempting to be jealous of the team behind CI’s videos; they hold up a camera and the striking sights and sounds of Colombia, Madagascar or Kiribati are perfectly captured.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about filmmaking knows that’s not how it works. Even with non-fiction videos, film crews constantly deal with challenges, from bad weather to securing filming permits — not to mention the hours of editing that await them back in the studio.

When I accompanied CI’s visual storytelling team on trips to Mexico and Brazil in 2011, I was impressed by the hard work they put in behind the scenes. So when I recently got the opportunity to join the team on a visit to Cambodia, one of my goals was to document how they capture their footage.

Thanks to the Visual Storytelling Alliance, a partnership between CI and Sony, the visual storytelling team travels internationally at least twice a year to document CI’s work in various places across the globe. For each trip, they generally produce several short “spotlights” focusing on individual characters and a longer, more in-depth piece called “Field Chronicles.”

On these trips, the team is usually represented by:

  • Peter Stonier: The leader of the team, Peter acts as the director and lead writer, coming up with the main concept and structure for each film and conducting most of the interviews.
Peter Stonier

Peter Stonier, CI’s senior director of visual storytelling. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

  • John Martin: John is the director of photography who does most of the actual filming. Fluent in five languages, he is also often the default translator in the field (though not in Cambodia, as John does not speak Khmer).
John Martin

John Martin, CI’s director of production for the visual storytelling team. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

  • Becca Field: As the team’s video production manager, Becca handles the sound recording during film shoots. She also serves as the field producer, managing all the shoot logistics, an unenviable task.
Becca Field

Becca Field, video production manager on CI’s visual storytelling team. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

First Stop: Tonle Sap Lake

After a couple of days in Phnom Penh buying supplies, we took off on a three-hour drive to the edge of Tonle Sap Lake, one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries. Given the critical role the lake plays in the food security of millions of Southeast Asians, it would feature prominently in our films.

Peter, John, Becca and I (along with our terrific translator and local production fixer, Nara) were tagging along with some of the CI-Greater Mekong staff on one of their frequent visits to the three floating villages where CI works. When CI began work on the lake, staff would travel there periodically from Phnom Penh to lead workshops and meet with community members. However, the constant coming and going made it difficult to establish lasting relationships with the local people.

motor boat, Tonle Sap, Cambodia

Our transportation to the floating office on Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

In 2008, CI opened a floating office near the (also floating) village of Acol. Now, staff visit the floating office as often as twice a month, usually staying for several days at a time, where they have become a consistent, trusted presence in the community.

Upon arrival at the edge of the lake, we loaded our bags and camera equipment into two skinny motorboats via a slightly precarious gangplank (see right).

As we puttered off into the canal on the edge of the lake, I was mesmerized by the unusual scenes surrounding us. I saw children doing backflips off their front porches into the water. A floating cell phone shop. Dogs staring out at us from swaying doorways. Scrap metal shacks that looked like they could collapse into rubble at the slightest provocation.

Soon we were out in open water, punctuated by treetops that were the only evidence of the flooded forest below the surface.

One thing I have learned about traveling with a film crew is that your schedule can shift at any moment if an unexpected filming opportunity arises. In less than 15 minutes we came across our first illegal fishers — a group of men hauling in nets in an area outside the designated fishing zone. Surprisingly, they were okay with John filming their work, even allowing him onto their boat to get some close-up shots.

CI-Greater Mekong staff on Tonle Sap Lake

From left: Sophak and Vorleak of CI-Greater Mekong and translator Nara on the way to the floating office on Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

Eventually we arrived at the edge of Acol, a floating village of about 32 houses surrounded by floating gardens and pigsties. There, we paid a visit to a woman named Sophy. She and her husband Mao had been involved in several CI projects in recent years; we were here to see if they’d make good subjects for our videos.

While her young daughter dashed in and out of the room (wearing a different outfit each time, presumably to impress us), Sophy told us how her family members’ lives had improved thanks to CI training in fish processing and her involvement in a women’s savings group, among other things.

Even though I barely spoke a word of Khmer, I could hear the passion in her voice as she talked about her family’s struggles and their daily lives on the lake. I was sure she’d be great on camera.

Life at the Floating Office

After arranging a time to meet Sophy and Mao at their house the next morning, we jumped back in the boat and motored the short way to our floating office. I’m not sure what I expected — a room filled with desks and computers? — but this wasn’t it.

Most of the office is devoted to one large room, which is where meetings happen and where meals are served (always on the floor, Cambodian-style). It’s also where most staff sleep when they spend the night.

dinner, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Dinner is served at CI’s floating office on Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

Floating atop a raft of bamboo and large plastic drums, the office is tied to the tops of nearby trees to keep it from drifting. The back porch is covered in potted plants. A cat had recently taken up residence, and was raising kittens in the rafters.

That night, an unusually large number of people — more than a dozen — were sleeping at the office. Around 8 p.m. (there’s not much to do once it gets dark), we spread out the mattresses normally kept in a pile in the corner and set up our pop-up mosquito nets. Mine was pink and frilly; I felt like I was inside a giant frosted cupcake.

The air was humid and still; the lake was so calm it almost felt as if we were on land. I drifted toward sleep as the putter of the last few boats returning home for the night drifted across the water, and one of my colleagues began to snore. We would be up before dawn for the first full day of shooting.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. This is the first post in a three-part series documenting CI’s visual storytelling team’s recent trip to Cambodia. Read the next post in the series. 

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