A few years back myself and director Sami Joensuu went to Cambodia to film a short subject documentary called Ala Ong. It focused on a mother who had two children, one of which just passed from Dengue Fever, which could have probably been prevented if she knew some basic health care. We were there with a team from FIDA whose mission is to bring health knowledge to remote areas of the world.
This was one of the first documentaries I ever made. It was extremely difficult, not just physically to be in the jungle for weeks, but also emotionally. These villagers were amazing people, I will never forget them.
I remember she had a TV in her little house, so I asked our translator what her favorite show was. After a long back and forth the translator said “she doesn’t understand my questions … that she says, is a lamp.”
She would pedal a bike hooked up to a car alternator attached to a car battery for an hour, which would give her a couple of extra hours of light at night, her tiny house lit up by static.
The day before I left for Cambodia I was at the Parker Meridien hotel in NYC doing a story on the world’s most expensive breakfast; a 1,000 USD omelet. I remember ordering it and it coming to the table, covered in gold leaf, lobster and caviar, and me taking a bite thinking I rather have a fried egg sandwich with ketchup from the bodega.
The next evening after a 20 hour trip I was in the middle of the jungle cut off from society.
We worked every day getting to know the family and the village, shooting the rustic beauty, and trying to capture the gravitas of this quiet story. I had never been to a place that had no internet, not electricity, no real knowledge of the rest of the world. I remember I took out a drone, the first consumer drone ever made the DJI Phantom and put it up in the air. The kids minds were absolutely blown and the elders literally ran away. They had never seen anything like it.
It’s one of the only drone films in Cambodia before the country banned the use of UAV’s.
I remember asking what the kids want to be when they grow up. Choices were limited; they either became farmers or went to the city away from their homes and worked in factories. Very few went to high school, none would go to college as it was too expensive. I asked how much did it cost? The translator said to pay for school from 1st grade through college would be about 400 USD. That evening Sammi and I took our 1,000 advance and placed it under Ala’s pillow so she should send both her kids to college. I felt strangely ashamed how simple a gesture that was.
When our time came to an end the mother who we had become very close to asked if she could make us something as a thank you, a special treat. She sent a man out of the village and the next day he came back with a block of ice wrapped in banana leaf and canvas on his back. She took out a turn of the century ice shaving machine left over from the French occupation and proceeded to hand crank a small bowl of shaved ice which she drizzled a bit of condensed milk and coconut shavings on. The entire village came out to watch this, people from the hills came out of the jungle as well, many of which were Khmer Rouge in hiding that couldn’t resist the spectacle. First a drone, and now ice. Ice never melts here.
I took the bowl like it was going to break in my hands. I took a small spoonful and let the sweet cold slide down my throat. A big smile genuinely painted my face and everyone laughed.
I thought immediately how a month ago I was eating the most expensive omelete in the world, and now I had a priceless desert in my hands that cost next to nothing. I realized value is an illusion and happiness is all about perspective. Everything is perspective, and the more of it you have the more of the world you can understand and connect to.
This was the most important trip I had ever taken, and I was fortunate enough to take it early enough so all trips after were in search of this amazing perspective. One day I hope to return to Anuk Lang and see my friends and share a bit of shaved ice with them.