Guest post by Haley Semian.
Caylee So: a filmmaker, a storyteller extraordinaire, a Cambodian-American, and an overall badass human being. Caylee was born in a refugee camp in 1981, just a couple years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Her parents were of the many Cambodians fleeing a country plagued with a genocide that took an upward of 2 million lives, making it one of the deadliest mass killings of the 20th century. Three years later, her family immigrated to Northern Virginia where she would be raised. After high school, she was eager to see more of the world and saw joining the US Army as a way to do it. While on duty, she was entranced by a film that made her forget she was at war. As she began understanding more of the roles in film, she decided to delve in and never looked back.
In her debut feature film In the Life of Music, Caylee provides a look into Cambodia before, during, and after the war. The film acknowledges the hardships of Cambodia’s past while also showing that there’s more to the Cambodian people than their trauma. There’s rich culture, deep love, great music, and an exploration of one’s identity about what it means to have Cambodian roots.
We were lucky to ask Caylee some questions that discuss her unique filmic voice, her connectedness to her Cambodian heritage, and her latest film In the Life of Music.
Haley Semian: What were your first steps in becoming a filmmaker?
Caylee So: When I was in 7th grade I signed up for a theatre class even though the idea of being on stage frightened me to no end. Coincidentally, I got cast as the narrator of the play Daedalus and Icarus. That profound experience stayed with me, and even though I knew onstage was not where I wanted to be, I constantly signed up for theatre classes, always observing, never vying for any big role. I just wanted to be part of the storytelling in some way. The idea of becoming a filmmaker didn’t occur to me until my mid-20’s, and it happened while I was in the Army, stationed in Iraq, viewing a bootlegged version of Million Dollar Baby. I should probably thank Clint Eastwood for making me feel so much heartache for Maggie’s journey that I forgot I was in the middle of my own war. I wondered then, who gets to do that? Who gets to transport people and immerse them in such a way, that they forget their own circumstances? So yeah, I looked up the job description of a “director” and decided that I would try to be that. When I returned home from duty that year (I believe it was 2005), I decided to drop my business major, enter into a creative writing BA degree and apply for film school for my graduate studies. It was like a light was flipped on. I’ve been on this road ever since.
HS: There seems to be a bit of irony that your family had left a war-torn country and then you later went on to serve in the U.S. Army. Did your family’s past influence that direction? Was there ever a sense of control over a bad situation that came with being on duty? Or was joining the army solely a way for you to experience and do more in your life?
CS: The irony of escaping one war to join another didn’t occur to me until years later. But coming home that day after secretly signing up, I’ll never forget the sadness in my mother’s face. It was a look that said, “I’m sorry that I have failed you in some way.” I didn’t understand it then, not fully. To her, signing up for the U.S military and joining the war was not something she wanted for me. This was after 9/11 and I didn’t reconcile her experiences with the path that I was choosing for myself, as an American. See, my parent’s silence on the subject of the Killing Fields kept me very far removed from Cambodia’s history. I didn’t understand the extensive loss the genocide had on our family. I didn’t come into that full understanding until much later in life, not until my mother past away in 2002, and I sought to piece together her history as a way to keep her alive somehow.
HS: How important is it for you to keep your roots strong to the Cambodian community and culture in both the U.S. and Cambodia? How has becoming more connected to Cambodia led you to have more of a “completeness” in your identity? What struggles have you experienced trying to become more connected to the people there?
CS: I used to only understand the American part of my identity, and that identity never felt whole to me growing up, but I never questioned why or even sought to understand or fill the isolation I felt, not until my third year in film school, when I pitched to make a thesis film about gambling inside the Cambodian community. It was a way of offering up a piece of our story, as I understood it and witnessed it growing up. I had no idea that in making that film I would connect with other Cambodian-Americans in such a profoundly familial way. They fully embraced that story, and they fully embraced me. In turn, I had found my filmic voice. There were and still are so few Cambodian/Cambodian-American filmmakers, so visually, our stories felt in some ways so evidently “invisible.” I learned recently that after the release of that short film Paulina that it was being studied in film classes in Cambodia, as a way of portraying what the future of cinema in Cambodia could look like. It still feels strange to have accidentally become a pioneer in some way.
HS: You have helped create a space for Cambodian stories and filmmakers through the co-founding of the Cambodian Town Film Festival (CTFF). What has this experience been like for you and what importance does it bring being able to elevate these voices?
CS: It’s been a challenge to try to find space and time to do both. To separate one from the other. A film critic, a film supporter. Before our feature film In the Life of Music I felt like a festival director (in awe at how miraculous it is just to get a Cambodian film made), but now, now I get to live in the chaos of being both a filmmaker and festival director. I’m lucky, both my job descriptions allow me to, as my DP puts it, “feed my heart.”
HS: The characters in your films seem to all lack a certain amount of control despite trying to regain it. In Paulina, the main character grapples with solving her own issues, but she cannot save her father from his. In Testigo Illegal, Oscar wants to do something about what he saw but his situation holds him back. In Rupture, Leila tries to save her daughter but cannot. Ultimately, they all are struggling to overcome a specific hardship, of which their family is entangled. What attracts you to these kinds of stories?
CS: Great question. I’ve never been asked to critique my own work in that manner before… I think I’m heavily drawn to the idea of people inside inherited circumstances. It’s not lost on me that I’m a refugee baby and that the characters that interests me are characters with heavy burdens and hard losses. I didn’t write Testigo, but it was the first film I chose to direct. That story was about the limited choices one has when one is an immigrant with no country. In the same vein, an aspect of Paulina explores the stories of displaced immigrants finding refuge in the comfort of a gambling community. Rupture was about ending the cycle of inheriting these limitations and making choices that would free our children from following paths that were set down by our history. We have to reconcile who we were (our circumstances) with who we can be (our futures are the consequences of our choices). I can find a piece of myself living in all those stories, it’s probably why I chose to tell them…
HS: What significance does In the Life of Music hold for you in terms of telling both a very Cambodian and very Cambodian-American story?
CS: Cinematically, at that time, I couldn’t find a feature film that told of a time before the war, during the war, and after the war. It’s like the genocide took away so much that for a very long time death and loss were the center of every conversation about Cambodia’s history. I remember wearing a red-and-white checkered krama (scarf) at a family function and being told that I looked like a Khmer Rouge soldier, and that I shouldn’t be wearing it. I didn’t have the same sentiments towards it because I didn’t have any memories of the war, so to me, the red krama was a piece of beautiful Cambodian cloth. So, in writing the script, I sought to take back the things that we had lost. I wondered, can I tell a story that would convey the beauty of the Cambodia before the war and can I build a bridge for the Cambodian diaspora to want to reconnect to their history; to find a common language between what was, and what will be? Can I make Cambodia understand the ways in which its people have changed?
The character Hope is representation of that change. She might have lost her language, but not her culture, nor her history. In this manner, having music as the universal language in our film makes sense. Music crosses barriers, crosses time, can transport us, reconnect us. I knew even though some of our second generation didn’t understand the lyrics, that in hearing the melodies of the songs, they will want to understand. Our experiences of Cambodia shouldn’t be limited to just the Killing Fields.
HS: How has Sinn Sisamouth’s music influenced you and how did it inspire you to create In the Life of Music?
CS: I don’t know how or when I became such a big Sinn Sisamouth fan. It happened slowly over decades. My parents and my sister had been listening to his music all their lives, but the only song I related to Sinn Sisamouth was “Champa Battambang.” In that manner, there was no question as to what song would be featured in our film. “Champa Battambang” itself felt like such a contradiction. Before my film and our interpretation of that song, people often thought of it as a “happy song” you can rock out to. When the teaser hit, some people even thought it was blasphemous to slow down the song in the way that we did. They hadn’t even seen our film but couldn’t imagine why a cover of a Sinn Sisamouth song would be used with images of the Khmer Rouge era. But you see, Sinn Sisamouth was a phenomenal lyricist. His songs always had nuanced metaphors. I heard the sad longing in the lyrics of “Champa Battambang,” and I knew that that same longing would be profound for the story we were telling.
HS: What is so hard to do but that you master so well is telling stories that are personal and human that strike people in the heart. There is a strong point of view and your voice holds a strong presence in each of your films. For young filmmakers who may be struggling to find their voice, what advice do you have for them in embracing their identity to create visceral stories?
CS: I often get asked if I would make a Hollywood blockbuster film. I don’t know how to answer that question. For me, I’m just trying to be inspired by the stories I choose to tell, whether its mainstream or not. If you can’t get that story out of your head, if that story haunts you, and you feel like you’re the only one who can tell it, that’s the film you should make. That’s how I felt about Paulina, Rupture, and In the Life of Music. I knew I could give myself to those stories. Directing is hard. There will be numerous subjective voices telling you how to make your story work, just remember to hold strong to the story you want to tell and in doing that, you’ll find your filmic voice, not someone else’s.
HS: In the past you have said that choosing to continue being a filmmaker is hard. What have you had to conquer to keep choosing film and what advice would you give for people who may be short on hope?
CS: Yes, I did say that… Every day I have to keep choosing to be a filmmaker. When we were in post-production of In the Life of Music, a two-year process, I wasn’t sure where the finish line was, we kept going back into the editing room, figuratively banging our heads against the screen. People were literally beginning to think the film was a myth. So yeah…of course there’s an exhaustive nature to this work and a considerable amount of passion needed to do it. But if it’s the only thing you can imagine yourself doing, then you’re in the right place. You just have to find great collaborators and know that it takes a village to make film. So, find your village.
HS: What’s next for you on your film making journey?
CS: We’re developing a couple of stories right now. I’m very excited for what’s next.
In the Life of Music and Rupture will be screened at IU Cinema on March 30 at 7 pm. Caylee So is scheduled to be present. This event is part of the series Movement: Asian/Pacific America, which is sponsored by the Asian Culture Center, Asian American Studies Program, Global Popular Music Mellon Platform, and IU Cinema.
Haley Semian isn’t afraid of the darkness in stories. She’s a junkie for a film that can explore the depths of our minds, complex social issues, the stuff people don’t usually want to talk about during small talk. She’s a recent graduate of Indiana University, obtaining a BA in media with a concentration in film production and media & society. She’s coming for your comfort zone.