Issue: October 1, 2008


BERKELEY, CA — Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki (Days of Waiting,1990) spent much of January in Cambodia, producing his latest documentary, The Conscience of Nhem En. The hour-long program, which will air on HBO in 2009, takes an intimate look at the country 30 years after the end of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror.

From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge rounded up men, women and children, and sent them to a school in Phnom Penh, which had been converted into a prison. The prisoners were registered and photographed, and were then tortured or immediately killed. Of the 17,000 who entered the S-21 facility, only eight are known to have survived. In this documentary, three tell their stories, as does Nhem En, a 16-year-old at the time, who photographed thousands of prisoners before they were executed. His testimony lacks regret or sympathy.  

"The interesting thing for me was the photographer," says Okazaki of Nhem En. "He was a Khmer Rouge soldier, who was trained in lighting and photography, but he is not a traditional sort of character to build a movie around. He was 16 years old and he is kind of a cold, cold person. It became sort of the challenge of this film: to build it around someone who actually is not admirable."


Okazaki traveled to Cambodia to conduct research for the film and was surprised to find so many of the interview subjects available. He decided to begin production immediately. Outfitted with just a single Sony HVR HDV camera, and assisted by an associate producer, he spent 17 days shooting interviews and capturing stills of the surviving prisoner photos. Many were intentionally destroyed by fire once the Khmer Rouge's reign came to an end.

"When the Vietnamese came in, I think they immediately realized the importance of them and preserved them, and decided that the prison would become a museum," says Okazaki. "There is an exhibit there and they've mounted the photographs, sort of haphazardly. And sometimes you don't know what it is that you are looking at.

"The interesting thing about the photographs is, they could have just done bad mug shots. But for some strange reason, they used a large format camera and lighting, and did these quite beautiful portraits of the people before they were killed. Some of the people clearly know that they are about to die, but some people look strangely oblivious to what is going on."

Okazaki, who has a film background, says he transitioned directly to digital video, having never worked with analog formats. He'll often work with editors on his projects, but in this case, decided to cut the film himself, working on a PC-based Avid Media Composer.

"I like the Sony Mini HDV cameras a lot and wanted to try it," notes the filmmaker. "We've had some difficulty with the Avid and working with the footage — as opposed to Final Cut Pro. It's been a bit of a struggle on this project, bringing it into it and spitting it out. We just did the final cut and are starting the sound cutting, and finishing everything up, hopefully, in the next couple of weeks."

Okazaki is also serving as narrator for the film. "I prefer not to do it," he says of the role, "but it just seemed that the filmmaker's point of view really helped the film a lot in terms of what you were seeing."

His Berkeley office is in the same building as Fantasy Studios, so he often booked sessions to record wild narration, knowing what he was cutting upstairs. "I am not a professional narrator and had to go in there constantly, so it was great to just go down two floors and cut narration and try different things."

At press time, Fantasy Studios (www.fantasystudios.com) engineer Jesse Nichols had worked with Okazaki nearly a dozen times, recording VO for the film. Nichols has been at Fantasy for seven years.

For The Conscience of Nhem En, Nichols and Okazaki worked in whatever room was available. Nichols would build an isolation booth, laying down carpet and configuring three gobos in a triangular fashion. He used a Neumann TLM103 for VO, noting that is has similar characteristics to the popular U87, but in a smaller package, allowing for better placement. Recording was done to a Mac-based Digidesign Pro Tools system.

"I only filter a little low end to take the room out," says Nichols, who rolls off 70Hz and below. The pre-amp is up loud, he notes, and he'll add a limiter on the input, just in case of spikes during the reading. Okazaki reads without picture and "his deadpan delivery" works very well, Nichols notes. He'll give Okazaki a CD with 16-bit/48kHz WAV files for his Avid edit.

Okazaki has worked with HBO Documentaries for about 12 years and describes the relationship as "a dream situation for a filmmaker," in part because of its flexible deadlines. "I'll ask, 'When do you want the film?' And they'll say, 'When it's the film you want it to be,'" says Okazaki. "The creative group there is really wonderful."