Q: What was the genesis of this particular project and what inspired you to direct this as your first film?
I did not originally set out to make a film. When Sokvannara (Sy) Sar first came to New York I photographed and filmed his dance classes in order to be able to send a record of his progress to his mother in Cambodia. Some years later, there was Cambodian TV footage from Sy’s performance that was part of an evening to celebrate the dedication of the new US Embassy building in Phnom Penh. The summer following this performance Sy competed in the International Ballet Competition in Varna where the officials filmed the performances of all the competitors. Many of my friends had come to know Sy and follow his progress as he studied ballet, and so after the Varna competition where Sy’s performance had been quite remarkable, I wanted to show these specific performances to a number of my friends. I then found a film student to help me string together Sy’s five Varna variations as well as some performances of other competitors. While we were editing these, I had the idea of incorporating some of the other footage I had collected, and so we added pieces of this as well as some hastily conducted interviews with his teacher and coach, Olga Kostritzky. The whole idea had only been to entertain a few friends for an evening, and then, to my surprise, it was well received by my peers.
Thinking about this over the next few days, I became increasingly affected by their reactions, and I began to see more clearly that within the facts and the context of Sy’s story and his development as a person and as a dancer under the guidance of a remarkable teacher, there really was a potentially interesting film. I did not know if I would be able to grasp this potential and transform it into a convincing and enjoyable film, but I thought it might be fun to try. And since I was in the privileged position of being able both to make this attempt and to fail at it, I decided to go ahead.
Q: What were your biggest challenges on this project before or during filming?
Initially I had assumed that I would simply choose and hire a director to make the film that I envisioned. But it quickly became clear that given my relationship to Sy, my intense feelings about ballet, and my strong — even if as yet unformed — ideas about what the film could be, it was not fair to subject experienced and professional filmmakers to what they might perceive to be the flaws and limitations of my vision and aptitude, and so early in this process I resolved to do the work myself, and, for better or worse, make the film that I wanted to make.
The biggest challenge after this was to take all the material I had, as well as what I knew I could still document, and to craft a story. Then, after I had begun, I felt an increasing responsibility — to Sy, to Olga, and to the many people who had helped him in this country and in Cambodia — not to mess it up.
I wanted the film to respect the different levels of the story that I knew were implicit within it, and this was very confusing because there were so many directions in which we could have gone. I wanted to avoid too much ballet because I hoped it would be more than a movie for balletomanes. I wanted to honor and express the role of teachers generally, of their dedication, and of the rapport that the best teachers are able to develop with their students. I hoped to draw some attention to Cambodia, its beauty and its heritage, and to the consequences of the lethal destruction that America did so much to catalyze. And I wanted the film to be honest and true to Sy’s character, and although he is often shown in a flattering light, I also wanted to include more challenging parts of his nature. I wanted the film to inspire other kids, privileged or very underprivileged, to seize whatever opportunities are in front of them, while still showing that nothing comes without discipline and relentless hard work.
Q: What were some of your biggest learning experiences working on this film as a first-time filmmaker?
Well, since I had never made a film before, and was learning everything on the job as I went along (even though with some gifted collaborators), the entire process was a learning experience.
Q: The film allows viewers to watch as the main character (Sy) grows up. How long of a time period was it from the first moment of preproduction to the final moments of postproduction work?
Not counting the first “film” we put together in five days in August 2006, we worked on the film from November 2006 through December 2008. Then there were an additional two weeks in April 2009 when I completely redid the 5.1 and the stereo sound mix. Of course the film includes scenes from film that I had casually shot starting in May of 2000 after Sy had first arrived in this country, but this had all been done simply to have something to send his mother in Cambodia, with no idea whatsoever that I might one day want to use it for something more ambitious.
Q:What is your favorite scene in the final cut of the film?
At different times, different scenes feel like my favorites. I have tried to leave out anything that could never seem to become a “favorite” at some time or another.
Q: What would you like people to take away from watching the film?
Perhaps most of all I hope that some people who come to the film with no feeling for ballet might develop an interest in dance from seeing the film. Beyond this of course, what people will take away from the film will to a large extent depend upon what they bring to it. I hope that there is enough there to ensure that when people who bring their own individual histories and sensibilities to the film see it, they will enjoy the experience, and also will be moved by it in different ways and on different levels. If the film is successful I anticipate I will not have foreseen many people’s individual responses to it. However, I will be pleased if the film also has the effect of encouraging young people to pursue and achieve goals of their own. It would be an additional bonus if it prompted some viewers to offer their support in cases where they recognize unusual talent.