Between Fiction and Non-Fiction - Alum I-Chuan Lee in conversation with Ann Collins

Between Fiction and Non-Fiction – About My Cambodian Film Project

李以全 I-Chuan Lee (b. Taiwan) is a multimedia artist based in New York City. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a MFA in Photo, Video, and Related Media in 2016. He works as a film maker, photographer, video art artist and illustrator. His documentary photojournalist experience in Cambodia, Nepal, India and Taiwan affects his aesthetic significantly and his work is often questioning the meaning of our lives.

Faculty member Ann Collins has been working in documentary film for over twenty-five years. Her editing credits include the feature documentaries The Heart of the Matter, Belly Talkers, The Charcoal People, and Sound and Fury, all of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before receiving theatrical and television distribution. Sound and Fury was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Ann Collins: What inspired you to choose child sex labor as the subject of your video?

I-Chuan Lee: It began when I was working on a project to raise funding for an orphanage in Cambodia where the children were HIV positive. The NGO I was working for had sent me to document the living conditions. It had a huge impact on me and although it was several years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about the causes of their situation. My research led me to encounter the sexual exploitation of children, and I wanted to make a film to inform others.

AC: What is the translation of Srey Lia? Is it a little girl’s name?

ICL: Yes. “Srey” is a prefix in Khmer, which means “girl” or “female” and “Lia” is a common name both in English and Khmer. Everything in this film, including the protagonist, is quite symbolic. It’s my intention to reinforce that this story is not a unique occurrence, but one that reflects countless people in the real world who were represented by actors. However, I still wanted to personalize the character Srey Lia and use her name as the title of the film.

 Still from Srey Lia (2017)

Still from Srey Lia (2017)

AC: You cite Robert Capra’s Falling Soldier photograph as a work to which you have given a great deal of consideration. That photograph opens many questions for you about truth versus a kind of un-truth in art. After making this video, how do you now feel about Falling Soldier, and in what ways did that image guide your process?

ICL: In my experience as a documentary filmmaker there are certain things that can’t be gracefully put in a conventional documentary if we follow a moral code. We are forced to use title cards, narratives and interviews just so we can cover the historical material that is either missing or physically impossible to capture. This compromise often sacrifices other areas we seek to portray in the film. And I think the authenticity of Falling Soldier is the non-fiction-ness and the true-ness isn’t always positively correlated. When the topic is about a metaphoric narrative in which I have total control; if not more truthful, would at least be easier to make it emotionally accurate than making a conventional documentary.

AC: What other work inspired you as you conceptualized Srey Lia?

ICL: I like the narrative structure that Béla Tarr employs, especially the way he deals with space, framing and camera movement. Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Tango is also a piece about looping actions and a room. He understood how to choose the right visual effect techniques for the topic. Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov helped me comprehend the connections between the cinematographer, audience and the environment from a different perspective.

AC: Watching a video is a temporal event; time passes while we watch it. In your video, time is manipulated in several interesting ways. It is continuous—the entire piece appears to be all one camera take. Yet within that take, the video goes forward and in reverse. What about your subject and your personal vision inspired this?

ICL: I wanted to make sure that the audience was “hooked” at the beginning of the film, and so I thought it would be more intriguing to show the “result” first. Then time goes backward as if we’re tracing Srey Lia’s early life. The camera is constantly panning to strengthen the sense of looping in a room. The panning direction also implies the passage of time. So when the panning stops and goes in the other direction, the audience expects something else will happen, as if the girl could break the cycle. But even her escape route is a descending spiral—like rewinding a clock.

 Stills from Srey Lia (2017)

Stills from Srey Lia (2017)

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AC: Your use of sound, particularly off-screen sound, adds a great deal to the viewer’s experience of the space within the frame. Can you comment on some of the sound choices you made?

ICL: Sounds play a very important part in this piece. I imagined that being caged in a tiny room is like being blindfolded. While you’re desperately trying to understand what is going on, the visible environment is immutable, and all the information you can get is from your hearing. It’s also about our instincts and senses—about how animals listen. Hunters and those who are preyed upon listen in very different ways: the former is focused in searching for and evaluating its prey; the latter tends to listen to the whole environment, and to analyze and locate possible incoming threats. In this film, the audience is the hunted; to create this desperate and hopeless feeling, I installed a series of sounds that surround the room. I like the sound that the bed makes whenever the weight changes, which is indicative of the tedious aspects of sexual exploitation. It made this sexual abuse enterprise even more insidious.

AC: What was most challenging about the production and editing of this video?

ICL: The most difficult part was the storyboarding. Due to the consistency of camera movement and the manipulation of time in the video, I had to figure out a way to bring all of the elements together in the right order, not just to tell the story, but also to make it logical in reverse, to fit everything in given the interior limitations and to make sure each cut could be merged into the next sequence. I didn’t have much freedom when the storyboard was complete, since there was no way to change the sequencing and remain in the one-cut structure.

 Still from Srey Lia (2017)

Still from Srey Lia (2017)

AC: What was most challenging about working with young actors?

ICL: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that challenging. The only issue was in filming the exterior scene. Srey Neath, who played the younger Srey Lia, was frightened by a lunatic on the street and after a few shots she refused to go there again, so we had very limited footage for the escape scene.

AC: What kind of impact do you hope the work will have?

ICL: I do hope this film will help more people to understand that sometimes we don’t get to choose what we do, and that society is still far from an ideal one. Making someone think is good enough for me.

AC: Do you think you would have made this video if you had not attended the MFA program?

ICL: I probably would have tried, but it’s hard to imagine the outcome without the things I learned at SVA.

AC: Did you find a community of like-minded artists at SVA? A diversity of other styles? How did your fellow students and their work influence you?

ICL: I like the diversity; everyone’s working on their own stuff and we have the structure of the program that brings us together. It’s good that we’re from various backgrounds and perspectives—that helps us to expand the way we see our own works.

 Still from Srey Lia (2017)

Still from Srey Lia (2017)

AC: Are you able to say anything about where you are presently going with your work?

ICL: Honest answer: Trying to figure out a way to stay in New York and survive.

AC: Is there anything else you would like to say?

ICL: If you ever ride a motorbike in Cambodia, make sure you have insurance.

Srey Lia is a fiction film about the unbreakable loop of poverty, illness and prostitution. It addresses the shift from traditional human trafficking to modernized sex industry in Cambodia and many other places in Southeast Asia. It questions the essential exploitations in the industry when systematic injustices are undeniable. This film was shot in Cambodia with a mixture of actors, props and non-fiction sceneries and characters of the red-light district. Most of the shots are designed to be made into a continuous camera panning video in a tiny room in order to embody the circle of prostitution.