Our past informs our present and our future. For moviemaker Daron Ker, his past as a Cambodian refugee has informed his career as a director of documentaries. In Rice Field of Dreams, Ker follows a refugee’s return to Cambodia to start the nation’s first baseball team, while his I Ride tells the very different story of The Fryed Brothers Band, famous among American bikers. Ker, who is now in pre-production on his film Holiday in Cambodia, about a Cambodian deported from the U.S., spoke with MovieMaker about the pride he feels in his Cambodian heritage, the inspiration for his films and his first foray into narrative moviemaking.
Samantha Husik (MM): You were born in Cambodia and spent your childhood in an internment camp. How did you go from that life to your current life as a moviemaker?
Daron Ker (DK): Faith. It’s amazing that I’m still alive, considering my near-death experiences due to malaria, drowning and hunger. My life changed when we arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand. It was at this camp that I was introduced to the magic of movies. I believe watching movies every night kept me alive spiritually. I remember telling myself, “If I get out of here alive, I’m going to make movies.” Then, my prayers were answered. I was sponsored to go to southern California, the mecca of the film industry. It was then that I decided that I should pursue my dream and attend film school. In the fall of 1996, my dream became a reality when I started at the Academy of Art University.
My childhood life and my current life are similar: I’m still hungry—from starving refugee to starving artist—but this time I’m also hungry to express my creativity and put Cambodia on the map. I want to honor the ghosts of my people who didn’t have a chance to survive during the Khmer Rouge, when over two million of my people were killed. My goal is to make my ancestors proud and to give hope to the future generation of young aspiring moviemakers. Dreams do come true, if you believe in yourself.
MM: How did the ideas for I Ride and Rice Field of Dreams come about? How did you find the subjects of your documentaries?
DK: Both films were actually happy accidents. The ideas came to me when I least expected them over six years ago. I think it’s more organic and exciting that way, [as opposed to] looking for a story.
For I Ride, I was invited to go to Sturgis, South Dakota to location scout for a feature film that never materialized. I did not know where Sturgis was at the time, so I figured that I would go and see what it was all about and bring my camera along to do some test shots to prepare myself for my next project. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got there. I was told I’d be staying at the Animal House, a biker hangout. There were over 100 bikes surrounding this house with broken windows, where these huge guys with big beards were partying with naked girls. There was constant noise of people partying, but as I walked up to the house everything went silent and moved in slow motion. It was like a movie. I was nervous about fitting in but I tried to remain calm and not show it, especially when everyone there was completely mad-dogging me. I was greeted by a big biker. I stuck my hand out to shake his hand, and he looked at me weird and tuned away. He informed me I’d be staying in the dungeon. I was thinking, “Holy shit, there’s no way I’m getting out of here alive!”
One morning, when I was out cleaning my camera, I was approached by Harry Fryed, the lead singer of The Fryed Brothers Band. He asked me if I wanted to shoot some stuff at their gig that night. I told him that I would love to. I got to the gig at The Knuckle Saloon and I was blown away by how colorful it was. There were fistfights, girls walking around with barely anything on and people just having a good old time partying. Later that night, The Fryed Brothers came on and I was blown away by their creative talent. It was definitely a piece of Americana that I’d never seen before; all these hardcore bikers packed into the place, dancing and just enjoying themselves.
The aspect of their story that I admired most was that Harry and Tommy Fryed started the band as a tribute to their brother Mark, who introduced the brothers into the motorcycle world. I was also moved by their music, particularly the song “I Ride.” After the show, I walked over to them and asked them if I could make a film about their life. They agreed. For the remaining four days I was there, I tagged along with them and shot everything. The rest is history!
Rice Field of Dreams was born after my friend brought me a San Francisco Chronicle article about a cook bringing baseball to Cambodia. After reading the story about this cook from Alabama who bought a few acres of a rice field in Cambodia and built a baseball field on it, I had to learn more. So I got ahold of this guy, Joe Cook, and told him I was interested in making a film about his story. In the meantime, I was still working on I Ride. But one day in 2007, Joe called me up, excited that Cambodia’s first National Baseball Team would be competing in the 24th annual SEA Games [Southeast Asian Games]. I postponed my work on I Ride to document this extraordinary event. With support from the Doobie Brothers, I was able to get my crew on the plane to Cambodia to make Rice Field of Dreams.
MM: Your pride in your Cambodian heritage is evident in your films. Why is it so important to you—and moviemakers in general—to represent heritage in film?
DK: I think everyone should be proud of their heritage. As a Cambodian, I am very proud of where I came from. I know that we’ve been through a lot during the Khmer Rouge era, but the future is looking brighter every day. I want to share the beauty of my culture to the world, just like China, India, Korea and Thailand are doing. I want to let my people know that Cambodians can achieve their goals, [just] as I achieved my goal of making films.
MM: You’re producing your first narrative film now; can you tell us about it?
DK: Holiday in Cambodia is a story of a young immigrant who is unjustly deported back to Cambodia from his adopted home in the U.S.A. He is forced to learn to survive in a homeland that’s unfamiliar and unwelcoming. I started developing the script about ten years ago after watching a film entitled City of God, about young men growing up in Rio de Janeiro. The movie was so inspirational to me. I feel that my life story is very similar to those kids in the slum, and the story reminded me of when I was running wild at the refugee camp with my little crew.
This film is about reconnecting yourself to your roots and enjoying the beauty of your culture, which sometimes you can’t appreciate until you completely strip away the freedoms you take for granted. I cannot wait to start production on Holiday in Cambodia!
MM: How will your approach to directing narrative differ from your approach to directing non-fiction?
DK: My approach for directing a narrative will be similar to non-fiction in that, by being prepared for anything, the film can develop organically. Directing a narrative is like having a bullet train come at you from all directions, and a documentary is like going fishing for information to fill the story. I need to get mentally and physically prepared and have the actors and crew understand my point of view with a scripted story. The difference will be in working with a larger crew and actors, as opposed to real people. Another difference is that, on a narrative film, I’ll know when I am going to shoot, eat and sleep at the end of the day, which is not a luxury you have on a doc, where you have to be prepared for anything to happen at any time.
MM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d offer to aspiring moviemakers?
DK: My advice to aspiring moviemakers is to just follow your dreams and make it happen! Don’t be afraid of the speed bumps. If you keep on riding that speed bump, it will smooth out sooner or later. Filmmaking is a journey that has a [beginning], a middle and an end. Never quit in the middle of your journey!