Moving Picture

In the summer of 2010 filmmaker Andrew Hongo traveled from New York to Cambodia to make a documentary about street kids in the resort town of Siem Reap. In the process he befriended a remarkable young man, whose story stayed with Hongo long after the film's final frame.

By / December 2011

It was a warm June afternoon in 2010, and I was exploring Phsar Samarki, an open market just a short tuk-tuk ride from the center of Siem Reap, a resort town just a few miles from the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia. There, at the entrance, among colorful rows of durians, custard apples, mangoes, and lychee, was Chak.

He looked like pretty much any other street kid. His clothes were dirty and wrinkled, his hair disheveled, face gaunt, eyes glassy and distant. He looked to be 11 or 12 years old, tops.

In one hand, he held a red sweater that he lifted to his nose a few times every minute. I knew what was in it; I’d seen lots of streetkids doing the same thing. It was a can of glue, a common adhesive used around the house, gooey and viscous and bright yellow. The fumes would give him a high, staving off hunger pangs for another hour, or two, or three.

I walked up to him, smiled and shook his hand, and via my translator introduced myself. I told him I was an American who wanted to learn about young people in Cambodia. Would he be willing to talk with me? I wasn’t sure how much he comprehended in his glue-sniffing state, but he agreed to sit on the sidewalk and talk.

I’d been in Cambodia about two weeks, having received a grant to film “Legacy,” a documentary about streetkids in Cambodia and the lingering effects of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Most days I roamed the streets and markets and garbage dumps, meeting kids as young as eight or nine years old, asking them to tell me their stories. Some were orphans; others had run away from fathers who beat them bloody.They fended for themselves on the streets, usually surviving by roving in packs like wolves.

Hongo's film traces the lives of Cambodian street kids, many of whom are addicted to sniffing glue.

I’d learned about these kids years earlier, while working in Southeast Asia with an NGO, and had vowed to return. My heart broke for them, and this documentary, I hoped, would tell their stories to a wider world. It was my way of trying to help.

Beginning that June afternoon and continuing over the next month, Chak let me into his life in a way that still amazes me. He seemed to trust me completely. He let me film him in every situation: as he knelt before vendors at the open market with hands outstretched, begging for food; as he fell asleep on a concrete sidewalk along a highway lined with shops and resorts; as he woke up and, before even thinking of breakfast, opened his can of glue and sniffed until his eyes glazed over.

Over those weeks of filming, what emerged was a story uniquely Chak’s, yet also representative, in many ways, of what the country as a whole had been through in recent decades.

In 1975, Pol Pot’s brutal regime took power, and over the next four years committed one of the worst genocides in human history. All told, some 1.7 million people — nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time — died by execution, starvation, or forced labor. Every Cambodian I spoke with who had lived during those years had a story of losing loved ones. Many had barely escaped death themselves.

Chak’s father had survived Pol Pot’s regime only to step on a Khmer Rouge landmine in 1984. His leg was badly wounded and had to be amputated. A few years later, he died from related complications. Chak’s mother, unable to support the family on her own, moved to Siem Reap and turned to begging as a livelihood.

Many poor, rural Cambodians thought of Siem Reap as a city paved with gold, full of rich foreigners and their foreign currency. There was money to be made there, whether by working as a chef in a fancy hotel or by begging from tourists on the sidewalks outside.

In Siem Reap, Chak’s mother remarried a man who, to hear Chak tell it, was a monster. He was always inebriated, always getting in fights or beating him. Chak ran away and refused to go home. He missed his real father, he told me. He would think of him and dream of him at night.

I interviewed Chak’s stepfather several times, and each time he was either drunk, hung over, or crying. I could see why Chak had run away from him. But after I heard the man’s Khmer Rouge stories, I began to sympathize with him. He told me he had seen dozens of people murdered and buried before his own eyes when he was just a child.

My guess was that he, like most of Cambodia’s adult population, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As my departure grew closer, I began to wonder if the film I was making would make any difference in Chak’s life. I had originally thought that by simply portraying the harsh realities of street life in Cambodia, people would be motivated to do something about it. Now I wondered: even if the film rallied people to get involved, would any of it affect Chak directly? There was no question about it, I had become attached to the young man, and I began to wonder if I needed to do something more tangible, more immediate to help him out.

One night after a long interview, I sat Chak down for a heart-to-heart. I told him I thought he was a smart kid, a good kid, and that I wanted him to make better choices with his life. I could take him to a shelter where he could get a bed and food, and maybe even start studying again. “Will you go with me?” I asked.

“No, thanks,” Chak said. It seemed after all we’d been through he still preferred life on the streets.

I returned to New York to finish the film. From time to time, one of my translators would send me an update on Chak. Sometimes someone would see him outside the market, apparently still on the streets. Other times he’d surface at a drug rehab center or his parents’ village, only to disappear after a few days, or weeks.

The film completed, I traveled back to Cambodia a year later to screen it in schools, orphanages, slums, and rehab centers. I didn’t know if I’d be able to find Chak. I didn’t know if he was still on the streets, if he was still sniffing glue, if he was even alive. Chak had once told me that a friend of his vomited blood after sniffing glue, and eventually died.

I believed the story. I’d seen other glue-sniffers who’d lost their teeth, whose faces were covered with scabs and acne, who’d lost so much weight their clothes hung loose on their skeletal frames. They looked like the walking dead.

One night, as we were setting up our equipment for a screening in a small village church, a motorbike pulled into the driveway. And there, sitting on the back, smiling radiantly, was Chak. He jumped off the bike and ran to me, nearly bowling me over in an embrace. Somehow, my translator had gotten word to Chak of my return, and, in response, he had caught a bus home from a neighboring province. Chak had put weight on. His face had rounded out. His skin was tanned and healthy-looking. His eyes were clear. He wore a black collared shirt and designer jeans.

We met the next day at the Cambodian version of 7-Eleven, and there at a plastic table over a couple of Cokes, I asked him what had happened over the previous year. Chak told me that a few months earlier, the police had arrested him and thrown him into a government-run drug rehab center.

Unable to get glue, he’d finally kicked his sniffing habit. I asked him what he’d done to get arrested. “I was harassing a Red Cross worker,” he replied.

“Why were you harassing a Red Cross worker?”

“My friends told me that in the drug rehab center you get free meals and you can watch television.” He laughed, then continued: “They lied to me. You don’t get to watch television in there.”

Chak never completed the rehabilitation program. After a couple months, the staff gave him some money to buy a block of ice. Chak took the money and split. He went to live with a stepbrother and try to earn some money. He’d not been too successful finding work, he told me, but he had managed to stay off drugs and stay off the streets. “I turned 18,” he explained. “I decided to grow up.”

Chak’s relationship with his parents had improved, too. His mother had started a small business selling seafood, and his stepfather, who’d finally cut down his drinking, was growing vegetables in their backyard. Chak said he was happy about the changes and sent money to them when he could.

Following our conversation, I set up my laptop in the convenience store and showed Chak the film that had occupied a full year of my life. It had screened in universities and film festivals, for professors and producers and writers—but this was the first time Chak had seen it. I wasn’t sure how he’d react; the film laid bare the details of his life as only a documentary can.

Chak watched attentively, smiling every now and then. When it finished, Chak pulled the earphones out and looked at me. “Are you glad we did this film?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s important to show the real life. And I can see how much my life has changed.” In fact, Chak told me, he wanted his friends and family to see how much his life had changed, too. He suggested showing the film in the slum where his family lived.

As a documentary filmmaker, I had encountered all sorts of technical challenges. But I’d never faced anything like this. It was a cool evening, the sky deep blue after a glorious sunset of oranges and golds, and we were setting up in Chak’s village, a muddy slum of grass shacks with no running water or electricity, save one storefront facing the highway.

My biggest immediate fears were (a) that our makeshift extension cord — a series of improvised devices including two live wires, duct tape, and a grounding strip that only worked when held at a certain angle — would short, leaving us all in darkness; (b) that one of the many stray dogs and/or naked toddlers running back and forth would trip over said extension cord; or (c) that the bamboo table supporting the projector, speakers, laptop, extension cord, and a half-dozen young spectators, would collapse onto the dirt ground below.

But we did our best, and soon a crowd of about 60 neighbors had gathered in the courtyard, standing, squatting, or sitting on little red plastic stools. Chak walked up in front of the screen, a bedsheet borrowed from my hotel room, and called the crowd to attention.

“My name is Chak,” he shouted. “Do you recognize me?”

“Yes!” the audience responded.

“If you look at my life before and compare it to my life now… well, you’ll see how much has changed,” Chak said. “Let’s watch together!”

The music began, the opening credits rolled, and miraculously, the MacGyver-ed electrical system worked just fine. When Chak first appeared on-screen in a sequence that showed him walking through busy streets and begging for food and money, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. The topic was one American audiences found heavy and even depressing, but for the people in this village, there was an evident pride in seeing one of their own on the big screen.

When another of the characters in the film described how he survived Pol Pot’s regime and mass famine, I heard an old woman next to me repeating his words. “No food, no rice,” she said. She had lived through it, too. She remembered.

When Chak’s stepfather came on, dancing to Cambodian music in a drunken stupor, the audience howled with laughter. It wasn’t an unkind response; it was as if they were laughing with him, reacting to a situation they knew all too well (and may have lived through themselves).

Chak, upon Andrew Hongo's return to Cambodia. The filmmaker says he almost didn't recognize the boy.

The 40-minute film concluded, and as the closing credits rolled, I stepped forward along with and Chak and his parents. I made a few rather forgettable remarks. Chak beamed at my side. The evening clearly belonged to him. And what a beautiful evening it was. An open-air theater, the stars overhead bright against the dark Siem Reap sky.

It was a celebration, really, born from the knowledge that as bleak as Chak’s life was before, he was moving forward. As one little girl in his village told my translator, “We used to be afraid of Chak when he would be high on glue. But now he is so nice.”

I took Chak and our crew out to Kentucky Fried Chicken afterwards—which in Cambodia is considered a fancy place, a place worthy of a special occasion. Chak told me he wants to make something of his life—to study more and maybe attend culinary school so that he could get a job at a restaurant or hotel. Above all, he said he wanted to be able to help his family, to earn money to give to his parents.

It’s something I hear from almost every young person I meet in Cambodia: a desire to give back to the older generation. One of the folks who helped me with the film — a teacher at the Siem Reap drug rehab center — posted a photo on Facebook a couple weeks after I left. It shows Chak, wearing a lime-green t-shirt and black slacks, teaching a bunch of little kids from his village.

He’s standing up at the front of the class, while the kids are spread out on the dirt floor, working on coloring books. It’s part of a program that provides education for kids in slums, and Chak has jumped on as a teaching assistant.

I’ve no idea what Chak is saying in that moment, but I imagine he’s encouraging those kids, telling them he likes the colors they’re using, or that their drawing is improving. I wonder if he sees himself as an older brother of sorts, looking out for these kids, doing all he can to help them in their studies, to help them make their way to a better life.

I see that Chak is making good on what he told me when I last saw him: he had decided it was time to leave his old life behind and begin a new one.