Daron Ker, a filmmaker born in Cambodia, in his office in San Francisco. (Robert Durell, For The Times )
Filmmaker Daron Ker's earliest childhood remembrances come from the three torturous years he spent in a malaria-ridden concentration camp in the center of Cambodia's killing fields.
His next, more pleasant memories are of watching movies projected on a tattered bedsheet in a refugee camp just across the Thai border.
"The one film that I really loved was 'Spartacus,'" Ker says enthusiastically. "It's weird, because I didn't understand anything. But it was the most powerful thing I had ever seen."
So powerful it fueled a circuitous journey to the United States, through film school and, after a nearly 30-year absence, back to his estranged homeland to direct his first full-length documentary, "Rice Field of Dreams," which has its world premiere locally this week.
It was a return both uplifting and depressing — and ultimately life-changing.
"I was just so devastated, you know what I mean?" he asks. "I had forgotten. There was a moment for me thinking, 'Where would I have been?'"
"It's hopeless," he added, referring to his initial feeling about the situation in his homeland. "In that aspect, I was, like, 'I've got to start thinking more about my people, my country.'"
Which is why Ker will return to Cambodia in two months to meet with government and university officials about founding a film school there. And why he hopes to go back again in the fall to begin work on his first narrative feature-length film, "Holiday in Cambodia," a story about refugees being repatriated after decades spent in the U.S.
In a sense, that would make the film a first-person narrative since the 38-year-old Ker is only now beginning to rediscover a country he never really knew.
Ker was just 2 when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge swept into power in Cambodia, persecuting intellectuals and anyone with Western ties, initiating a genocide that killed a reported 1 million to 2 million people. Ker's father, Kenneth, a successful professional with a university degree in accounting and finance, was an easy target, so he, his wife, two sons and a daughter were sent to a reeducation camp.
All five fled to a refugee camp in Thailand after Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia four years later, where another daughter was born and, after a Southern California church group agreed to sponsor the family, the Kers came to the U.S. when Daron was about 9. But Ker's youngest sister, Vuthona, the one born in the refugee camp, died just after her 20th birthday, partly due to the deprivations she suffered in Southeast Asia. "Rice Field of Dreams" is dedicated to her memory.
"I wanted to move forward, not remember anything," the filmmaker says of his homeland. "When I went back, it was like everything started hitting me."
"Rice Field of Dreams," which screens at Long Beach's Art Theatre on Wednesday — the start of Cambodia's annual three-day New Year's celebration — follows Cambodia's first national baseball team from rural Baribo to Thailand to compete in the 2007 Southeast Asian Games. And the exhausting cross-border journey in a rickety bus mirrored the one Ker made as a child in ways that surprised him.
"These kids, they had a little TV on the bus and they only had one kung fu movie," he says. "And these kids were watching the same movie for 16 hours. And I was thinking, that was me back on the refugee camp when I would watch the same movie over and over.
"My friend [would say,] 'You've already seen it 10 times.' So it was fascinating to see these kids, all the baseball kids, just watching the same movie over and over."
Predictably, Cambodia's fledgling baseball team was thrashed in the tournament, losing its five games by an average score of 23-3. But the quixotic vision of the team's leader, an Alabama-based fellow survivor of the Khmer Rouge terror named Joeurt Puk, was realized simply because the team showed up.
If teaching rudimentary baseball skills to kids could have such an effect, Ker thought, what would happen if he taught young Cambodians the art of moviemaking and the enterprise of digital media?
"None of these kids are ever going to make it to major league baseball," he says. "But filmmakers, it would help [the country's] economic growth. These kids could use this training and get paid to do it.
"It's a career, really."
But it's one Phillip Linson, vice dean of the American Film Institute Conservatory, says won't be created overnight.
"It's a little bit of a process," says Linson who 15 years ago helped create a filmmaking program at what is now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. "Are they going to create a film industry there? I don't know. But do they have stories there that they want to tell and that they and other people will want to see? I think so.
"That takes some craft and takes some skill."
While the vision is Ker's, much of the funding and institutional know-how will come from his family, including an uncle, Ke Kim Yan, who is now a deputy prime minister in Cambodia.