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Karaoke Girl’s Visra Vichit-Vadakan and Sandi Sissel

Sandi Sissel and Visra Vichit-Vadakan

Receiving its world premiere in the 2013 Rotterdam Film Festival’s Tiger Awards Competition, San Francisco-based Visra Vichit-Vadakan’s Karaoke Girl is an evocative character study of a Bangkok working girl, a singer in a nighttime karaoke bar for whom memories of her rural past and dreams of romantic fulfillment form a pulsing lifeline away from an emotionally depleting world. A hybrid documentary/fiction film, Karaoke Girl stars newcomer Sa Sittijun as a character largely based on herself. The documentary sections of the film follow her back to her real hometown, and feature interviews with her real family, while the “fiction” sequences are subtly stylized dramatic scenes exploring her love-for-sale trade.

I first saw Karaoke Girl in rough cut, when first-time feature director Vichit-Vadakan and her team took part in the IFP’s Narrative Lab. At that time, the divisions between the documentary and fiction sequences were more pronounced, foregrounding the director’s early interest in formal experimentation. In Rotterdam, in its final form, however, the film’s two halves were more fluidly intercut, giving the film real subtlety and mystery. It’s possible to watch Karaoke Girl looking for the seams, and pondering its meditation on representation and cinematic identity. Or, one can simply appreciate the realistic nuances it captures while depicting a character so often stereotyped in both Western and Asian cinema.

Vichit-Vadakan collaborated with two DPs on the film, and in Rotterdam I sat down with her and one of those cinematographers, Sandi Sissel. Sissel, currently teaching at NYU, has had a storied career in both fiction and documentary. Among the latter, her credits include Chicken Ranch, Before Stonewall and Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners. Her fiction credits include Salaam Bombay!, The People Under the Stairs, and much work in network television.

Filmmaker: Sandi, how did you get involved in this project?

Sissel: I started teaching at NYU Graduate Film School a few years ago, and at one point, Visra was one of my students. She asked me if I would be interested in doing it, and I was. I really had never worked on a hybrid film, and I liked the idea of doing that, from a cinematographic place. I also have always liked Visra’s general aesthetic sense, and I always liked her.

Filmmaker: As someone with a long career in documentary, did you think much about the debate over hybrid films and their relation to documentary ethics?

Sissel: Hybrid film, I’m not an expert on the subject. But while either shooting or directing documentaries, there are certain areas in which you manipulate the subject and then edit it in a certain way to achieve a certain end. I find it kind of pleasurable that people call it “hybrid” now instead of pretending it’s pure documentary. I worked on a film that premiered at Toronto, about Angela Davis, that had interviews with Angela Davis, but there were also narrative reenactments. It was more akin to Man on Wire. I think Visra’s film is in even another realm in that respect. I have worked on so many films where the director truly manipulated the subjects, [where] it ended up being a situation where the subjects perhaps did things a certain way as a means to an end in the film. There was a time in my life when I just wanted to stop doing documentaries and do narrative films for that very reason: because I didn’t want to manipulate people. I felt that to follow them was one thing, but to utterly manipulate them was something difficult to me.

So, with hybrid films, I find it a much more upfront approach. It’s like, “Okay, this is a story about a person, but we’re going to go further. And we’re not going to call this a documentary. We’re going to call this a narrative.” I find it refreshing. And now, I look at the film, and it’s hard for me to tell the narrative from the documentary. I think that’s a very good thing. And it’s hard for the audience at the same time.

Karaoke Girl
Karaoke Girl

Filmmaker: Visra, what relationship does the documentary portion of the film and the narrative portion have to the real-life character?

Vichit-Vadakan: In the documentary portion we used documentary methods to capture the real life comings-and-goings [Sa] has in Bangkok outside of her workplace. We followed her around Bangkok for a couple weeks. We weren’t able to access her real life workplace, but we were in her apartment and walked around the streets [with her]. And then the crew went back to her village and documented her life with her family there. So that’s the documentary portion of the film. And the fictional portion encompasses more her life at work.

Filmmaker: But that is her real work, as a karoke girl, right?

Vichit-Vadakan: It is loosely based on her work. It’s not specifically her work. It’s not the location of her work. And the other character, the man in the film, is kind of a reflection of some of the relationships she’s had in the past. But it’s not specific.

Filmmaker: Did you start this project with the idea of a karaoke girl and then try to find the person, the actor, or did you discover Sa first?

Vichit-Vadakan: It was the former. I started the project with the idea of casting a working woman in the film. We interviewed a lot of different women from a lot of different parts of the industry. I met Sa through a friend.

Filmmaker: Was the documentary/narrative split part of the original idea for the film?

Vichit-Vadakan: That was something that was part of the idea even before I decided to make the film about a working woman. The original idea of the project was to do a documentary and then [have the subject] act in a narrative film.

Filmmaker: And what was it that made you want to work with Sandi on that?

Vichit-Vadakan: Well, she was my professor at NYU and I have learned so much from her through the program. So, that was part of it. But she’s also great with people, and Sa felt very comfortable around her. We had another cinematographer too, Chananun [Chotrungroj], and she filmed the documentary with me. And she was also B camera on the fiction. I wanted to work with as many women as I could on the project, both because it was a female-centric film, but also because I wanted to create an environment where Sa would feel very comfortable.

Sissel: We even had a female focus puller.

Filmmaker: Was the idea of having two DPs planned or did it just work out that way?

Vichit-Vadakan: it just worked out that way.

Filmmaker: Sandi, were there any issues regarding shooting in Thailand, where you didn’t speak the language?

Sissel: I’ve done a number of features that were done in other countries, and not in English, so I had no problem doing that. Sometimes I think it makes me be more visual. There is an issue, though, when you do documentaries in foreign languages. You can see peoples’ movements and moods through what they do but without utterly knowing what they’re saying, you can’t be as present as you might need to be. And I think [Chananun ] was totally present at that point, and it made a difference.

I should say that Visra was very much a narrative director with Sa in the narrative part of the film. That was not just a documentary filmed in a narrative fashion. The narrative heart of the film was truly a lot of acting, a lot of working the way that you would normally work on a narrative film, with lighting and a film crew that sets things up. Working with a young woman who had never been an actress before, the work that Visra did was nothing short of brilliant, I think.

Vichit-Vadakan: [Sa] was very professional when stepping into the fiction. She really felt like she was inhabiting another character separate from herself, rather than it being a transcriptive thing. She really got the idea that she was playing a role in a film, and she did her homework. And also because I think she was able to step outside herself and into this character that lightly reflected what she had gone through, she through acting was able to go through a similar transformation as her character. After we wrapped I took this long train ride home with her to the village, and she turned and confided in me that she decided to quit sex work. After the film she found another job and is now a saleswoman for a Thai product company. And she is going to go back to school. So it really heartens me that her transformation is parallel to the one in the film.

Karaoke Girl
Karaoke Girl

Filmmaker: Is the song at the end a real song? Did you write that?

Vichit-Vadakan: We wrote that song for her. We actually asked an old Thai country composer, who was quite famous back in the day, to write a song for us. And we gave him the script, and I talked to him for a while about what he would write. He wrote it in a night. When Sa does interviews she says the thing that made her change, leave her work, was mostly the song. Though rehearsing and singing the song, it really gave her the reflection and strength to move forward. The first shot in the film is her singing the song and really feeling the weight of the song. And, in the end, it’s a much lighter rendition of it. So that translates into the film.

Filmmaker: Did the Thai film world play any role in filming the actual production of movie?

Vichit-Vadakan: Well, I have a film company in Bangkok, Hidden Rooster Films, that’s a part of the indie film scene. This is our first feature.’

Filmmaker: What does it mean to have a production company in Bangkok?

Vichit-Vadakan: It’s an office with people. We do commercial work, and we do some small films and some short films. This is the only feature film that we’ve produced. My partners are Thai, they live there; we have regular employees.

Filmmaker: Is there government funding?

Vichit-Vadakan: There was government funding about a year and a half ago, but it only came once and not everyone got funding from that. We did not get funding; we actually didn’t apply for it. So most of our work is commercials.

Sissel: The crews are great there, very professional and very supportive. It’s a completely different way of working from America or Europe. I had to learn something new, which is every night you would wrap, and you’d have to say exactly what you needed the next day in terms of lights and dolly, or else it wouldn’t show up because they take everything home at night and bring it back the next morning. It goes back to the shop at night and then they pull what they need [the next day].

Filmmaker: They load out every morning?

Sissel: Load in every night and load out each morning. It’s a different world. It works, but you have to know what you’re going to do. You can’t say, “Okay, let’s use the 5K,” because it’s not there. [laughs]

Filmmaker: What did you shoot the film on?

Sissel: Part of the film is on 16mm, part is Canon 1D.

Vichit-Vadakan: 1D and 5D.

Filmmaker: And does that correlate to the doc/fiction split?

Vichit-Vadakan: Yeah, the doc is the 1D and 5D. The fiction is 16mm.

Filmmaker: As a cinematographer who has seen formats evolve for decades, Sandi, what were your thoughts on mixing these formats?

Sissel: Well I wasn’t sure, but I had so much faith in what Visra wanted to do. If I trust and choose to work with a director, I trust their vision. I knew later on, when we had to do post, that it would be a challenge.

Filmmaker: Given that the film is more intercut in its final version than it was in the earlier cut I saw at the IFP Narrative Lab, what do you think that intermingling of formats creates for the viewer? Do you want the change in formats to be noticed?

Sissel: Visra very much wanted the audience to note the difference between the documentary and the narrative.

Filmmaker: But as tightened the movie so that at times it’s not clear whether a scene is doc or fiction, did you then try to minimize those divisions?

Sissel: I think it happened in the post process quite naturally. We ended up adding some grain to the 1D and 5D footage. I have this feeling about it, but I think it takes a very sophisticated film audience to necessarily be able to see that much difference.

Filmmaker: If you would shoot the script again, would you choose to mix the formats or would you pick one?

Vichit-Vadakan: Probably pick both the same, because even when we decided to mingle them more, I still wanted there to be a difference between the film and digital. And whether or not the audience could tell, I was hoping maybe they could feel the difference. You know, the original idea of the film started off very much about the format, about the form of mixing doc and fiction, which is why my original idea was to have something more stark. But as I starting cutting, the film just became more about [Sa] than the medium. So I treated the doc and fiction footage as one. Just the same. And rather than having the doc and fiction, I cut it around her story more. And I realized that I liked that. The edit worked for me more. It wasn’t a film about blending documentary and fiction [any more].

Filmmaker: Do you want audiences to know the origin story of the film, or to understand these formal concerns?

Vichit-Vadakan: It’s out there now, but I don’t think that it’s necessary to know that. I think that the film can be seen as an entirely fictional film.

Sissel: It would be my goal that people see the film and be moved by it. Follow the story and be moved, and not be thinking about what was documentary and what was narrative. But it’s good in the end for people to know certain things. I think there are preconceived notions of what sex workers are, and it’s good to see the other side. I worked years ago on a film called Chicken Ranch, at a brothel, and these girls were girls-next-door, in a way. It was really important to me that people saw them as human beings, and it’s really important that people see Sa as a young woman. I don’t know if with pure narrative, Visra would’ve chosen her as the actress. And if it had been pure documentary, even though you could sit there for hours and hours at a time, you’re not going to be in someone’s mind as much as you can be in a narrative film. I think most people I know are not going to ask me, “Which is documentary and which is narrative?” I don’t think they’re even necessarily going to know. I’ll give you an example. [Sa] lost a lot of weight from the documentary to when we filmed the narrative, and I thought a lot of people were going to notice, but people really didn’t notice.

Filmmaker: Any thoughts on the Canons?

Sissel: I myself own a 5D and I think next year I am probably going to buy a C500. But the reason I might buy a C500 is to do documentary and narrative—I don’t mean a hybrid, but to do some documentary, which I think is more reasonable than a RED or whatever.

Filmmaker: Sandi, let me ask you a general question about your career as a cinematographer and how you choose projects now given all the change in the industry. What motivates you to say yes to a film these days?

Sissel: Well, I’m pretty busy with lots of things now. I’ve kind of chosen at this age to do workshops, and I’ve got a film I’m trying to direct. We’ll see if that happens or not. [And I want to] work on wonderful projects with lots of directors. I feel lucky that I got to know Visra, and I’m not just in Hollywood now working with the same people I’ve worked with forever. I think it’s a really changing business and I think those who are sitting and waiting for their phone to ring, their agents to call, the film business is passing them by. It’s been good for me to have a relationship with NYU and watch young people learn and grow and see what they do.

You have to know that Visra is the same age that Mira Nair was when I did Salaam Bombay! with her. Sometimes people do their best films their first time. It’s the one they care the most about and they may never have that much input again because they’ll have to work for the producer and do other things. I trusted Visra. I wouldn’t want to just go work with anybody but I trusted her and had a wonderful time doing it.

Filmmaker: What’s the film you’re trying to direct?

Sissel: Well, I’m trying to do a film with Philip Petit on the walk he’s doing in Abu Dhabi.

Filmmaker: Visra, what about you? This is your first feature. What’s next for you? Where do you see this feature taking you?

Vichit-Vadakan: The next project I’m thinking of is an online project. With this feature, if you go to the website I’ve curated some small content and experimented with doing a small installation online that’s an extension of Sa’s character. I’ve incorporated small clips as well as a live feed of her mobile uploads. It’s a way for people interested to get closer to her and actually see her everyday life and what she’s looking at and excited about. So the next project I’m thinking of is an online project. It’s still in its initial phases but it’ll be collaboration between Thailand and Burma. And I’m also writing another feature script that is Thai-based.

Filmmaker: You live in San Francisco and have a connection to the Silicon Valley culture, and the tech world. Did that environment influence your decision to do an online piece next?

Vichit-Vadakan: Yes definitely, but also I got this idea through the labs because there was a session with [Version Studios] Casper Sonnen, and I was just thinking of how great the possibilities are to push the form online. I was doing research on what had been done and there’s a lot more to do. Joana Vicente recommended a great project to me, the Arte-funded one where they have two crews on different sides of the Palestinian and Israeli border. That was one of the inspirations for the next project that I’m doing.

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