An Interview With Masahiro Sugano


  • October 26, 2014


An Interview With Masahiro Sugano

Born in Osaka, Japan, Masahiro Sugano, a Sundance Film Festival alumni, is an award winning filmmaker whose accolades stretch from a Student Academy Award nomination in 1997 to his most recent award as the 2013 grant recipient of Center for Asian American Media’s Innovation Fund for his experimental web series titled Verses in Exile. His film Cambodian Son is showing at DIFF 2014.

CambodianSon_DirectorHeadshotMasahiro Sugano

How and when did you first meet Kosal and what made you decide to make a film about him?

I met Kosal when I did my first short film in Cambodia back in the summer of 2011. The project was to be conceived, filmed and edited within 24 hours. The lead actor, another exile, brought Kosal to the set. Kosal ended up recording sound for the project. He came to the screening of this 5-minute film the next day and he was really excited to find art scenes in Phnom Penh. He later made me sit down and listen to his life story. I was reluctant. I had very little experience with fully-tatted ex-gang banger, ex-convict with a record of attempted murder at that point in time. However, once I listened to him for 2 hours straight, I was blown away by the drama of his life. I could not believe how one person could be a poster child for so many social and historical issues. What was most bizarre was that Kosal came across as innocent and genuinely passionate about his future, although he had been deported only a few months prior. Kosal is one of a kind. It remains one of the strangest encounters of my life.


You’ve taken an innovative approach of weaving Kosal’s personal story with his poetry. What were the special challenges you faced as a filmmaker in achieving this?

There are very few variations within the documentary genre. The format I had for Cambodian Son was the worst one. It was the kind of documentary where the filmmaker had to start filming without having any particular story; not to mention a good ending. And one would have to film months or often years. The hope is that somehow hundreds of hours of footage will turn into a coherent story in the editing room. It is all about perseverance. I have much respect and admiration for documentary filmmakers who do this for living. I also think they are insane. I hope I will never have to make another documentary of this kind.


Can you tell us about the scriptwriting element when it comes to documentary filmmaking? Did you script Cambodian Son?

When I committed to this project, I prepared a script so that I could raise funds. I knew things would not happen how the script dictates, but I had to show that I had some ideas as to how the story would unfold. Well, nothing I put in the script happened. The Cambodian Son I have now is a collection of gifts and cruel jokes from heaven.


After directing your first feature film, you went back to shooting shorts. Is there something you find in making short films that you can’t get in a feature-length film? Short films can flourish based on a simple idea about format or aesthetics. It definitely costs less time and money. It’s a good place to hone skills and experiment with new methods of expression. It can be freer and more artsy.


You are a Japanese filmmaker based in Cambodia. Can you tell us something about what brought you to Cambodia and why you choose to live and work there.?

I did not choose to be in Cambodia. I still fight to get out of Cambodia on a weekly basis. My wife got a research grant to come to Cambodia several years ago. It was supposed to last only for a year. We tossed everything aside and left Chicago for a year of adventure in the South East. It’s nearing 4 years now. Cambodia has been extremely generous to my wife and me. We both found amazing opportunities to do creative and meaningful work. I have three very young children. Cambodia is also a fantastic place to raise kids. We plan on leaving next year, but we’ve been saying that for 4 years now.


Can you give us an idea of what the Cambodian independent film scene is like?

It is at its infancy now. But it won’t be long before we will see some amazing and innovative work come out of here. In this age, independent filmmaking is just a matter of passion, not money or industry. I am thinking the crucial key for the success of Cambodian independent filmmaking lies not in the talents of young independent filmmakers, but in the rebirth of literature scenes for the youth.


Besides making films, you also teach, or have taught. How important do you think it is for film teachers to keep making films, or for filmmakers to also teach?

If I had a 20 million-dollars contract to make 3 films, would I still be teaching? I am not sure. But I would hope so. Filmmakers have to learn and teach constantly. You must learn to get better and stay in the game. You must teach less experienced people to get things done. Often artists in general teach to earn living. But even without the need for money, teaching helps organize the philosophy or the methodology one has established for his/her art. Recently I have been doing more presentations and lectures than classroom teachings. It helps educate the public. Teaching is the only sure manner in which I can give back to the world. I would hope to be teaching one way or another for the rest of my life.

Check out the entire DIFF 2014 programme at http://diff.co.in/filmsa-z/, and register now to immerse yourself in the magic of cinema in the shadow of the majestic Dhauladhars http://diff.co.in/registration/