Filming Gravel and Stones in Cambodia

By Edward Hofman

gravel-and-stone-micahel-grigsby-default.jpgGravel and Stones, 2008

Gravel and Stones is a new thirty-minute documentary about the challenges faced by disabled people in Cambodia. It was filmed in December 2006 by four sixth form students at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, all members of a group called the Abingdon Film Unit (AFU). Founded in 2003 by Jeremy Taylor, the AFU enables 13-18 year-olds to devise, shoot and edit their own films under the guidance of a team of film professionals led by the renowned documentarist, Michael Grigsby. The film, directed by Edward Hofman and Ben Hollins, received a premiere at the National Film Theatre in November. It follows three Cambodians struggling to cope with the consequences of their impairment – poverty, discrimination and exclusion - but facing up to the challenges with humour, resilience and determination. Here, director Edward Hofman reflects on the experience of making the film.

Writing this in December 2007, I realise that it has been almost a year to the day since we left for Cambodia, and nearly three years since the original idea for the film was suggested. The premiere at the National Film Theatre last month made me realise quite how amazing it was that we all managed to pull through and complete a film that those who have seen seem to find both powerful and moving.

The idea was first suggested by our English teacher, Rodney Mearns. Rodney is also the Chairman of a small UK charity working in Cambodia called Landmine Disability Support (LMDS). Through him, we learned that LMDS supports approximately 2,500 disabled beneficiaries in a province of Cambodia called Kampong Chhnang. Primarily, the charity helps these poor and marginalised people to develop sustainable livelihoods and become independent members of society. Despite Rodney’s careful explanation of all this, at the outset our reaction was not much more than, “Wouldn’t that be a really fun thing to do!” It was not until we had spent several months discussing the practicalities of the project that we finally realized how demanding it would be, not least because we would need to get a group together to raise funds. Throughout this period, ideas for the structure and content of the film were discussed but of course, without going to Cambodia and meeting the people ourselves, it was very hard to know how it was all going to pan out.

gravel-and-stone-micahel-grigsby-2.jpgGravel and Stones, 2008

Eventually, after nearly two years, we had raised enough money to make the trip in December 2006. We decided that Ben Hollins and I would direct the film (the unusual idea of having two directors turned out to be invaluable later), Tom Wakeling would be the cameraman and Andrew McGrath would record the sound. The immensity of the project did not really hit us until a few weeks before we left when we went over all the things that could go wrong, such as camera and sound equipment failures, illness and accidents. We realized the list of potential disasters was almost endless. Our only experience so far had been shooting short films in and around Abingdon, so if a camera broke we simply took it back to school and borrowed another one. But in rural Cambodia, the nearest place we were likely to find spares was in the capital, Phnom Penh, which was more than 50 miles away – a distance far more significant in Cambodia than in the UK - and even there, the chances of finding the right parts were thin.

Night falls quickly in Cambodia, and despite what we had been told about hot, dry weather at that time of year, there was torrential rain on our first night in Kampong Chhnang. As Tom walked into the hotel, he slipped on the wet tiles and cut his head open - our first hitch. We rushed him to the local hospital where a surgeon cleaned and started to stitch the wound, but then there was a power cut. A combination of quick thinking and the genius of modern technology saw the rest of the procedure take place by the light of our mobile phones. Tom survived to film another day, and for the rest of our time in Cambodia he looked like an injured warrior with a bloody bandage tied around his head - a look of which I think we were all secretly jealous.

On our first day of filming, we decided to shoot landscapes to evoke the atmosphere and feeling of the country. As Andrew was still in Oxford at this point, we thought it prudent not to jump straight into recording interviews, so I briefly took over his role, pointing the microphone in the direction of any sound, but trying to lose Tom’s constant cries of “beautiful, perfect shot”. Of course, Tom was right. It was beautiful, we had never seen anything quite like it, and every shot felt like the opening of an epic. I remember, as we looked over a lake with the sun glittering off it, and saw farmers harvesting rice and a boy standing on the back of a water buffalo, fishing, we turned to each other and said, “My God, we are actually filming in Cambodia!” It was something that two years ago had been little more than a fantasy.

gravel-and-stone-micahel-grigsby-3.jpgGravel and Stones, 2008

A week into the shoot, our film was starting to find a structure. During the first week, we took time to visit a number of LMDS clients, as recommended by Rodney. They were all fascinating characters, each with an incredible story to tell. They were friendly and receptive towards us, eager to explain their lives and the story of how they became disabled. Unfortunately, we knew we could not include everyone in the film and there would have to be some difficult decisions. Eventually, we decided that Ben and I would both choose two people to interview. In the end, only three would make it into the final edit, but their stories formed the structure of the film. We had Kosal, a young boy whose right leg was deformed by polio; Um Sopha, who lost both her legs to ulcers when she was 15; and Chiang Ying, a 50 year-old man who lost both his legs after stepping on a landmine during the war.

I think the reason we finally settled on these three was that they not only hinted at the range of disability in Cambodia, a country that after thirty years of fighting has one of the highest rates of disability in the world, but they also shared an incredible desire to overcome their disability and live as normal a life as possible. All three were amazingly strong people. Sopha was strong in a quiet, reserved manner. She overcame her disability by joining a dance group that combined able-bodied and disabled young people. Chiang Ying was physically strong, with an upper body like a bull after learning to walk on his hands, but he also had an unshakeable will to survive and provide for his family. Kosal was clearly highly intelligent and talented. He sang in the market to earn money, and whilst like any youngster, he disliked school and had trouble concentrating, unlike many others, he could talk at length on a range of subjects. If given a chance, he would clearly not be destined for a life of begging, as many with disabilities are.

gravel-and-stone-micahel-grigsby-4.jpgGravel and Stones, 2008

With our choices made, Ben and I took turns to go out into the countryside with Tom and Andrew to film the clients, whilst the other director would stay at LMDS headquarters in Kampong Chhnang, poring over the previous day’s footage, and, with the help of the translators, adding subtitles for the interviews so they would be ready for editing on our return to England.

Considering the number of things that could have gone wrong, I’d say we were fairly lucky. At one point, we lost the camera bag, containing some of the footage and the camera lenses, but it was picked up and returned by a friendly and film-saving Cambodian villager. No one suffered serious illness, no one had film-stopping injuries and most importantly, no one lost sight of what the film was about. I think it was this mutual understanding that allowed us to create what I believe (and hope all who watch it will agree!) is a powerful and thought-provoking film.

Gravel and Stones was made by Edward Hofman and Ben Hollins (directors), Tom Wakeling (Camera) and Andrew McGrath (Sound), and was produced by Michael Grigsby, Rodney Mearns, Jonas Mortensen and Jeremy Taylor for the Abingdon Film School Unit. It is currently being entered for film festivals around the world. For further information, please email