Almost a year ago (a year next month), I came in contact with a story that I couldn’t stop thinking about. While traveling, I had attended an event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where a bunch of kids from a school performed some hip-hop and breakdancing routines. Some of the little kids were so cute I could hardly stand it and some of the older ones were really impressive dancers. The school was called Tiny Toones and it catered to impoverished and at-risk youth. These were kids that previously hadn’t been going to school and couldn’t afford to or were getting into trouble with gangs and drugs. The school used dance to engage students into an education, where they also learned English and Khmer. I thought it was wonderful and brilliant and was so inspired by the school and what it was doing for these kids.
I wanted to learn more. I wanted to help.
I went to Tiny Toones to take a hip-hop class with some friends as a way to support the school by paying for a lesson. As fate would have it that day, the power was out, so while we waited for it to come back up, the head of the school told us how it was started.
It had been started by a guy named “KK” who had been born in a Thai refugee camp during the Khmer Rouge and emigrated legally to LA. Growing up as a poor refugee, ended up joining a gang and was incarcerated. When he got out, he was deported back to Cambodia, a country he had never even been to and knew no one. When he arrived in 2004, kids started showing up at his door, asking him to teach them breakdancing & hip-hop. He saw they were like him and he knew he could give them a better shot at life through dance and education and avoid making the mistakes of his own youth. Now, the school has 100 students and former students performing internationally and some coming back as teachers. It’s a school that gives kids an invaluable education and the opportunity to have and pursue their dreams.
I was blown away.
It couldn’t have been easy growing up in America as a refugee. It certainly led KK down a path of desperation and trouble. And I couldn’t imagine being sent away to a foreign country to live for the rest of my life. Can you? And instead of falling into old habits, KK instead chose to lead kids like him into a better life than he had. He accepted that he made mistakes and wanted to prevent kids like him from doing the same.
The wheels in my head were turning.
This is the story about a hip-hop school giving kids who sleep on the street hope.
It’s a conversation about the larger issues of deportation and the refugee crisis.
It’s a window into seeing how a brutal communist regime in Cambodia changed the lives of every Khmer.
And it’s about how we can let our mistakes define us or learn from them to create positive change.
And what an incredible story it is.
So incredible, that I didn’t stop thinking about it for months.
I’m a film producer by trade, but while I was traveling, I was writing full-time and hadn’t made a film in a while. When I was done traveling, I was getting itchy to make a film again. And I still couldn’t stop thinking about those kids. The kids that could just as easily end up back begging on the streets, or getting involved with drugs and gangs, or living a life of hopelessness. Could I help? Could I use my storytelling abilities to make a difference and share this story?
Could I make this documentary?
The idea seemed very scary and big, but I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. A close friend kept pushing me to at least explore the idea of seeing if I could do it (thank you, Michael).
I consulted a dear friend, colleague, and brilliant filmmaker Josh Seftel that May, six months after I went to Tiny Toones. I told him the story and waited for him to tell me it was a bad idea so I could put these thoughts to rest. Instead, he said something I will never forget:
There is no glory in short documentaries and no real plan. You just keep chipping away at pieces to see if you can do it until you’re doing it.
So, I thought, well, I might as well chip away. Surely, at one point, one of those pieces won’t come together and I can put it away then.
But the pieces started coming together.
A filmmaker I had met in Phnom Penh (fate?) said he knew a great DP and we could use his camera equipment.
A friend of mine who is an amazing editor said he would edit it for free.
A longtime collaborator said he’d be in to produce it (this was a big one for me. I felt way less alone with him on board).
The person who had introduced me to Tiny Toones in Phnom Penh had experience as a Fixer and was available.
Another friend who is one of the best musicians I’ve met said he would do the music and post sound.
And finally, the guys that run Tiny Toones and the school board said yes.
Everyone said yes.
They fell in love with the story, my passion for it, all of it.
No stopping me now, right?
With all the pieces coming together, there was still one big glaring obstacle…how was I going to pay for this? It seemed impossible. I thought about crowdfunding, but I didn’t know if anyone would care about helping me to make this film. But after speaking with a friend and fellow producer that said I had to try (thank you, Julien), I put all the doubts and fears aside, launched the crowdfunding campaign, and hoped that family, friends, former colleagues, fellow filmmakers and random fans would get how amazing this story was and put their faith in me to tell it. And as of this post, we’re over 50% there. To me, this is even more of a sign that this documentary has to be made. Too many people believe in it now.
Let’s do this.
I spoke to another friend who is an Academy-Award winning short documentary director to see if I could get some advice. He came onboard as an Executive Producer.
I bought my plane ticket.
I chipped away and Josh was right…I find myself in the middle of really making this documentary, this thing that felt so big and important, even though I was so sure I couldn’t pull it off.
Because I couldn’t not tell this story. A good story stays with you. It nags at you, desperately needing to be told.
And a good story is worth the work.
Thank you for reading this! Can I count on you to believe in this story and help every child get a better education and a better shot at life, too? Every little bit helps.