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Harsh Life Comes to Life on Video

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sokly Ny was a troubled Cambodian American teenager trying to survive in the projects and flunking out of high school when filmmaker Spencer Nakasako gave him a camcorder. “Shoot your senior year in high school,” Nakasako told Sokly.

The result, co-directed and produced by Nakasako, is the extraordinarily vivid “a.k.a. Don Bonus,” to be broadcast tonight on PBS’ “P.O.V.” series.

Sokly stood out from the first in the video workshop Nakasako was teaching at the Vietnamese Youth Development Center in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“He was totally interactive from the start with the camera,” he recalls. “He could never stay out of the scene.”

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For Nakasako, who’d directed two documentaries and worked for several years with director Wayne Wang, Sokly was the perfect subject to pilot a series of video diaries Nakasako and Wang hoped to make. Besides, Nakasako loved hanging out with these kids and couldn’t resist trying to capture their free spirits on video.

And so here is Sokly’s life as an American teenager--baggy hip-hop threads, shooting baskets, hanging out in the halls at Galileo High School, slamming lockers. In order to fit in better, he’s given himself an American alias: Don Bonus. “Don because it sounds macho,” Sokly explained in a recent interview, “and Bonus from the packs of gum I buy that give you a second pack free as a bonus.”

But Sokly is flunking out and we see why. He’s having a ball with “the Gamblers,” a bunch of Asian American cool cats who like to play cards and cruise.

At school, he interviews a former teacher. “Miss Shafer, could you tell a little about me when I was a junior?” Sokly asks. “You were a vegetable,” she pronounces flatly, peering up at the camcorder.

The seniors are seen panicking as they face a series of tests they must pass to graduate. Sokly takes his, then flashes a cheat-sheet he smuggled into the testing room.

Here is daily life in the Sunnydale housing projects as it rolls over Sokly and his family. Sokly’s mother has set up the kids and their grandmother in one apartment while she lives in another with her second husband, who detests the kids. The feeling is mutual. Sokly is starved for a father. His real father was killed by the Khymer Rouge, sacrificing himself so the family could escape.

Neighbors steal all the family’s possessions, from furniture and clothes down to their soy sauce. Here is his terrified grandmother peering out of barred, darkened windows, one of which has just been broken by a rock. Calls to the police are no avail.

Desperate, the family of 10 moves twice that year and Sokly captures it all.

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Sokly tells us how much he longs to spend more time with his oldest brother, Chandara, who had carried him out of the Cambodian jungle when Sokly was only 3. But Chandara is overwhelmed by a new family, job and college studies.

Younger brother Touch, meanwhile, is charged with attempted murder for bringing a gun to school to protect himself. Sokly hides the camcorder under his coat and records the frantic family reunion in a courthouse corridor.

When Sokly’s hard-won graduation finally rolls around, it’s a lonely one. No one from his family comes--they’re all at Touch’s court hearing.

*

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As riveting as the immediacy of the cinema verite approach is, it’s Sokly’s relationship to his camcorder that is the most moving expression of his lonely existence. Scenes of his life are interspliced with monologues Sokly speaks to the solitary camcorder set up on a tripod.

“I used my video to counsel myself,” Sokly, now 21, recalls. “I’d watch scenes of my life and then talk about how I was feeling and then watch that and try and change. Sometimes the camera was my only friend.”

For Nakasako, “directing a film when you weren’t at a single shoot, not the monologues, not the scenes” was odd. For the first two weeks, he gave Sokly no instructions about what to shoot and didn’t even look at the footage. After that, much of his advice was technical--how to get good sound and picture and how to shape a story out of actual experience.

“ ‘If you can’t see it or hear it, it doesn’t exist,’ I’d tell him,” Nakasako remembers.

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Left out of the video was the process of making the video and its effect on Sokly’s life. There is no mention of his family’s resistance to being videotaped, especially when Touch was arrested, and the fact that Sokly once quit the project in frustration.

Sokly says only in an early monologue: “At first I thought it’s gonna be simple, but it turned out to be very difficult. . . . Talking about . . . family secrets to the public, we don’t do that.”

“I just thought a video within a video would be too weird,” Nakasako says.

It took three months to boil Sokly’s 70 hours of tape down to 14. At that point, Sokly left further editing to Nakasako. “He saw how boring and time-consuming filmmaking really is,” Nakasako says, laughing.

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Sokly, now an outreach worker for the Neighborhood Safety Partnership in the Tenderloin, says the video pushed him to graduate and turn his life around.

“Before that, I had never finished anything,” he says.

But he’s still confused about whether to use his Cambodian or American name and about his long-range goals. Perhaps he’ll follow his older brothers and become a social worker.

For certain he wants to visit Cambodia--"get a mosquito bite, ride a buffalo, climb a coconut tree!” he says with a laugh. He hasn’t decided whether to take along a camcorder.

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* “a.k.a. Don Bonus” airs on “P.O.V.” at 10 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.


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