A Life Like This

From Voices, 8:00 am on 12 March 2018

Isiah Tour’s critically acclaimed animated documentary A Life Like This about his father surviving the Khmer Rouge, has won attention back in Cambodia and is heading ‘home’.

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Isaiah and his father Huat's story has come full circle by returning to Huat’s homeland, Cambodia. Renowned Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh saw great potential in this tiny film from New Zealand.

Rithy Phan collaborated with director Angelina Jolie to make the 2017 critically acclaimed First They Killed My Father.

Panh pushed for Isaiah's short film to show at the Cambodia International Film Festival, where it is currently screening in the documentary section.

A long way from Cambodia, I arrive at the Tour family home in Papatoetoe. Hong Huat Tour and his wife Amanda are very apologetic about the ‘mess’. As I take off my shoes my mic leads catch and I nearly topple a tower of boxes.

This cosy two story house is filled with memorabilia; stacks of aging letters, papers and sepia photographs. They are the survivor’s story, of a boy who escaped the horror of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide that killed an estimated two million people in the 1970s. Hoarded memories of loved ones; those who also got out and those who didn’t.

Huat’s son, film-maker Isaiah Tour, last year turned those memories into a short animated film, A Life Like This. Now, extraordinarily, Isaiah’s film will go back to Cambodia.

But the film didn’t come easily. Isaiah reckons getting his dad to agree to being filmed was just the start of one of the biggest challenges of his life, because Isaiah didn’t know much about his father. Aged 25, Isaiah hoped the film would bring he and his father closer together.

The emotional distance between father and son was the result of the long hours Huat worked and the fact he’s a fiercely private man.

“Growing up here we found him quite strict. But now, having made the film we understand why he’s so hard on us.  We didn’t have to flee our country when we were 19.

“I was talking to dad, about his life. That was the inspiration. He talked about being a refugee but never really went into detail.” Huat’s broken English is another hurdle too.

When Huat arrived as a refugee in New Zealand he was 19. It was 1979 and Huat got a job in the evening shift at a box factory in Manukau where he’s worked for almost forty years. Huat wanted a better life for his four children, including Isaiah, the second youngest child and his only son.

We’re also surrounded by present, everyday treasures. The Tours take pride in each other’s achievements. Isaiah’s been crazy about filmmaking since he was a boy – and his collection of school prizes for every creative endeavour are proudly displayed. His parents encouraged him to follow his dreams.

Isaiah’s passion for filmmaking led to a degree in film, television and media studies at the University of Auckland. These days Isaiah is the creative content producer for Auckland’s MediaWorks.

The film sponsorship Someday Stories initiative, supported by Connected Media and the New Zealand Film Commission, gave Isaiah $10,000 to the make the documentary, the family has also invested in their own story. Huat gave his son a further $10,000 to buy the camera the on which the film was shot.

In the film, Huat shows a photo of an old woman to Isaiah and tells him that it’s Jou Ma, Huat’s grandma. Jou Ma looked after Huat more than his own mother.

Huat was born in 1960 and grew up during Cambodia’s civil war. At 14 Huat sacrificed an education and left home to find a job to support his struggling family. Jou Ma went with him. They travelled to Pailin, a province close to the border of Thailand.

When the Khmer Rouge swept to power, Huat convinced Jou Ma to leave him in Pailin for her own safety.

Huat tries to leave on a jeep with his boss, but the jeep is full and he’s left behind to walk. Later Huat learns that the jeep is stopped at the border and everyone on board is killed.

Amidst the boxes and treasures of a more peaceful life, Huat recalls Jou Ma hunting for him among the refugee camps and the moment they were finally reunited. “[Jou Ma] was praying, please bring me to see my grandson. [When] they saw me – they know me. We both very happy.”

Huat’s immediate family, including Jou Ma, survived. When Huat arrived in New Zealand he worked tirelessly to bring her here, where she was able to spend her last years looking after her great-grandchildren.

Another precious lost photo of Jou Ma is dug up by Isaiah’s mum, Amanda. Huat shows me. A stoic, gentle and wizened face from the past gazes back.

Isaiah laughs wryly, “This photo would have been helpful when we made the film!”

Huat couldn’t be prouder of his son, in broken English he exclaims, “I feel very exciting, him done a very good job. I’ve been waiting to see how they do it.”

When he was finally allowed to see it at the premiere, the community response was overwhelming. “People, former refugees,” says Isaiah, “Were telling dad how this was their story too.”

Isaiah’s film has brought the family closer together. The wait has been worth it.

Isaiah Tour and his parents Huat and Amanda.

Isaiah Tour and his parents Huat and Amanda. Photo: RNZ Lynda Chanwai-Earle