Thanks to its accurate and daring reconstruction of Cambodia’s socio-economic situation during the pandemic, The Wedding Ring (2022) directed by Robin Narciso came out as the 2nd Winner of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) Asia Pacific Award 2023 at Minikino Film Week 9.
As part of a research project that follows the lives of women workers in the Cambodian garment industry (ReFashion Study) at the beginning of the pandemic, the short film succeeds in translating the research data, transforming it into a more familiar digestible medium. However, being aware of the background of its creation, my process of watching and reviewing this film was accompanied with a series of questions regarding the ethical and technical decisions seen on screen. I then asked a few questions during an interview session on Friday (22/9) with Robin Narciso when he visited Bali while accompanying his film at Minikino Film Week 9.
By opening the film with a sequence of observational documentary-style shots, accompanied by on-screen text that presents facts and explains the context of the research on which this film was made, The Wedding Ring almost introduces itself as a documentary, before then “actually” entering the first act where it’s started to take shape as a fiction film. For me, this clearly raises a question, “Shouldn’t a documentary film be the ethically suitable tool for translating this sort of research-based stories?“.
He explained that initially, he and the production team considered using documentary films as a campaign mode for this issue as well. But, since they weren’t the ones collecting the research data, they have to go through various careful considerations on taking creative decisions in the production phase. One of their initial concerns was the sensitivity and potential risk of showing the workers’ faces on camera as they expressed their discontent with the government and factory owners. It was feared that this decision alone could be a boomerang, inviting undesirable negative consequences for them.
The first solution that came to mind was to not show their faces at all. However, Robin, together with his Director of Photography, Thomas Cristofoletti, sensed that it is difficult to convey genuine human expressions and emotions without showing any faces. This is where the idea to use fiction emerged—to communicate the messages and objectives of this research, but at the same time eliminating the possibility of harmful consequences coming from exposing the workers’ identities.
In the development process, Robin also explained that they were very careful in processing the research data, most of which was in the form of interview transcripts. Robin emphasized their intention to weave a representative story that is able to represent various aspects of workers’ lives, rather than a singular perspective. Therefore, Leakhena’s story is enriched by stories from other workers, aiming to present a sense of a “plurality of stories”, described Robin. In this way, it was hoped that this “fictional” story can still depict what was really happening universally, and at the same time has its roots based on the credibility of the research.
Why, Not Using Non-Actors?
Using non-professional actors is one way for filmmakers to enhance the authenticity of the reality built in their films. In the context of The Wedding Ring, this concept will certainly work well in strengthening the impression of the pandemic reality that it wants to reconstruct. However, The Wedding Ring’s decision not to utilize this concept, raises another question in our interview.
I didn’t ask this question merely because the use of non-actors is a kind of “strict rule” for filmmakers when talking about the purpose of reconstructing reality in films. I explained how I personally felt the actor in The Wedding Ring, had an appearance that did not fit the profile of Leakhena’s character. I thought that, ethically, the person who represents Leakhena should at least have closer socio-economic profile to the real Leakhena. In effect, this builds distrust, builds an imaginary distance between me (as a spectator) and the character Leakhena whose story is being told in the film.
Robin then explained humbly, “I totally understand the feeling of she’s incredibly good-looking for representing this very harsh reality”. He then shared that the casting process was not particularly easy for them. In Cambodia, there is a considerable gap in ability between amateur and professional actors. Based on this, he continued to explain that the reason he chose Erica was because of her ability to perform. “But for me, I picked her because she was really able of communicating emotions in the way she interpreted the role. And we thought, also my Cambodian crew and my AD, Ines Sothea, that she was good”.
When we talked about the distribution rights and strategy for The Wedding Ring, Robin made a very interesting point. He explained that this film was not thought as a work that needs to to be sold. The Wedding Ring was produced as part of the ReFashion Study research, and it was always treated in that form—and therefore, they cannot be separated from each other. This explains why they chose to include opening and closing scenes that maintain the context, emphasizing that the film is an integral part of that specific research project.
From there, Robin points that the main goal of their distribution strategy was to open as much access as possible, reaching as many audiences as possible—with the hope that their film could open a discourse that voices and questions the rights of class workers. That way, YouTube becomes a platform that fits their vision.
In the end, Robin’s answers to the three questions picture how their decisions are united by a single urge: to make the film be watched and heard by everyone. Using a fiction film mode that is practically safer for the workers as well as being friendlier to a wider audience, using professional actors to communicate emotions and expressions as fully as possible, and opening up very wide viewing access via the YouTube platform. “I think the ability for anybody to see it is a powerful element of it”. Robin Narciso stated clearly and humbly that The Wedding Ring was not made for them, the filmmakers, but for the change of the world—even if it will be a slow one.