'Samnang' goes to New York

Buy Photo Carlos Diaz/The Day Vanny and Samnang share a tense moment in "Samnang."

The prestigious New York Film Festival invariably screens a glittering array of major feature films. During the current fest, which runs through Oct. 13, that includes the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis"; the Tom Hanks docudrama "Captain Phillips"; and the Cannes Palme d'Or winner "Blue Is the Warmest Color."

The festival also, though, showcases smaller works, with a wonderful compendium of short films. Among the 20 selected for this 51st annual event is "Samnang" - whose cinematographer is Carlos Diaz, who is a multimedia journalist at The Day.

Directed by Asaph Polonsky, the 22-minute piece focuses on a Cambodian immigrant who works nights at a doughnut shop. Samnang has to train a new worker - who happens to be the shop owner's sister - and he begins to worry for his job.

"Samnang," which will be shown Oct. 5 and 8 at the festival, was part of Polonsky and Diaz's thesis film when they were getting their masters degrees at the American Film Institute.

They shot it over the course of five days in February 2012, with some reshoots in June.

The cast members are not professional actors. The lead, for instance, is Jonathan Nitasneak Dok, who owns a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach. The movie needed people who could speak Khmer; the writer, Vanara Taing, is Cambodian and based "Samnang" on her family's story.

The movie team raised $65,000 to make "Samnang" but received support from a variety of companies - Panavision, Technicolor and Fuji - in terms of help and equipment.

They shot on 35-millimeter and used Fuji 400, a film stock that was discontinued in 2012. Diaz loves working with that stock and asked the company about it; they gave him the last 30,000 feet of Fuji 400.

Here is Diaz speaking about various aspects of working on "Samnang."

Cinematographers, Diaz says, are ultimately servants to the story:

"First thing we do is, we read the script for impressions. I try not to impose any imagery upon it, although it's hard not to do that. From there, I start breaking the script down with the director. Basically, what you're doing is, you're transcoding or translating a written meaning into a visual. My job as a cinematographer is to understand the point of view of what's being said in the story. ... I start creating images. I start gathering images from the Internet. For example, if I see my movie's going to be yellow (meaning have a yellow palette), I start gathering paintings and photos of other things that I think illustrate my yellow so I can show it to the director. Because everybody's eyes and minds work differently, so if I say yellow to you, your impression of yellow is going to be different than me. So if I show you something visually, then we're on the same page."

Taking a cue from music:

"I was mostly inspired by a song ('Everything Is New') of Antony and the Johnson's from 'Swanlights.' ... It is a song that has to do with looking at things you see and do on a daily basis through the eyes of an awakened person, in a new light. It is about death and rebirth in the same body. Seeing new possibilities with what we have."

The appropriate look:

"(The lead character) is an immigrant, so he travels from Cambodia to Long Beach. We don't see that part of the process, but he's in Long Beach, he's learning English, so we understand he's isolated. He's living in a world that's not his own. Off the bat, I understood the bakery, this shop at nighttime, is his place. This is home to him. So the shop is always going to be warm in terms of tones. His house - he's living with a roommate - is always going to be cold, because it's not his place of comfort. It's just the place he goes to sleep. So it's an inversion of the places a little bit."

Lighting the way:

"We wanted to be able to shoot - to move around - fast in 360 degrees all the time, so I had to light the whole doughnut shop with no light stands, with no fans on the ground. The lights had to be propped up in the air. So the whole shop is lit completely at all times, and that's very hard to create ... So that took us probably two days of pre-lighting the doughnut shop at nighttime. We had to get specific lights that I could hook up there, and then I had to get a grip - a person who knows how to secure things up in the air. It was very intense figuring out so many lights. So you'd see the ceiling was just 30, 40, 50 lights spread throughout the space."

The art of the film stock:

"As a cinematographer, film stocks are like paintings and brushes for us. Each film stock is particular. It's not like digital. Each film stock has character. It has its own make, its own quirks, its own thing. This particular (Fuji 400) film stock, for me, I loved because the whole movie is at nighttime in a doughnut shop. There's a lot of windows to look out onto the city, but the city - it's Long Beach - is dark, and you only see a lamppost here and there and trucks passing by. I knew I was dealing with a high contrast ratio between indoor-outdoor. This film stock is what we call low-contrast film stock, which sees into the dark more. So I was able to see inside what's lit and outside. ... This film stock is a little creamier. But at the same time the grain structure is present. So you know it's 35 millimeter. It just renders colors beautifully."

Recognition for the film:

"It went into the student Academy Awards - it was a finalist, which is pretty big, too. It didn't win, but it was selected. For the New York Film Festival, the director sent it to a few festivals, and this is the first one that came back 'We're proud to say you're in.' He was super excited, and I felt the same. It's a pretty big deal. It's a pretty tight group to be with."

Behind the scenes, Samnang faces an occupational hazard.
Photo by Temma Hankin Behind the scenes, Samnang faces an occupational hazard.
Interior of Samnang's donut shop; set design by Sammi Wallschlaeger
Photo by Temma Hankin Interior of Samnang's donut shop; set design by Sammi Wallschlaeger
Poster for
Poster for "Samnang," a short film that will screen at the New York Film Festival
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