Q&A with Cynthia Wade: Death and Fate in a Cambodian Village

Vinh is a 15-year-old Cambodian boy who is suffering from arsenic poisoning. It came from drinking contaminated well water in his home village of Prek Russei. A documentary called Born Sweet shows Vinh is not alone. His father, grandfather, other relatives and villagers have it too. Vinh started feeling the effects when he was 10: spots on his body, diarrhea, vomiting, and coughing. There is no cure; Mother Nature is to blame. Volcanoes in the Himalayan mountains thousands of years ago cursed the soil with its arsenic deposits and saw it wash down the Mekong River. There is no color, taste, or smell.

But Vinh is no ordinary young man. He thinks about death and accepts his fate philosophically. As he explains in his own words: “Salty people are strong. Sweet people are sickly”. Vinh is one of the “sweet” people. Even though his village now has wells where the water is safe to drink, the damage is done. It is by an uplifting fascination with karaoke music and a dream to become a star that Vinh makes his daily troubles go away. The dream is realized when he gets a chance to make a karaoke video about ways to prevent arsenic poisoning through the help of Resource Development International, a community healthcare and education program focused on water and sanitation.

Born Sweet is more than just a contemplative film about how someone so young copes with such a drastic illness. It is an often stunningly beautiful piece of work cinematically filled with scenes of lush, rural Cambodian countryside richly complementing the larger story of fate and destiny. Born Sweet is directed by Academy Award-winning director Cynthia Wade. VOA’s Ray Kouguell talked with Wade, who is based in the northeastern U.S. state of Massachusetts, about what impact making the documentary had on her and how it came together.

WADE: I tend to make films where I want to find strong main characters, and go deep as opposed to telling a story of a whole village or a whole society and go wide. So in my mind, in my kind of fantasy mind’s eye, I thought, I would love to be able to find villages [that] are affected and perhaps even tell the story through the eyes of a child or a teenager and it wasn’t until we arrived in the village of Prek Russei. It was an incredibly beautiful village, so beautiful and yet was so blighted by the well water. The wells had been dug deep and near the arsenic deposits and people were very visibly sick from arsenic poisoning. And through the interpreters, I started talking to villagers and I kept asking, “who else, who else can I speak to? Are there any children?” And then one woman said to me, “my nephew.” And when Vinh appeared, I knew instantly I could focus the whole film around him and really tell the larger story of arsenic through his eyes.

KOUGUELL: How does Vinh cope with arsenic poisoning on a daily basis?

WADE: Well, the good news is he’s better now than he appears to be in the film. He’s gotten stronger. Arsenic never leaves your system and the deleterious effects on your body do remain so it’s not anything you can get rid of, but you can at least through drinking clean water, [be] moving forward, and eating as balanced a diet as possible which is very, very difficult obviously for many rural Cambodians. You can at least gain some strength. And with Vinh, his body was so beaten down, he had worms in his lungs, it was hard for him to breathe. He had a bad cough. And once he got on medicine for that then he felt stronger and had a better appetite as well, but it is an ongoing struggle for millions of people throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia and Bangladesh.

KOUGUELL: How do Vinh and his father get along as fellow sufferers with such dire consequences awaiting them?

WADE: My experience with Vinh’s father was that he was very sad and quite depressed and that it was very, very difficult for him to see his village sick and particularly his child sick. There was a dark cloud over the village and over his father and I think it was very, very sad for his father to turn and see Vinh, particularly when Vinh was struggling to breathe and was coughing heavily.

KOUGUELL: After it was all over, what was Vinh’s reaction to the film?

WADE: He loved it, we screened it. He was so proud of being in the karaoke video and that was a really, really fun and big shoot that we did at the end. I think about Vinh and his family, his siblings and some of the other kids in the village every day. Honestly it was such a sweet time for me and for my crew too.

KOUGUELL: Looking back now, how did the filming affect you?

WADE: It was one of the rare times in my career where I was able to make a film kind of for me and to really tell a story the way that I wanted to tell a story that was kind of fictionalized and proactive as opposed to reactive. And that has helped me think about storytelling in a more visual way. Cambodia is inside me now and I feel like it’s the place I think about the most when I’m not thinking about my present moment and my present work.

KOUGUELL: Wade’s short documentary offers a deep appreciation of what someone can do against insurmountable adversity. Born Sweet is an inspiring piece that does not preach. Through the story of a young Cambodian, you learn the importance of truly enjoying the moment no matter how dire the circumstances. Born Sweet is the winner of 15 independent film awards, all well deserved. 

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