An interview with Guy Moshe director of HOLLY

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Guy Moshe is an up and coming writer-director who has established himself as a fresh new face in Hollywood, Moshe has written for Bergman Lustig Productions, Millennium Films and others. His short films were featured at several international film festivals. HOLLY marks his feature directorial debut. He is currently working on a samurai action film titled BUNRAKU.

Shot on location in Cambodia, including many scenes in actual brothels in the notorious red light district of Phnom Penh, HOLLY is a captivating, touching and emotional experience.

Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American card shark and dealer of stolen artifacts, has been ‘comfortably numb’ in Cambodia for years, when he encounters Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl, in the K11 red light village. The girl has been sold by her impoverished family and smuggled across the border to work as a prostitute.

Holly’s virginity makes her a lucrative prize, and when she is sold to a child trafficker, Patrick embarks on a frantic search through both the beautiful and sordid faces of the country, in an attempt to bring her to safety.

Harsh, yet poetic, this feature forms part of the ‘K-11’ Project, dedicated to raising awareness of the epidemic of child trafficking and the sex slavery trade through several film projects. The film’s producers endured substantial hardships in order to be able to shoot in Cambodia and have also founded the RedLight Children Campaign, which is a worldwide grassroots initiative generating conscious concern and inspiring immediate action against child sexploitation.

Cinema Without Borders: Is HOLLY your first feature film? Please tell us about the short films you made prior to making HOLLY.
Guy Moshe: Yes, HOLLY was my first feature film. I made about five shorts prior to making HOLLY. Each one of them was different. I was using the short filmmaking medium to experiment and learn different aspects of the craft.
For instance, my first short was an adaptation of a short story, which I followed up with a short attempting to play with the linear narrative, and then others were leaning more to the visual side and/or performance respectively. I know some filmmakers stick to the same story in the short format, perfect it, and then go out and make a feature of the same story. I didn’t want that. I wanted to use the little resources that I had to touch on as many aspects of the craft as possible. So by the time I make a feature nothing would feel too scary.

CWB: What motivated you most to make HOLLY?
Guy: Initially, it was Guy Jacobson’s original scri pt that I thought had tremendous potential to become quite a powerful and important story if they trusted me with it, and they did. Then, later, when I went to do the initial scout with my producing partner Nava Levin and encountered the problem firsthand, I became so compelled by what I saw there, that words cannot describe. It was one of these moments that shrinks everything else in comparison to it. I just felt that if I have any bit of talent, then a more important film would never come my way. From there on it became almost like a mission.

CWB: HOLLY has a touching story, how in reality can such an story happen in that part of the world?
Guy: This is an interesting question. If you’re asking about the issue of sex trafficking, then of course the answer has to do with extreme poverty, no education, and a life so hopeless and miserable, which so many of these kids are born into, so that sex trafficking becomes, in a sense, an acceptable means of survival. And then there is corruption as a result of an impotent judicial system, and more money to be made for the bad people, which, in this case are on both sides of the law.

If the question relates to the story of our two protagonists, then again, this is such a ghostly place that in a way, lost souls can certainly find each other and relate to each other. And given the fragile sense of morality around, even drive one to deal with harder questions.

CWB: The relationship between the two main characters Patrick and Holly is a very sophisticated one, did you write this in your screenplay, or create it on the fly?
Guy: When I joined the project and sat down to rewrite the scri pt together with Guy Jacobson, we had many discussions about it. I think it was something we both felt was necessary, so that the film doesn’t pretend to be too chaste. To me, this story is more than anything else an impossible love story between two lost souls connecting under very shady circumstances.

There is something to the degree of finding human emotion acting itself out even in this kind of situation. So we definitely laid the foundations in the scri pt albeit having some creative differences about how much we wanted to go there. Later, when I worked with Ron Livingston and Thuy Nguyen, I think we constantly monitored ourselves so the relationship stays truthfully vague and ambiguous and sort of unspoken for the most part, because I think that is what would manifest itself in real life. I never thought Patrick is attracted to Holly, but rather, that he finally found another human being that supposedly understands him, or at the very least acknowledges something decent and good in him.

CWB: Child prostitution and trafficking are becoming the focus of a few filmmakers of our time, including you. How important is this issue right now?
Guy: I think it’s nothing short of a holocaust what’s going on with these young girls and boys. We’re talking about something like two million slaves, who are being raped and tortured on a daily basis, many of them underage.

In this country people are sentenced to life for but a single crime of this nature. In other parts of the world it has become a thriving business. And the world may indeed wake up in ten years and ask how we let this happen. In this sense, history tends to repeat itself. There is a small group of activists and later media people who start beating the drum and it’s sort of like a stone thrown in the water; it’ll take time for the ripple effect to do its thing. But I believe it can’t last. At one point or another, the outcry of good people is going to have an impact. I hope HOLLY, in that sense, will make a small contribution.

CWB: What was the most challenging aspect of making HOLLY?
Guy: Well, I don’t know…between being extorted and threatened on the one hand, and directing a super low budget indie in a country with no film industry whatsoever, with most of your cast being non actors in three different languages including kids, and did I mention not seeing dailies for 20 days, shooting six day weeks, 17 hour days in 100 degree Fahrenheit and losing a crew member a day to food poisoning on the average. I mean you name it, we had to deal with it.

But I think for me, personally, the biggest challenge was mediating this “entertainment” education thing. We made some choices in this film that were risky and sometimes aren’t appreciated to the degree that I would have hoped, but I am proud of the fact we acted with responsibility. I could have easily fallen into
the trap of making some award-winning tear-jerker that would have satisfied, I’m sure, more people on the industry side. But I felt so strongly that sometimes filmmaking has a chance to do more than entertain people, and that a filmmaker needs to have a certain kind of social responsibility when dealing with this kind of material. I wanted to stay truthful to what I saw, and capture it as close as possible to the way it is, as opposed to what the dramatic version of it would be. There is no drama in Cambodia around trafficking; it’s a daily reality, and, to me, that horrible sense of indifference was the scariest thing that needed to get seen. So capturing social indifference was the most challenging thing in this context.

CWB: Thuy Nguyen has a great performance playing Holly. How was it working with her?
Guy: I think she enjoyed it, as weird as it may sound. She certainly gave us everything she had in the work process. Since she had no acting experience prior, I ended up working with her for about three months prior to the shoot on an almost daily basis. And she dedicated herself to the role fully. She was also very mature
in dealing with those delicate issues and like all of us felt the burden of doing something that went beyond acting. One of the most memorable moments for me was when I took her to meet a Vietnamese girl her age that was rescued from a brothel. I sat there watching her talking to this girl for three hours not understanding a word but just reading her compassion and the way she could relate to a girl her age who just happened to have fallen victim to the hardships of life and she came out of it strengthened with a sense of conviction to do justice to this girl in her portrayal of Holly. You have to commend her for it, and for being able to deal with it at the age of 14 years old.

CWB: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
Guy: That was almost an immediate choice of both me and my D.P. Yaron Orbach. We both felt the story had the immediacy of a photo-journalistic quality. I wanted to keep constant movement in the frame, as if something was boiling under the surface at all times, so while we would capture the beauty of Cambodia on the one hand, we would get something more disturbing on a subconscious level. So on top of the hand-held style which helped both the concept and production of course, we ended pushing a 200ASA stock two stops to create a very unique grain structure and a bit of a darker more contrasty look. I like how it came out, it’s super 35mm stripped down to the bone, and with a certain kind of rawness that I thought the film as a whole already possessed in that struggle between plotline and muckraking.

CWB: What has been the reaction of the audiences who have seen HOLLY?
Guy: I think the reactions have been great, for the most part. It makes people think and engages them enough to want to express something. When we were doing the festival circuit, I was amazed at how many people felt compelled to come and speak to me after the screenings as if needing to digest what they had just seen. I realized that HOLLY is one of those films that stays with people whether they like it or not. It’s disturbing, and that’s exactly what I was hoping for. That even if you don’t connect with it on the same level another person might, since opinions on any film of this nature will forever vary, you still might find yourself thinking about it the next day. And if I managed to do that, then I feel good about having done my job.

CWB: Please tell us about your future projects.
Guy: My next film is called BUNRAKU and it is an action-fantasy circus ride into man’s fascination with violence. It has a sort of a Spaghetti Western, samurai movie feel and it’s going to be built and shot entirely on a stage so it couldn’t be more different than HOLLY, maybe 180 degrees from it actually. Like HOLLY, it also aspires to go a little beyond the pure entertainment factor, but I think that, all in all, I would like to be the kind of filmmaker who can tell and make more than one story or one type of genre. I feel like in the past an auteur was a person who constantly challenged himself, where, today, because of the fierce competition and growing difficulty of making different and unique films, filmmakers can get stuck in a certain style and movie genre and keep recreating the same films. It takes two years of your life to make a movie, and to me that’s priceless. If I am gonna spend that kind of time pouring my blood and tears into it, then I wanna make sure I learn something on the way. That is what life is all about anyhow, I guess, growing and learning and then realizing you know nothing at all.
Photos Courtesy of Priority Films

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Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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