A film about choices and changes
friendship and family
Cambodia and America
about facing the past
and forging a future:
about our story stories
Release Date: Spring 2019
Interspersing footage from Cambodia and California shot between 2001 and 2018, this film centers on the life of Kosal Nhean, a Cambodian American woman of extraordinary grace and strength-of-spirit. We open with Kosal sweeping the floor in a donut shop and then seated at her sewing machine, her two jobs. Sewing is a key metaphor throughout the film, as a woman at the junction between midlife and early old age seeks to pick up and reclaim parts of her self – threads – she has lost along the way.
Challenging viewers’ initial assumptions about a woman who is physically small and speaks with an accent, Kosal’s story gradually unfolds: her narrow escape from death in the Khmer Rouge genocide; saving others’ lives through ingenuity and daring; flight to a refugee camp with her newborn daughter in her arms; and her arrival in the US, where in 1986 she meets the filmmaker—her first English teacher—and a passionate, lifelong bond is formed across differences of race and class.
Through shots of her day-to-day life in southern California, as well as of places she has lived and worked in San Francisco and Modesto, viewers come to appreciate the challenges Kosal has overcome in providing an education and core values for her 4 children in an urban neighborhood in which pressures to join gangs, drop out, and take drugs are ubiquitous. There are shots and interviews with various members of Kosal’s family, including her ex-husband who abandoned her and their 4 children shortly after their arrival in the US, and their eldest son who served in the United States army during the war in Iraq. The film also explores the unusual, passionate friendship between the filmmaker (a Jewish American woman) and Kosal.
When Kosal’s father, a renowned Buddhist monk, age 95, is nearing death, she finally overcomes her fears of returning to Cambodia, and, after more than a 20-year absence, travels back to the Buddhist temple he heads, taking along her 17-year-old daughter, Saruth, a beautiful, sensitive young woman who was born in a refugee camp and is now thoroughly Americanized, yet eager to learn about her heritage. There, Kosal reunites with her beloved, long-lost sister, a Buddhist nun who is a remarkable woman in her own right.
In Cambodia, Kosal finally learns the fate of five of her brothers: two were killed by the Khmer Rouge, two were killed by landmines after the war, in separate incidents (both leaving orphaned children, who are interviewed in the film), and one who immigrated to Philadelphia and died in police custody under ambiguous circumstances (a victim of police brutality or suicide). Soon after this journey, while the film is still in production, Saruth – a college senior majoring in psychology – is killed in a freak auto accident in San Bernardino County. Viewers witness Kosal’s grief as well as her resilience and her determination to find creative ways to honor and affirm Saruth’s love of life.
Through shots of scenes throughout Cambodia, viewers come to see the myriad ways that the present is always permeated by images from the past. Although in some ways quite specific to the Cambodian American experience, the film touches upon wider, archetypal themes that are relevant not only for refugees and immigrants more generally, but for all human beings who seek wholeness, and who strive to preserve meaningful connections with family and friends, and to rebuild and repair those connections that have been severed by historical and political events.
The film is particularly timely given the current climate of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that dominates public discourse. It is also timely because the Khmer Rouge rise to power and genocide, which serve as a backdrop for Kosal’s life, were a direct result of misguided U.S. government policies which fueled, rather than suppressed, anti-Western extremism—a situation that parallels the present one with regard to the contemporary Middle East and the “war on terrorism.”
The film will be released concurrent with (or shortly after) the final stages of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), a UN-sponsored war crimes tribunal that began holding trials of Khmer Rouge leaders in 2009. Though the genocide took place over 30 years before the trials commenced, there is still broad public support for holding the perpetrators accountable. The existence of the KRT reminds us that, to quote the novelist William Faulkner, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Yet Threads is a film that reminds us that it’s always possible to look to the future with fortitude and faith.
Cambodia is a small country in Southeast Asia that shares borders with Thailand and Vietnam. In the 1970’s, strengthened by widespread discontent with the US-backed, corruption-ridden Lon Nol regime and by the population’s anti-Western sentiment, which had followed the U.S. government’s secret, illegal campaign of bombing the Cambodian countryside, a militant Communist party called the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) succeeded in recruiting more and more people to its cause, and gained control over the entire country. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
Within two weeks of coming to power, they forced the entire population of the capital and provincial towns to evacuate to the countryside and become slave laborers. They vowed to destroy all vestiges of the previous society. All contact with the outside world was eliminated. Ownership of private property was abolished. Use of money was forbidden. Buddhism and all religion were banned. Monks and nuns were slaughtered. Everyone was required to wear only black clothes to show loyalty to the peasant class. All schools were closed. People were killed for wearing glasses or for knowing a foreign language, because these were viewed as signs of being educated.
The Khmer Rouge demanded absolute obedience, and killed anyone who disagreed with them. During their reign of three years eight months, more than 2 million people – one-third of Cambodia’s population – died as a result of their policies of mass murder, slave labor, and starvation. This catastrophic period is widely referred to as the Cambodian genocide.
On Dec. 25, 1978, the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Pol Pot government. The Khmer Rouge fled to the jungles and mountains near the Thai border. Civil war continued for the next twenty years. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled to refugee camps in Thailand; of these, more than 150,000 were eventually resettled in the United States.
Pol Pot died in 1998, while hiding in the jungle. By the end of 1998, almost all the remaining Khmer Rouge guerillas turned themselves over to government forces in return for amnesty, and the Khmer Rouge ceased to exist. In 1999, Cambodia was finally at peace for the first time in more than 30 years.
For the thousands of Cambodians who had come to the United States as refugees, the establishment of peace meant that for the first time since fleeing the Khmer Rouge, they could begin to think about going back to Cambodia—to search for answers about what had happened during that time, to reconnect with loved ones who had remained behind, and to try to come to terms with their losses.
LIST OF CREW MEMBERS
Director: Shanee Stepakoff
Associate Director: Alrick Brown
Producer: Shanee Stepakoff
Co-Producers: Alrick Brown, Catherine Masud
Editor: Catherine Masud
Associate Editor: Tovah Leibowitz
Artistic Advisors: Catherine Masud, Alrick Brown
Artistic Consultant: Tareque Masud
Trailer: Tovah Leibowitz
Post-Production Translators: Vonnie May, Sophy Theam, Bunsak Ton, Rien Phim, Nisa Phim
CAMBODIA PRODUCTION UNIT
Camera: Apu Rosario, Alrick Brown, Micah Schaffer
Sound: Nahid Masud, Michah Schaffer
Khmer-English Language Interpretation: Sareuth Phim, Saravy Phim
Production Managers: Shanee Stepakoff, Alrick Brown
Production Assistants: [names to be added later]
Drivers: [names to be added later]
CALIFORNIA PRODUCTION UNIT
Camera: Alrick Brown, Micah Schaffer, Catherine Masud
Sound: Micah Schaffer, Alrick Brown, Catherine Masud
Khmer-English Language Interpretation: Nisa Phim, Rien Phim
Production Managers: Shanee Stepakoff, Alrick Brown, Catherine Masud
Production Assistants: [names to be added later]
Drivers: [names to be added later]
MASSACHUSETTS PRODUCTION UNIT
Camera: Alrick Brown
Sound: Micah Schaffer
Production Advisor: Alrick Brown
BIOS OF CREW MEMBERS
Shanee Stepakoff: Shanee’s vision for this film began crystallizing in early 1986, when, fresh out of college, while volunteering as an English-as-a-second language teacher for Cambodian refugee women in San Francisco, she met the film’s subject, Kosal Nhean. Shanee holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Her creative writing has been published in respected literary journals, and she won first prize in Reed Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction contest (2016). She is currently submitting her poetry manuscript, Testimony, based on public transcripts of war crimes trials in Sierra Leone, for publication. Shanee is also the author of over two dozen articles and book chapters on human rights, social justice, gender issues, and the psychological consequences of ethnic and political violence.
In 2005-2006, Shanee provided training and consultation for Cambodian organizations that were offering psychosocial support for witnesses in the Khmer Rouge tribunal. In 2003, Shanee was awarded a grant from the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, to conduct research on literary and artistic responses to the Cambodian genocide. Shanee graduated from Clark University magna cum laude, with highest honors in psychology, in 1984, and was elected to phi beta kappa. She also holds an undergraduate degree in urban studies from Worcester State College, Master’s degrees in political and clinical/community psychology, a graduate certificate in women’s studies, and a PhD in clinical psychology from St. John’s University. She has completed postgraduate fellowships in ethnopolitical conflict (U. Penn.), trauma studies (Boston Trauma Center), and comparative psychoanalysis (Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis).
Shanee’s artistic and practical preparations for making this film began in August 2001 during a consultation with Tareque and Catherine Masud in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Shanee’s artistic and practical plans for this film were further developed in close consultation and collaboration with Alrick Brown, whom she met at the Festival of Pan-African Cinema (FESPACO) in Burkina Faso in February 2001. Threads is her first film.
Alrick Brown: Alrick is Assistant Professor of Undergraduate Film and Television at New York University’s Tish School of the Arts. An award winning writer and director, Alrick graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in English and a Masters of Education before completing his MFA in filmmaking from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
The many sources that inform Alrick’s creative expression include: the historical and contemporary realities of racism in the United States, daily interactions with villagers during a two-year tour with the Peace Corps in Cote d’Ivoire, early years in Kingston, Jamaica, and his migration to and upbringing in Plainfield, New Jersey. An activist and highly sought public speaker, Alrick is widely respected for his commitment to social, political and economic justice and to revealing the heart of the world through the craft of storytelling.
Alrick’s cinematic reach includes credits on the small screen as director, producer and writer on a variety of projects – ABC’s Final Witness, ESPN’s short doc series Spike Lee’s Lil’ Joint, and Investigative Discoveries Emmy-Award winning series A Crime To Remember, among others. Alrick’s films have screened in over thirty film festivals, nationally and internationally, and have received several awards. Among them is the HBO Life Through Your Lens Emerging Filmmaker Award for the critically acclaimed documentary Death of Two Sons. He received the Director’s Cut Award for best short film, and won 1st place in Allstate’s “Be Reel” commercial competition at the American Black Film Festival in Los Angeles. Three of his films have played at Lincoln Center. Alrick’s first feature film, Kinyarwanda, was the recipient of the prestigious Sundance World Cinema Audience Award.
Before joining the faculty of NYU, Alrick taught at Rutgers University, The Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, and at Goddard College, where he was a faculty advisor for the Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program. He was one of four NYU students featured in the hit IFC Documentary series “Film School”. His written work has appeared in the Huffington Post as well as the New Jersey English Journal.
Catherine Masud: Catherine obtained her undergraduate degree in development economics from Brown University, and holds an MFA in film from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She spent much of her professional filmmaking career in Bangladesh, where she ran a production company with her late husband Tareque Masud. Together they produced numerous shorts, documentaries, and feature films, many of which were internationally distributed and awarded. Their feature film ‘Matir Moina’ (The Clay Bird), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the International Critics’ Prize, and later became the first Bangladeshi film to compete in the Oscars.
Since Tareque’s untimely death in August 2011, Catherine has worked tirelessly to archive and preserve his work, and to complete their unfinished oeuvre. To that end, in 2012 she founded and currently chairs the Tareque Masud Memorial Trust, which has published four books, produced two documentaries, and released several DVDs of their earlier work, in addition to organizing dozens of screening programs around Bangladesh and curating an annual film/arts festival. She has also served as an advisor to the Bangladesh National Film Archives and the National Film and Television Institute, and is a founding member of the South Asian Children’s Cinema Forum, a regional body for the promotion of children’s cinema.
In more recent years, Catherine has been primarily based in the United States, where she has expanded the scope of her involvements to teaching and writing. She has served as a visiting professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts and the University of Connecticut, and has lectured at various educational institutions around the country. She also continues her work in film: she is currently directing a feature-length documentary, while working freelance as an editor and production advisor.
Micah Schaffer: Micah holds a MFA in filmmaking from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and is now a Postgraduate Fellow at the Cinema Research Institute in New York City. Micah is also the Co-Founder of Global Film Connect and has taught Video Arts at Trevor Day School. After studying history and anthropology at Stanford University, Micah worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea. Micah has directed several documentaries, including “Yahya”, the story of a white American who converts to Islam while living in Brooklyn. He directed the documentary “Death of Two Sons”, which won the Audience Award at the Leeds International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Denver Pan-African Film Festival, and was an Official Selection in the Urban World Film Festival and the New York African Film Festival. Micah was the cinematographer on “Shadows of a Leader: Gadaffi’s Female Bodyguards”, an official selection at the Montreal World Film Festival. He was the co-producer for “Iron Ladies of Liberia”, a BBC documentary about Africa’s first female president.
Tovah Leibowitz: Tovah is a Sundance award-winning film and television editor. She has worked with legendary producers Spike Lee, James Cameron, Ken Burns, and Jerry Weintraub. Her most recent credits include Comedy Central’s hit series Broad City, VICE News, Younger, and Years of Living Dangerously. Tovah holds a BFA in filmmaking from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Tareque Masud: Widely regarded as a leading South Asian filmmaker, Tareque was a Bangladeshi independent film director, film producer, screenwriter and lyricist. He first found success with the films Muktir Gaan (1995) and Matir Moina (2002), for which he won three international awards, including the International Critics’ FIPRESCI Prize, in the Directors’ Fortnight section outside competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The film became Bangladesh’s first film to compete for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was described by film critic Roger Ebert as “the best film of this, or any, year.”
Tareque completed a general education and then a master’s in history from Dhaka University. Tareque was a founding member of Bangladesh Short Film Forum, the leading platform for independent filmmakers in Bangladesh. In 1988, he organized the country’s first International Short and Documentary Film Festival, which continues to be held biannually. Tareque’s wife, American-born film editor Catherine Masud, was his creative and life partner. They met at the time he was completing work on Adam Surat and spent the next two decades making films together through their production house Audiovision. They collaborated on writing scripts, often co-directed, and toured the country and the world with their films.
Tareque died in a road accident in August 2011 while returning to Dhaka after visiting a filming location for his film Kagojer Phool (The Paper Flower). In 2012, he posthumously received Ekushey Padak, the highest civilian award of Bangladesh. In 2013, New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, and South Asia Solidarity Initiative, hosted the first North American retrospective of his films.