Q&A with “One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure” Writer-Director A.M. Lukas

From a coffee shop on the edge of Middle America, A.M. Lukas shared her thoughts about returning “home” for the Fargo premiere of her award-winning film One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure.”

Born in Fargo at St. Luke’s hospital in 1982, she lived in North Dakota until she moved Pennsylvania with her parents when she was 8. Still, Fargo is credited as the home of her best childhood memories. Returning to Fargo to film was, as she described, “a dream come true.”

“One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure” is based on the true-story of Lukas’ mother Helena, who escaped persecution in communist Czechoslovakia to be resettled not in her bustling dream cityof Manhattan, but in the unforgiving landscape of Fargo.

The film is about her need, as a refugee who escaped her bad situation, to help others in a similar position. “The film’s subject matter is incredibly timely, even urgent, considering the Trump administration’s divisive stance on refugees and immigration,” said Lukas, reflecting on the film.

Emily Mortimer in “One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure”

Set in 1981, the film is steeped in the humor and visual quality of childhood memory and has been received positively by critics around the country. “One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure” was an official opening-night selection of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, qualifying the film for an Oscar nomination. It also has received awards such as: “Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film” at the Edmonton International Film Festival, also qualifying the film for an Oscar nod; “Best Screenplay” at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and “Special Jury Prize: Best Screenwriting” from the Savannah College of Art and Design Film Festival.

A.M. Lukas will attend the Fargo premiere of “One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure” at 7 p.m. Monday, April 8 at the Fargo Theatre. General admission tickets are $7 in advance and $10 at the door. Tickets for students and seniors 55 and older are available for $3. The event is hosted by The North Dakota Human Rights Film Festival and Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. Proceeds from the event will benefit Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.

 

Q: Why did you decide to tell this story?

I’ve always written with an extremely autobiographical bent. It’s one of the ways in which I make sense of the world and then hope that whatever sense I’ve made for myself will resonate with someone watching. That’s the beautiful game of making movies and telling stories in general, for me.

This particular story came to me as just a love letter to my mother and to the particulars of my early childhood. I love to make films that are really steeped in a sense of place, and Fargo is a place that has always lived inside of me as magical because I spent my early childhood there and left while I was still quite young, so all of those memories are sort of trapped in amber  very 1980s’ sequins-and-roller-skates kind of glamour, which I love. 

When the story came to me, I thought the fact that we were these European immigrants in Fargo was rich and specific. There was also the fact that my mom was spending so much of her time then helping these Cambodian families assimilate while carting around four kids of her own – I thought that made for a compelling character. 

Was there a moment that compelled you to share this memory?

 I wrote the film years ago, during the Obama administration, so there was zero political motivation to the subject matter. The fact that the film received financing and has come out at a time when immigration and refugees are on the tips of so many tongues was pure coincidence and one of those things that feels synchronistic in such a meaningful way.

On the set of “One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure”

North Dakota is in the midst of a blowback directed toward immigrants and former refugees. The state has tried to stop the resettlement of individuals, some local city officials continually spread misinformation about the diverse populations in our communities, and communities themselves have seen an uptick of hate crime directed toward immigrants and former refugees.

Is there something specific you hope your film can convey to the state’s leaders and community members?

Of course, I find this unfortunate and disheartening, being the child of

1. an immigrant who came to America so that his children would live in a place where their dreams had at least a chance of coming true, and

2. a political refugee who escaped a situation in her home country where there was no freedom of expression, religion, or speech, and found a haven in the United States. 

Growing up with these parents instilled in me such a deep sense of gratitude for what America is about at its core: a land of freedom and unbridled possibility for humans of all kinds. It’s a nation founded upon tolerance, acceptance and the idea of a meritocracy: that is “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” No matter what the color of your skin, your religion, which family you were born into or in which economic class you begin your journey, in America the idea is that you can move freely through a system that supports growth and change; you can change your fate and create your own destiny. Though the system is far from perfect, it’s produced so many beautiful stories of trajectories altered, and dreams realized.

My father converted the basement of a one-bedroom house in north Fargo so that it could sleep his family of six. He built our dining room table and chairs himself, out of plywood. At the grocery store, my mom used food stamps to supplement their cash. The places my parents managed to go from there and the opportunities they were able to provide their four children as we came of age would simply not have been possible had we been in any other country, and we’re all acutely aware of that every day.

My family is a prime example of what’s possible when a country values diversity, inclusion and providing human beings a safe, neutral place to pursue their version of happiness. My very existence as an American is a testament to the principles of this nation working.  It’s truly like no other country in the world in the most dynamic way. And I still believe it to be the most incredible country in the world. It’s painful to see the philosophical pillars that I believe define what’s good and more importantly what works about this country, threatened and forgotten by this wave of opposing ideas.

All that being said, I think there’s also a real danger in villainizing an entire group because of their difference in opinion. We can never fully know another’s experience. Which is why I think it’s so important to rail against theideas one disagrees with rather than the humansholding those ideas.  If you rail against the humans, you’ve entered a vicious circle.  Leaning towards severing connection rather than fostering it is what I’m against, the concept that it’s better to distance ourselves from strangers rather than welcoming them is what I’m against,  fear being the leading factor defining our actions rather than love is what I’m against; not the people who are right now falling on that side of a charged political climate for whatever reason.

If there’s something I’d like people to take from this film, it’s not a political statement, but the notion of our inherent oneness. It’s not something that can be intellectualized or proven, only something that can be deeply felt and known. And the big sky I think, can elicit that deep knowing in some of us.

Emily Mortimer in “One Cambodian Family, Please for My Pleasure”

Did your mother talk much about her escape from the communist in Czechoslovakia when you were growing up, or were they conversations that happened after adulthood? Did you understand as a child where her mother had come from? How did that knowledge influence you growing up / as an adult?

My mother’s story was like a spool of thread woven through the fabric of my childhood. I don’t remember a time where I didn’t know the particulars of what she went through both living under a Communistregime and escaping it in order find her way to the United States. It didn’t hurt that it was a good story!

The escape across the border where they had to duck down in the car for fear of being shot at by border patrol (as well as the musician friends who hid their toddler children in drums in order to cross); the year spent in Italian refugee camps; the farmer boyfriends from the other side of the camp’s fence that my teenage mom and her sister were courted by; the citizenship party at an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattanthat they threw themselves when they became official

These stories imbued my childhood with a sense of wonder and mystery. I felt very acutely the sense of another world being present within the Midwesternone I was living. Even now though, layers of my family history continue to reveal themselves, stories I haven’t heard surface all the time. It’s fun, and I find it so enriching to know everything I can.

The sky metaphor at the end of the film is beautiful and eloquent. Was that something your mother shared or an artistic element that you created? How did it feel to see the North Dakotan sky again when you arrived to shoot “One Cambodian Family”?

My obsession with the North Dakota sky was something that started when I left the area at 8 years old and found myself transplanted to central Pennsylvania, where these densely wooded sort of low hill/mountains surround you everywhere you go. I immediately felt penned in and suffocated by that landscape – I’m sure it had a lot to do with the emotions and circumstances surrounding my little psyche at the time, but this thing about the big sky representing freedom and beauty and oneness stuck with me well into adulthood.

I wrote this film at a time in my adult life where I was starting to hit my limit with the beat-down that New York City can subject you to as a human being. Years of being cut off from nature in favor of the bustling metropolis had taken its toll and I started to write in a journal about this yearning for the open sky of North Dakota. I was experiencing a palpable, intense pull toward “home.” I wrote the film while seriously considering abandoning my life (and multiple day jobs) in New York to live in the guest bedroom of my second parents Lona and Bob in north Fargo for a time, just so that I could be back in a landscape that I found so comforting and inspiring and to which I had an inborn connection. So, for the sky to be the kind of redemptive character in the film that brings it all home at the end, it just felt right.

What was it like shooting your film in Fargo, North Dakota? What was it like returning “home” to capture this memory?

 Shooting in Fargo was an absolute dream come true. It was an ostentatious choice as a director because of the financial burden the budget incurs any time you’re shooting in a location that’s not a hub for film professionals like New York or LA, but it was beyond worth it. 

It was such a profound honor as a human being, to be able to capture the town where I grew up, and as a filmmaker, to be able to be true to the setting which I’d written and not try to fake a magical North Dakota sky by shooting a Long Island one.

One of the coolest things personally, was the way I was able to reconnect with so many old friends and have them become not just helpful to the film, but integral members of the cast and crew. Marla McIntyre, Bob and Lona Getz, Dan Loegering, these were all characters from my childhood that never left my heart or my memories. They were the cool teenage friends of my siblings and the second parents in my life, respectively, and to have our paths cross again, this time under the context of getting to make something special together, and to squeeze them for all the Fargo connections, and all the vintage vans, and all the artistic talent with props and construction and thrift shopping for costumes that I could, (laughs) … it was one of the greatest joys and most purely fun occurrences of my life.

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