Six years ago, a blood-soaked, low-budget, independent film called Dark Hearts, directed by Rudolf Buitendach and written and produced by Christian Piers Betley, was nominated for the Raindance Film Festival Best International Film Award.
Two years ago, Buitendach was back with his next feature, Selling Isobel, about the sex-slave trade. This time he went one better and picked up an award, for the Best Indie film.
This year, he’s back with his second collaboration with Betley; Hex is a Cambodian-set horror about demonic possession – a film almost as blood-soaked as their first joint venture.
There’s clearly something about experience which speeds up the lengthy film-making process; Dark Hearts took about a decade and a half to go from initial idea to screen, but Hex took only about a year and a half to get up-and-running, says Betley. “It’s a micro-low budget indie film, so we had to try to incorporate certain elements in the budget to make it work for the story.”
Betley – a British film-maker, now based in Canada – and Buitendach – a British-South African national, working out of LA – have worked extensively in countries across the world, but Cambodia posed particular problems.
“We had problems all throughout the production,” Betley recalls. “The cultural value system that they have is very different from ours so we had to adapt certain things. We couldn’t incorporate our Western methodology, we we had to change the way we approached film in certain ways and we incorporated some of the aspects of what they felt was the right way of handling things, so we had to be blessed by monks and we had to pay due attention to various local historical sights.”
“It was an amazing experience,” agrees Buitendach. “It was very tough, very difficult, but I love that. Challenge is what it’s all about.”
With language and culture being so different, the team ensured that they had input from locals off-screen as well as incorporated into the on-screen story. “It was very much about empowering people in Cambodia who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance. We tried to mentor a few people.”
For a horror film to press the right buttons it needs to frighten its audience and Hex is unsettling from the start, ratcheting up to a creepy conclusion that will appeal to fans of the genre. Impressive cinematography helps to set the mood, from sweeping aerial shots that capture rarely seen glorious coastlines and countryside to dark and dingy caves were the horror plays out.
One of the supporting cast, Scottish Ross McCall has described how this chilling atmosphere was very much evident behind the scenes too. He’s said that despite being a sceptic, he was unnerved by everything from exploding lights and chilly breezes to – in one case – having an ancient ornament whipped out of his hands. “It was the real deal, but we thought it was a setup by props at first,” he disclosed. “In other scenes, techniques were used to make items move. So I kinda didn’t believe them when they said it was for real. It was weird cos’ that ornament was like hundreds of years old and used in some voodoo rituals, so maybe it possesses some powers.” The camera was running at the time and Buitendach left it in the final cut. Betley revealed that even Buitendach himself experienced the supernatural on set, seeing the ghost of a child, while shooting near Cambodia’s infamous killing fields.
Hex is just beginning its journey on the international festival circuit, where the film-makers hope to pick up sales in territories across the world. A genre film with above-the-line talent hailing from the US, UK and South Africa – and the rarely-seen Cambodia forming such a prominent backdrop to the events – there is potential for global interest and with cinematography and sound design that surpass the low budget, there’s certainly scope for return on their investment.
But screening at a festival whose international reputation is growing won’t hurt. “For me, it’s the premiere Indie festival, probably, in Europe, I took some script-writing courses with them back in the day, they showed my first short film, actually,” notes Buitendach, saying that the organisers always champion film-makers. “Raindance have an extraordinary collection of movies to look at and they’re always pushing the boundaries,” enthuses Betley. But for him, it’s equally important to be screening the film in the city that was his home for so long. “It’s great for this picture to be seen in London. For me, London is a cultural melting pot and I would love people to see what Cambodia has to offer. It’s a young country, it’s a dynamic, it’s changing. I would wish more independent film-makers consider Cambodia as a backdrop for filming. They won’t be disappointed.”