SXSW 2023 Interview: Victoria Bousis Talks Stay Alive, My Son (Exclusive)

Embarking on an emotionally charged life-long journey of redemption after being forced to make a harrowing decision during a traumatic experience is a vital part of the healing process. Filmmaker Victoria Bousis is emphasizing the importance of such a quest in her new XR experience, ‘Stay Alive, My Son.’

The fully immersive biographical documentary is inspired by true events and based on the memoirs of Pin Yathay. The Cambodian genocide survivor has embarked on a 45-year journey to find his son, who he was forced to separate from during the tragic event.

Bousis wrote, directed, produced and served as the production designer on ‘Stay Alive, My Son,’ which won the PGA’s Innovation Award this year. The movie stars Elodie Yung, Arnold Chun, Vincent Rodriguez III, Kostas Filippoglou, Abraham Sigler and Lucas Sigler.

‘Stay Alive, My Son’ begins by showing a photograph of a six-year-old boy, who is digitally aged to 50, which allows Yathay’s realities to collide. Haunted by his inner demons, his guilt surfaces for abandoning his son to escape during the Cambodian genocide. The XR experience’s player, who embodies Yathay throughout the narrative, plummets into his mental prison, which contain locked memories. As the player experience Yathay’s journey, they discover his reason for living: to reclaim all that he lost and to reunite with his son. He also hopes to find his salvation and heal his heart.

‘Stay Alive, My Son’ had its World Premiere during the XR Experience Competition of last month’s SXSW. In honor of the film’s premiere, Bousis generously took the time three days after the project’s premiere on March 12 to sit down for an exclusive interview at the Fairmont Hotel Austin, where the XR experience was held, to talk about scribing, helming and producing the documentary.

The conversation began with Bousis delving into how ‘Stay Alive, My Son’ is based on Yathay’s true story and the titular book. She found the book when she “was traveling in Cambodia about nine years ago. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about the Cambodian history, especially what happened during the Cambodian genocide,” she said.

“Then I got to meet the people and explore the culture. So I started to understand what had really happened there,” the filmmaker noted.

“Then I walked into a bookstore and found the book. I started crying because the story is so powerful. It’s based on this man, Pin Yathay, and his family, and their plight during the Cambodian genocide,” Bousis continued.

“But it turns based on the decision he had to make to leave his six-year-old son behind in order for his son to have a better chance to live,” the screenwriter revealed. “He also made the decision so that he could escape because the Kampuchea had found out who he was, so his time was limited.

“At the time, the Syrian refugee crisis was going on in Greece. I’m Greek, so I had seen the photos of the children being washed away, so I thought, how can a parent make such a horrible decision? That stuff is kind of being repeated now in Ukraine,” Bousis pointed out.

“So I flew to France to meet Pin Yathay. He’s now 80-years-old. I had taken a photo of his son when he was six-years-old from the book, and we digitally aged it using AI to 52-years-old, the age his son would have been at that time,” the filmmaker also shared.

“I showed it to him and said, ‘I’m going to put it in the experience and tour with it around. Maybe someone will recognize him and we can find him,’” Bousis continued.

“He took a long pause…before he responded: ‘That’s not my son. My son is a six-year-old boy,’” the scribe divulged.

“It was such a punch in my stomach because I thought maybe I had destroyed some aspiration he had to find him,” Bousis admitted. “I saw him trying to reconcile the past and the present, and the 45 years that had passed by.

“What I realized then was that there was also a story past the book. The story is of a man who’s now in his 80s, kind of reflecting back on his life, wondering if he had done the right thing, now that time has passed. He was also wondering if his son was still alive, and if so, if his son knows that he’s still looking for him,” the filmmaker added.

“That’s how the experience begins; when you put on the headset, you arrive at his house in France. Using gaming mechanics, you walk up the steps and ring the doorbell. A human image that we sculpted of him answers the door. So you get to meet him the way that I had done, and start forming that initial connection with him,” Bousis also shared.

“After he says a couple of things to you about Ukraine and a couple of other things going on right now, he gives you his prayer beads, and asks you to give him the peace that he seeks. When you grab the prayer beads, he vanishes and you become him,” the scribe divulges.

“So you’re in his house and see his memory. The phone rings, so you grab it and you start hearing the history we talked about. You grab the photo on his desk, and it starts talking about the digital aging of the boy,” Bousis continued.

“Then all of a sudden, because you’re now him, you start hearing his internal thoughts. He says: ‘That’s not my son. My son is a six-year-old boy,’” the filmmaker revealed.

“With that, this monster hand breaks through the ground and pulls you down into this fantastical adventure you go on. You go through his mental prison, where you experience all of the elements of the book, up until the point where he had to abandon his son,” Bousis divulged.

“Everything in the experience is hinged on reality, including real places in Cambodia, in order to keep it authentic. You then go to this temple…and you see that love is something that exists inside of us. Also, the people we love always remain alive. You give him his redemption and heal his heart,” the writer added.

“The end of the piece talks about how he remarried and created a life again, in France. He has three more sons now,” Bousis also divulged.

“He went on to testify at the United Nations tribunal hearings to seek justice. You see how this man’s survival and deep remission because of that loss fueled him to seek justice and speak around the world about what happened, so that his family could always remain immortal,” the filmmaker added.

Along with telling Yathay’s history, creating the cinematography and visuals for ‘Stay Alive, My Son’ was also an important element of telling his story. “We took a lot of time to make the world high quality because we wanted to create something that really immerses people in the space. We also use a lot of interesting sound design and score so it’s still a very cinematic experience,” Bousis said.

“For the technology we used for the humans, we actually won the Producers Guild (PGA) Innovation Award this year. Nobody’s been able to use that technology in VR before,” the producer revealed.

“I felt it was important to use that technology so that viewers could meet and interact with him. They can also understand who he is before they become him,” Bousis added.

“We also captured actors against a green screen because we felt that we had to honor the family. We also wanted feel that in his heart and mind, there’s an essence of humanity and life,” the filmmaker shared.

“The technology was all very difficult; VR is very difficult to optimize and maintain a nice frame rate, so that audiences don’t get dizzy,” Bousis admitted. “But we brought in a lot of formats that in the end, worked really well together because they felt like memories. They weren’t perfect, but the world was very photorealistic.”

The helmer then delved into the process of casting the actors who brought the characters to life in the movie. “I had an awesome cast, which I ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to have because this is my directorial debut. The cast includes Elodie Yung, who was on Marvel’s (Netflix television series,) ‘Daredevil’ and ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ which was a big blockbuster film. Arnold (Chun) was in ‘Bullet Train’ with Brad Pit,” she noted.

“But what happened was that they saw the story and what I was trying to do with the technology. They saw that I wasn’t trying to tell the story as a documentary movie, but as a VR experience,” Bousis recalled.

“They didn’t exactly understand it at first, because no one had really done VR before. But they took great trust in me because all of them had a story of family separation,” the filmmaker shared.

“Elodie’s father actually survived the Cambodian genocide, and he now lives in France, as well. She said, ‘I’ve never done a story about Cambodia, but this story resonates so closely to my family. So I want to do this with you,” Bousis divulged.

“They all went for it with me, and gave such powerful performances. I still get emotional when I see their performances in the story and how they honor this family…The cast was incredible,” the producer emotionally added.

Following up on the fact that ‘Stay Alive, My Son’ marks her directorial debut, Bousis shared her excitement over being able to make the project as a helmer. “When I first worked with Elodi, Arnold and everyone else, I was so nervous because there’s such a pressure – not only is it your first film, it’s also based on a true story,” she pointed out. “This is someone’s life, so I wanted to do the best job I could.

“The only challenge I felt was staying true to the story, since I know Pin. But everywhere else, I felt the support of my cast and team, which helped disarm all of that anxiety,” Bousis revealed. “I just ended up focusing on what I had to do and execute on it.”

When the cast arrived on the set, “I thought, they’re here, so there’s no better time to just jump in and do it. Directing the actors wasn’t difficult because we did a whole week of rehearsals before the shoot…They were so open, and we worked a lot on it,” the filmmaker shared.

“I think because the project is so pure, the performances were really great. It was just me putting the actors in the mindset of what was happening in the scene, experimenting a little bit and doing it,” Bousis continued.

“Overall, I felt pretty good about the final product. It went to Venice, Cannes and all of these other great film festivals, including SXSW now. Sharing the film at the festivals has been amazing,” the helmer added.

“It’s really awesome to work on something for so many years, and then have so many different audiences get to experience it,” Bousis continued. “Sometimes, people think, a lot of young people are going to enjoy this, and they don’t know if it’s for older audiences. But we’ve had all different kinds of audiences come and see it.

“To see people take off the headset and start hugging me and crying. They then start asking me a million questions, including ‘Where’s the boy? How does he feel about it?,’ which is heartwarming. I got so emotional with a lot of people and started hugging them. We really connected,” the filmmaker shared.

“The more people talk about it, the more we can implement change. Maybe we can even find the boy,” Bousis noted.

One of the people the documentary impacted was Ted Schilowitz, a futurist at Paramount Pictures who focuses on testing new, emerging technologies. He spoke with Bousis about ‘Stay Alive, My Son’ the day before this interview. “He was so moved by it…He said, ‘Wow, you really did it,’ and he chocked up many times while we were talking about it,” she shared.

“Then, all of a sudden, a man came out of another headset and asked me, ‘Did you make this?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ He said, ‘This is the exact story of my mother; I’m Cambodian, and my mother had to leave my little sister behind when she was two-years-old. She, too, would be 52 right now. I want my mother to see this because I think it’s going to helper her heal,” the producer shared. “Then before you know it, other people started coming over and listening in on this conversation happening.

SXSW is such a unique festival because it brings in people from technology, like Ted, as well as film curators and other people who are interested in storytelling and XR, as well as audiences,” Bousis pointed out.

“There were 400 people lined up outside of the XR exhibition room each day to see experiences like this one; I’ve never experienced that at any other festival, like Venice, Geneva and Berlin,” the filmmaker revealed. “The audience here really loves XR and really wants to see it. So it’s been an awesome experience,” she concluded.

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