Cynthia Wade talks about BORN SWEET

Cynthia Wade, director of Born Sweet, is an Oscar-winning documentary director. Her directing credits include the Sundance Special Jury Prize winning, Academy Award winning “Freeheld” (2007), IFC Channel’s “Living the Legacy” (2009), HBO’s five-time award winning “Shelter Dogs” (2004) and the Cinemax documentary “Grist for the Mill” (1999). As a cinematographer, Wade has shot and produced documentaries for Discovery, A&E;, PBS, Bravo, AMC, The History
Channel and MTV. She holds a Masters Degree in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.Bijan Tehrani: How did you first encounter the subject of Born Sweet?
Cynthia Wade: I was actively looking for a new film, and I made the commitment to myself that I wanted to direct a film outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to move beyond the United States and the New York area in order to really push myself. I was on my way to Belize to see if there was a potential film. As fate would have it, I missed my flight, and on that day, I heard a story on NPR about arsenic in the well water in Cambodia, and the karaoke program that is used to educate on this matter. I started to reach out to the late Dr. Mickey Sampson and Resource Development International (, the NGO in Cambodia that works to battle the arsenic problem and produces the karaoke videos. It’s ironic that if I had actually made the flight to Belize I would have missed the story about the arsenic problem in Cambodia.BT: Did you spend a lot of time in the country before you started to shoot?

CW: We made three trips to Cambodia in 2009. The first was mostly for research purposes; we visited many villages that are affected by arsenic water and tried to talk to as many people as possible. We spent many incredibly long days traveling under difficult circumstances due to monsoon season. We went into very remote areas to listen to the stories of the villagers. People were very open and welcoming and were willing to talk about the effects of arsenic. We wanted to get a child’s perspective, and we met an incredible young boy named Vinh in one of the more remote villages towards the end of our research trip. As soon as we met him, I knew that he was going to be an essential part of the story, and eventually our narrator.

BT: How were you able to get so close to the villagers being a foreigner?
CW: Vinh was incredibly open, as was his family and his village. It certainly helped that we were working with RDI, the organization with which the villagers were familiar and very much trusted. We were very open to the experience and didn’t just start filming right away. We spent a lot of time with the villagers, and I think that the children especially were really excited to meet foreigners. They were amazed by all of the equipment and the cameras, so it was a great experience for them.

BT: This film appears to tell the story of someone who is close to losing his life, but yet there is always the undercurrent theme of hope. In a way it has the same theme as your Academy Award winning film FREEHELD. Was this something that you did intentionally?
CW: This is the fifth film in a row that I have directed that deals with death in some way. Death is a frequent theme in my films because it is so universal – at some point, we all face our own mortality. I had originally planned on making a happier story, something that wasn’t quite as heavy. In the end, I think BORN SWEET straddles the line between life and death, hope and despair. BORN SWEET follows this fifteen year-old boy who is contemplating his own destiny and possible death. In this film we see the beauty of life and the connections that people have with one another, but running underneath is this horrible truth that there are thousands of wells in Southeast Asia that have tapped into arsenic deposits. So of course there is a conflict between life and death in this film. I think contemplating death makes a person more appreciative of life, more willing to take risks, because we know that life is short and death awaits us all. That might be why death comes up in my films as often as it does.

BT: Do you hope that the film will bring awareness to this problem?
CW: I do hope this film can shed light on the issue of arsenic contamination. Access to clean water is an increasingly global issue, and one to which we must pay attention. Arsenic poisoning is a huge issue all over the world, particularly in areas that lie on major flood plains, where arsenic was absorbed through the mud into the underground water supplies over thousands of years. Bangladesh, due to its unique geological positioning, has been especially hard it.
But what I love about this film is that it is not primarily a social issue film; it is really a coming of age story about this young boy. It is a portrait piece with a very specific and detailed view of Vinh’s life in this village. We witness Vinh’s evolution in very real ways, a pronounced shift in the way he thinks about his own destiny.

BT: Do you have any upcoming projects?
CW: I am in the process of moving the majority of my production company to Los Angeles. I have several projects there that are in development. Since BORN SWEET’s premiere and Honorable Mention Award at Sundance 2010, we have received many requests from other festivals and we hope the film will be shared with audiences far and wide.
BT: Thank you for your time and I wish you great success with this film.


About Author

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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