Despite living in a landfill that has a detrimental impact on his health, Heuv Nhanh had no choice but to live there, he said. When he was 10-years-old, he moved from his hometown Prey Veng to a landfill site in Streung Meanchey in 2000.
"As we all know, landfills are bad for our health, which is one issue. Another issue is that living in a dump is dangerous since there are so many trucks passing by,” he said. “We also occasionally end up in the dump."
He said that the garbage company did not let individuals visit the landfill. However, he needs to go there to get food as he is poor.
"Since we are poor, we must go there and exchange our lives for that small amount of money,” he said.
He didn't have a proper house to live in at the time, he added.
"Thus, my parents made a home by utilizing a discarded tent for me to live in. It was unstable,” he said. “As they load up the rubbish in this location, we had to relocate our residence. So, living there is quite difficult."
Life wasn't easy for him after living at the landfill for three years, he said. He was surrounded by rubbish and continued to do the same thing day-to-day without a goal in life.
"It was tough for me to live in the garbage dump since I only ate food from the landfill,” he said. “I cleaned the food in the landfill and ate it to simply survive.”
He added that almost 90 percent of those living in the dump never have a meal since they only eat snacks or fruits there.
Life starts to get better
One day, he came across Scott Neeson. When kids living in garbage meet foreigners, they usually ask for money. Scott, on the other hand, didn't give them money, he said. Instead, he provided food and candy.
Nhanh frequently ran across Scott when he came to the garbage site to bring kids to Cambodia Children’s Fund, he said. He, on the other hand, didn’t want to go to the organization.
"I don't want to move since I came to the dump to live with my parents. Scott was not well-known in Cambodia at the time. Also, our parents warned us not to trust strangers,” he said. “So, we were afraid of him."
As he saw him so often, he informed Scott that he wanted to go to school. Eventually, he was able to pursue an education. Fortunately, his sister was also able to study there, so they both had equal access to education.
Despite living in the organization being easier for him than living in the landfill, he didn’t like it since it had so many regulations. He was unfamiliar with the environment, he said.
"When I lived in the dump, I had freedom. I could sleep anytime I wanted, but there is a policy in the organization. It has timetables for studying, sleeping, eating, and showering,” he said. “So, I wasn’t able to play what I wanted. I didn't want to live there."
After three days, he wanted to leave as he was unable to adapt to the environment. However, other children who had been through it before persuaded him to stay. There, he continued to reside and requested that the organization visit his parents once a week.
While he was in the organization, his parents continued to live in the dump. He added that he always visited them on Sundays at the dump to pick up waste since it was his habit at the time.
“So, whenever Scott comes to the dump on Sunday, I always try to avoid him,” he said. “I was worried that he would find out.”
Journey to find himself
After graduating from high school in 2014, he pursued a bachelor's degree in design at Setec University, without understanding what he genuinely liked. He only knew that he enjoyed repairing lights and machinery.
Nonetheless, one day, he was given the opportunity to intern at Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). He was working as a volunteer in the media unit, making videos and writing scripts. Surprisingly, he was able to determine what he wanted to be.
"My supervisor asked me to write a script, and I could do it. I did some research and discovered that I am more interested in media,” he said. “Frankly, I had no idea what a film was. I went there since I didn’t have a job.”
Once he discovered his passion, he continued to work on his favorite things until he was allowed to work on the Preak Sdach Korn film. He left CCF, even though the organization had provided him with almost everything, he said.
"I want to be the first person in the organization to quit and be self-independent. I want to face the difficulty on my own. This is my strength,” he said. “I told the organization that I want to leave as I want to improve and attempt to accomplish everything on my own."
After leaving, he worked tirelessly until he became an advisor to Mao Ayuth, a well-known Cambodian director. As his advisor, he had to work on his speaking, language, and communication skills. He added that he constantly learns how to produce films from the film director.
"He taught me how to be a filmmaker. Especially, while on set, I learned how to lead and manage a team,” he said. “There were several issues on set, but he [Mao Ayuth] was capable of resolving them all. This is a filmmaker's strength. It's not only about filming the story, we also need to guide the crew."
Despite his age, he continued to film until 4am, taking only two hours of sleep before returning to the set. His dedication and enthusiasm for filmmaking motivated him to do the same, Nheunh said.
Preak Sdach Korn film is a school for him, pushing him to become a director. In that film, he worked as an editor. He felt inspired by the people who surrounded him and felt he needed to shape himself to be like them.
He said that his position and abilities have leveled up as he faced several challenges, adding that those who want to transform themselves must start right now.
"If I want to know about the future, I'll look at myself right now. I don't have to think about the future. I used to have a future dream, but now I believe that if I want to transform myself, I must begin today,” he said. “If I am lazy and don’t work hard, my future will be the same as I wouldn’t have any skills. This is something I always think about."
His purpose of being a filmmaker is to change his father's behavior. He wants to make something about the dangers of drinking and how it impacts their health or their children. Many fathers in Cambodia are addicted to alcohol, much like his father, he said.
"I have no right to order them to stop drinking. So, as a film producer, I may create a film to teach their thinking. Only advertising the video can shift their mindset,” he said. “It's also legal since we produce educational content. I don't expect things to change completely, but I believe we can make a difference."
His dream for his family is to leave the landfill and poverty, he said. When he was in school, he wasn't an outstanding student, and his brain was preoccupied with electronics. He enjoyed repairing lamps, he added.
"When I was born, all I witnessed was domestic violence in my family. So, it became a traumatic experience for me,” he said. “Sometimes, it might look normal, but it is not. When children see domestic abuse, their brain is more likely to be difficult to absorb.”
After working on the Sdach Korn film, he saved money to build a house for his family.
"My parents used to say that they don't want to die in a landfill. They wish to return to their hometown,” he said. “So, I saved money from the project and filming until I could build a house for my parents. I could fulfill their wish."
Apart from that, he wishes to stop his dad from drinking as his father is an alcoholic. He said that he always found an example to motivate him to quit drinking.
"I promised him that if he ceases drinking, I will bring him overseas. I just lied to him,” he said. “But at the time, I got a chance to travel overseas. So, my father began to drink less."
His dad promised him he would stop drinking, and he kept his promise. Before he used to be scared when he drank, and his eyes began to glaze over. However, he became a regular person when he quit drinking. When he gets home, he feels happy now, he said.
"I transformed my father's behavior from someone who enjoys drinking and violence to someone I admire,” he said. “Before I used to say that I didn't want to be like him."
His desire has been realized, but he does not want to succeed alone while his parents experience difficulties, he explained. He said that if he is successful, he wants to help his parents leave the landfill.
"Currently, no one in my family lives in a landfill,” he said. “They've all got their own jobs."
Faced with so many hurdles, he often wants to give up, but everyone around him motivates him to continue. For instance, it was tough to live during Covid-19, but looking back, it is not only for him, he said.
"It is not only myself, but everyone on the globe. So, I can go through everything since this serves as motivation for me,” he said. “I also have someone I can counsel with, but they don't experience the same challenges that I do. Therefore, I'm the only one who can solve it."