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Short film ‘Maple Bacon Bar’ offers lyrical insight into Cambodian immigrant story

The protagonist of “Maple Bacon Bar” is pictured working at a donut shop on set. The student thesis film and musical seeks to highlight underrepresented voices through lyrics and storytelling. (Photo courtesy of Ee Lin. Illustration by Shea McCauley/Daily Bruin.)

By Maya Vibhakar

June 10, 2024 3:41 p.m.

Roan Pearl is mixing together music, donuts and Cambodian culture in her thesis film.

The fourth-year film and television studentis the writer and director of her short film “Maple Bacon Bar,” which she said tells the story of Sovanna – the daughter of a Cambodian American refugee family that owns a donut shop in Long Beach, California – who struggles to connect with her parents and pursue her artistic ambitions following her older sister’s death. When it came to developing a story for her thesis, Pearl said she chose to take a personal approach and draw on her family’s history as Cambodian refugees, since her family escaped the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s and, like the family in “Maple Bacon Bar,” started a donut business in Long Beach.

“There’s a really rich and deep history to Cambodian donut shops that I don’t think a lot of people know about,” she said. “It’s a very classic refugee trade story. … The community will find a trade, and then one family teaches another, and it spreads from there as a method of surviving as a community.”

Pearl said her decision to make “Maple Bacon Bar” a musical was not only due to her love of theater but also because having songs in the short film helped convey the theme of grief, especially within refugee families. From her experience, she said it’s a common trait of immigrant parents to repress their emotions in times of turmoil, so the songs served to show what Sovanna and her parents were struggling to communicate to one another.

[Related: This year’s Actor’s Showcase will spotlight talents of 19 senior theatre students]

“The story centers around grief and, at times, it’s really hard to outwardly express your grief,” Pearl said. “Most of the time, it’s something you hold on to internally. … When the music and song and dance comes in … the mom’s real compassion for the daughter shows in a song form.”

Luca Filiz, a fourth-year theater student and the short film’s composer, said he focused on creating a colorful, 1950s-era soundtrack for the three songs featured in “Maple Bacon Bar.” In addition to taking inspiration from American musical theater, Filiz said he studied Cambodian rock and alternative music from the 1980s, when Cambodian artists were influenced by sounds from the ‘50s in the United States.

“We wanted to get back to that era of, not necessarily jazz, but classic soul and classic instrumentals and a lot of the bigger bands like ‘50s kind of style that was found in a lot of those classic movies,” he said.

Filiz said the film’s second song – a duet between Sovanna and her mother – took the longest to compose with six separate drafts, since the duet marks a pivotal moment in the story where the two characters express their struggles dealing with separate forms of grief. In terms of storytelling, he said the song works as a window into the internal dialogue of both Sovanna and her mother, amplifying their emotions through lyrics and music.

The duet between Sovanna and her mother partially takes place during the daydream sequence where the two characters dance together in Cambodian-inspired dresses, said Allison Armanino, a fourth-year theater student and the short film’s costume designer. Armanino said she made sure to incorporate traditional Cambodian culture into the dresses while complementing the colors with the pink donut boxes that create the backdrop of the sequence.

“I spent about two to three months just looking into different Cambodian traditional clothing,” Armanino said. “For the actual designs of the dress, those are all from Cambodian shops that I found in the Fabric District. I had to source so much fabric and jewelry, but it was so much fun to be able to experience a bit of that culture.”

Even though the musical aspect is a key part of the story, Pearl said she chose to prioritize casting Southeast Asian actors over performers who had musical experience. Because of this decision, she said teaching the actors to sing and dance was a part of the process, but it became a collaborative environment where the actors’ lives influenced the story’s portrayal of Cambodian life in Southern California.

[Related: Chinese Cultural Dance Club at UCLA uses performing arts to celebrate, educate]

As she worked to portray an accurate mother-daughter relationship, Pearl said she had conversations with Julie Jamison – the actor who plays Sovanna’s mother in the film – about what it means to be a parent, redrafting parts of the script based on the experiences of the other Southeast Asian actors. Overall, she said the cast and crew of “Maple Bacon Bar” came together and made the short film a more collaborative process, putting in the work to authentically portray the refugee family experience and the complexities of familial grief.

“The directing process for this definitely was different from other film projects I’ve done, by nature of it being a musical, but also by nature of being so personal and centered within my own community,” Pearl said. “We had a lot of personal discussions about sharing our past experiences and really coming from a very authentic place of own experience and lived experiences.”

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