ShortList 2019: How ‘One Cambodian Family’ With Emily Mortimer Accidentally Became a Political Film

A.M. Lukas’ gentle comedy about her own experience in an immigrant family arrives at a time when its message of acceptance is a timely one

It’s hard to imagine a more tortured route to the screen than the one taken by writer-director A.M. Lukas with her short film “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure,” one of the finalists in TheWrap’s 2019 ShortList Film Festival.

Lukas wrote the screenplay, which was based on her own upbringing as part of an immigrant family in Fargo, North Dakota, as a way to get into the AFI directing program for women. AFI liked it well enough to take her to lunch and tell her so, but they didn’t admit her.

Years later, the Tribeca Film Festival gave her a grant to make the film as part of a competition aimed at increasing the number of female directors — but before she could start production, she became ill and had to stop. Tribeca gave the money to somebody else.

When she recovered, Lukas reached out to her cast and crew and financiers, but the only person who responded was Emily Mortimer, who was going to play a role based on Lukas’ mother. The actress found a new producer, who brought in Refinery 29 to finance the film — but two days before everyone was supposed to fly to Fargo for the shoot, Mortimer landed a part in a movie with Gary Oldman (the upcoming “Mary”) and had to drop out.

Desperate, Lukas proposed that she play the lead role herself — which, she said, panicked her financiers so much that they agreed to pay extra money to do an initial Fargo shoot without Mortimer, and then a second one when the actress became available.

“Right after she finished the movie with Gary Oldman, she dyed her hair in the middle of the night and flew to Fargo,” Lukas said with a laugh.

The result is an offbeat, wonderfully warm-hearted short about the immigrant experience, based around Lukas’ own upbringing. “I was the youngest of four kids who grew up in Fargo to a Czech mother and an Italian father,” she said. “It’s pretty much all true. It’s really the story of my mom.

“And it was delightful, because Emily took such a shine to my mom. She wanted to hang out with her and copy her mannerisms, which is exactly what I wanted her to do.”

The film is centered on a letter written by the mother lobbying a refugee service to send a Cambodian family to Fargo in the aftermath of that country’s genocide in the 1970s. The letter tries to paint a rosy picture of Fargo, doing so in a way that reveals the loneliness at the heart of the immigrant experience but also the sense of shared humanity.

As anti-immigrant sentiment is rising around the world, this gentle comedy about acceptance takes on a political dimension. “At the time I wrote it, we were living in a different world,” Lukas said. “I was still operating under the illusion that we had all reached this level of acceptance and understanding of people’s differences. Like many people, I was operating with rose-colored glasses.

“So it’s been a really interesting thing to have unwittingly made this very political movie. So much of my upbringing was this idea that America was a magical place that allowed me to live my dreams, so it feels very kismet that the film was made now and that I get to speak to these topics.

“My greatest hope is that it’s sort of a little sleeper missile. Maybe some people who think a certain way about immigrants will find themselves being snuck up on a little bit by this film.”

Watch the film above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at and vote through Aug. 21.