February 3, 2021

Director Ryan White and cinematographer John Benam on the documentary Assassins

When filmmaker Ryan White first heard about the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in early 2017, he paid little attention to the story until a reporter called to let him know that it might make an interesting documentary. Kim Jong-nam was poisoned in the middle of a crowded Malaysian airport by two young women who smeared a highly poisonous nerve agent on his face. On the surface, these women seemed like bold, cold-blooded killers. But once Ryan and cinematographer John Benam flew to Malaysia to find out more about the story, they soon realized that the political assassination plot went deep, the women might be innocent, and were likely duped by North Korean operatives. The two women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, were put on trial for murder in Malaysia. Ryan was able to speak with their lawyers and eventually interview Siti and Doan. With help from the women’s defense lawyers, the Assassins editorial team painstakingly pieced together all the security footage from the airport and put together the entire sequence of events during the assassination. They were also able to see and use within the film many of the text messages the women exchanged with their handlers, which clearly pointed to their complete ignorance of what they were getting into.

Ryan feels Assassins became controversial and had trouble finding distribution not because of the political content, but because big online companies feared retribution, as occurred with Sony Pictures getting hacked by North Korea when they released the film The Interview.

Cinematographer John Benam has worked on several documentaries with director Ryan White, beginning with the the Netflix series The Keepers, about the murder of a nun and the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Baltimore Catholic Church. When John first decided to make a career out of filmmaking, he knew he wanted to stay in Baltimore, and started working in a camera shop during the switch from film to video. Luckily, Baltimore has a bit of a film industry and he was able to work locally on several TV shows, then got a job working for National Geographic shooting nature documentaries.

For Assassins, John and Ryan dove deep into Siti and Doan’s story, exploring where they came from and what brought them to Malaysia. They felt it was important to have the women tell their own story, and it required patience and sensitivity. John is a mission-oriented, emotional cinematographer, and shooting nature documentaries taught him the skill to sit still, keep a low profile, and watch a story unfold. John had to travel light and nimble, taking dozens of trips to Malaysia for the story over the course of two years while the trial was going on. He used two Canon EOS C300 Mark II cameras for shooting, because of its lightness and small size, staying under the radar from the general public. As he learned about the intricacies of the Malaysian legal system and shot the trial, John felt very emotional about the outcome of a guilty verdict for the women, which would mean execution by hanging.

You can watch Assassins streaming now in virtual cinemas: https://www.assassinsdoc.com

Find Ryan White: http://www.tripod-media.com/

Find John Benam: https://www.benamfilms.com/

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep111/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

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