Paris-based filmmaker Davy Chou was born into a cinematic heritage that largely exists today in the memories of aging artisans. His grandfather was Van Chann, one of the leading film producers from Cambodia’s golden age of cinema, which ran from 1960 through to its demise at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1975. When the brutal rebel forces stormed Phnom Penh, theatres were destroyed, actors and filmmakers were slaughtered in the hundreds and a vast film history was systematically destroyed. In his film Golden Slumbers, Chou recounts the time when Cambodian cinema was the pulse of a proud and progressive nation. Softly-spoken but passionate and forthright, the young director spoke with SCREEN-SPACE when in Sydney for the film’s Sydney Film Festival premiere; it screens this week as part of Perth’s Revelations Film Festival.
What is your earliest recollection of seeing Cambodian cinema?
One day I went to my aunt’s house, with my mum, and my aunt was very excited because she had just received a VHS from the US with all Cambodian films. Everybody was very excited as we wanted to know if it was the film of my grandfather because for 35 years we hadn’t seen any of the films with my grandfather. Unfortunately, it wasn’t those films, it was two other films. We watched the first film and it was very strange; I couldn’t speak Khmer and it was in black and white with this kind of redubbed voices from the 1990. But there was a trailer between the two films and it was a trailer for a film of my grandfather.
Golden Slumbers is a beautiful looking film, shot with incredible artistry. It is not that common amongst low-budget documentaries that the finished product is so polished.
We did everything we could to raise one’s imagination of the films; that was the main purpose of my film. I didn’t want to show the old films because I wanted to be faithful to Cambodia as it was when I arrived there, where the old films are not shown anymore. So even if the films had not existed for 40 years, I wanted to make (the memory) of them seem very vivid and real, and I did that with my use of sound and image and really concentrating on things like cinematography. At the end, I wanted the audience to have felt that they had seen the films even if I had nothing to show. (pictured, right, Chou with the film's Yvon Hem, Dy Saveth, Ly You Sreang and Ly Bun Yim)
You were born and bred in France and did not visit Canbodia until your mid 20s. Recount for us what the experience of reconnecting with your genealogical homeland was like.
I was naive in thinking it wasn’t going to change my life when, of course, it did. I didn’t know the culture, I didn’t speak the language but I had this strong desire to learn all that I could, mostly to honour and understand my parent’s heritage. Also, I had this film project and I thought I had to know the country, even just a little. But by the end of my time there, I felt very much part of the people and the culture, which was unusual because I was still a Westerner, born in France, as you say. I met a lot of family there and also formed relationships with the four main characters in the film, who all became like aunts and uncles. When I can back to France I had not expected to have been changed so much.
Did the impetus for Golden Slumbers come from that visit or had you begun the pre-production process? Was that trip essential in terms of research, for example?
Of course, I needed to make the research there because there is nothing outside of there. But even in Cambodia, on my first trip in 2008, I couldn’t find films there. I went to the markets, I went to the Bophana Centre, which is the archive building in Phnom Penh; nothing. Then one guy, a French guy working in the archive, said to me, “You know this website, right?” and I said “Which website”. And he showed me this amazing blog, written in French by a Cambodian who moved to France after the Khmer Rouge, and he had on this blog the entire filmography of Cambodian cinema. It was all there – by year, casting, music. From that website, I was able to access the surviving films, around 25 or 30 films, I think, all of very bad quality. That was in France, but back in Cambodia the biggest resource I had was just talking to the people. And not just the people who made the films but also the population who remember the films. (pictured, above, Chou preparing to film actress Dy Saveth)
I understand that the population was integral in helping you locate the old theatres sites you visit in the film.
I had to talk to the population just to find the buildings that were once the theatres, because now, as you see in the film, they have all been turned into restaurants and pool halls and so on. The filmmakers couldn’t help me with that, because they only knew of the three main theatres (where films were premiered). But it was the population who took me around, pointing out “This was a theatre” and “This was a theatre.”It was a reconstruction of a memory in a very collective process, because everybody brought one story that helped us imagine that the past was once like this. It had been so destroyed that, at the beginning, it was very hard to understand.
How important was the national cinema to the people of Cambodia in the pre-Khmer Rouge period?
They say that before 1960 there were films showing in Phnom Penh, Indian films and Chinese films, but the most popular form of entertainment was traditional theatre. But when Cambodian films came out, they became very popular, very quickly. It had to do with a love of their own culture; they were very proud to see Cambodian actors in big theatres. But I have to say that the political context was very important as well. With communism starting in 1960 and ended in 1975, people always talk about the same period for films, from 1972 to especially 1975, when the nation was in the middle of a civil war and the Khmer Rouge were getting closer and closer to Phnom Penh. It was very dangerous and people from Phnom Penh couldn’t go outside the city limits, so movies were the only form of entertainment for them. And many of the big movie fans I spoke to were teenagers then, so you can understand, their lives seen through the context of war, why film was so important and so unforgettable for them. One of the cinephiles, at the end (of the film), says he forgot the face of his parents but not the faces of the actors. That is because of this special feeling that, for him, cinema was everything, I guess.
Western cultures like Australia and the US and your homeland of France have very clear chronological histories of their film culture’s development that each generation draws upon. Yet Cambodia is missing a huge chunk of its history. How is that impacting the young Cambodian filmmakers of today?
First of all, there are not too many filmmakers in Cambodia. There is no film school, no one teaching film at the moment, but I think, well, I hope that is going to change. I know some young filmmakers there, and they have heard of the great years of Cambodian cinema, mostly from their parents, but they don’t have access to the films and there are no books, so.... But I think it is a bridge to build again. That is not really the purpose of my film, but if it can help in that way, that would be good and interesting. The link that has been broken between the old generation and this new one should not have been broken. Should a new film school open, so much has changed in filmmaking since that great time, many might think the surviving filmmakers should not be teachers, that techniques have changed too much. But I think a place should be found for them because they are the keepers of the film history of their country.
Golden Slumbers has found tremendous favour with critics and audiences since you completed the film in 2010. That is a long journey for you. Did you have any notion that it would be so embraced in so many different cultures?
It is hard for me to imagine a time before Golden Slumbers (laughs)! I never imagined the film would have had this sort of impact or been this successful. Before I made the film, I would tell people I was making a documentary about Cambodian cinema and they would say “Ok....” (laughs). But, in the end, they realise it is a very universal theme. Everybody loves cinema, every country has a cinema, so the experience of imagining what it would be like if that cinema was lost...well, that gets people interested.
Golden Slumbers will screen at MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL on Friday 10th August at 6.30pm and Tuesday 14th August at 4.30pm.