The idea of this film was born of a story told to me, from a privileged witness, of the golden age of Cambodian cinéma from the 1960s to the early 1970s. This privileged witness is my aunt. From her, I discovered that her father – my grandfather, Van Chann – had been one of the principal film producers of this period preceding the dark history of the Khmer Rouge régime starting in 1975.
The aura of mystery which surrounded this grandfather that I never knew (he disappeared mysteriously in 1969) was compelling, along with the whole of this lost cinematic world of which he had been one of the Kings. To learn of my grandfather was to discover this legendary golden age. My interest in one, fuelled my passion for the other.
There is nothing more ridiculous than the reduction of an apogée of achievement to a series of figures. We could speak of the 350 films produced in 15 years (the exact number is impossible to know as many prints have been destroyed and filmmakers murdered), or of the 30 cinemas in Phnom Penh, the 10 “Hollywood” style studios (with entreprenuerial writer-producer-owners) or of the 15 leading actors who featured in the lion’s share of main roles, and amongst them a star couple featuring together in 60 films, and between them starring in 100 films total … But it is by the small window of anecdotes that we truly understand the texture and tone of the subject: the three brothers who each owned a production studio and never failed to give the main role of their films to their own wives; the incredibly popular and still beloved king, Norodom Sihanouk, who produced and directed many films, every year winning all the prizes of the National Cambodian Film Festival…
In 1975, however, the shade of history falls down on this enchanted small world. Actors and directors are systematically executed. Cinemas are closed, film prints abandoned along with studios. Today, exhuming the traces of this assassinated culture is a massive challenge. The rare survivors remaining across the world can be counted on the fingers of two hands: four writers, two starlets, some bit players – no leading men. Of the 350 films produced only 33 remain, mostly on VHS, for the majority the film prints are lost. Unknown by the outside world – who equate thèse years with the filmmaking endeavours of King Sihanouk – Khmer cinema is also forgotten by young Cambodians who mix up the names of the old actors and often struggle to name more than a few films of the time. Added to this a dispirited contemporary cinema culture and non-existent screen industry as well as the surprising absence of historical writing – totalling just ten pages in a book on Cambodian art before 1975, based on testimonies of the two only surviving scriptwriters living in Cambodia, and on the films of King Sihanouk in the Bophana Center along with four other films of the period.
This film is focussed on the intersection of a second generation expatriate Khmer’s dislocated fascination for vitality in Khmer culture and a sense of responsibility in the face of the impending disappearance of an inheritance already devastated by the fires of political violence and the no less frightening flames of memory loss. It is initially in this urgency (the remaining survivors are old) that the film finds the structure of its formal simplicity: to collect testimonies accurately, within an intimate Framework – at the homes of the interviewees; to leave time to the memories to find the way of the word. As orality has, up until now, been the principal mode of transmission of this history, it seems natural that the shape of film tends towards the almost sacred recording of this word. The responsibility is thus transferred to the viewer – it is up to them to manufacture the images of this forgotten cinema, up to them to give flesh, life and feelings to a history of which they cannot be a simple off-hand spectator but, in a certain way, a true actor in posterity. Finally it is only when the viewer carries out this personal work of reconstitution and takes a leap of faith will they be rewarded in the final sequence.
However, we cannot be unaware of the problems arising from using the word “survivor”. The ten pages on the Khmer cinema previously mentioned offered a perfect example of masking of reality; but when official documents and evidence (i.e. films) are missing, how can we access any truth about a moment in history? The answer is at the same time both encouraging and depressing: in the absence of the seal of approval of an undisputed authority, it is only by the personal accounts drawn from lived experience that a history can transcend the ages. The accounts featured in this film will be subjective, compartmentalised and selective – a cruel necessity when eyewitnesses likely to invalidate them have been discarded with the passing of years like the skin of a snake. The responsibility for that which calls on the only survivors is then committed, and its chances to obtain a solid total account starting from the vapors of particular words also drastically reduced.
I am no historian. But I am now a privileged witness “granted” the possibly excessive and legendary accounts of my aunt who planted the seed of this project – but this privilege is perhaps at the core of this film. The transformation of an investigation into an act of faith. To believe that films lost for more than thirty years could count among the philosopher’s stones of the cinema. To believe that the word, by the simple miracle of its scrupulous recording, could make it possible to destroy the walls of forgotten memories and allow us to see that behind the piles of photocopied catalogues of films and under the names of forgotten celebrities the golden age of Khmer cinema avoids a dusty splendour. But above all to believe that we may share the joy of making and of seeing films, the laughter of long gone spectators – surely the spirit of the origins of the cinema itself.