Davy Chou, in his feature-length debut documentary film Golden Slumbers (2011), addresses the golden age of Cambodian cinema, from 1960 to 1975. The last year of this golden age of Cambodian cinema was deliberate: 1975 was the year the Khmer Rouge came to power. During the Pol Pot-led regime, the Khmer Rouge burned and left hundreds of films to ruin. "How to present this film history when the majority of the films have been destroyed?" is the question that dictates the film. That this golden age of Cambodian cinema is so intimately connected to the Cambodian genocide makes Golden Slumber an unsettling mix of film history, oral history, and testimony.
In the absence of footage, Chou brings together former producers, filmmakers, actors, and cinephiles, who are all compelled to narrate the films themselves. As such, Golden Slumbers captures how people constitute informal (embodied) film archives, projecting the films in their memories and conversations in place of the screen. In fact, one of the alluring aspects of Chou's film is the way it takes the dearth of surviving films not as an obstacle but a productive challenge and exercise in cinephilia, as it discovers the myriad ways and forms in which a film survives outside of the material film itself -- be it in the form of lobby cards, the spaces of former movie theatres and studio sets, and songs, amongst other things, as well as how these elements, especially the music, have taken on independent lives of their own thanks in part to our digital and YouTube age. A lot of the films of the golden age contained songs, which were released separately on records; a mixture of folk and pop, precisely the kind of music that contemporary bands like Dengue Fever incorporate, interpret, and reference in their songs.
Incidentally, Chou is the grandson of Van Chann, who was one of the great film producers during that golden age of Cambodian cinema. Capturing the theme of continuing generations in cinema, Golden Slumbers presents sequences in which the older generation recounts film narratives to younger folks, which provides a beautiful image of the blurred lines of film history and personal history. At the same time, the idea of continuing generations is tragically ironic, since the Khmer Rouge regime systematically put a stop not only to the golden age of Cambodian cinema but also to the memory and knowledge of Cambodian cultural history for a generation of Cambodians. The numbers are chilling, indeed: around 400 films were made during the period of 1960-1975, yet only around 30 have survived.
During this year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Asia Pacific Arts had the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Chou and speak at length about Golden Slumbers and what led him to make the film.
Interview with Davy Chou
Interviewed by Rowena Aquino
Camera and edit by Craig Stubing
Asia Pacific Arts: Before we talk about your film, can you tell us a little bit of your background?
Davy Chou: I'm born in France, but my parents were born in Cambodia. They moved to France in 1973, which was two years before [the start of] the Khmer Rouge regime. I just grew up in France, knowing very little about Cambodia. I had heard that my grandfather was a film producer in Cambodia; I just knew that he was in film. [But] I started to make films on my own, [having forgotten] about this story.
Then I realised I had this grandparent that was in film, so I asked my aunt [Sohong Stehlin] for the first time, at the age of 21 or 22, and she told me more about her father. It was the first time that she explained to me the story of her father, how he started making films, how his production company became very successful very quickly, how they had a big theatre in town. I was absolutely amazed at hearing that story. She also extended the story about my grandfather, [to be] about Cambodian cinema in general. I heard how these people started to make films.
I was thinking that if, as a French-Cambodian, I had never heard of Cambodian cinema at the time, [then] nobody had ever heard about it. So I wanted to make a film out of this amazing story.
APA: So you didn't really grow up with hearing much about your grandfather working in film?
DC: Not really. It was very obscure for me. Sometimes I would hear about him making films, but [it was] never a precise story. That's why suddenly I just asked the question; it was very strange. I guess as a Cambodian immigrant, as a second generation Cambodian, our parents don't tell us so much about their past, because it's also something they want to forget -- even this happier story about him making films. It's still Cambodia, so it's still something that we don't speak so much about.
That's maybe why it was like a closed door: I just opened it, and when I opened it, there were so many amazing stories that I never heard about. It was something very strong for me, so I immediately had the desire to make this film, and maybe go to Cambodia -- because I had never been to Cambodia at that time. I had this desire to explore this story and then maybe go to Cambodia and see what's going on there.
APA: Was it hard for you to track down these former producers, filmmakers, and actors?
DC: It was very easy to find them, strangely, but [also] not strangely because of my family connection and also because Cambodia is a very small country. You just ask around, and you will find some contact, and it's easy to find them and locate them. Obviously, my aunt helped me. She came to Cambodia for one month when I set up there. In three hours, she set up a dinner with all of these people. It was amazing because I had never met them, so it was very stressing and embarrassing for me. Also, because I had this project of making a film about Cambodian cinema, but I didn't know anything about Cambodian cinema because I just arrived two weeks ago, in Cambodia; it was 2009.
It was easy to locate them [and] it was easy to have, I would say, a close relationship with them because they all knew my grandfather. That created a kind of a family link very quickly. Also because in Cambodian family, everybody has lost so many members [in the genocide], so when you meet someone who is a nephew or the grandson of someone that you knew, it creates a very close relationship quickly. But knowing people is not the same thing as making a film on them; that was just the first step. The second step was to spend a lot of time with them and ask them a lot of questions, doing my research also on my own and with the help of people who are very connected to this Cambodian cinema story. Then, step by step, I could kind of understand what I'm going to ask them.
At the end, it was easy to connect to them, but it was not easy to interview them sometimes because it was sometimes a very heartbreaking story as well. You could think that it's the happiest story of their lives, they're happy to tell it, but it's very connected to what happened after. If I take the example of Yvon Hem, at the beginning he was very reluctant to go into this old story, just telling [me], "It's old stuff, it's not important, just forget about it." I was surprised. I was wondering why, because it's very important for him, his films. Then, step by step, I understood that for him telling the story of this past, films of the sixties, he's immediately thinking of the family he has lost during the Khmer Rouge. It's impossible to disconnect the films, the family, and the dark side of the story. I had to find a way to convince them to trust me enough to go into telling this story that they wanted sometimes to forget.
APA: There are moments in the film that navigate between remembering and forgetting -- and also the absence of images.
DC: The challenge is simple in the film: how to tell a story about films that don't exist anymore or are not shown anymore? So you have to be very imaginative for the audience to be able to imagine how the films looked like. We tried in a certain way to find a different strategy to make this imagination thing happen. It's also [about] using the soundtrack and going to the different places and using, let's say, the camera movements, the cinematography, and the editing for us to be able to imagine how it looked like.
But the sound was very important as well; for example, the Capitol Theatre, which has been turned into a snooker club. We used a lot of sound. It's kind of a narrative sequence with bombing to make us feel the ambience of Phnom Penh at the time, where there were a lot of bombs and rockets coming from the Khmer Rouge.
APA: In this way, film history merges with oral history and survivor testimony.
DC: Absolutely. The oral story is very important. When nothing is left, there is just the oral story, but it's maybe the most important. It's how a story is transmitted by one to another just by speaking. In the film, we see that this young guy is living in this kind of very slum place that happened to be the biggest theatre in Phnom Penh, and he's telling us that he knows the story of the film because his mother used to tell him the story of the film when he was a kid. That tells everything about how a film can survive even if it was destroyed or not shown anymore. It's still here because it's going to the story and memory of people.
APA: Do the families living in the former Capitol Theatre know that it was a former movie theatre?
DC: They all knew that. When I asked them, some of them used to watch films there, some of them came from the province or they didn't know but they heard about it. They all know it was a theatre. They even know the name of the filmmaker, Ly Bun Yim, who owned this theatre.
For me, it's very important because -- and this is more about politics -- when you go into this place specifically, and you see the people, you think that they are born like this. Like you have the feeling, the instinct, the reflex of thinking that these people were born in the street. But when you speak with them, they will tell you that they used to watch films in this theatre, and it was so magic[al]. You understand that they were not born like this actually, and they were just normal people going to see films like anyone in the capital city of Phnom Penh. That they were former audiences when they were kids and now they're living in this miserable condition, tells us everything on how the Khmer Rouge broke and destroyed everything and created a breakdown in this society and in the continuity of the story of the country.
Part 1 | Part 2