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A Filmmaker Takes Inspiration From Cambodia’s Youth

From left to right: Nov Cheanick, Chhem Madeza, Nuon Sobon, Tith Kanitha, Davy Chou posed for a photo on the official red carpet the day of the official screening of the film, Friday 13, May 2016. Actors' clothes were designed by Colorblind and actress' dress by Kool as U. (Photo: Barbara Lombeek)

Fascinated by the rapid development of the country’s capital, Chou set out to make a film about the modern lives of Cambodian youth, which was awarded the French Screenwriter and Author Society’s SACD prize at Cannes Film Festival 2016.

[Editor’s Note: Thirty-two-year-old French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou grew up in France and moved back to Cambodia in 2009. Fascinated by the rapid development of the country’s capital, Chou set out to make a film about the modern lives of Cambodian youth. The result, ‘Diamond Island,’ premiered at France’s Cannes Film Festival in May. A hit with critics, the film was awarded the French Screenwriter and Author Society’s SACD prize. VOA Khmer’s Sopheak Hoeun spoke over the phone with Chou, who was in France. The conversation ranged from the inception and inspiration of the film to the state of Cambodia’s film industry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in 1983 in France. My parents are Cambodians, and they went to France in 1973. They were very lucky to escape from the Khmer Rouge and to arrive, two years before the Khmer Rouge regime, in France. So I grew up in France. Actually, my grandfather was a very important producer back then in Cambodia. His name was Van Chan. I didn’t know much about him because he died even before the Khmer Rouge. And myself, even though my family wasn’t into film, I wanted to film and started making [films] at a very young age. And, in 2010-11, I shot a documentary in Cambodia named ‘Golden Slumbers,’ about the lost memory of Cambodian cinema before the Khmer Rouge. Since I was there in 2009, I have been back and forth between France and Cambodia, and I ended up making this first fiction feature film, ‘Diamond Island,’ portraying the life of young people in Cambodia today, in modern Cambodia, and that’s the film I was showing for the world premiere in Cannes Film Festival.

What inspired you to make this film?

After the documentary I made, I was so willing to try to do something about modern Cambodia, and especially about the youth. I just feel that Cambodia now is this country that is living all these changes, and going from these dark ages that the country has suffered from for a very long time to this kind of new time in which the country is really going into modernization in a very, very fast pace, and it looks like many people are very excited about it, and especially the youth is really excited about it. And, people are surrounded by this image, this advertisement for new and modern Cambodia. So, I was very excited to try to capture this very specific moment.

"I really wanted to do something very real, and that we could see when we watch the film that, 'Wow, this is like Cambodia today.'"

All the time that I went as a normal worker…in [Phnom Penh’s] Diamond Island, all these young people going around with their motos and cruising around looking at the unfinished buildings because it’s still an island under construction, I was totally fascinated to see, I would say, the relationship very strong between the young people of Cambodia—both the young people who are building this area and the people who are just hanging out there—and the business of modernity of Cambodia. So, very quickly I decided that Diamond Island was the place where I wanted to tell that story.

In the film, the actors are actually ordinary people. What made you decide to you do that?

That was very, very soon in the project that I wanted to have first extremely natural acting. I feel like sometimes in Cambodia we are surrounded by films in which we can find a very typical acting which we could consider as a little overacting…coming from theatre or sometimes Lakhon [Cambodian traditional drama], and I really wanted to do something very real, and that we could see when we watch the film that, “Wow, this is like Cambodia today.” And I was believing that if I could take people who have the same background as the characters, that know who are the characters because they live in the same kind of story, they have the same kind of family story and stuff, maybe I could train them, and we could work together to bring them to be the character.

So that was the bet, and I didn’t know if we would succeed because of course it was really hard to go with my team for four or five months in Phnom Penh, looking for the characters, meeting so many, like hundreds and hundreds of young people, texting them what I wanted to do, trying to convince them to come to the casting. Some of them never came because many of them never even dream to become an actor, so they would not really understand why I would be interviewing them. Of course, they don’t have the classical beauty or physical [looks] that we would expect from the Cambodian actor, so they were very surprised. Sometimes they didn’t believe me.

So, we had all these kinds of psychological approach to try to explain to them what I wanted to do, convince them to come. And then after we met hundreds of people during the casting. Many of them could not act because they were too shy or because, of course, it is very difficult to act. And, I found a bunch of amazing, young, talented natural-born actors, and it was amazing to meet them. And then after we trained them for three months before the shooting—every week just doing a small exercise, going step-by-step until they are feeling the emotion. And I really felt that on the day of the shooting, when they arrived, they are ready. And to see that transformation that just have in three months was really, really magic for me.

Are there any challenges in terms of the production and casting, culturally and financially?

Of course, producing and directing a feature film means facing challenges every day. You just need to be ready for it and to be eager to fight for it. I’ve been writing the script for four years. I’ve been through many different versions of the script. And to find the money for the film, you need to finalize your script, and then you submit your script to some different fundings. It could be like institutional funding from different film grants in Europe and in Asia, which we got. Or we can have TV funding by French TV or German TV, or private funding with distributors, but you will always need to convince people. The first version of the scripts were not really satisfying, and we didn’t get money for it, so I needed to write many versions, and finally we got it. So it was like a full year writing and a full year of preparation.

It was a learning experience, but you need to fight every day. I would say the hardest moment is not the preparation, it’s the shooting. We shot for seven weeks in Cambodia, mainly in Diamond Island, Koh Pich, but also a little bit in the countryside, in Kampong Chhnang. And we had a mixed team of Cambodian crew and French crew, so it was so interesting to have this kind of cultural shock between them, having different ways of shooting and of working. It was all a learning experience for everybody to work together. But it was very exciting. And everything that is hard and challenging is also very exciting to go through, so it was a lot of joy as well to make this film.

What kind of impact do you think it will have for young Cambodians when they see this film?

I have no idea yet because the only Cambodians who watched the film in Cannes were the three main actors, who we brought from Cambodia, the artistic director and a few friends in Cambodia that worked on the film that I sent a link to. So, I’m still very curious, actually. I’ve been asked many times: “What do I want to say to Cambodian news?” or “What do I expect?’ I have to say that I don’t want to say anything. I don’t expect anything. I just made this film because I saw something that I felt was interesting to make a film about and to be able to share with audience, both locally in Cambodia and internationally.

But now, the film doesn’t belong to me anymore. So, I am myself very curious to see how the people will react, and especially, I am very curious to know how young people in Cambodia would react. Of course, I’m eager to know if they will see themselves on screen—if they feel that the portrayal that I do is faithful to the reality. But it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Now I’m back in France. I’m gonna rest a little and work on the release in France, but what I really want to do is to organize very quickly how we could release and distribute the film in Cambodia, and at that time I will know.

What do you think about the current state of Cambodia’s film industry?

"You can know how to use a camera very quickly in two weeks, but what takes a life to acquire and really understand is the language of filmmaking, the language of cinema."

Well, I’m still new in town, I would say. So, what I can say from my experience is that the first time I lived in Cambodia was in 2009, and in 2009 it was extremely hard to find filmmakers in town, and especially hard to find young filmmakers who would make their own films. And now, if I turn to 2016, it’s amazing when you go there to see a whole generation of young filmmakers making their own short films by themselves, training themselves through organizations, such as Cambodia Film Commission, or the BBC, or private companies like 802 AD created by filmmaker Sok Visal. So, all these kinds of organizations, collectives like Kon Khmer Koun Khmer collective or different groups who are trying to push to make films, to produce films, to show films. And I can really feel that for the last three or four years, there was something really changing in the mentality, in the desire.

Of course, Rithy Pan has been extremely instrumental in showing an example for the young people, and I really think that the recognition he got for “The Missing Picture” at the Oscars, Academy [Awards], really changed things for people that suddenly they were feeling that “Oh, wow! Cambodia can be represented in the Oscars.” And it was a dream come true for many people. So, all this together, plus the apparition of cinemas in town really changed many things. To be honest, it’s still the beginning, and recently we saw filmmakers like Kulikar Sotho, Chhay Bora, or Neang Kavich showing their films abroad, but that’s still the beginning of something. But there are all the signs to be optimistic, in my perspective. And, I really think that in the next couple of years we’re going to have more and more Cambodian films locally produced, showing to international film festivals. That’s my bet.

Could you give a message for aspiring Cambodian filmmakers out there?

Yeah, I can try, although I don’t love to give advice because I feel very young. But hanging out a lot with filmmakers in Cambodia, I would feel that sometimes the most important thing is not just about technique, not just about knowing how to use a camera and stuff because basically you can know how to use a camera very quickly in two weeks, but what takes a life to acquire and really understand is the language of filmmaking, the language of cinema, and my advice is very basic—but I think sometimes the very basic thing is very important—is to watch film and to really obsessively watch films, trying to understand, trying to take a leaf from important films in history, not just in America, but in India, Europe or whatever, watch the film, and try to understand, read about the films. There are so many things that we can access to on the internet, so we can read a lot about why this film has been considered as important for cinema history and try to understand, and watch it again and read the film like a precise book, shot by shot. And somehow that’s the process where we can learn to be a filmmaker.

I don’t believe that much in school because I didn’t attend film school myself. Of course, school can be very important, but when we don’t have a film school, which is the case now in Cambodia, except for the PSE [Pour un Sourire d’Enfant] film school or some trainings in some organizations. When we don’t have a school, we begin to rely on ourselves, to count on ourselves.

Do you have anything else to add?

"I’ve been so happy for the last week what happened at Cannes because showing an image of modern Cambodia abroad was something very special to me because sometimes people don’t really know what happens in Cambodia."

I’ve been so happy for the last week what happened at Cannes because showing an image of modern Cambodia abroad was something very special to me because sometimes people don’t really know what happens in Cambodia. They see other films and stuff, and there are not a lot of films traveling out of Cambodia, so somehow seeing that film, many audience came to me and they were very surprised like, “Oh, wow! This doesn’t look like the Cambodia I used to imagine.” And for me, that was not the reason why I made the film, but to have this feedback was so interesting for me just because this is, of course, the face and an image of Cambodia that really exists, I didn’t invent it.

So, it was very interesting to also participate in moving that image of Cambodia abroad in a festival like Cannes. That was really interesting to me, and if that can give some ideas to filmmakers, local filmmakers, to see that there are stories around them, that are maybe worth telling to put on screen, and not just imagining something very far from them because basically what I did was just being inspired by the kids that I met in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia. That for me was a victory and very interesting.