The sounds and sights of the White Building are deeply etched in Kavich Neang’s memory. The shifting sounds of children running around the iconic building’s hallways and the daily chatter of neighbors discussing the happenings in their lives are part of a recurring dream. A dream that kept reminding Kavich Neang of the place he and his family called home.
It also forms the narrative core of his documentary, “Last Night I Saw You Smiling,” where the 31-year-old filmmaker documents the transformation of bustling building community into a silent demolition site, following the White Building’s flattening in 2017. The title of the documentary borrows from the lyrics of a Sin Sisamuth song.
“I couldn’t bare the feeling that everything that existed [in this building] would be completely gone,” Kavich Neang told VOA Khmer in a phone interview, from Phnom Penh, where he lives. “So as a filmmaker, I felt the need to film and document the last moments of my family and my neighbors packing and moving.”
The White Building is located in central Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune. It often is mistaken as a Vann Molyvann design, though it was part of his beautification plans for the central neighborhood. Built as low- to medium-cost housing in the early 1960s, the building was abandoned following the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.
After the ultra-communist group’s ouster in 1979 from the capital, it became a haven for returning artists, actors and dancers, as well as civil servants working for the Vietnamese-backed government. Over the years, the building also developed a reputation for drugs and prostitution.
The White Building was slated for demolition in 2017 to make way for a new condominium project. Two years later, while there is no condominium at the site, it is set to house a $4 billion casino complex built by the NagaCorp, which has two other casinos in the same neighborhood.
“I see parallels between the evacuation that took place on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge sent the city dwellers out into rural cooperatives […], and the displacement by means of development that has been taking place in the city for the past ten or fifteen years,” Kavich Neang wrote in the press kit.
Kavich Neang’s family settled in the White Building in 1987, on the third floor of Building B along with 492 families for neighbors. After all residents, some unwillingly and alleging coercion, agreed to accept compensation and move out, Kavich Neang decided to document the last months of White Building, from May to August 2017.
The 40 hours of footage he filmed – and then edited into a 78-minute documentary – give viewers an insight in the cacophony of emotions as residents packed their belongings, said their goodbyes and dispersed across the fledgling metropolis.
“At first, I shoot all the footage without having any plan to produce it into a film or any documentary, but as I kept watching the footage, it became so personal to me,” said Kavich Neang. “It’s my home. My family. My neighbors. So, I decided to make it into a documentary, as part of my memory of the people and the building.”
Kavich Neang, who is also the cofounder Anti-Archive productions company, said the personal nature of the project made it hard for him to work on all production aspects of the project. So, his production company colleagues suggested hiring an external producer.
This allowed Kavich Neang to focus on the storytelling and importantly on the non-visual elements of the documentary – the sounds, and ensuing lack of it, around the White Building.
After premiering earlier this year, “Last Night I Saw You Smiling” picked up NETPAC Award for best Asian film in February at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It won the Special Jury Award for International Documentary Feature at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May.
Kavich Neang said he was pleased the documentary was receiving international acclaim, which was validation of his attempt to “bring the building back to life.” Though, in October, he may face his toughest jury when he screens the documentary for former residents of the building.
“I hope my neighbors and other residents could reflect on the life they used to live [at the building] and share their personal experiences with one another,” Kavich Neang said.
“And I also hope that other Cambodians could see my film and be inspired to learn about history of old buildings that still exist, before they are destroyed, just as the White Building.”