Scorsese needs to dispatch an emergency film preservation team to
Cambodia. From 1960 to 1975 about 450
films were produced in the Southeast Asian country. However, only about thirty films survived the
Khmer Rouge. The Chinese-backed
Communists considered cinema just another form of capitalist decadence (which
is sort of true when it is really good).
NYAFF special guest Davy Chou surveys what was lost with the handful of
surviving film industry veterans in his outstanding documentary Golden Slumbers (trailer here), which screens during
the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.
seeming to have an “in” as the grandson of once prominent Cambodian director
Vann Chan, many of the filmmakers who were able to escape execution (most of
whom endured harsh transit conditions en-route to France) were initially
reluctant to talk to Chou. However, Yvon
Hem eventually relents, taking Chou on a tour of his long abandoned Bird of
Paradise studio (named for the Marcel Camus film that launched many film
careers in the country, including his own).
Less reticent is Dy Saveth, the former Elizabeth Taylor of Cambodian
film, now working as a dance instructor.
To this day, the hill where she once filmed a climactic scene still
bears her name.
the genocidal murders and forced labor camps are the greater crimes of the
Khmer Rouge regime. Yet, the devastation
of the nation’s cinema is not merely a footnote to the wider tragedy—it is a
tragedy onto itself. Listening to the
movie patrons and movie-makers discussing their beloved films, now presumably
lost forever, is deeply moving. Clearly,
lives and livelihoods were lost, but average Cambodian’s treasured memories and
cultural heritage have also been destroyed by an ideology of death. Watching Slumbers
stirs the same emotions as the sight of a charred family photo album at a
Slumbers also bear an
unexpected but apt comparison to Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, featuring many directors and actors forced to
relate their films like oral history.
Yet Chou is able to convey a sense of them through movies posters, radio
commercials, and soundtrack records (many of which remain widely popular). He also stages his talking head interviews in
ways that are often quite visually striking, making Slumbers unusually stylish, by documentary standards.
any movie lover, the loss of any nation’s cinematic legacy is truly lamentable,
but it is particularly so in this case.
From the tantalizing descriptions heard throughout Slumbers, many of the popular Cambodian films of the pre-Khmer Rouge
era sound like high-end Bollywood, but incorporating darker supernatural and
mythological elements. Though it is
impossible to know with certainty, if you are attending other NYAFF screenings,
there is indeed a strong likelihood these films would have been your cup of
One can only hope Chou’s documentary leads to the re-discovery of some of
these lost treasures in forsaken film vaults someplace. Nonetheless, as a film in its own right, Slumbers is quite accomplished. It is an intelligently constructed and elegantly
executed cinematic elegy that absolutely puts to shame the vacuous tributes to
Hollywood glamour of recent vintage.
Profoundly moving, Slumbers is
one of the best documentaries selected for a major festival this year. Earning the highest of recommendations, Golden Slumbers screens this coming
Tuesday (7/10) at the Walter Reade Theater.
Labels: Cambodian Cinema, Documentary, Khmer Rouge, NYAFF '12