By Donsaron Kovitvanitcha
Special to The Nation
One of the biggest platforms for international films in Europe, the International Film Festival Rotterdam wrapped its 48th edition last Saturday with the screening of “The Hummingbird Project” by Canadian director Kim Nguyen.
The previous evening, the festival jury – which included Thai filmmaker and Singapore International Film Festival programme director Pimpaka Towira – announced the winners of all the awards, giving the Tiger Award to Chinese film “Present.Perfect.” by female Chinese filmmaker Zhu Shangze and the Special Jury Award to Serbian filmmaker Ena Sendijarevic for her film “Take Me Somewhere Nice”.
Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, right, was in Rotterdam to present his latest documentary “BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry”.
The Portuguese film “Around the World When You Were My Age" made by Japanese-Portuguese female filmmaker Aya Koretzky won the Bright Future Award for Best Film in Bright Future Competition.
One of the other winners at Rotterdam was “Last Night I Saw You Smiling”, a Cambodian feature documentary by Kavich Neang, which won the NETPAC Award and became the first Cambodian film ever to be recognised by the festival.
One of the few homegrown filmmakers from Cambodia to bring his work to an international audience, Kavich Neang made a name for himself with his 2013 documentary “Where I Go”, which was screened at Singapore International Film Festival. His 2015 short “Three Wheels” had its world premiere at Busan International Film Festival 2015 in competition, and was shown at several other events. Today, he is building on the success of his first outings with his first feature film project “The White Building”. Before starting on this international coproduction though, he is concentrating on his latest documentary “Last Night I Saw You Smiling”. It was filmed at The White Building, a place where he and his family lived until they and all the other tenants were forced out when it was bought by a Japanese company and finally demolished in July 2017.
“My family moved to live in this building in 1990, a few years after the Khmer Rouge era,” Kavich tells XP. “My father formerly lived outside the capital. At that time, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts wanted to rebuild our culture, so they invited all the artists who had survived the Khmer Rouge to live in Phnom Penh. My father was a sculptor. He brought my mother to Phnom Penh and my brother and I were born there. I grew up seeing artists working in the White Building.”
Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang, right, won the NETPAC Award from the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019 for his documentary “Last Night I Saw You Smiling”. Photo also shows festival programmer Muge Demir, centre, and Pimpaka Towira, left, Thai filmmaker and jury member of the Tiger Competition.
Constructed in 1963 to a plan drawn by Lu Ban Hap, a Khmer architect and Russian-French engineer Vladimir Bodiansky under the supervision of well-known state architect Vann Molyvann, the White Building was originally designed for low income families. After the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh citizens by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the building fell into a state of disrepair. Later and despite the many artists that came to live there, it became infamous for the poverty of the people living there and drug abuse. The documentary dwells on the tenants, many of them artists.
“My neighbour taught me Cambodian traditional dance and music. When I was young, I would hear music and see the artists perform, After school, I visited him, and he asked me if I wanted to learn Cambodian traditional dance,” says Kavich with a sad smile.
Last Night I Saw You Smiling
In “Last Night I Saw You Smiling”, we see his family and his neighbours, many of whom had lived in the building for more than 30 years, saying that their eviction felt just like the day when the Khmer Rouge forced everybody in Phnom Penh to leave the city.
Kavich had planned to make a feature film about people living in the White Building, but with the apartment block about to be demolished, he decided to film it as a final memory. “I started writing my first fiction film in 2016. It is about the White Building. But finding funding took so long that we had to wait. We didn’t expect that the building would be demolished, so my team and myself decided to film this documentary. The most important thing in my head for this project was to capture everything that I could because I knew that the building would be empty soon, and then it would be gone for good. I wanted to capture every moment of it. I want to make this film more about my memory, and show the connection between me and the building,” he says.
Thai artist and filmmaker Taiki Sakpisit's latest short "The Mental Traveller" was screened in the festival's Ammodo Tiger Short Competition. In this experimental film, which explores the mental state of the country, Taiki turns his camera on five men in a psychiatric ward.
Kavich filmed his building from May 2017 until August of the same year. “The filming process was three months, and we got between 40 and 60 hours of footage. We got some funding and then we hired a French editor to edit them.”
That person was French editor Felix Rehm, who also edited the award winning Indian film “Village Rockstar”.
“I was in Paris and I couldn’t find any editor in Phnom Penh. We needed someone with an outsider’s perspective. I lived in the White Building for too long, so I needed someone with a fresh eye to edit the film. We found an editor in Paris and showed him the footage and he liked it, so that’s how we came to work together,” Kavich explains.
“I was very happy to show this film in Rotterdam. It’s an important festival,” Kavich says, adding that it was also the first time he had seen the final images of the place where he grew up on the big screen. “It was quite an emotional experience. The memories flooded back. I was happy to show the film to the audience in Rotterdam and pleased that they felt the documentary connected with their own memories of where they grew up.”
Also presented at the International Film Festival Rotterdam was the Thai film “Manta Ray” by Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, which has been travelling on the festival circuit since premiering in Venice last year. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, who came to Rotterdam six years ago to screen his first feature film “36” was back for the European premiere of his latest documentary feature “BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry”, which had a successful four screenings and drew fans of the idol group from other cities in Europe.
Thai artist Taiki Sakpisit was in Rotterdam for the first time with his experimental short “The Mental Traveller”, which was screened in the Ammodo Tiger Short Film Competition. Tulapop Saenjaroen’s “A Room with a Coconut View”, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival last year and has enjoyed subsequent successful screenings on the circuit, was shown in the Perspective section. Cambodian short “A Million Years” by female filmmaker Danech San, which premiered at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival, travelled to Rotterdam for the Voices section and Korakrit Arunanondchai returned to Rotterdam with his latest work “No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5” in Bright Future section, which features footage from the Tham Luang cave rescue.