Le sommeil d’or – Berlinale Forum 2012

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Le sommeil d’or | Golden Slumbers
Director: Davy Chou
France, Cambodia 2011 (European Premiere)

Cambodian cinema burned brightly between 1960 and 1975, when more than 400 home-grown productions drew huge crowds to theaters in Phnom Penh and around the country. When Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime killed about a quarter of the population, including nearly all of the country’s artistic community, a Golden Age of film vanished with barely a trace. Today only 30 films survive, most on poor quality VHS and VCD formats.

In Le sommeil d’or, French-Cambodian director Davy Chou reconstructs this cinematographic legacy with an innovative mix of oral history, experimental film, and narrative poetics.

The grandson of Van Chann, one of the most important film producers of the time, Chou deploys his unique access to survivors with insight and sensitivity, transcending nostalgia and talking-head doc conventions.

Chou discussed his method in an interview with Ella Leudania of Tête-à-tête:

“What interests me is to come upon signs in the present that radiate from the past, and to try to recreate something from those traces…. I understood that what was left of this history was to be found not so much in the images, whatever their nature (photos, film clips), as in the memory of the spectators and artists who had been part of their making. So I had to give this memory a voice by turning it into a film. I wanted my film to shuttle between the interviews of survivors and witnesses and its confrontation with places rather than through images.”

Survivors of genocide recall films last seen theatrically a half-century ago with remarkable clarity, enthralling us with vivid evocations of supernatural thrillers, costume spectacles and melodramas that resonate with mythic power. As Chou explains:

“The history of this cinema has passed among different generations of Cambodians. It is a part of folklore as these movies belong to the collective Khmer imagination and are part of our parent’s cultural references.”

Le sommeil d’or opens to a nocturnal drive along bumpy dirt road, illuminated by headlights and a conversation between two men with prodigious memories of Cambodian cinema, whom we later encounter throughout the film. Slowly, we realize that we are moving backwards, as if in a time machine.

Over the next 90 minutes, we enter a privileged space where eye-witness testimony is interwoven with stills, lobby cards, soundtrack selections, and radio promo spots. Photos of Phnom Penh’s formerly grand movie palaces – numbering 30 at the apex of Cambodian cinema – are contrasted with footage of what became of them. One is a restaurant, another is a karaoke bar. The Hemacksheat, perhaps the grandest of them all, is now a leaky squat directly out of Blade Runner, where pitifully poor residents discuss favorite movies amid the ruins of cinema, remembering plot details after many years of suffering unimaginable to many of us. Even those who hadn’t seen the movies provide indirect testimonies, including a boy who knows by heart the plots of movies told to him by his mother.

Chou introduces us to what must be the entire community of Cambodian film artists who survived the Khmer Rouge, beginning with his aunt, Sohong Stehlin, who describes how her father Van Chann made his first movie in 1964, and shows us a dozen photos that are all that remain of 11 years of movie-making.

Next we meet Ly Bun Yim, a natural-born storyteller who is the beating heart of Chou’s film. The Ly brothers were perhaps the most gifted filmmakers of the period. Self-taught, inventing technique on their own with minimal means, they created surreal, fantastic movies full of miraculous signs and wonders, including 12 Sisters and Khmer After Angkor.

Overcoming his initial reluctance to participate, Yvon Hem visits the site of his Bird of Paradise film studio, which remains a vacant lot in Phnom Penh after being burnt down by the Khmer Rouge. He learned film working for French auteur Marcel Camus, who hired him as an assistant for L’oiseau de paradis. He premiered his first film at the 1969 King Sihanouk Film Festival, under the patronage of prime minister Father-King Norodom Sihanouk, an enthusiastic patron of the arts and a filmmaker himself. In a parallel to Melies’ narrative in Hugo, Yvon Hem relates his story en famille with Chou’s camera as witness.  Throughout Le sommeil d’or, we see older Cambodians telling rapt young listeners about movies they grew up with.

Chou interviews his uncle, Ly You Sreang, who lost his entire oeuvre when he and his family were sent to labor camps. Although his wife escaped to France having just given birth to their child, they lost each other in the years of his captivity. He rebuilt his life in Paris, and returned to Cambodia. Still he can recall the fantastic adventure of movie-making, despite the films that were lost before they could be seen by an audience.

Teaching a dancing and singing class, the great Cambodian actress Dy Saveth gives a marvelous account of starring in approximately 100 films, including Love and War and The Snake King’s Wife. Chou accompanies her as she reunites with villagers who served as extras, throwing stones while she was tied to a stake at a site still known as Dy Saveth Hill.

Vintage footage of a devastated Phnom Penh in 1978 precedes Ly Bun Yim’s narration of The Sea Horse, the epic film everyone was waiting for when Pol Pot marched in to the city. Ly Bun Yim is a conjuror, a majestic figure against a glorious sunset.

The final images of Le sommeil d’or are pure cinematic poetry, as squatters in the former Hemacksheat  theater gather to watch surviving clips projected on a brick wall, and together we imagine the once and future glory of Cambodian cinema.

Berlinale Section: Forum

Vathana Huy blog: Golden Age of Khmer Cinema

Update: US Distributor – Icarus Films (2013)