.Khmer Graffiti

Ask any American film fan, even the most adventurous arthouse enthusiast, what the name “Cambodia” brings to mind and they’ll probably blurt out The Killing Fields, Roland Joffé’s shocking 1984 dramatized account of the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970s. Or else they’ll mention one of director Rithy Panh’s documentaries on the same subject, à la S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) or The Missing Picture (2013).

However, times have changed. The Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive’s visiting series, “Cambodian Cinema: Rising from the Ashes,” suggests that an invigorating wave of new filmmaking is washing over that Southeast Asian nation. Cambodia’s tragic past will probably never be forgotten, but a younger generation is now busily telling its own stories in its own way.

Take White Building. The 2021 narrative feature, made with backing from Cambodia, France, Qatar and China, with dialogue in the Central Khmer dialect, looks at everyday life in contemporary Phnom Penh from the viewpoint of a young man named Samnang.

Samnang (actor Piseth Chhun) plays sandlot soccer with his friends—most of them are war orphans like himself—but his real passion is show business. He and his two pals diligently practice song-and-dance routines at home, then make the rounds of the nightclubs, hoping for a break. Every poor twentysomething in Phnom Penh seems to have the same dream: fame and fortune, on stage or in the movies. With luck, maybe one day they can afford to move to France or Thailand like some of their friends. In the meantime, Samnang chops meat at a butcher shop in the market. Like his neighbors in the title slum, he’s being evicted and can no longer afford to live in the city.

Director Kavich Neang, who wrote the screenplay with Daniel Mattes, had the bright idea to open the film with an overhead tracking shot of the rooftops of Phnom Penh, obviously shot from a drone. The city is old, crumbling, grimy, poorly maintained and utterly fascinating, thanks to the vivid camera work of Douglas Seok. Seok is an American, born and educated in Chicago and now based in South Korea.

The images give Neang’s cityscape a tinge of doomed romanticism. The movie is completely unlike a carefree coming-of-age pic from a wealthier society. No American Graffiti-style sightseeing here—what we see more resembles the diary of a former communist death camp, now caught in the claws of raging capitalism. White Building receives its Bay Area premiere Sept. 24 and 30 at BAMPFA.

Kavich Neang isn’t the only younger director itching to show off Cambodia’s new spirit. In the Oct. 6 program called “Cambodia: Developing the Next Generation of Filmmakers,” eight short-documentary makers display their wares under the banner of Phnom Penh’s Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

Highlights include Minea Heng’s On the Move, a simple, lyrical glimpse at a roving family of farm workers; Guillaume P. Suon’s Bophana: Shadows and Lights, the historical backstory of the Bophana Center; and Cyclo, Cambodian Heritage, Vunneng Leng’s profile of senior citizen Pol Hort, a homeless cyclo driver who makes US$1.75 a day sweating on the streets and sleeps in his vehicle at night. After the screening, Bophana’s executive director Sopheap Chea appears in conversation with Stephen Gong of San Francisco’s Center for Asian American Media. 

Also in the series are a pair of somber history lessons. Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, on Oct. 5, and Rithy Panh’s Bophana: A Cambodian Tragedy, on Sept. 30, are documentaries on the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, in which an estimated 1.7 million people—and the entire Cambodian film industry—violently perished. Salvaged scenes from such films as The Father’s Dagger, Safe Virgin and Out of the Nest are recalled by present-day survivors, as are the fates of Hout Bophana and Ly Sitha, a married couple of cultural martyrs, murdered by the Pol Pot regime. Lest we forget.

For more details, plus a complete schedule of showings, go to: BAMPFA.org.

Through Oct. 6 at BAMPFA.

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