How does one make a documentary about a cinema that no longer exists in its material form? We have lost so much cinema of our past due to the ravages of war and mundane mistakes of poor storage, lacunae exist in the canons of so much national cinema. Yet Cambodian cinema is one huge cavern of a luminous void as a result of the tragedies of war and the terrorizing horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
With so much Cambodian cinema lost, Golden Slumbers director Davy Chou has to present the history in a documentary without the availability of many moving images. Sans images, Chou turns his camera on the former players who survived the killing fields – an actress, a few directors, and a couple of cinephiles. The former moving pictures now become primarily still images and talk stories, as major figures in Cambodian cinema recall their films and the two cinephiles talk about the cities and theatres in which they watched these films. In some instances, Chou provides audio (such as a radio ad) in lieu of the lack of visual images. This includes lovely songs from the films themselves or covers that have been made of said songs since. A local troupe of young actors is even shown directing a film ‘cover’, or re-enactment, of a famous scene from a lost film.
And more young Cambodians are shown throughout the film listening to their elders discuss the cinema of the past, karaoke-ing songs from before they were born, watching the snippets of moving images that remain of classics of Cambodian cinema that flourished in the 60’s and early 70’s, before the political genre of horror leapt from the screen into the real lives of their great grandparents, grandparents, and parents. Along with these images of youth looking up at the shattered fragments of images of the films that remain and turning their attention towards the words of the stories of their elders, Chou utilizes the floating camera and an atmospheric soundtrack – to have us hover around the hollowed out theatres of old as if we are the ghosts of Cambodian cinema’s past. (This technique is used by many, but Chou’s use of it here had me revisiting my time with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes of a Century (2006) at the Busan International Film Festival, a festival that takes as part of its mission to introduce the world to films, directors, and national cinemas from Asia overlooked previously. In fact, BIFF partly funded Golden Slumbers through it’s Asian Cinema Fund and likely provided a space for other funders and promoters to negotiate assistance towards this documentary’s completion through the marketplace BIFF provides.) Equally striking are the beams of light that strike through the former square holes intended to project luminous narratives on screen. This isn’t an eerie film in its spectral spectacle as it is an endearing ritual of respect for the ephemeral nature of our lives.
Ironically, in spite of all the material evidence of Cambodian cinema that was lost, it is clear from Chou’s documentary that the experience of Cambodian cinema was not. (As a first feature for Chou, I am quite impressed and can’t wait for more from Chou.) The subjects re-tell the narratives with such obvious pleasure and devotion, such as a lovely moment near the end of the film where former director Bun Yim re-tells bits from his 1975 film The Seahorse. Cinephiles in the seats watching Chou’s documentary will be able to relate to the two fellow cinephiles Chou interviews trying to one-up each other with Cambodian cinema trivia along with the joy they clearly show when relaying the importance of the embodiment of watching a film in the theatre with the faint heat of the projector light on your face, the images embedded on your retinas and memories. Chou has shown us in Golden Slumbers that Cambodian cinema is not lost but lives in the bodies of those who survived one of the most tragic moments of world history.
Golden Slumbers will be screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival on:
Saturday 4/28 @ 9pm at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema in the New People building in Japantown in San Francisco
Tuesday 5/1 @ 6:30pm at the Pacific Film Archive on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley
Thursday 5/3 @ 5pm at the Sundance Kabuki in Japantown in San Francisco
Visit the festival’s dedicated page for the film for more information and tickets.