Last Night I Saw You Smiling (USA, 2018) [CAAMFest 2019]

Built in 1963 near the Bassac River in Phenom Penh, the White building was one of the major examples of New Khmer Architecture. This emblematic apartment block home survived the Khmer Rouge and was home to over 500 families, but now, as Kavish Neang’s documentary charts, it is to be destroyed to make way for new and more expensive apartment blocks. Neang’s father is one of the hundreds of residents who must leave the building and with the insight of having grown up inside the White Building Neang decided to make a documentary charting both the building’s past and its eventual destruction.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling, offers us a series of vignettes about the White Building’s past and its inhabitants. We learn from one woman the tragic story of a family fleeing the Khmer Rouge who, by tragic accident ends up inside a plane with their three-year-old son abandoned on the runway. A woman sings a mournful song into her empty room as the director’s father almost angrily notes that the White Building made Neang what he is today – a son who can shoot films. This is a film about those how have been left behind. For many of the White Building’s inhabitants, the modernization and development of Phenom Penh has not benefited them. The compensation they are receiving for their small rooms is not enough to relocate to other areas of the city and many are left worrying about their futures. The split between the inhabitants and the cities officialdom is made clear in the opening scene at a community meeting. When asked directly where the soon-to-be-homeless citizens should go, given the lack of suitable compensation, the previously verbose and jovial city officials fall silent. Despite its unsavoury recent reputation, many of the White Building inhabitants are civil servants themselves and as one woman notes, she is about to retire and will be left with no job and nowhere to go once this building is gone. Last Night I Saw You Smiling is a heartfelt testament to the community and space where the director grew up that, like many other places and groups of people, will become victim to the endless march of progress.

This documentary will be of interest to anyone who is interested in both the history of Cambodia and also the role that buildings and space play in documentary cinema. Naeng’s film opens up wider debates on the role that space plays in contesting our ideas of both self and the community in which we reside. Whilst for outsiders, the modern-day White Building was little more than a slum that housed drug addicts and sex workers, Neung’s film demonstrates that many of the inhabitants felt deep sense of connection to the space the surrounded them. The White Building was collapsing but the past it represented, and the community it housed, will never again be recreated. It is always easy to romanticise the past, and indeed Last Night I Saw You Smiling generally refuses to engage with the buildings less- than-salubrious legacy of crime and deprivation. However, as the film ends on the main corridor starting to collapse at one end, we feel the real sense of loss that the director himself is experiencing. For him and others, this was not a building. It was their home.

Last Night I Saw You Smiling is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 12 and 13.