As a passionate believer in the importance of national film industries – and the sacredness of all kinds of film archives – the idea that a country’s entire cinematic output could be wilfully destroyed seems horrific. Unthinkable, even. Yet as Davy Chou’s intensely personal and poetic documentary Golden Slumbers recounts, that’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.
The regime destroyed every film it could find, shutting down all cinemas and murdering most of the actors and filmmakers – accusing them of ‘decadence’. What makes this even more poignant is the fact that such destruction came after 15 golden years of Cambodian cinematic output. A vibrant and robust industry produced nearly 400 films between 1960 and 1975, but now only 30 films survive, along with a handful of the people involved in their production.
Inspired partly by the fact that his grandfather and his aunt were key figures in the Cambodian film industry, the Paris-raised filmmaker Davy Chou visits Phnom Penh in an attempt to patch together the fragments of what remains. And fragments they are: fading photographs, torn advertisements, poor quality film scraps and bits of YouTube footage. Some haunting voices from the past echo through musical recordings. Interestingly, the songs from the films of the Golden Age seem to have lingered longer than the images, imprinted in the memories of the people who loved them, unable to be erased by the state.
It’s the paucity of physical archive materials that makes this documentary so unique, forcing Chou to cast his net wider than the usual film clip montages used to piece together film histories. Instead, the films must be recreated orally, by those who remember them, recounting their plots and their songs, and revisiting locations where they were shot. Interview subjects include two Phnom Penh cinephiles, reminiscing about how the cinemas kept open right up until the last invasions. Then there’s Cambodia’s first screen goddess, the still beautiful Dy Saveth, who now runs a dance school, with walls papered by the faces of those she misses. And there’s Ly You Sreang, a respected film producer who lost everything, including the woman he loved, and his entire body of work, when he had to flee to Paris, finding work as a taxi driver.
It must be said that, from what we can tell, the actual films of this period may not have appealed to a modern Western sensibility. They appear to have been melodramas, musicals, simple love stories and lurid supernatural B-movies with cheesy special effects. But of course this is not the point. They had their ardent fans and they represented a local culture, a local industry and a creative way of life that was snuffed out. Though Chou doesn’t venture there, it’s impossible not to think about the similar fates that befell other creative and intellectual domains – literature, music, dance – and their ghosts circle this film. Tactfully, and powerfully, the actual horrors of Pol Pot’s regime are alluded to but never made explicit. Of course there is the stark fact that 1 million people ‘disappeared’.
For me, the most haunting scene in Golden Slumbers is when an old black and white film is projected on the dirty brick wall of what used to be a cinema, but is now a makeshift slum, housing numerous families. They watch this footage, flickering lights reflected on their faces. What do they make of it? It’s hard to tell.
Golden Slumbers is a gossamer construction, a film made of absences and holes, a kind of ghost story in itself. But it’s also a celebration of the moving image and the traces it leaves in our memories.
Note: This article first appeared as an extended program note for Golden Slumbers on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.
It's better in the dark. Obviously we think so, or we wouldn't spend half our lives in front of the big screen, and then the other half writing about it.
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******** Anthony Morris has been the film editor for Forte magazine since 1992, and has been writing for The Big Issue since 1997. He is currently the film and television reviewer for The Geelong Times and a regular contributor of film and DVD reviews to Empire magazine. He has degrees in Journalism and Literature. ************ Rochelle Siemienowicz was the Film Editor of The Big Issue magazine for 12 years and is the former Editor at the AFI | AACTA. She has written a PhD on Australian cinema and globalisation, has taught film, media and communications studies. She has written about film, television and literature for publications including The Age, Eureka Street, Australian Bookseller and Publisher, Cinema Papers, Metro, Kill Your Darlings, Screen Hub and SBS Film.