Farewell to the White Building

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The White Building in Phnom Penh, labeled a slum by the government, is being demolished. Photo: Lim Sokchanlina

For Kavich Neang, the White Building in Phnom Penh is more than a symbol of Cambodia’s past after gaining independence and before the Khmer Rouge took over. It was also his home for more than 20 years.

“My parents moved there in the 1980s and I was born and raised there,” Kavich Neang said in a phone interview. “I was very sad when I heard that the building was going to be demolished.”

Located in downtown Phnom Penh, the multi-story building was meant to house the growing urban population under King Sihanouk. Originally with a white facade, it was also a glowing symbol of modernity with its so-called New Khmer Architecture, which heralded the golden age of Cambodian architecture.

Interior of the White Building, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Lim Chansolina

Interior of the White Building in Phnom Penh. Photo: Lim Sokchanlina

All the remaining residents, numbering about 20 families, have moved out as the demolition work has begun. The government labeled it a slum, although some would argue that the demolition is part of a Japanese developers’ plan to take over the plot of land on which it stands.

“The White Building was a unique place. The community was very different – it was full of artists, so you could hear different sounds like Cambodian dance music and even circus performances,” said Kavich Neang, 29, reflecting on the mix of artists and musicians who moved in after the fall of the Khmer Rogue in 1979.

“I could get almost everything within the building. When my mother wanted to cook, she would buy groceries from my neighbor. Then when someone was sick, we would buy medicine from another neighbor living along the corridor,” he said ahead of a dialogue session in Singapore that is focused on emerging filmmakers in Southeast Asia, organized by the Singapore International Film Festival.

Cambodian director Kavich Neang. Photo: Chou Ravy

Cambodian director Kavich Neang. Photo: Chou Ravy

To preserve his memories of his childhood home, Kavich Neang is making his first feature film based on the White Building.

The new film, tentatively titled “White Building”, is about an 18-year-old character named Samnang who finds renewal through community and friendship amid challenges such as his father’s poor health, the prospect of losing his life-long home in the White Building, and his friend’s sudden departure abroad.

Kavich Neang is currently in the scriptwriting stage and plans to start shooting the film in October next year. This October, he will take  his “White Building” project to Paris to join the highly competitive Cinéfondation Festival de Cannes residency, which helps young filmmakers develop their first or second screenplays with guidance from movie-industry professionals. Each year, only 12 filmmakers are selected for the residency.

Nascent film scene

Three Wheels, a short by Cambodian director Kavin Neang, is a story about a tuk-tuk driver being reminded of his former lover. Photo: Kavich Neang

Three Wheels, a short by Cambodian director Kavin Neang, is a story about a tuk-tuk driver being reminded of his former lover. Photo: Kavich Neang

Like his compatriots including Polen Ly, who at 28 won the first prize at the 2015 Tropfest South East Asia film festival in Malaysia for the short film Colourful Knotsand Somchanrith Chap, who took third place at the same festival, Kavich Neang is part of a small but growing pool of young Cambodian filmmakers who have gained international recognition for their work. Tropfest South East Asia is a short-film competition that is open to all residents and citizens of Southeast Asia.

As for Kavich Neang himself, his first short film Three Wheels premiered at the 2015 Busan International Film Festival and won the Youth Jury Award at the Singapore International Film Festival the same year. The Youth Jury Award is given to one of the films competing in the annual Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.

In 2015, The Financial Times reported a revival in Cambodian filmmaking, with short films dominating the scene. Short films are popular among young filmmakers as they have limited technical know-how and this platform allows them to acquire hands-on experience quickly.

A still from Three Wheels, a short by Cambodian director Kavich Neang on a tuk-tuk driver reminded of his former lover during the days before the Khmer Rogue took over. Photo: Kavich Neang

A still from Three Wheels, a short by Cambodian director Kavich Neang on a tuk-tuk driver reminded of his former lover during the days before the Khmer Rogue took over. Photo: Kavich Neang

Kavich Neang has noticed the same trend.

“Recently, there have been a lot of young people in Cambodia making short films, but they do not continue after making one or two.

“I am not sure if it is [because of] funding or censorship, but I feel that the connection and support from the community and the government are still not strong enough.” He said he did not know of any government support for filmmakers.

Additionally, filmmakers face the issues of a small industry and small audience size.

“Since the film community is small, it is hard for filmmakers to get feedback from the audience. Feedback is important.”

Funding is another challenge.

Kavich Neang raised close to US$4,500 to make his first short film Three Wheels through crowd-funding website Indiegogo. He does not receive any government funding. To finance his upcoming feature film, he is applying for overseas funding.

Censorship

Despite the other circumstances facing the film industry, Kavich Neang feels that his main challenge is censorship.

“Finding an interesting idea for a film is a challenge for me. Sometimes, when the topic is related to socio-political issues, you need to be creative on how you approach it.”

A still from Goodbye Phnom Penh, a short by Kavich Neang. Photo: Kavich Neang.

A still from Goodbye Phnom Penh, a short by Kavich Neang. Photo: Kavich Neang.

He said the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ film censorship board recently told him to inform it before and after releasing his short films. Cambodia requires all feature films released in the country to be approved by the censorship board. For local productions, the scripts have to be approved before filming. Films that are rejected cannot be screened in Cambodia.

However, right now, Kavich Neang has a more pressing concern.

With the White Building being demolished, he and his team plan to find another location to film. The original plan was to film at the White Building itself.

He also feels pressured to replicate the same level of success of his award-winning film.

Laughing, he said: “I am stressed every day. When you get recognition, you feel that people are watching you. This attention in turn makes you nervous.”

Nonetheless, he is trying to stay positive.

“I still feel inspired to make my first feature film.”

Kavich Neang: Dusty Grooves: The Historical in the Cambodian New Wave will be held on July 26 at 8pm at Singapore’s *SCAPE Gallery. Ticketing details are in the link. 

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